Economic Growth Is About Categorical Continuity and Technologies of Representation – Not Irrationality

Hickel risks reproducing a problematic understanding of degrowth. The presentation of growth versus degrowth in this light makes it a question of quantity rather than quality. And this is precisely the misunderstanding of degrowth that can reduce it merely to a version of eco-austerity. Let me explain with an example from my work.

I am building land-use scenarios for different futures. One future is a degrowth scenario. Land-use models break the landscape up into specific units such as arable land, nature, urban, grassland etc. So now when a degrowth future is modelled, it is modelled according to whether there is less or more of each of these categories of land-use and their spatial distribution.

This means that a degrowth future from the perspective of the current status-quo on land-use appears to be a quantitative subtraction (or addition) of the specific units of land use. More or less arable land, nature, urban, grassland etc. This promotes an instinctually austere understanding of a degrowth future, as it appears as a lesser human more nature version of the present. Or as Hickel is presenting it in the above tweet, lesser or more in certain areas.

But this is false. A degrowth future is not primarily about a quantitative difference in today’s categories. I mean that will happen. It is about ditching the nature-culture dichotomy. It is about a qualitative difference in categories based on a re-understanding of ecology and biology, found in an intimate experience and attention to animals, plants, soils etc., that reveals a better understanding of phenomenon to do with succession, trophic levels, trophic cascades, naturalisation of species, and a whole variety of regenerative practices that have been practised by indigenous peoples, peasants and land practitioners worldwide. With low cost high yielding outcomes.

Returning to my land-use modelling, it means that the categories of ‘nature’ versus ‘arable’ land-use make no ecological, social or hydrological sense in a degrowth future. The land is categorised in a fundamentally different way. For example there could be forest gardens and woodland rather than forests, or intercropping, mixed farming, agriwilding and land-sharing rather than nature and arable fields. All these categories are not merely culturally subjective translations of the same thing; they describe entirely different socio-ecologies.

The status quo and authority want you to keep thinking in their categories, though. With different category names merely being seen as subjective cultural wish-wash. And when it comes to thinking about change this is where the status quo instinctually goes with economic growth. It reproduces its categories even when it thinks about change. The status quo can only see change according to its current categories. Instead of rethinking land-use categories it simply reproduces them into the future as variations of the present, despite the categories themselves being the issue. And all of this is built into the representational technologies used to think with (unless one is reflexively aware of all this).

It’s about categorical authority and the theory of change built into this. If I exist at time A and I want to progress to time B, but I assume my key cultural categories define reality, then change is merely a quantitative addition to what is already there. i.e. economic growth.

People who think in terms of economic growth look at their models and the only way they can see change is seeing it as a subtraction (economic depression) or addition (economic growth) to existing categories. Degrowth must not under any circumstances submit itself to primarily functioning within this plane of logic, but develop its own categories.

A principal place to look is to socio-ecological understandings, post-Darwinian biology, the archaeology of heterarchy and of course all the exciting things farmers and land users are already doing under our very urban noses, and the categories they are developing to reflect these practices. It is also critical to understand people who think of the world in GIS maps and pie charts. Still, we should not flatten our thinking to this plane of understanding – nor discount it as irrational.