long . lines and ripples

The Pandemic as Model for Degrowth

Because of its global effect on economic activity, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to reduce climate-affecting emissions for (at least) the short term. Few people would choose to reduce emissions in such a steep, socially destructive way, but given that these reductions are already here, we should think about the pandemic’s relationship to desirable forms of growth reduction. This is a longer post that compares the current Covid-19 crisis to our ongoing emissions crisis.

I. Climate and Growth

Climate change is a product of growing economic activity over the last several centuries. And the successes of the modern economy are a product of this growth. If the stability of major world institutions (the state, markets) requires economic growth, then it is reasonable to expect that damaging climate emissions will continue indefinitely.

One way our our institutions have reconciled this conflict–between an economy that must grow and a worldwide society that must grow less to mitigate climate change–is a substitution of growth mechanisms: substitute wind power for coal power, or group transport for single-occupancy cars. The virtue of this “cleaner” future is that it does not require that we re-imagine our economy: different transport vehicles will carry the same Amazon boxes, avocados, and iPhones that people want now, only they will do it with clean power someday. The methods of the economy change, but its core stays the same. According to the optimistic substitution model, nothing vital to the imperatives of the global economy has to change.1

The ongoing COVID-19 epidemic of 2019-2020 is not that sort of solution to climate change. Emissions also go down when economic activity simply stops: when large numbers of people stop working, stop their daily routines, and rest or stay indoors. This is “degrowth.” And it is what is happening across the world at this moment. Each day, we are witnessing am unfolding large-scale, temporary (for now) de-growth event. And though the assessments of an effect on emissions are still preliminary, early data suggests that there has been a real, and in places dramatic, effect. In response, authorities in both the public and private sector are panicking. So while the goal is to cut back on emissions, a sudden de-growth event is not, in the eyes of most authorities, an acceptable vehicle for reducing emissions.2

But even if this is not the degrowth path that governments had in mind, it is still dramatic and instructive to see just how quickly the world can mobilize around a single priority–even at the expense of the economy. Fear of an immediate danger has that effect. We should not waste the chance to draw the parallels between degrowth that is actually happening as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and how de-growth might happen as a coordinated response to climate.

Like most of the proposed mitigations for climate change, this coronavirus event has both (1) authority-driven components (e.g., travel bans) and (2) cumulative effects of individual, “private” initiative. These two actors together form a working system, where orders given by authorities and the actions of private citizens react back upon one another, often with unintended effects.

The substitution model depends on achieving the right systemic changes. The replacement of gasoline cars with electric cars, or coal with solar, is a systemic solution. Those technologies take huge collective efforts to engineer and institutionalize. And once they are in place and viable, individuals likely won’t see them as much of a choice at all; the climate-friendly option will be the background default.

Then there are a lot of individual decisions, made again and again each day, that have to be bent in the right direction to mitigate emissions. For example, the choice of how much energy to use on air conditioning in one’s home. Some of these choices can be influenced through restricted choice, or through changes to the technical and social background of society, but they are still about individual preference and choice. Even modestly affluent people will still be heavy consumers (in terms of carbon-generation) for the foreseeable future, and they have to demand certain things from the market that are the right things to want, from a climate perspective. Because if people continue to opt for maximum consumption, there will be market actors that supply high-consumption individuals with that option.

II. Substitution Effects Happening in the Current Pandemic

Right now, one notable substitution effect of Covid-19 is the attempt to “do it online.” This includes the attempt to do remote work, a decision made at the organizational level, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if private consumers were electing to do more of everything online, including food and meal delivery, and other everyday necessities. The coronavirus may test the limits of this approach. If supply chains and logistical networks across the world are already overloaded, substituting virtual for in-person activity may not work. There is still an intensively organized, real-world correlate for any consumption activity online, and if the whole world is paralyzed by the virus, we can’t all sit online at home, ordering each other to do things from the computer screen.3

In a crisis like this pandemic, where the great danger is physical proximity between one’s own human body and other bodies, virtual “space” becomes an even-greater bastion of individual freedom. If an activity has an online correlate, it can continue. Online, we can continue our lives, and perhaps even do more than we could before.4 In fact, the rules of the online world are so unchanged that much of the regimented, disciplined, “thick” world is now conducting a mass experiment in virtual substitution. The two biggest examples are workplaces and schools, two areas where authority makes itself felt for most people. They are the force that makes up our daily schedule, sets our standard of living, and determines the codes by which we live. By moving online, where surveillance and physical control of the individual is less effective, authority cedes some control to individual self-determination. How one chooses to work or learn is now more of a choice for individuals–and likely subject to more variation–than it was before. School and work will, in short, become less disciplined while online, although that does not necessarily mean less effective.

And while we will see how much discipline of the pre-pandemic world carries over to our new online status quo, it will be true that, for at least the next few weeks, the virtual (online) world will mediate a new status quo between authoritative structures like (work, school, government, church, etc.) and individual prerogatives (leisure, recreation, civic duty, entertainment, etc.). And in the middle of all this–mediated by the virtual world–are the systemic forces which are neither subject to the authorities nor to individuals: the workings of markets, the spread of the epidemic, the weather, and other events which have an unexpected impact on the current crisis. So what we should be asking is:

  1. Where can the authorities most successfully exercise their power? Where are they likely to get the outcomes that they expect? When will systemic feedback change the effect of power exercised by the authorities?
  2. Where are individuals likely to pursue their own interests and/or reject the orders of the authorities? What are the reasons for individual resistance to authority?
  3. Are there lessons can learn from the struggle between authority and individual control in the Coronavirus pandemic? And do these lessons also apply to the climate change dilemma?

III. Systemic Problems

Let’s define authority and the individual once more, with respect to macro-level growth of carbon-generating economic activity.

The first force is what I am calling authoritative demands. This includes direct government orders (travel bans) and other influence mechanisms that are largely outside of any individual’s control.

Authoritative decisions. An “authoritative demand” is any source of power that seeks to define the activities of large numbers of Americans. Examples Include:

  1. The recent “shelter-in-place” order for many locales.
  2. Restrictions on movement within and between nations
  3. Controls on the supply of scarce goods
  4. “Soft” bans which proscribe certain classes of behavior (e.g., “no gatherings more than 10 people”)

Some of these have an almost certainly negative effect on growth (e.g., restrictions on movement), while others may encourage substitution of economic activity.

Individual decisions. Second, there are all of the individual choices made by private people in their own lives. Examples of individual degrowth decisions made during the coronavirus epidemic so far include:

For each decision by an authority, individuals will have to decide whether and how to comply. And for individual action that arises spontaneously (e.g., panic hoarding), authorities may step in and attempt to impose a different order than the one preferred by individuals reacting to their situation. What we are trying to understand is how these two forces interact to produce growth or de-growth.

Let’s break this problem out into a table to visualize the options more clearly:

Authoritative Growth Pressure Authoritative Degrowth Pressure
Individual Compliance with Authority Collective pressure in favor of growth, individuals comply and also choose growth Collective pressure against growth, individuals comply and also choose degrowth
Individual Rejection of Authority Collective pressure in favor of growth, but individuals reject and choose degrowth options
Collective pressure against growth, individuals reject and make growth-promoting decisions

To make it more concrete, here are examples from each category with respect to the recent coronavirus outbreak:

Authorititative Growth Pressure Authoritative Degrowth Pressure
Individual Compliance with Authority * Replace in-person consumption habits with online consumption
* Embrace new working arrangements if possible (e.g., remote)
* Postpone, rather than cancel, spending until some point in the future
* Maintain individual investment in asset classes with high volatility during the crisis (e.g., stocks)
* Accept the “push” of events into new forms of consumption (e.g., food stock-up, medicines)
* Choose individual transportation (cars, walking) over mass transit
* Stock up on goods as unusually low prices allow (e.g., fire sales during plummeting demand for goods)
* Immediately spend any short-term relief provided by federal government
* Accept self-quarantine orders
* Avoid work (and earnings) if sickness suspected
* Cancel travel to high-risk areas
* Avoid high-risk situations (restaurants, public transit) and/or close social contact
Individual Rejection of Authority * Postpone discretionary consumption with no direct relationship to epidemic (e.g., purchase of real estate)
* Avoid work, engage in work slowdown, and/or drop out of workforce entirely.
* Substitute government assistance for economically productive activity.

* Interfere with emergency orders, e.g., travel to areas of outbreak because of favorable transportation prices, etc.
* Continue consumption patterns which lead to high-risk situations (e.g., restaurant attendance, travel)
* Reject self-quarantine while sick, spreading virus
* Hoard goods in short supply during the epidemic
* Start or expand entrepreneurial activity into high-risk areas (e.g., street vending)

For the duration of this crisis, the authorities want to encourage and smooth out demand, except for in certain sectors deemed “high-risk.” In these areas the consensus is that they must be economically damaged in the short term, so that the overall economy recovers over a longer period and the epidemic is stamped out (top right square). This category has grown to include almost all sporting and entertainment events, most mass travel (personal cars still seem mostly OK, although ride-sharing options like Lyft and Uber appear to be out of favor), professional conventions, and any economic activity that involves gatherings of more than ten people. Overall, the hope appears to be that the damage to parts of the economy with a high risk of spreading the virus can be mitigated through a short period of interruption (if the virus is brought under control quickly), perhaps with direct government assistance to the affected industries.

So the authorities are in a difficult position of wanting to discourage certain growth and economy-maintaining activities, while not wanting to discourage other consumption with less dire implications for viral spread. I can’t tell you how many businesses of all sorts, from service to restaurants to retail, have sent me vague emails reminding me that they are still open and that I should spend money with them.5

What this means is that the authorities hope consumption will continue where possible, and they are rolling out more carrots and sticks each day to ensure this is the case (top left square).

But where fear overtakes individual decision-making, or individuals correctly assess that there is more risk to growth-promoting activities than the authorities are letting on, large numbers of people will pull back on consumption in a way that is undesirable to the authorities (bottom left square). Where this is unwarranted, it may be possible to encourage consumption in this area over time, but where fear is rational, the likely best option to encourage growth is just to get the epidemic under control. On a less desirable end of this spectrum, certain systemic incentives (e.g., low prices, less competition, less demand, or lack of personal savings) will likely encourage individuals to engage in growth-promoting behavior that endangers both their own health, and the ability of authorities to get the epidemic under control (bottom right corner). An example of this latter phenomenon would be returning to work when you are sick, or doing a high-risk job (e.g., cleaning hotel rooms) because you can’t afford to forego the pay.

Some major takeaways of this thought experiment about COVID-19 and growth:

  1. The authorities will promote degrowth only where it is absolutely necessary, because it lines up with the higher priority of stopping the spread of the virus. Everywhere else, the authorities want to promote growth. And they will likely promote other growth-driving activity even more than normal as the damage from the crisis becomes apparent.
  2. Where individuals are motivated to pursue growth-driving actions, this is likely for two reasons:
    1. There are systemic reasons for growth-driving activity that authorities can’t control (e.g., prices, market gaps)
    2. Fear and uncertainty will lead individuals to consume when it is (perceived) to be in their own interest.
  3. In situations where individuals pull back from permitted growth-driving activities, it is almost always because of:
    1. Fear
    2. Uncertainty
  4. The authorities sometimes have the power to limit systemic effects (e.g., laws against price gouging, de jure or de facto bans against certain types of economic activity), but a major source of individual behavior against authoritative pressures is this: systemic effects are usually outside the control of even the most powerful authorities. An epidemic, which by definition does not obey human strictures, is a great example of this phenomenon. People will take action (rightly or wrongly) to avoid getting sick (or take advantage of others’ fears of sickness) regardless of what the authorities say. Then there is the economy itself, whose workings (prices, etc.) are only partially under authoritative control.

IV. Implications for Climate

Given the results of the thought experiment for the coronavirus, we can produce a version of the same chart for the climate crisis.

Authoritative Growth Pressure Authoritative Degrowth Pressure
Individual Compliance with Authority * Individualized transportation options (e.g., cars)
* High-energy personal residence (e.g., suburbs)
* Frequent discretionary travel
* Early adoption of “low-carbon” technology (e.g., electric cars)
* Acceptance of a lower standard of living
* Acceptance of rationing by central authorities
Individual Rejection of Authority * Voluntary reduction of overall consumption through “lifestyle” choices
* Defer present consumption through savings and/or investments
* Choose high-consumption options due to individual preference or social pressure, even when prices and other government incentives select against them (e.g., gas guzzlers)
* Work and investment in carbon-intensive industries.

Some of the most important differences between the coronavirus outbreak and the climate change dilemma:

Different time scales and a sense of duration.

Everyone is operating under the assumption that the epidemic is an event which is happening now, that its effects will peak at some point, and that it will eventually be “over.” One of the most pernicious aspects of the climate change problem is that it is never fully “here.” Violent weather or natural disasters might be felt as an “effect” of climate change, but climate change itself is both concrete and totally abstract. It is always a problem, therefore it is never a “problem”–at least in the sense of an event to be confronted, managed and concluded. It is hard to fear an event without a definite start and end point.

Systemic lock-in for the climate problem is overwhelming

The coronavirus epidemic is a new situation for nearly every living person. If the authorities order people to avoid all non-essential travel, or a institute a lockdown, or ban funeral gatherings (as has happened in Italy), it is difficult to know whether and how people will respect the order. Individuals, in turn, cannot necessarily anticipate what actions the authorities will take. With the coronavirus, we’re all knocked off of our normal routines, trying to establish a “new” normal but not even sure what that should be. The climate problem is not like that. In the United States, the high-consumption lifestyle has a tremendous amount of cultural and institutional inertia behind it. Despite government attempts to establish new emissions standards and promote electric cars, encourage mixed zoning that discourages single-family homes, and foster public transit, the high-consumption, post-war American lifestyle continues to crop back up whenever economic conditions allow for it. Everything, from the mortgage industry to the structure of credit card payments, encourages this consumption. For the broad American middle class, consumption is prestigious and desirable, and any authority that seeks to change this idea will find that the norms are quite persistent.

Lack of alternatives to the obvious status quo

What is the alternative to obeying the restrictions put in place during this epidemic? You continue on with your normal life, which is probably a lot more fun than being on voluntary (or involuntary) house arrest. Go to bars, see your friends, meet new people, get paid at a job. This epidemic is about not being able to do the things you already know how to do. Instead, for now, we have empty waiting, worrying, and searching within the narrow parameters offered by the authorities. So the alternative to obeying the authorities is going back to the status quo.

The routines that are comfortable and familiar during this crisis are also those that will spread the virus. In this sense the coronavirus is much like the climate crisis dilemma. The alternative to quarantine is living a normal life and going about your business. And the alternatives to drastic action that limits emissions are just as familiar, and just as comfortable.

  1. According to the substitution model, we mostly just need better technology[]
  2. Even a noted climate activist and degrowth advocate like Bill McKibben agrees with them .[]
  3. Once this phase of the crisis is over, it will be interesting to see if the logistical side of the virtual world was able to take up the slack for the all the in-person, non-remote economic activity that disappeared.[]
  4. Will we see a profusion of blogs, music, and other creative work online? Work that fills the dead space formerly taken up by everyday life?[]
  5. Another possibility: this epidemic opens up a huge gap between businesses that do most of their business online, and ones that don’t. Beyond the normal convenience factor, people are so scared during the epidemic–and spending so much more time at home–that they shift even more of their purchasing activity online.[]