Notes From Underground #2: Pulling Out the Tablecloth

This is the second in a weekly series of essays by Dougald Hine, our new Commissioning Editor. Notes From Underground is also available as a podcast and on YouTube.

Image: Isabelle Adam

I was passing through Brussels on my way to London last October. A message had come through Facebook from someone I’d never met, and we found each other in a café near the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Midi.

Working for an organisation close to the European institutions, my new contact had just completed a report on the future of shipping.

‘To make the numbers work, I had to assume that, by 2030, half of Europe’s entire electricity supply will be used to produce the synthetic fuels to keep the container ships coming from China.’

In offices across the city, reports were being written that made similar assumptions for other industries. Think of the total projected electricity supply as a budget: this budget was being spent many times over in order to explain how goals for decarbonising the European economy could be met without questioning the assumption of continued economic growth. In order, that is, to allow the report writers’ bosses to go on avoiding that question.

We sat there with our cappuccinos, pondering this state of affairs. How do you break the silence, we asked each other, without becoming someone no-one listens to?

* * *

I heard a story about what happened when Greta Thunberg met Macron.

By now, it was February. For three months the French president had been under siege as yellow vest protesters made their anger felt on the streets and at the roundabouts. The trigger for this movement, the move that pushed people to breaking point, was a clumsy attempt to drive the transition to a green economy by pushing up the price of fuel at the pump. It is tempting to imagine that Greta’s visit to the Elysée came as a relief, relatively speaking, though the frankness of the conversation that followed is still surprising.

‘France is unable to decrease its emissions,’ Macron told her, ‘because of its economic growth.’

In a recent issue of the journal New Political Economy, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis ask ‘Is Green Growth Possible?’ They set about examining the empirical basis for claims about the decoupling of economic growth from environmental impact. Their findings are damning. The drop-off in advanced economies’ resource use – heralded by proponents of green growth as the moment when we passed ‘peak stuff’ – turns out to be a statistical illusion created by the offshoring of manufacturing. Once you take into account the resources used in factories elsewhere to produce the goods and services we consume, the growth of our economies is more stuff-dependent than ever. Meanwhile, the ever-narrowing pathways towards the Paris goals for limiting global warming are paved by carbon capture technologies that are either ‘unproven or dangerous at scale’ – or dependent on decarbonisation rates, if we start right now, that are vastly greater than seems plausible for any economy without an overall slowdown in activity.

Having surveyed the evidence and probed the models, Hickel and Kallis conclude that green growth is a fantasy born out of desperation. ‘It is not politically acceptable to question economic growth,’ they write, ‘therefore green growth must be true, since the alternative is disaster.’

That’s what is so interesting about the conversation between Greta and Macron. We are no longer in the territory of anonymous underlings wondering how to broach the unspeakable with their bosses. Once the incompatibility of economic growth and ecological viability has become speakable in a room like the one where that meeting took place, we are crossing an event horizon. I’m not sure anyone knows how things work on the far side.

* * *

This spring I was back in Brussels, alongside Alison Green of Extinction Rebellion and Jem Bendell, the author of the Deep Adaptation paper, at an event hosted by the European Commission.

My message that day was that sustainability is over: the challenge now is not to make the current European way of living sustainable, but to negotiate the surrender of this way of living. That means the decommissioning of whole areas of current economic activity, but also the decommissioning of deeply held beliefs and assumptions, including the growth assumption.

Among the buzz of emails that followed that event, one stuck in my mind. It came from an economist who works at the Commission, and it concerned what he referred to as ‘the unresolved question of delinking’.

The crux of this, he suggested, is not to do with the measurement of GDP, but the viability of the European social model. If we accept that the long-term trend of economic growth cannot continue, this is not just a problem for Amazon and Tesco, it’s a problem for the National Health Service, the schooling system and the welfare state. This is one of those places where the right are right, while many of us on the left prefer to avert our gaze: the best achievements of the model we inherited from the twentieth century, which was built in the aftermath of two world wars and one depression, and which we sought to defend through four decades of neoliberalism, are dependent on the functioning of a capitalist economy that cannot operate in the absence of growth.

‘I have not seen any proposal so far that even comes close to addressing the issue,’ his email went on. ‘Most of the talk is about investment, a climate bank, etc., but the much bigger problem is the addiction to current rates of growth via the public spending programmes.’

This is the conversation about decoupling that we need to have.

* * *

The need for economic growth is a social construct, not a law of nature, but this construct is the tablecloth on which our current society has been arranged. The question we face, as the 2020s come around, is whether we can pull the tablecloth out fast enough without smashing all the plates and glasses?

What clues do we have as to how to do this? They may not be legible to people who sit in offices in Brussels, or to the bosses they need to convince. They won’t look much like policy proposals, our pathways out of this, depending as they likely will on human capacities that lie beyond the logic of the state or the market. Yet it will be necessary to build bridges and to keep lines of communication open with those within existing institutions who grasp the situation.

People have been working on ‘degrowth’ economics for decades. Giorgos Kallis, the co-author of the ‘green growth’ paper, is one of them. When the incompatibility of growth and life has become speakable in the Elysée Palace, it is time for these people to move to the centre of the conversation. At a moment like this, the words of Milton and Rose Friedman come to mind:

We do not influence the course of events by persuading people that we are right when we make what they regard as radical proposals. Rather, we exert influence by keeping options available when something has to be done at a time of crisis.

To find our bearings in a landscape beyond growth, my own suggestion would be to revisit the thinking of Ivan Illich. Writing in the 1970s, he called into question the achievements of the post-war social model, illuminating the counterproductivity and hidden destruction built into our systems for schooling, healthcare and economic development. When our dependence on such systems is what makes it so hard to question the growth assumption, the work of Illich and his friends brings other options into view. In particular the work of those such as Gustavo Esteva and John McKnight, who brought Illich’s thinking into dialogue with the experience of communities at the grassroots, in the barrios of Mexico City and the housing projects of Chicago. Their practical experience mobilising human potential that lies beyond the reach of the market and the state is the fruit of decades of collaboration. Bring it together with the work of the feminist economists J.K. Gibson-Graham, and with David Fleming’s Lean Logic, and we start to find clues as to what still works when we abandon the pretence that green growth can save us.

Comments (18)

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  1. Derek Henry says:

    It is time you started looking in the right place.

    It has been around for decades and fully understands how different monetary systems operate.

    The Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity

    Behind the green new deal in the US.

  2. Derek Henry says:

    ” If we accept that the long-term trend of economic growth cannot continue, this is not just a problem for Amazon and Tesco, it’s a problem for the National Health Service, the schooling system and the welfare state. This is one of those places where the right are right, ”

    Complete nonsense!

    Quite clear you have no idea how monetary systems operate in reality.

    Why you would fail at the ” pay for ” question which means your ideas will never get off the ground.

  3. Derek Henry says:

    Time to learn Dougald ?

    I bet you have never looked at the government accounts once in your life? I can feel it in my bones.

    Plenty of videos to choose from in that link.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Derek –

      I don’t believe I got a reply to the question I asked you last week: namely, whether you find that this gratuitously rude approach is an effective way of promoting the positions to which you are attached?

      I’m not an economist, but I do talk regularly with people who are involved with Modern Monetary Theory, so I’m not quite as ignorant as you would like me to be. Friends who follow that field closely report a distinct reluctance among its leading figures to address the implications of work like the Hickel/Kallis paper on which I draw in this essay. If that is changing, I’d be glad to hear it.

      Going back to last week’s question, though, I prefer to have these conversations with people who don’t show up with the kind of arrogance and crankiness that you bring to the party. It’s your choice to conduct yourself that way – and it’s my choice not to pretend that anything of worth is likely to come of thrashing things out in a comment thread with someone who conducts himself the way you do.

  4. Derek Henry says:

    MMT and Ecological Sustainability

    Ecological Tax Reform + Functional Finance

    30 years these guys have been at it.

    You will not get your answers in Brussels Dougald that is a 100% certainty. Brussels has fried your brain already if you think the right are right. Gold standard, fixed exchange rate nonsense.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    It is not simply the offshoring of manufacturing, but the offshoring of human rights abuses, animal cruelty and environmental degradation (and war). This is an old British ploy, and Scottish too, such as the enslaved people exploited ‘yonder awa’ in the Caribbean while their products, and the profits, were repatriated.

    I think the criticism of the NHS is unfounded, as at least before the inefficiencies of the imposed internal market and outsourcing, it was far more efficient than any private healthcare system, and it groans under the burden of extortionate profitarian pharmaceutical companies which leech off publicly-fund research. The NHS should work fine under communism, for example, especially if pharmaceuticals, public healthcare and medical research were properly internationalized (and why not?). I also don’t see how we cannot afford to educate children or provide basic welfare, which was managed in wartime amid rationing and is kind of essential for society to function in the long term.

    How many people have taken green growth seriously? It’s as implausible as the airlines’ sustainability pitches. Psychologically, there is a hurdle in accepting that so-called primitive peoples have often been far smarter in their uses of technology than us, but rather than throwing ours out or grasping at the latest promised wonder-tech, we can start crash courses in localizing sustainable technology complexes, which will require a lot more of the make do and mend mentality that a vast global mind control industry has been trying to knock out of us.

    Perhaps, given all those people whose social media histories will show dogged, irrational and unpleasant climate denial traits, we need modern, secular, public conversion rituals where such a person can publicly recant, atone, make sacrifices, receive some measure of absolution. Otherwise what have they to look forward to?

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      SleepingDog –

      You’re quite right to point to the wider dimensions of offshoring and how far this is just the latest upgrade on the old colonial operating system.

      As for whether ‘green growth’ is taken seriously, my impression is that it is taken very seriously by a lot of the ‘grown-ups’ (a subject for another week) inside national and international institutions, as well in most mainstream political parties across the West. The logic may be that of desperation – ‘it must be possible because it *has* to be possible’ – but many of those I’ve heard coming out with these lines seem to be true believers. The alternative is so unimaginable, especially from the places where they are sitting. But yes, seen from elsewhere, the promises of green growth always seemed implausible – an implausibility that goes back as far as that forced coupling, ‘sustainable development’, in the era of the Brundtland Report.

      I’m not sure I was making a criticism of the NHS, so much as observing that the logic of growth is built into the public as much as the private sector, and so the implications of the end of growth are troubling for both. One way of seeing this: the longterm trend in NHS spending has been around double the rate of inflation (from 3.5% of GDP in 1950 to 7.1% projected in 2020, according to the Nuffield Trust), and that trend pre-dates the era of market reforms, etc. What’s my point, then? That taking the impossibility of green growth seriously requires a willingness to radically rethink how we meet the deep needs served by the public institutions we inherited from the twentieth century. This is why I point to Illich and his collaborators, because there’s fifty years of work there that might help us in this process. Interestingly, while Illich might be seen as a harsh critic of the medical profession, they were among his most receptive readers. One influential example, a young man by the name of Richard Smith dropped out of medical school in Edinburgh in 1974 after seeing Illich speak, then dropped back in three days later (‘unsure what else to do’), and went on to become the editor of the BMJ. His account of Illich on medicine is worth reading:

    2. john learmonth says:

      I think you might findthat welfare provision in wartime (whilst excellent for the time, no obesity epidemic in WW2) would not go down too well today. Buts thats capitalism for you constantly increasing the wealth of the planet and thereby human expectations. I read recently that your ‘human rights’ are now infringed if you don’t have access to the internet. How long before your human rights are been denied if you don’t have a mobile, 50″ TV and 24/7 access to Deliveroo.
      Capitalism…….was has it ever done for us!!!!!

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @john learmonth, has Capitalism done for us? Indeed, maybe.

  6. John McLeod says:

    “…the challenge now is not to make the current European way of living sustainable, but to negotiate the surrender of this way of living. That means the decommissioning of whole areas of current economic activity, but also the decommissioning of deeply held beliefs and assumptions, including the growth assumption”.

    This is so important. If anything resembling our way of life is to survive, we all need to make sacrifices. Even more so for those of us with middle-class lifestyles living in prosperous countries. Dougald uses metaphors of surrendering and decommissioning. I prefer to talk about making sacrifices, and giving things up.

    I recently watched the Australian documentary movie 2040 and felt a glimmer of hope – there are so many positive alternatives that currently exist. They just (just!) need the commitment and investment to make them happen. The world of 2040 portrayed in that movie is a better world. But it still does not pass the “container ships from China” test – it depicts a world that still seems to require hi-tech stuff that relies on global supply chains.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Thanks, John! And perhaps we can reclaim ‘sacrifice’ from its depleted modern meanings, to remember the etymology, ‘making sacred’? That takes me to the opening of Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, where he writes about ‘austerity’ (another word whose modern connotations are dire) as the choice not to do certain things, not as a form of self-punishment, nor because they are ‘bad’ in themselves, but in order to make room. Drawing on Aquinas, he calls austerity ‘a virtue which does not exclude all enjoyments, but only those which are distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness’ and ‘a complementary part of a more embracing virtue, which [Aquinas] calls friendship or joyfulness’. Among the sacrifices called for now, we might hope to surrender some of our recent enjoyments which were ‘distracting from or destructive of personal relatedness’, and thereby to make room for ‘friendship or joyfulness’.

  7. Wayne Brown says:

    Define growth. Please.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Wayne –

      Gladly! I’m not using the term in any esoteric sense, so here’s how Wikipedia defines ‘economic growth’:

      ‘Economic growth is the increase in the inflation-adjusted market value of the goods and services produced by an economy over time. It is conventionally measured as the percent rate of increase in real gross domestic product, or real GDP.’

      And here is what Hickel and Kallis say about ‘green growth’ in the abstract of the article that I’m drawing on in the essay:

      ‘Green growth theory asserts that continued economic expansion is compatible with our planet’s ecology, as technological change and substitution will allow us to absolutely decouple GDP growth from resource use and carbon emissions. This claim is now assumed in national and international policy, including in the Sustainable Development Goals. But empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory.’

  8. Daniel Raphael says:

    There is a lot of bad faith emanating from Those Who Know, and doubly so from the mouthpieces whose own livelihood is tied to their patronage. This is not new and it is not news, but it goes far towards explaining why, even today, there is no lack of “scientists” who will proclaim global warming is a myth, tobacco has never been proven to cause cancer, and there are no absolute limits whatever to economic growth. I have no more intention to engage with trolls with white coats, expensive suits, or even placards at their places that proclaim them “The Honorable.”

    You shouldn’t either. What we face is showing itself more and more each year, and it is deniable only by those who care only that their mode of self-enrichment shall continue undisturbed. I read only yesterday in German media that Extinction Rebellion is a “doomsday cult.” That was the exact expression, and it is indicative–along with much else, in corporate media across the globe–of the intensity of the need for denial, avoidance, and dismissal of all that discomfits the flow of profits to accounts.

    The question is not whether we will drastically change our way of living, but whether we will change or BE changed. The latter will be achieved roughly and with considerable casualties, with as usual the nations of color getting the sharp end of things worst and first–but all of us will get our place in the queue, since Planet B has yet to make an appearance. What is striking about humanity at this juncture is the passivity of most of us–not exactly denial but rather waiting for that most popular favorite, Someone Else, make all well. It isn’t going to happen, and the longer we are still, the more sure will be the incompatibility of the global future with human existence. Given the gravity of matters as scientifically announced to date, we would all be quite appropriately wild in the streets, in all capitals across the planet.

    It isn’t an academic question at all. Really.

    1. Dougald Hine says:

      Daniel –

      I hear you. The old Upton Sinclair line comes to mind: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

      What I’d say is that, having been writing about these things for many years – and having had my share of being called a ‘doomsday cultist’, ‘crazy collapsitarian’ and plenty of other things – one thing I’ve found is that, periodically (and more often these days than formerly), I get messages from people inside of organisations and institutions who are wrestling in good faith with the implications of the same stuff I’m wrestling with. The world would be a simpler place if I could just dismiss them as hypocrites for not washing their hands of the positions they hold, but the world isn’t that simple.

      So I make it my business to stay in those conversations for as long as it seems worth staying, to see what I can learn from them, to go into their worlds from time to time as a visitor (without carrying high hopes), and not to spend so long in those worlds that I get acclimatised.

      As I hinted at in my reply to SleepingDog, this is a subject I’ll come back to later in this series.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Thank you. As I do so much else at this excellent site, I look forward to your further contribution.

        1. Jean de McKluskey says:

          @ Dougald and Daniel Raphael: it is as someone with deep sympathy for degrowth as a long-term political objective that I voice this critique of your positions. Firstly, as it does bear heavily on Dougald’s essay: how Extinction Rebellion in perceived by people outside the movement, especially in Germany. The defamation of XR as a ”doomsday cult” is NOT primarily coming from “the corporate media.” Quite the contrary: much of the most sustained German-language attacks against XR as a doomsday cult is coming from what gets called the far-left. Jutta Ditfurth, a leftist author who publishes in places like the weekly newspaper ‘Jungle World’–sells 12,000 copies a week; positions itself as anti-Stalinist left–is perhaps the most vocal & sustained critic of XR on these terms. NOT corporate media. (SEE Ditfurth’s open-access FB feed, if you don’t believe me.) Could people based in UK & elsewhere please please begin educating themselves about the basics of politics in the EU’s most populous democracy? Because if you want degrowth coupled with a small-state (I do NOT; not on those terms) you would have to, at some point, negotiate the EU’s most politically influential member-state.
          How Roger Hallam, a man perceived as an XR leader, has negotiated disasterously with German public opinion in the last weeks is not off-topic here: Please hear me out. Of all groups with substantial commitment to degrowth, XR is the group worldwide getting most media attention; how they talk to journalists matters (Who, or rather, which side, are helped by put-downs about the “corporate media”? Where is most of ‘the conversation’ taking place, for most of the people?) In an interview published in the left-liberal die ZEIT, on Nov. 20, Hallam managed to call the Holocaust: “just another fuckery in human history”. (English version of article here: One day later, in the liberal-leftish SPIEGEL (Nov 21.), Hallam allowed the journalists to take him to a place where he ended up saying this:

          “SPIEGEL: But you can’t make climate change responsible for the fact that women were raped in the war.
          HALLAM: No, climate change is merely the pipe through which the gas flows into the gas chamber. It is merely the mechanism, through which one generation kills another generation.” (

          Now: from my understanding of Hallam’s more general statements & written texts, I still do NOT believe he is an anti-Semite. But that is now, obviously, what he will be seen as in the German-speaking world, by both the vast majority who get their news from mainstream sources, AND from the vast majority on the far-left. In two extraordinarily cavalier & headless strokes he has stigmatized the whole XR movement in central Europe, who will now be seen as anti-Semitic by association. (XR Germany reacted correctly & swiftly on the same day the ZEIT interview was published, distancing themselves unreservedly from Hallam, saying he is no longer welcome to speak to them: but the damage is done. The fact is that XR in Germany will now be excluded from much leftish, cross-party, political activism: from bike demos, to saving local forests initiatives.)

          To return to Dougald’s core arguments: the notion of degrowth shaped by downsizing our current states into small states might appeal to a small group of well-educated, alternative lifestyle middle-class people, who have the non-material resources to draw from to still build a good life if & when we break down into such small states. It is not an argument that can win hearts and minds among the masses. Here in Germany, if you pull your kids out of state-education, because of the compulsory schooling law, you will first get fined. If you don’t pay the fines, you will get sent to prison. Might look like a heroic option to certain middle-class activists, who may not be facing the prosaic question of who gets left with the reproductive labour of bringing up small kids. Would look more tawdry to many in the masses, stuck in the run-of-the-mill rent, electricity, heating, child-care responsibilities.

          1. Dougald Hine says:

            Jean –

            Firstly, as someone who lives in Sweden (which has laws against home education every bit as strict as Germany), I recognise your frustration with the uninformed nature of much of what gets written in English about the rest of Europe. It’s something I experience regularly and try to redress where possible in my writing. On this occasion, though, it seems that you have jumped on one aspect of Daniel’s comment, put it together with your interpretation of my essay, and launched into a rather agitated response that jumps to various assumptions – not least, assumptions about our ignorance.

            So, yes, I think everyone who follows XR is aware of Roger Hallam’s comments in the interview with die ZEIT and the impact they have had. I’ll come back to them in a future essay, but for now I’ll just say that I think they were execrable – and I agree with everything you say about them.

            Thanks for the pointer towards Ditfurth’s articles. I hadn’t been following them, although I am fairly familiar with the leftist critique of degrowth. It’s a large subject and I’m not sure how useful it is for me to wade into it here. I think the simplest response I can give to anyone who takes that position is to ask how they get around the implications of the Hickel and Kallis paper that I am drawing on?

            What interests me is how far the anti-degrowth left is having to go these days in order to sustain its position. David Jonstad made a good observation this week in a review of the Swedish translation of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which literally proposes to get around the ecological limits to growth by mining an asteroid somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. ‘I don’t share his position,’ Jonstad writes, ‘but I admire his candour’ in acknowledging that the only way to realise his vision is to find an extra planet. That this now has to be acknowledged by the techno-optimists of the left seems to me a sign that we are getting closer to a reckoning with the reality of our situation.

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