5KL: Degrowing Our Way to Genuine Progress

PrintIn September, The Architectural League announced The Five Thousand Pound Life, an ambitious initiative of live programs, digital releases, and a major design study that seeks to imagine a viable American future in light of the urgent challenge climate change poses to our environment, economy, and society. The initiative is off to an auspicious start. League Executive Director Rosalie Genevro and J. Clawson Mills Fellow Andrew Wade published an introduction to the premises, prospects, and primary components of the project; Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication led off the public lecture series with a discussion of American perceptions and understanding of climate change; followed by a program with Melissa Lane, a professor of politics at Princeton University, who articulated a new ideal of citizenship for a sustainable society (documentation of which will be posted on the League website in the coming weeks). In the next public program of the initiative to be held on December 10th, Stephen Gardiner, a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, Seattle, will explore the “perfect moral storm” of climate change and how individuals should think about their responsibilities within such a global, intergenerational crisis.

This week, the League also published “Degrowing Our Way to Genuine Progress” by Erik Assadourian, the first in a series of commissioned and curated articles in which guest authors give voice to themes and debates central to the concerns that animate the project. Assadourian, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, questions the presumed marriage of growth and progress. Our planet’s ecological limits, in his view, make limitless growth and consumption a mathematical impossibility; degrowth and the responsible stewardship of resources, he argues, go hand in hand with a new definition of true progress.


Illustration by Raj Kottamasu

Illustration by Raj Kottamasu

Assadourian begins with a look at the predominant standard measure for societal progress today: Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While he argues that GDP is indeed an especially poor measure of progress and that a transition to other indicators that internalize destructive and productive economic activity, like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), is needed, Assadourian notes that a change in measurement is no longer capable of dealing with the problem at hand:

If this indicator had been adopted back in 1962 when Kuznets was calling for measuring the quality of growth and when “just” 3.1 billion humans were living on the planet (and still within Earth’s ecological capacity), GPI might have worked great to direct human civilization’s growth along a sustainable path. Fifty years later, humanity has so far transcended the limits of the planet that we not only have to stop growing as a whole, but overdeveloped countries like the United States have to proactively degrow their economies until they return to well within Earth’s limits.

This degrowth is inevitable, says Assadourian, which leaves us to either actively choose a consumption diet to come within the Earth’s carrying capacity or risk major societal disruptions as our ecological bank account runs dry. He goes on to describe what an appropriately responsive cultural shift might require and the benefits we may accrue in the process:

If we are really going to encourage others to develop and yet live within Earth’s limits, this will require that the average person live in a much smaller home, with more people sharing said home, consuming a lot less electricity, eating much less meat and far fewer calories, living essentially car-free, and flying almost never. …

It’s a daunting idea, I admit, even a bit frightening. But it could be quite the opposite. Joyful and inspiring — filled with time for family, developing interesting hobbies, and taking care of ourselves — cooking meals instead of rushing out for take-out, staying active and fit, having more time to just simply be present in the moment. There’d be less stuff cluttering up your home, fewer daily frustrations as this or that breaks, as unpaid bills become overdue. There’d be reconnection with extended families, perhaps with your elderly parents moving in and helping to take care of their grandchildren (and the grandchildren helping take care of their grandparents too). There’d be fewer hours working — as there’d be fewer day-to-day costs and the flexibility to work half time — even state-supported maternity and paternity care — would be integrated into the economic structure. … Sounds idyllic and yes, even a bit naïve, though not as naïve as continuing the fetishization of economic growth even when all ecological signals point to the suicidal potential of this.

With this Assadourian challenges us to proactively consider which elements of modernity we want to save and which we want to scrap, to ensure that the best parts survive the coming economic and ecological transition.

Stay tuned as the League adds other voices to the conversation in the coming weeks, including the argument that bold investment in clean energy technologies is a way to maintain growth while detaching it from environmental degradation and the construct of steady-state economics, which advocates for sustainable development that holds our consumption of resources in equilibrium with the Earth’s capacity for renewing them.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Ma; November 7, 2013

Great article, looking forward to more. The issue with these ideas every time they come up, is how to ween the larger numbers of people from the current standards of living, the comfort levels, and concept of wealth accumulation.