The history of modern economic planning doubles as a resort travelogue. In 1947, the forefathers of neoliberalism launched their world-conquering project at the Hôtel Du Parc on Mont Pèlerin in the Swiss Alps. Global economic consensus has remained synonymous with jet-setting hospitality in the decades since. From Davos to Doha, today’s brave new market masters huddle in five-star retreats to dream up ways of pulling the levers of global growth.
It makes a certain rough idolatrous sense, then, that the effort to shatter the altar of economic growth should bring me to an Art Deco hotel on the French Mediterranean built for the interwar leisured classes. On this midsummer morning, 40 thinkers and activists have come together to challenge the core economic orthodoxy of our time: that growth is the most critical measure of human flourishing, an axiom that seems increasingly untenable in the age of accelerating climate change. The Hotel Belvédère du Rayon Vert symbolizes the very empire these adherents of “degrowth,” as the movement is known, wish to overthrow: consumption, wealth, inequality, travel, and cement, the whole modern industrial condition.
A bony light pushes through small windows as Kris De Decker, creator of the website for Low-Tech Magazine, takes up his position before us on the stage of the hotel’s vast, semi-abandoned theater. His face is pale and cakey, as if he’s just walked off a construction site. Everyone in the audience is young and able-bodied and likes fruit. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is the popular reading choice. There is widespread admiration for the thinking of anarchist New Left sage Murray Bookchin. I’m at the annual degrowth summer school as a volunteer, though mostly as an observer. “The more inconvenient something is, the more fun it is,” De Decker, who built the Low-Tech website using solar energy, begins. We have already blown through our planetary boundaries, he explains, and “progress” does not offer a path to making human life on Earth sustainable. The world, he continues, needs less technological innovation, or rather, a different type of technology: manual, homespun, labor-intensive, local. We need an epochal shift, from high tech to low tech, a transformation of both production and consumption, a new way of life—degrowth, in other words.
The Belvédère sits on the hill leading down to Cerbère, a cheerful, desperate town at the bottom of France, where the Pyrenees collapse into the sea like staggering drunks. The hotel was designed to resemble an ocean liner: plowing white curves, a grand wraparound balcony, a rooftop deck equipped with a tennis court. The peculiarities of the site mean the hotel’s mock bow faces inland, while the stern looks on the ocean, which gives the building the aspect of an accidental shipwreck. In the 1930s, Europe’s wealthy flocked to Cerbère to take in the green ray—the hotel’s eponymous rayon vert—given off by the sun rising over the Mediterranean.
At work alone in the Belvédère’s palatial dining room while our introduction to low-tech unfolds, the hotel’s proprietor has informed me that this was the world’s first building constructed with reinforced concrete. The internet says otherwise, but many locals repeat this nugget of misinformation in my exchanges with them, turning it into something like the catechism of town pride: reinforced concrete, world’s first, right here in Cerbère. Reinforced concrete is made when steel bars are set inside concrete. Concrete is a mix of sand and gravel with cement. Today the cement and steel industries together account for around 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The system that gave us this bijou of Streamline Moderne design also brought us here, to the brink of planetary collapse. We are within the thing that is killing us.
De Decker directs our attention to the projection screen, which displays the homepage of the website he’s set up to lay out his vision for a human-generated power plant. He describes the imagined power plant, designed to fit an abandoned 22-story building on the campus of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, as an experiment in self-sufficient communal living. Residents there will take one-minute showers and subsist on a regimen of cheese, whey shakes, and almost constant exercise. On the screen, artist’s renditions of the plant portray it as a series of spaces filled with inexplicably topless men. At the power plant’s entrance, through its dining room and onto its roof, we see these vacant-eyed pinups proceed in a state of buff, emotionless productivity. The effect is chilling and vaguely erotic. A slide flashes up asking: “Why humans?” The answers are as follows:
- A human can generate at least as much energy as a solar panel on a sunny day.
- Unlike solar and wind energy, human power is always available, no matter the season or time of day.
- Unlike solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, humans don’t need to be manufactured in a factory.
- Human power increases as the human population grows.
- Human power is the most sustainable power source on Earth.
The audience seems receptive to the general idea of a human power plant, but skeptical about the particulars of this implementation plan. Someone asks what will happen to the old and the sick in a facility dedicated to employing humans as energy sources. Another person questions where to draw the line between degrowth and eco-fascism. Various rights and exactlys can be heard in response. De Decker nods with eyes closed, as if he’s heard concerns of this nature before, and says something about the need to raise energy prices and address income inequality. This isn’t exactly a response to these questions, but it at least has the merit of allowing him to return to his main theme, which is the necessity of rejecting modern technology. Setting aside the obvious considerations of environmental impact, he continues, high tech is simply not as effective as low tech: “Manual low-tech hearing aids, big horns, work better than electronic ones. There was a study about this; you can find it online.” Nor is high tech as enjoyable. “The idea that we need a lot of electricity to be happy, I’m not so sure about that,” De Decker tells us. “Old people can spend their time bicycling, reading, drawing, or playing board games. My grandmother in the final years of her life spent most of her time reading.”
In the three weeks I spend at the summer school that has brought us all to Cerbère, a record-breaking heat wave rips across Southern Europe; wildfires devastate Germany, Spain, and Anchorage; Chennai comes close to running out of water; Siberia experiences its worst floods in a century; 40 weather stations across China record their hottest temperatures ever; and a freak hailstorm leaves Guadalajara buried under three feet of ice. “Freak” is the wrong descriptor, of course—these catalogs of environmental destruction are normal now, the permanent mood music of everyday life. Cerbère means Cerberus in French, and at times I’ve wondered, in no doubt slightly melodramatic fashion, whether this place offers a glimpse through the portal to some approaching collective hell, be it an inferno of our own choosing or one forced upon us by ecological necessity. The stakes of the next decade appear plain to anyone with a brain. But the question of what to do in response remains rather more divisive. With conservatives still in denial about the reality of climate change, debate on this issue is unfolding primarily on the left.
Degrowth aims to free us from the dogma of economic expansion and remake society along drastically simpler, less energy-intensive lines. With roots in the environmental thought and political ecology of the 1970s, the modern degrowth movement emerged from France at the turn of this century via a marriage of activists and intellectuals such as André Gorz and Serge Latouche. To be a degrowther in the climate debate today is to signal seriousness, a bleak clarity about the magnitude of the action necessary to avoid the earthly worst. The movement’s fortunes have risen as the planet’s have dimmed.
Within a decade, degrowth has gone from a fringe concern to a creeping presence in the climate emergency’s literature of prescription. Progressive parties in Europe now incorporate degrowth perspectives into their official ecological platforms, New Zealand has abandoned GDP growth as a budgetary priority in favor of a broader metric of economic “well-being,” and the next report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is said to include a chapter on the necessity of degrowth. The movement’s breakout moment came at the U.N. climate summit in September, when Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg scolded world leaders for promoting “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
In public, degrowthers often emphasize that they do not advocate a return to the past. Their writing says something subtly different: not exactly that we should regress to the Neolithic or live like hunter-gatherers or the Yaka pygmies of northern Congo, but that we should be inspired by their examples. “To build a sustainable future, we have to use environmental resources reasonably, consuming raw materials and services as Stone Age societies of abundance once did,” Latouche writes. Against the religion of the economy degrowthers erect their own cult of premodernism, so it’s no surprise to hear De Decker, back at the Belvédère, tell us he’s no fan of 3-D printing. “It’s a very complicated way to achieve things,” he tells us, before launching into a long anecdote about the time he was at the Tour de France and saw a 3-D printer producing small plastic bicycles for spectators to buy. The printer smelled really bad, he tells us, and the whole process could have been far better managed manually. “Doing stuff with your hands is great fun; that’s what’s missing in our lives,” he says. “The moment you start working with your hands, that’s when you can relax.”
Standing off to one side and smiling through this paean to post-electric living is François Schneider, the exemplar of a life spent “doing stuff with your hands” and our host at the summer school. Hanging off his belt, in a burlap case, is a clarimella, a type of Catalan folk clarinet. A small, sunburned man in his early fifties with the face of a vivid marsupial, François is something of a legend in degrowth circles. In the mid-2000s, he spent a year traveling around France with a donkey named Jujube to spread the gospel of degrowth. His proselytization continues at the utopian settlement of Can Decreix—Catalan for “home of degrowth”—where he has lived since 2011. There is no sign of Jujube.
François stresses that his version of degrowth is not canonical. But so far it’s the best experiment we have. Can Decreix is stretched over a crag rising above Cerbère’s train station, on the edge of the town center. The station’s depot operates long into the night; visitors to the home of degrowth fall asleep to the floodlit howl of the carriages. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the Belvédère to Can Decreix, but in a figurative sense the journey is much longer. Indeed, it’s the whole question of how to get from here to there—the transition from an energy-hungry, ecologically destructive society to a model of productive life built on voluntary simplicity, self-limitation, and frugal abundance—that consumes us for the duration of the summer school. Can Decreix—two main buildings, a vegetable garden, some vineyards, and an olive grove overrun by wild cactus, rosemary, fennel, and lavender—has light, gas, and running water but no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no Wi-Fi, and no connection to the town’s sewage system. Food is preserved by drying, and the two toilets available—one indoor, one outdoor—are self-sustaining compost toilets. A jaunty, turd-shaped wooden sign in the outhouse educates visitors in the “art of toiletry: Pee, shit and paper are welcome! Cover with a handful of wood chips. Close the lid. Thanks for your contribution!!” Laundry is washed in a human-operated pedal machine with liquid detergent made by combining water and sifted ash. A solution filtered from boiled, cracked horse chestnuts serves as hand soap.
François is the most literal of back-to-the-landers: Visit Can Decreix during daylight hours, and you’ll invariably find him in communion with the earth, squatting, crouching, kneeling, or crawling as he refits the barrels for urine compost or picks nasturtiums and tree mallows for dinner. “This isn’t so primitive,” he tells me one night as we’re in the kitchen preparing the meal. “It’s not so different from mainstream society. I mean, I have electricity. I have cupboards.”
I sleep with the other volunteers in a dorm; all of us eat together cross-legged and barefoot on the property’s upper deck, under a mineral sky, surrounded by the exhausted hills. Meals are simple affairs of leaves, grains, pulses, and bread, cooked in solar ovens and wood-fired rocket stoves. Every time we use a conventional gas stove to “cook things at one thousand degrees,” as François puts it, wincing slightly whenever he is forced to contemplate the idea, “we support the invasion of Ukraine.” Life at the home of degrowth is a constant ascent or descent, up and down steps carved into the mountainside, along dirt trails, over screes and ancient stone walls. This is no place for the weak or germophobic. But a dying planet demands that we explore all options. And life here without the consolations of Wi-Fi or the flush toilet: This life is an option.
“We need a process similar to the Amish,” De Decker continues back at the Belvédère. The Amish offer a way to think about how to make collective technology decisions in the interests of the group, he explains. Faced with a new technology, they test it out for five to 10 years, then make a decision about whether to adopt it on a permanent basis. “They’ve found that some technologies are very dangerous, such as the car, because people would take the cars, drive away, and never come back.” I look around the room: a mixture of nods and expressions of puzzlement. De Decker continues: “It would be great to have more darkness. We have too many lights. We are spending all the time looking at TV screens and phones when we could be looking at the sky or at fires.” If the planet is to be saved, we must move from light to dark. Scientist Vaclav Smil says something similar in Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, his recently published account of humanity’s reckless journey beyond the planet’s ecological limits. Light pollution, he laments, has ruined astronomical observations, disrupted the circadian cycle essential to animal and human health, and prevented “hundreds of millions of people from ever seeing the great band of our galaxy.”
In recent times, Murray Bookchin’s 1986 critique of Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, has enjoyed a minor revival. “To mock his stolid behavior and the surprising conventionality of his values is to conceal his commitment to thirties’ belief in technological progress, businesslike efficiency, and a naïve adherence to the benefits of ‘growth,’” Bookchin wrote, lacerating Sanders’s “macho” manner and “narrowly productivist” view of the world—a manner and a view that have remained essentially intact in the three decades since. It’s no surprise that Bookchin is popular at Can Decreix: His critique of productivism and the naïve adherence to progress is a commonplace of the contemporary degrowth movement, as is the Bookchinian distaste for the pec-flex bombast of modern politics. Degrowth, its adherents often tell us, is all about care: “care for each other, and care for the environment,” as François puts it. In place of the Sanders left’s vision of social improvement—Euclidean, progressive, muscular, maximalist—degrowth promises a world closer to Ursula K. Le Guin’s vision of a “yin utopia”: “dark, wet, obscure, weak, yielding, passive, participatory, circular, cyclical, peaceful, nurturant, retreating, contracting, and cold,” as she described it in her 1982 essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be.”
An enticing vision, no doubt, but in reality, Can Decreix is more muscular than yielding, more hot and dry than cold and wet. If this hillside expresses anything, it’s the macho Sanders spirit of relentless advancement rather than the care-minded ethos of Bookchin or Le Guin. Can Decreix is not comfortable in the dull, familiar sense in which a life of 10-minute showers, bedside chargers, conversations about feelings, spaces artificially cooled and heated, and access to fresh linen is comfortable; nor is it comfortable in some undiscovered sense that would expose delicate urban bodies to a new way of being at ease in the world. Life here is straightforwardly rudimentary. It’s barracks life, a vantage on to a place beyond skin care where “eco-hacks,” like the kitchen funnel jammed onto the side of the basin in the sole indoor bathroom as a makeshift urinal, proliferate. Being here is not, of course, without its pleasures: spontaneous clarimella recitals from François, afternoons spent lobstering on hot pebble beaches by the shabu-shabu of the Mediterranean Sea, discussions long into the night about capitalism and interspecies extinction. This is all terrific fun for a bit, and satisfies a certain nostalgie de la boue. But to live here? That would be more like camping for life, the boue minus the nostalgie.
You access Can Decreix by climbing a 98-step path, overgrown with lemon and fig trees, chiseled into the rock face. One side of the path drops into a jagged gully. There is no handrail. One night, François tells me the story of a student at a previous year’s summer school who had a panic attack every time she had to climb the steps. “I’d be like, ‘Just do it and you’ll see it’s not that hard,’” he says. “People get this idea that they just can’t do things. It’s absurd.” Even this year, “I’ve thought about making the steps easier but…” He lets the thought trail away with a shrug.
The crowd at the Belvédère isn’t having it. No one disputes that sacrifices are necessary, but how extreme do we need to be? De Decker’s call to go Amish and return to darkness has not gone down well; combating climate change surely does not require a descent into misanthropy. To my right, a Chilean eco-anarchist performing what she later describes to me as “non-extractive research on energy transitions in Chile” upbraids De Decker for flirting with primitivism. “We have to be super careful about constructing a narrative that these methods are about a return to an idyllic past, which is a lifestyle luxury that only appeals to the developed world,” she says. “People in the developing world are living in that past—it’s called poverty, and they want to escape it.” Perched on the side of the stage, an Indian student completing a Ph.D. in malnutrition and food policy at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta presses the issue. Degrowth won’t succeed if it’s seen as a vanity project undertaken at the behest of the privileged world, she argues: “Where I come from, people want to break away from community to seek personal freedom. Community is the place of family repression and honor killings. I’ve heard all my life about the need for personal limits and personal sacrifice. It feels like a regression to go back to that world.” De Decker smiles joylessly. “Yes, what I have found is that it’s difficult to explain my story to such a diverse audience,” he says.
Small may indeed be beautiful, as E.F. Schumacher once said, or even necessary. But can it be popular? Every one of us living on the grid is complicit in the slow murder of the planet; our daily existence is an act of geocidal collusion. Life in a degrown future will involve drastically fewer consumer goods, AC units, cars, and airplane trips, but its advocates also promise less work, more leisure, liberation from retail bondage, looser expectations around showering, and greater connection—to one another, and to the material abundance of the natural world. It’s possible, of course, that we’d all be perfectly happy without the material comforts of modern capitalism. But having known these comforts as we do, and even as our awareness of their contribution to the climate crisis deepens, will we ever want to let them go? Degrowthers often quote a line from Le Guin to capture their optimism in the face of a mammoth task: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” No doubt this is true in a general sense, but we can still quibble with the analogy. A night of bingeing mediocre Netflix shows while you wait for your Seamless order to arrive is grim in its own way, but not quite as straightforwardly unpleasant as I imagine disenfranchised penury under the Bourbons to have been. Indeed, it’s many people’s idea of fun. The peasants of prerevolutionary France did not love their oppressor as we do; the earth’s consumer billions will surely not lay down their appliances without a fight.
Spain is a half-hour walk away from the Belvédère. Over a ridge just visible from the theater sits the town of Portbou. In September 1940, Walter Benjamin walked along the same ridge in an attempt to evade capture by the Nazis, by then in collaboration with Vichy France, hoping to escape to America through Spain and Portugal. A few months previously, while still living in Paris, Benjamin wrote “On the Concept of History,” in which he lamented how the German Social Democratic Party’s veneration of technology—“the notion that it was moving with the current”—had blinded it to the “retrogression of society” and the rise of Nazism. In an appendix to that essay, he continued:
Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.
Shortly after arriving in Portbou, Benjamin was told that the Spanish government had closed the border and he would be returned to France, almost certainly to face transportation to the death camps. For some reason, the customs officials allowed him to stay overnight in Portbou. Benjamin took a room in the Hotel de Francia, retired for the night, and several hours later killed himself by overdosing on morphine tablets.
Sensing a souring of the collective mood, François signals that it will soon be time to wrap up the low-tech discussion and head back to Can Decreix for the next session, a group workshop around building “narratives” to counteract the “depressing growth story.” But the questions do not abate. “How do you convince people in the Global South to go down this path?” someone asks De Decker. The better life that billions in low- and middle-income countries aspire to replicates the consumerist template of the Global North; compelling them to give up on that aspiration is like asking them to accept poverty for good. Days later, the summer school’s only attendee from China, a researcher completing a Ph.D. in social ecology at Beijing University, tells me that living according to degrowth principles “for one week is fine, but I don’t want to live like this for a year. No one in China would accept this—everyone in the country wants to move to the city, and everyone in the city wants to copy the West.” De Decker spreads his hands in a gesture of apology: “My message is addressed to the rich world. But we have a shared responsibility to go in a different direction.”
Degrowth has been described by its own proponents, variously, as a “research program,” “no more than a heuristically activating slogan,” and a concept that “defies a single definition.” To speak of degrowth in the singular is probably incorrect; it’s now possible to speak of multiple degrowths, an inevitable by-product of the movement’s success. Opinions on the role of experts and the importance of political action within the degrowth community vary, sometimes viciously. For every Jason Hickel, who thinks degrowth can win the war of the economic models and materialize through pollution taxes, redistribution, and other figments of sensible policymaking, there’s a Serge Latouche presenting degrowth as a movement geared toward “exiting the economy,” an absolute break with the imperium of economics and rationalistic governance. For every attempt to organize degrowth into a coalition for concrete political action, there’s a figure like François, who’s skeptical of electoralism, or the ambient fatalism that “planned degrowth is not politically possible,” as researcher Giorgos Kallis has written, to contend with. Reading the literature most often cited as essential to understanding degrowth, one gets the overwhelming sense of a school of thought traversing an intellectual puberty, trying to understand itself, rather than a political movement ready for active mobilization in the realm of everyday struggle.
This is why the conflict over degrowth on the left, the subject of furious daily battle online, is much exaggerated. In the standard account of this conflict, degrowthers are pitted against leftists and environmentalists of a modernizing bent—a broad spectrum encompassing pro-growth Green New Dealers, automation-loving “luxury communists,” and techno-futurists. These “eco-modernists” believe that a global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, along with measures to address economic inequality, will arrest the climate crisis and allow us to continue living large, with levels of material comfort and prosperity similar to or greater than those we enjoy today. Technological substitution, in this view, will lead GDP growth to decouple from resource use and emissions. Degrowthers reject this meliorist outlook, arguing that “green growth” is a mirage. The problem for them is not that growth is insufficiently green or inclusive or in touch with its own feelings; the problem is growth itself. Only by undoing our addiction to growth and reducing the “throughput”—energy, materials, and waste flows—of the global economy, degrowthers argue, will we find a sustainable long-term basis for human life on Earth. Technical fixes won’t cut it, and neither will the grand leftist romance of “industrial policy.” There is no alternative: We must live with less. Framing the debate this way presents a contest of hypotheses: The eco-modernists believe we can innovate our way to a climate solution; the degrowthers think that only a rapid mass transition to simpler ways of life will do. Both, either, or neither of these hypotheses could be correct. But the two camps actually want different things.
The presentation at the Belvédère comes to an end in a thread of unordered thoughts about repair cafés in transition towns and lessons we can take from the Brazilian favelas about how to live low-tech. “We face a very powerful enemy,” De Decker concludes. “I don’t have all the answers.” The group disperses, and I wander back to Can Decreix alone, stopping for a coffee at the Hôtel Bistrot La Dorade in the center of Cerbère. This is an unauthorized mission. Visitors to the home of degrowth, François tells me, usually give up all their addictions: coffee, cigarettes, drugs, the internet, sugar, salt. The café owner, dressed in thick-strap flip-flops, denim cutoff jeans, and a loose white T-shirt saying G-STAR RAW, places the change for my coffee on the table with a flick of the wrist and says, “Hop là!” I find something oddly reassuring about this banal transactional exchange. The town’s regular parade of humanity passes before me: drunks getting on it at noon, young tough guys in doorways sucking at cigarettes, wealthy white retirees out shopping for bottled water in knee supports, their skin clammy and brown like damp lamb. The café owner asks me how my day is going, and I tell him I’ve been up at the Belvédère. He remarks that the Belvédère was the first building in the world to be made with reinforced concrete.
We all know that our time to stabilize the climate is short. But in the supposed battle between the Green New Deal left and degrowthers, there’s only one side that seeks, in any meaningful sense, to stabilize the climate with anything like the required urgency. In its critique of economism and rejection of technocratic business as usual, in the exhortation of its proponents to think critically about what we as a species really want, degrowth contains much that I find theoretically compelling. But the movement has surprisingly little to say on renewable energy, the result of a latent hostility to techno-scientific innovation, and the idea that billions, within the next decade, will voluntarily embrace degrowth at a sufficient scale to arrest global heating is unrealistic. Even its most ardent defenders concede that genuine degrowth—which means real, Can Decreix-grade upheaval to daily life, not just fewer steaks or car trips every year—will not materialize under present economic and social conditions. Latouche is typically forthright on this question: “Degrowth society cannot emerge from the iron corset of scarcity, needs, economic calculation, and homo æconomicus.” His meaning is what the experience of Can Decreix makes plain: that a life of pure degrowth is logically impossible in this world, indeed that the preconditions for degrowth society do not yet exist. Any attempts to institute degrowth from above will be seen as an intolerable offense to human dignity and well-being, so long as the rest of civilization is hitched to the train of economic expansion—whether capitalist, socialist, or otherwise.
Not even François can avoid compromising himself through contact with the world as it is. The degrowth he practices at Can Decreix is necessarily a diluted form of the ideal, dependent as it is on the structures and economies of the very system degrowth hopes to supersede. There’s an additional irony here, which is that virtually no degrowther wants to put down roots in the home of degrowth, though François’s partner, Alexandra Guerri, lives with him in the austere precincts of Can Decreix. Other degrowth sympathizers have joined François at the encampment in the eight years since its foundation, but they have not stayed; today he continues alone. De Decker returns to Barcelona shortly after his business at the Belvédère is concluded; other summer school speakers appear in Can Decreix for a day or two and then scuttle back to the city. If the defining property of utopia is that it’s nowhere (the word’s meaning in Greek), it’s perhaps appropriate that this utopia has attracted no one. “I feel isolated with this practice here,” François tells me on my first night at Can Decreix. “It’s a struggle to convince people about this way of life. The idea was to do something collective, but now it’s just me. Few people are willing to try something else with flowing and a new way of living.” This is no surprise. Even a hair shirt worn voluntarily is uncomfortable. Le Guin once described the anarchist lunar colony she puts at the center of The Dispossessed, the fiction that everyone here is reading, as an “ambiguous utopia.” A similar description seems apt for the home of degrowth.
A group of rowdy Irish cycling tourists stops by the Dorade, cleats clacking, and they ask for douze bières merci while the owner replies in English. I finish my coffee, then continue on my path back to Can Decreix. In the town square, I pass some of the summer school attendees. It’s been only two hours since breakfast up on the deck at Can Decreix—porridge, plums, nuts—but one of them is seated at a bench, noise-canceling headphones on, bopping to the beat, and oblivious to the world as he tears into a whole wheel of Camembert with rye crisps and a family-size packet of Bolognese sauce-flavored chips by his side. The man is salt-deprived and hungry. I feel a great surge of sympathy.
Since degrowth can’t form the basis of a realistic electoral politics, its proponents are left clinging to the lifeboat of “institutional and cultural change” as they attempt to plot a course to our collective degrowing, or they retreat into didacticism. (The working class “must master” its wants, Kallis has written, “not insist that they should be satisfied.”) What the degrowthers seek, in their priestliest utterings, is not only a new society but also a complete reset of the psychological habitus of everyday life. For degrowth to “work,” its ideal-type citizen must be radically different from you or me, or almost anyone else living under industrial modernity today. This homo post-æconomicus will operate according to as yet undiscovered automatisms, affects, and instincts, conjuring in the process a more sustainable model of human endeavor onto the stage of our desperately overheated globe.
This could indeed be a great thing. After all, a society built on reciprocity, sharing, self-limitation, and care sounds far preferable to the plutocratic catastrophe of present-day financialized capitalism. But such a society cannot arise if we continue to view material limitations as privations. It will only work if the longing for less comes naturally, is authentically aspirational—if we want to live the life unseasoned. This is the journey from the Belvédère to Can Decreix: a journey from We Want Everything to Actually, We Want Very Little. Climate stabilization needs to happen now. Degrowth cannot happen now. This is why degrowth is not a plan for combating climate change, not in any immediate or direct sense at least. Instead, it is something much more ambitious, with a much hazier time horizon: a project to build a new person.
My contributions to the many energy-sapping tasks required to keep Can Decreix in order throughout the summer school—lugging wood, creating shade for discussion groups using bamboo mats and wooden rods, repairing stone walls, building rocket stoves, coming to grips with human compost—have been every bit as half-assed as you’d expect from a weak, unresourceful knowledge worker in the dog days of capitalism with panna cotta-soft hands and no interest in camping. I am, on anyone’s reading, a hopeless volunteer, the least useful of the useful muzhiks. The one activity at which I’ve shown any kind of skill is the chabrot, a postprandial ritual François has adapted from regional custom. There are two types of wine made in-house at Can Decreix: a sweet grenache and rancio, a dry oxidized wine similar to sherry. To perform the chabrot, each diner pools wine into their plate at the end of the meal, agitates the wine with a fork to degrease the plate, then drinks the wine. (Blessedly the house prohibition on addictive substances does not extend to alcohol.) The point of this ritual is to “go easy on the pipes” when washing the dishes, François tells us. I’ve developed a technique of mopping food scraps off the wine-flooded plate with my fingers, drinking the wine, licking my fingers, then licking the plate clean, such that it does not need to be washed at all and is immediately ready for reuse. For days, I survive off a single, self-cleaned plate, earning François’s trust as the summer school’s “official zealot of the chabrot.” The revulsion others feel at this practice is obvious; despite eager propagandizing on my part, no one performs the chabrot with anything like my level of ideological rigor.
There was once a time in the West when licking your fingers at the table, along with a host of other behaviors now considered beyond the pale of respectable society, such as blowing your nose into your hand, were deemed acceptable. The “civilizing process,” as Norbert Elias called it—the gradual recalibration of daily social mores by which Europeans cast off these habits—took centuries, and required the mass internalization of a completely new model of individuality. This was not planned, but was rather the result of myriad colliding stochastic evolutions: state formation and the state’s monopoly over violence, urbanization, the growing differentiation of occupations in increasingly complex economies. A similar process on a similar time line seems necessary for degrowth. Society’s collective degrowing will only make sense once individuals want in a way we don’t want, feel as we don’t feel. Whether a future this different can be engineered is debatable. But that does not mean there remains, in the interim, no virtue to thinking carefully about our course, or even slowing down. On the train of progress, sometimes it’s wise to pull the emergency brake.
Diverting one last time from my path back to the home of degrowth, I stop at Cerbère’s cultural center to look at an exhibition of bad contemporary art. I fall into conversation with the attendant, a woman in her sixties who has spent her entire life in Cerbère, and explain that I’m staying at Can Decreix. “Ah, François,” she says, without elaboration. I ask whether anyone here thinks it’s funny the town is named after the dog that guards the gates of hell. “No,” she says brightly, “because it’s not. ‘Cerbère’ comes from the Latin.” The Romans knew this valley as locus cervaria—the place populated by deer.