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The anti-colonial politics of degrowth

The anti-colonial politics of degrowth

As degrowth ideas speed their way into social movements and academic research, they have encountered some interesting critiques. In a recent contribution to this Virtual Forum, Huber (2021) dismissed degrowth as a preoccupation of middle-class environmentalists in the global North who feel “anxiety” about excess consumption. Such a movement, he argues, can never hope to connect with the working class, who are struggling to get by, and certainly cannot connect with social movements in the global South, where mass poverty is widespread and where, he claims, the concept of degrowth is largely unknown. These claims constitute a significant misrepresentation of degrowth politics.

Let me begin by noting a few facts. High-income countries are the primary drivers of global ecological breakdown. The global North is responsible for 92 percent of emissions in excess of the planetary boundary (Hickel, 2020a), while the consequences of climate breakdown fall disproportionately upon the global South. The South already suffers the vast majority of the damage inflicted by climate breakdown, and if temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees centigrade, much of the tropics could experience heat events that exceed the limits of human survival (Zhang, Held, & Fueglistaler, 2021). Likewise, high-income countries are responsible for the majority of excess global resource use, with an average material footprint of 28 tons per capita per year – four times over the sustainable level (Bringezu, 2015). Crucially, these high levels of consumption depend on a significant net appropriation from the global South through unequal exchange, including 10.1 billion tons of embodied raw materials and 379 billion hours of embodied labor per year (Dorninger et al., 2021).

In other words, economic growth in the North relies on patterns of colonization: the appropriation of atmospheric commons, and the appropriation of Southern resources and labour. In terms of both emissions and resource use, the global ecological crisis is playing out along colonial lines…

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