By Sam Bliss
Growth means a process of increasing in physical size. When we think of economic growth, it is difficult to fathom what exactly grows, since ‘the economy’ is an invented concept that describes billions of human interactions as if they were one giant entity.
But gross domestic product is a rate — the total money value of economic activity per year — and thus growth really means acceleration. Degrowth, according to this understanding, is slowing down.
In 2015, I slowed down a lot. I moved from Seattle to London to Barcelona predominantly by bicycle and entirely upon the surface of the earth. This physical journey was the culmination of an intellectual journey from my undergraduate education in market-focused environmental economics to a newfound passion for what my supervisor Giorgos Kallis calls political ecological economics.
Setting aside some of my big ambitions — studying, writing, trying to amass twitter followers — to simply move slowly evolved my understanding of how to degrow. Maybe degrowth doesn’t mean constantly, insistently pressing to spread and advance our small movement. And maybe that’s okay.
The bicycle is a tool for degrowth
Critical philosopher Ivan Illich writes that bicycles enable people to “become masters of their own movements without blocking those of their fellows.” Of all modes of transport, the bicycle consumes the least energy carrying humans a given distance.
Choosing to travel by bicycle disobeys the growth economy’s unwritten mandate to continually speed up the pace of life. Political scientist-anthropologist James C. Scott might call it an act of everyday resistance — especially if we ride bikes every day.
Cycling to our jobs, schools, errands, and gatherings demands that we reorganize our lives to accommodate longer travel times and the occasional soaking rain, while cycling to destinations on the other side of the world requires letting go of other aspirations for months at a time. Yet traveling slowly, with human power, allows one to palpably experience every centimeter of the journey. Bicycling brings us into the present, each unexpected bump in the road thwarting our trained urge to multitask.
The coevolution of thinking and doing
On the academic end, my faith in standard textbook economics began to erode shortly after receiving my Bachelor’s degree. I read a few books on behavioral economics, then ecological economics, then Marxist economics, taking suggestions from new friends and mentors. The foundations upon which the edifice of my education — and my invisible-to-me liberal ideology — stood were challenged, weakened, and outright disproven when exposed to some intellectual diversity.
A fellowship position working for Alameda County brought me to California. My job was to estimate the ‘upstream’ carbon emissions associated with all the goods and services that this local government purchases—the greenhouse gases produced by extracting raw resources, refining materials, manufacturing, processing, wholesaling, storage, and transportation between these supply chain steps.
While this was a simple project, using a simplified input-output model that linearly relates economic activity to carbon emissions made a big impact on me. I came to realize that addressing climate change isn’t just about cleaner sources of energy, sustainable transportation, and efficient agriculture. It’s about consuming and producing less, and much differently, too.
The transformation of my thoughts and actions began to coevolve. While learning about the social and environmental impacts of supply chains, I virtually stopped buying new things upon discovering the enormous effects of producing everyday goods and services. I felt not deprived but free from the paralyzingly vast array of consumption options presented by modern capitalism.
Similarly, after replacing my car with a bicycle, I noticed that having a narrower range of weekend activities to choose from made me much happier. These experiences directly contradicted the ‘more is better’ consumer choice theory that I had been taught.
As the bicycle morphed from mere exercise equipment into a gratifying tool for transportation, other relationships in my life were changing as well. Living in a backyard shed among a lively ‘family’ of newfound friends introduced me to consensus-based decision making and the joys of cooperative cohabitation, such as our weeknight, mostly vegan, delicious shared dinners. The stimulating table conversations that accompanied these community meals introduced me to radical ideas and the excitement of discussing them. Slowly but surely, my thinking shifted along with my habits.
How to study degrowth economics
I came to realize that today’s standard ways of thinking about economics aren’t fit to adequately address the issues that interest me most: climate change, inequality, and how to create an economy that doesn’t need to grow forever. Humanity must solve these problems through cooperation; neoclassical economics relies almost entirely on tools that harness competitive self-interest.
I was sure I wanted to return to school, but faced the same difficult decision as any young, dissenting economics student. Should I take part in reforming the discipline from within or study economics outside of the mainstream? PhD economists have a degree of authority in our society, but the process of attaining that profitable title struck me as more indoctrination than education.
My 10-month fellowship term in California ended and I moved back home to Seattle to begin another fellowship, this time writing for the independent environmental publication Grist. In the two weeks in between those gigs, I jet-setted to the Oxford Summer School on Ecological Economics and then attended the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth in Leipzig, Germany. I made new friends interested in the same topics as me, listened to lectures from the leading thinkers in those fields, and participated in lively discussions on subjects ranging from finance in a degrowth economy to something I’d never heard of called “decolonizing the social imaginary.”
I loved that fellow conference-goers (rightly) questioned my decision to fly halfway around the world to attend, a conversation that’s the elephant in the room at most environmental gatherings. The next time I wanted to travel somewhere far away, I was determined to dedicate more time to a human-paced journey. Anyway, I had been meaning to go on a long-distance bike ride ever since purchasing my bicycle, a touring bike whose previous owner had outfitted it with front and rear racks, a Brooks leather saddle, fenders, and nice caliper brakes before selling it to me.
Degrowth, clearly, was what I wanted to study. Upon returning to Seattle, I started working on applications for graduate studies in ecological economics, unconcerned that this meant I would be working toward a degree called environmental studies or natural resources rather than economics. My plan was to cycle to school, wherever I ended up.
Preparing to cycle
I constantly tried to sneak mentions of degrowth — something Grist’s mostly American readership had surely never heard of — into my writing, which amused and probably exasperated the rest of the editorial team. We were trying to produce relevant, entertaining content to capture the fleeting attention of internet surfers, not educational material or propaganda for a minor social movement in Europe. Nonetheless, I managed to write about the Leipzig conference and had a lot of fun making a video explaining degrowth with orange juice.
More importantly, though, at Grist I discovered that even office work doesn’t have to be humorless drudgery. I got to learn and laugh with friends every day while developing as a storyteller.
The first months of 2015 passed in a whirlwind. I continued to ride my bicycle around Seattle through the (atypically mild) winter, further falling in love with human-powered transport while building excitement for my upcoming journey. And before long, that adventure gained a definite destination: I was awarded another fellowship, this one a Fulbright research grant, to study economic inequality through Spain’s crisis as an example of the outcomes of “unintentional degrowth” in today’s growth-addicted world. I would be at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, which seemed like the epicenter of degrowth scholarship.
After completing my term at Grist, I spent my time preparing for the bike ride, navigating a bureaucratic system of visas that hinders rather than enables slow travel, and discovering the thrill of direct action against the fossil fuel industry. My plans changed to include spending the fall term as a visiting research student at SOAS, University of London, where my supervisor for the Fulbright, Giorgos Kallis, had received a year-long visiting professorship at SOAS just as I received my fellowship. The opportunity to live and study in London for a few months before beginning in Barcelona was too good to pass up.
Just three weeks before I was to take off pedaling eastward from Seattle, my friend Neil Baunsgard’s contract to work on social and environmental sustainability for Alaska Airlines ended and wasn’t extended. Newly unemployed, his spontaneous spirit could not say no to a bike ride across North America. He quickly collected the necessary gear, including a second-hand bicycle. On the 18th of May, we were finally ready to depart.
Time to cycle, time to think
Over the course of cycling and living together across more than 5000 kilometers of mostly rural landscapes, eventually Neil and I had shared our complete life stories and discussed climate change, trail running, renewable energy, corporate personhood, wilderness, capitalism, unburnable carbon, camp-stove cooking, organic agriculture, the ethics of dumpster diving (which was feeding us well), pro-environmental behavior, and every other topic of common passion. Maybe a month into the expedition, we were no longer chatting our way down the road every day, but when we did engage in discussions, they were quite deep. We imagined future paths toward desirable and undesirable societies, what true democracy might look like, how total human throughput of materials and energy might decrease to sustainable levels, or whether our civilization might be doomed for collapse after all.
I don’t want to pretend we came up with any ideas that nobody had thought up before. I only want to point out that we were exercising utopian thinking, first imagining the world we want, comparing our visions, and then working backward toward how such futures might be achieved.
Once we reached New York state, Neil had to return to the U.S. west coast, while I continued on. Without his wilderness skills and talkative company, I doubt I would have completed the transcontinental ride. But by the time we split, I felt confident to bike tour solo.
I spent a month exploring the northeast, took a ship to the U.K. from New York City, cycled into London, studied at SOAS through the fall term, cycled with 150 others from London to Paris for the climate demonstrations surrounding the COP, traveled by train to the south of France, and then rode my bike one last leg from Narbonne to Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast, with a lovely stop at Can Decreix just before the French-Spanish border.
Sharing the journey
I am surely still processing the pilgrimage, which ended just a few weeks ago when I arrived to Barcelona, and I do not yet have any super-profound insights to share. A few reflections bear mention, though.
Predictably, interacting with nature, co-created by humans, other species, and geology, has been awe-inspiring. Yet the wonderful people I encountered along the way were by far the best part of this odyssey (I don’t mean to imply that these humans are not nature, too). Recognizing the power and joy of sharing and collaboration has played an important role in my intellectual evolution. And while attempting to travel epic distances by bicycle, the generosity I experienced along the way reinforces my confidence in the possibility of an economics centered on care. People I’d never met before have opened up their homes; prepared delicious, high-calorie meals; offered me their couches and spare beds to sleep on; helped me fix my bicycle; insisted we finish every beer in their refrigerator; given me maps and local route recommendations; joined me on bicycle to ride out of town; filled up my bags with fruit from their farmstand; discussed the state of the world and how we might change it; listened to my story and shared their own tales of adventure and learning.
Across the United States, I encountered people of various political stripes who didn’t want to talk about abortion or guns (though they certainly had plenty of the latter), but instead about how money dominates politics and thus obstructs any efforts at systemic change. A surprising number of people along the way have been receptive to the idea of degrowth, though few had ever heard the word. The sort of folks who take the time to speak to a bicycle traveler — obviously a biased sample — seem to agree that “more” is no longer the path to the good life in the wealthy world, and are encouraged to meet a young person who thinks the question of how to transition to a post-growth society is worth studying. Many people like that I am focusing on economic inequality, since it’s an even more visible symptom of a sick economic system than the environmental crises.
I found that I could learn a lot more by listening than by talking, though. The new friends I made, young and old, certainly had a lot to teach, though they may not admit as much if asked.
I have had some trouble transitioning from cycle-traveling to studying. On the road, my daily tasks consist of making maybe 100 kilometers of progress, navigating with maps and asking for directions, finding some food to eat and a place to sleep for the night. As a cycling nomad, I feel like the animal that I am. Both in London and now in Barcelona, returning to spending hours in front of a computer screen and dealing with administrative tasks has been difficult.
Yet I enjoy reading and writing, learning and teaching, discussing and reflecting. These are the ways I want to contribute to the degrowth movement and its body of knowledge — at least until the post-fossil fuel degrowth future, when my fondness for long-distance cycling may become economically useful. Economics rethinker Kate Raworth asserts that how to create an economy that enables us to thrive whether or not it grows is one of the most important economic questions of our time. And yet only a few (fortunately brilliant) academics are working on this issue
At SOAS, I was surprised that even lefty economics students concerned about the environment are not thinking about how to tackle the myriad obstacles to beginning the transition to sustainable degrowth — how to prevent mass unemployment, what to do about government debt, and so on — simply because they are not familiar with the idea. Questioning the desirability of growth is not even considered a relevant discussion in university economics departments. This is why students are increasingly fed up with only receiving the neoclassical version of a much more diverse intellectual story have created an International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics, but the ecological shortcomings of mainstream economics tend to take a back seat to failed orthodox theories of finance, money, corporations, and behavior in their calls for changed curriculum.
There is probably no secret to recruiting more aspiring academics to study degrowth. As was the case for me, many students need only to be introduced to the idea in a gradual, inviting way. We should continue persistently writing and speaking about degrowth, in accessible language on a variety of platforms. We can create curriculum that makes it easy for instructors to insert degrowth modules into their courses.
And we must practice radical patience. Growth makes itself look silly as crises increase in frequency. Sometimes it’s nice to slow down and simply ride my bike around the world pointing out the obvious.