Kate Soper – The growth agenda is no longer feasible. What is the alternative?

Author: Sorcha Brennan

Kate Soper is emerita professor of philosophy and a former researcher with the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at London Metropolitan University. She had a long association with Radical Philosophy and was a regular columnist for the US-based journal, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. She has also been an editorial collective member and writer for New Left Review. She is a translator, among others, of Sebastiano Timpanaro, Noberto Bobbio, Michel Foucault, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Carlo Ginzburg. Her own books include: On Human Needs: open and closed theories in a Marxist PerspectiveHumanism and Anti-HumanismTroubled Pleasures: Writings on Politics, Gender and HedonismWhat is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human. She has been involved in a number of research projects on climate change and sustainable consumption, most recently as a Visiting Fellow at the Dubendorf Institute, Lund University, Sweden. Her most recent book is Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism.

Photo credit: Jo Mortimer

You have written and published on the theory of need and environmental philosophy for many years. Your 2020 book Postgrowth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism published by Verso is an intersectional continuation of these themes. How has your past scholarship and formation as a researcher led you to this juncture of post-consumption and the politics of pleasure?

“Well, the most immediate impetus was a deep concern over the degradation of the environment and the emergence of global warming as a key source of the crisis in conjunction with a sense that much of the discourse was overly doom-laden. There was too much emphasis on climate change as a threat to the continuation of a given form of life, and too much attention paid to the destruction of nature – which of course, is ongoing and central to what’s happening – but I felt there was too little being said and written about our own role in this. 

“So, there were two main drivers of my arguments around what becomes what I call “Alternative Hedonism.” One was a sense that people are going to be more persuaded to change their ways if they conceive it as being in their own self-interest to do so. This probably means pointing out some of the gratifications of changing their ways of living, rather than constantly reminding them of the destruction caused by their current modes of consumption. The other driver was that we needed to pay more attention to ourselves as accountable agents for what was going wrong, to shift the attention away from what was happening in nature, to worry less about our alienation from nature and more about the patterns of consumption creating that alienation. Those are the two main drivers in my more recent work.

“My interest in issues of consumption goes back a long way to the beginning of my postgraduate career as a philosopher. My first book was part of my PhD thesis around a theory of human needs. What was driving that concern primarily was an interest in Marx as a thinker who had two conflicting ways of viewing needs. I was interested in exploring the tension between these two equally valid and important perspectives on needs, and in how that tension makes it difficult to provide any definitive account of needs from a politically left perspective. On the one hand, we have Marx telling us that we are alienated in various ways, which is an argument that presumes a kind of essentialist mode of thinking about needs: there must be some body of true needs that needs to be fulfilled in order for us to flourish. On the other hand, in his later analysis of capitalism rather than in his early work, there is a particular emphasis on the historical relativity of needs: on needs as always being historically formed and therefore changeable. I became interested in that tension and it stayed with me. 

“These ideas are still there in my 2020 book Post-growth Living, where I’m dealing with various kinds of tension at that level and trying to say that we don’t know for certain what we need and moreover, let’s not dictate people’s needs. Instead, let’s try to legitimize a discourse about needs through engagement with the forces of disaffection caused by contemporary consumption. In seeking to engage with the actual experiences of discontent among consumers in affluent societies, I’m hoping to avoid the idealism of much left thinking – which has a lot to say about what is wrong with society, but too little to say about the agents of change. However, I’m aware that I’m scraping the barrel a bit in suggesting that there is potential agency for a shift in thinking about consumption derived from the disaffection or disenchantment that some people are now expressing about the downsides of the affluent lifestyle and that this could lead towards a more sustainable economic order.” 

Could you expand a little on degrowth which is implied in your philosophy, even if it’s not the term you choose to use. Interest in degrowth has gained a lot of intellectual ground in the past few years, especially in environmental studies and the social sciences, however there are various interpretations: some argue for less growth than the current state of play or complete economic degrowth in the Global North, while others may advocate degrowth in certain sectors coupled with growth in public infrastructure and social provision.

“It’s a good question. I do believe that the commitment to the growth model of the economy that we currently use must be challenged even if, as George Monbiot has suggested, it’s secular blasphemy to mention it. Actually, it is no longer quite so taboo. Until five years ago, you were regarded as pretty foolish if you brought up degrowth, but as you say there is a great deal more discussion about it now. There are many academics writing on degrowth economics and social policy at present.

“I do also agree that more precision is needed about what we understand by degrowing the economy because I think it’s a transitional idea which itself depends on the short-term expansion of certain areas like renewables, housing, education, caring services. All of these areas do have to grow. It’s essential to future stability that we commit to building a much less unequal world order. In that case, we must accept that there will be growth in the less developed economies as we bring them into the conversation and political imaginary around an alternative prosperity because they’ve got a lot to contribute there. Clean water and basic health provision and food and so on are a prerequisite for that, so we would need some growth in those areas.

“The somewhat more philosophical or conceptual point is how you conceive of that transitional growth. Do we view it as a needed form of productive expansion within an economic system that is being redesigned to foster ways of living and ideas of prosperity that are very different from those of profiteering capitalist consumer culture? Or are we viewing growth as an essential and permanent dynamic of any effective economic order, and therefore by implication claiming that it’s compatible with environmental conservation and enduringly sustainable? If you mean the latter, then it has to be challenged. There is very little evidence to support that position. More efficient technologies have always, thus far, gone together with an overall expansion in resource use and commodities. American energy consumed per dollar of GDP since 1975 has been cut by half, but energy demand has increased by 40%. The reduction in price always goes with an expansion of production, which then renders irrelevant any savings in efficiency. 

“The EU has produced much documentation on debunking green growth in the 2019 European Environmental Bureau (EEB) report Decoupling Debunked. It offered a very damning verdict on the idea that you can decouple growth from environmental destruction. In fact, I think it is not those who support the degrowth transition who have to prove the wisdom of their case. It’s rather those who are committed to long term decoupling projects for which there is no obvious evidence.

“If the defendants of growth are claiming that we can’t have an effective economy without it endlessly growing, then they have to be rejected. But if the argument is that we will need to grow in certain areas in order to realize a transition to a different and less growth-oriented way of thinking about prosperity, then it is acceptable. Major forms of state intervention and structural change will be needed for this kind of radical shift to take place. I don’t think it can be achieved economically if we are only reliant on more dispersed and limited forms of activity. That said, the growth agenda is no longer feasible. What is the alternative? We cannot continue to grow the economy indefinitely. Either we face descent into ecological barbarism and the breakdown of civil society altogether with possibly terminal forms of conflict, or we are going to manage this transition in some other kind of way.”

In the book, you propose “Alternative Hedonism” as a radical new vision of how we can approach pleasure. Current understandings of enjoyment – especially in the Global North – are often market-defined and hinge on consumerist ideals. You move the figurative goal posts per say, by proposing that an abandonment of growth-driven consumption need not imply sacrifice and an eschewal of pleasure. How can “Alternative Hedonism” help us to conceptualize and materialize new forms of fulfillment while also leading towards a more sustainable, equitable society?

“I see my own argument for “Alternative Hedonism” as a contribution to a kind of cultural revolution in thinking about the nature of prosperity and therefore of needs, wants, and pleasure. One way of addressing your question is to say we’re not going to make great progress with building support for radical changes at the level of the economy and social institutions if we don’t have that kind of rethinking on the idea of prosperity.

“In a sense, I’m saying we need a cultural shift in order to build effective political agency. It’s a big ask and a utopian demand that requires a new political imaginary to challenge the obsession with growth and to rethink the notion of the growth economy. It also requires us to challenge the concept of progress, development, and modernity. These concepts, which have been relatively unquestioned across the left-right divide in political theory, do now need to be rethought with a view to giving more attention to communities and forms of economic management that have until now been relatively marginalized by the affluent, so-called “highly developed” cultures. Part and parcel of this cultural shift would be to get people to recognize that affluent societies should not be enjoying a monopoly over ideas of progress and the so-called “good life” or allowed to provide the only model of how to develop. We should be more humble about attending to the cultures that we have marginalized as “backward” and “less exciting.” At the same time, I’m quite keen to emphasize that as part of this shift, we need to dissociate the critique of commercial forms of progress from the more cultural dimensions and sexual or religious politics often associated with less developed economies. 

“In another way, I think your question was also trying to ask, who is going to do this? Who is going to develop this kind of cultural revolution? In one way, I’m attending to a more contradictory, conflicted way of thinking about consumption on the part of certain groups who are in the position to buy the so-called “affluent” way of living. It’s causing a great deal of stress, worry about time scarcity, concerns about the commercialization of children and pollution; all these concerns are coming together. There’s a contradictory quality to the Euro-American affluent lifestyle which means it can’t any longer be an obvious model to which a lot of other less economically favorable countries should aspire. There is a constituency here that needs to have some sort of political representation. 

“Across the mainstream divide, we’ve got an agreement about the main economic and political objectives – namely to preserve, as far as possible, the existing way of living and to do that through economic growth and technological development. There are otherwise only tiny pockets of resistance that don’t get any media attention who are representative of an alternative approach to thinking about prosperity and the “good life.” Therefore, it’s difficult to answer your question, you just hope that more support will emerge. I believe the younger generations are beginning to think more in these terms. They want another kind of political imaginary on which they can move forward, but it’s not got the mainstream political representation that we require.”

It’s interesting how you call for a revision of the classical models of progress linked to modernity such as linear narratives of historical progress or economic expansion as a vehicle of development. Can you think of any novel or historical examples of sustainable living that we could potentially integrate into our current technological landscape?

“As part of this political imaginary, we should also consider what I would call a more ludic transformation whereby work doesn’t occupy such a central position in our lives. I’m not saying that we should stop work altogether, I think people want to work. However, it would be good if we could allow for more hybrid ways of working. We could make use of the smartest forms of technology in certain areas, such as energy, medicine, and parts of agriculture. At the same time, these could go together with less tech-driven, more sustainable approaches to areas of agriculture. In an alternative economic ordering, efficiency wouldn’t always entail producing more in less time. We would not only have more free time, but rather more freedom about how we made use of it.”

“We need technicians and scientists, as well as people in the humanities, to be using their imagination in the design of a transition to a post-growth way of living. We could all be in this together. If the science and technology industries were not so driven by the capitalist imperative for profit, they could have an alternative role in constructing a society less dominated by the growth model. At the moment, we don’t know where technology could go, we don’t know how baroque our needs would become if we allowed for a less commercially constrained technological development.

“If we are going to have more free time, it will require a more purely reproductive way of satisfying the most material needs so that we are not constantly driven by fast-fashion modes of thinking about consumption. We would have to be content with making do with what we have in exchange for more time and the knowledge that we were contributing to a sustainable future. In order to enjoy the free time, we would need to rethink educational provision in ways that restores some of the importance of the humanities to allow people to enjoy their leisure time in more intrinsically valuable ways. Many cultural and social shifts would have to happen together, however, in a way they would all generate each other.”

How did our conception of pleasure become so consumer and market-oriented rather than centered on well-being and joy? Do you think there are any particular cultural or historical reasons for this?

“Well, I’m not a historian of consumption, so I wouldn’t want to answer in a way that suggests I have authority on this. My own sense is that this does probably go back to the 18th century in Europe. It obviously has a lot to do with the development of the capitalist market, which flourished by opening up the potential for selling more and more goods and developing increasingly international trade links. Part of the answer has to be that the free market could create new needs and wants. It was a model of the economy, a way of producing wealth, which depended on a constant expansion of production and therefore of goods and services available to potential consumers. Those consumers themselves would need to be encouraged to some degree, which ushered in the role of advertising and now branding.

“So that’s part of it, the other side is that no doubt shopping does appeal to many people. I’m not inclined to say this is all about the captains of industry and their marketing ploys. The development of consumerist ways of living can appeal to people in various ways, partly because it makes it easier to supply your needs. Of course, these things operate dialectically: the more the work ethic drives people, the more they will need the market to supply fast food or care work. But convenience consumption is attractive to people. At the same time, those who are caught up with shopping mall culture are worried about the future too and are also inclined to resent how little time they have to spend with family and friends. So, it’s a complex issue. 

“I would argue, as many others have in the past, that a consumerist way of life is in a sense a displacement: that acquisitive culture does have some ways of partially gratifying other kinds of need. Other consumption theorists are saying that in many ways, people are trying to deal with various forms of distress or unhappiness by going out shopping. It’s recognized as if it were a sort of therapy but at the same time, this therapy is not a cure. We buy shoes, some new curtains, but it doesn’t really do the trick. Consumerism works as a quick fix, but at the cost of masking and not fulfilling other deeper spiritual forms of need that the market cannot supply.”

How do you envision these alternative forms of fulfillment, what would an “Alternative Hedonism” look like?

“I think education must play a role here and many people would gain a lot from having more music, dance, or drama in their life. The provision for that must start at a very early point, probably in primary school and more opportunities for cultural forms of fulfillment would be helpful. I also think that many children from birth are deprived of access to the natural world. That’s a real loss. It’s not like hunger, where if you don’t have food, you will obviously suffer and eventually die of starvation. The loss of access to enjoyment of nature is one that you might not be aware of, the heart does not grieve over that which it has not experienced. However, it’s a spiritual loss for children who ought to be able to play freely in green spaces. We should reclaim the urban streets and make them traffic-free for children to play in. But children also need ready access to the countryside. 

“A lot of people are now working on the redesign of car-free cities which would help enormously. Cities will become far more cyclist and pedestrian dominated. Urban architecture is already paying more attention to provision for those on foot or on bikes. It is also thinking in terms of a different kind of economic model where you have less provision through the market as currently constituted and more space given to collaborative hubs for mending, swapping, and recycling of goods and services. The provision of safe spaces in the urban environment can allow for more convivial forms of living and is likely to prove especially beneficial to older people.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, United Nations Sustainable Goal 12: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns, and United Nations Sustainable Goal 13: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

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