Is this the moment for a global ‘degrowth’ movement?

Is this the moment for a global ‘degrowth’ movement?

James Flexner

I am an archaeologist who studies the long-term histories of small island societies in the Pacific region, with most of my recent fieldwork focused in Vanuatu and Tasmania. I also do a lot of critical thinking and writing about what archaeologists do and how we do it. Some of my research explores whether there are alternative ways we might go about our work that could result in more just, equitable, and beneficial results, not only for archaeologists but for diverse communities and society more broadly.

What is interesting to me is how much of the global pandemic response to Covid-19 overlaps with the recommendations of a corner of scholarship that I’ve found inspiring, primarily from ecological economics and political ecology: the ‘degrowth’ movement. Degrowth provides a vocabulary for thinking of economics in human terms, where people are not simply another resource to exploit for the expansion of capital. A population of 8 billion people cannot live on a planet with finite resources if we insist on continuing to expand the current world system, which benefits a tiny minority while making life uncomfortable, and eventually impossible for the rest of us.

Degrowth proposes a reversal of this situation, restructuring human lives, economic relationships, and ecologies to slow, and then turn back the damage to environment and society that capitalism has wrought. Degrowth recognises that capitalism’s obsession with growth as expressed through its monomaniacal focus on measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is neither sustainable nor desirable.

I have proposed (via an essay originally written before the current crisis) that archaeology could lead the way as one of the first degrowth industries. The fascinating pursuit of understanding our collective past as human beings is an area of passionate interest for many people, including many not currently employed in the field. As economies re-assemble after the current crisis passes, meaning-making fields like archaeology have an opportunity to broaden their employment base as other sectors now recognised as unnecessary shrink or even disappear. Degrowth definitively does not advocate for mass unemployment, but rather a restructuring and redistribution of wealth as economies are transformed. Those imagining there is no precedent for a large-scale employment in archaeology should remember the massive archaeological projects carried out in the United States under the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression.

Most professional archaeologists currently work on a contract basis to make sure governments, developers, and big businesses comply with local, state, and national heritage legislation. There are various critiques of contract archaeology and its inherent conflict of interest in the ‘developer pays’ model. In a degrowth economy, much of this work would shrink as the pace of development as it is currently understood shrinks or reverses. This would open up a space for the best parts of archaeology: scholarly research, community engagement, and, frankly, socialising around the trenches. Archaeologists currently work under immense pressures, whether under the academic publish-or-perish directive, or the insistence by developers on faster and cheaper consulting work. If these pressures are relieved, archaeologists and those with a stake in understanding the past, not least the world’s indigenous peoples, would be enabled to work together to reconstruct past economies and ecologies. This would give us the opportunity to understand the true diversity of human practices and experiences across millennia, and the choice to keep the best parts while ditching the worst (while recognising that what is deemed ‘best’ will vary in different contexts).

Degrowth thinking builds on the scholarship of French philosopher Georges Bataille, who argued in Le Part Maudite that human societies always produce a surplus, which must be ‘sacrificed’ (literally spent, dépensé) in some way. Many societies spend their surplus on collective festivals and celebrations, from the Saint’s fairs of Medieval Europe to the nieri exchange of Tanna Island where I do some of my fieldwork. Modern societies, perversely, spend surpluses on self-gratifying consumer behaviour that usually relies on some level on exploiting other people. Archaeology has the opportunity to bring some of the communal festival atmosphere back into the patterns of modern working life. We already do this to some degree, from the convivial home away from home of the field school campsite, to the celebrations of local heritage through things like open days, and the close relationships many of us develop within the communities where we work. I’ve argued we should be expanding these elements of our labour environments, while reducing or eliminating the dull, procedural, and bureaucratic elements forced on us by the institutions of a growth-oriented economic system.

Many governments are already enacting, in temporary forms, some of the recommendations of degrowth scholarship. One-off payments for working people, as are currently being organised in the United States and Australia, are basically an acknowledgement of the need for a Universal Basic Income. Degrowth scholars have suggested this is a necessary first step, along with a jobs guarantee and a maximum income limit, which would redistribute the wealth that has been hoarded by a tiny minority so it can benefit the broader population.

Millions of people will need to find work after the current crisis passes. This should be an opportunity to rethink both the nature of work, and its distribution across the population. The shift to working largely online and from home has shown for many that the idea of commuting to, and being present in, an office for 40-60 hours a week is simply unnecessary. Tasks once labelled urgent and necessary are now revealed as unimportant make-work created by a managerial class with nothing better to do.

As has been shown in various experiments, particularly by European governments, reducing weekly hours also reduces unemployment rates as businesses require more employees to function. Maybe people don’t buy that new car, or go on the expensive holiday, but they report overall feeling happier, less tired, healthier, and closer to family and community. Freeing people’s time can also reduce the amount of unpleasant work that needs to be done, for example the 24-hour delivery or warehouse ‘services’ can probably be shifted to working at a much lower capacity to account for reductions in overwork and unnecessary consumption.

As people adapt to lives spent largely at home, distanced or isolated, they seek new forms of meaning and experience. Suddenly the arts have become essential again, as performances of everything from classical music to postmodern circus are streamed to homes around the world from homes and empty theatres. A tenet of degrowth scholarship is to move employment away from drudgery and misery, towards allowing people the autonomy to pursue work that is meaningful and beneficial, rather than simply a source of income. If people are given the opportunity to re-skill, and if governments and businesses shift work away from what David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’ (mostly bureaucratic jobs that provide no meaning or benefit for those doing them aside from a salary, and no real meaning or benefit to society beyond the billionaires who profit from these workers’ efforts) there is the possibility to expand employment opportunities broadly across the arts, sciences, and humanities. People who have dreamed of working in fields such as archaeology might suddenly have opportunities to make those dreams a reality, if supported by the right kinds of policies, funding, and institutions.

In a few months, or perhaps a year, things will go ‘back to normal’. Conservative politicians, businesspeople, and thinkers are already pre-empting this, arguing that we should put hundreds of thousands of lives at risk so the wealthy can protect their interests. The question at this moment should not be how soon we can return to the status quo. The question should be whether we can reject the worst parts of the old system, and whether we can build on positive movements towards a more just, caring, and equitable society. Covid-19 has been a global humanitarian tragedy. The bigger tragedy would be allowing capitalism and its beneficiaries to drag us back into a status quo that allowed this pandemic to have such global virulence in the first place.

Can we, instead, construct a new normal around an economics of care, conviviality, and commons? As the environmental thinker George Monbiot has suggested, something new is taking root as people realise capital and the state can no longer be assumed to hold human interests as a priority (from my perspective, they never did). It is therefore up to us to decide how to proactively build the economy we want, rather than the one forced upon us by a history of colonial violence, inertia, and apathy. Yes, it’s utopian thinking, but this is precisely the moment to be making utopian arguments. We have only a better world to build.


James Flexner is Senior Lecturer in Historical Archaeology and Heritage at the University of Sydney. His article on degrowth and archaeological practice is scheduled to appear in Vol. 27 No. 2 of Archaeological Dialogues in September 2020.

Image: Archaeologists surveying workers’ cottages of Maria Island, Tasmania to understand communal working class life on the island from the 1880s-1920s. Source: James Flexner