A review of The No Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability by Wayne Ellwood

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The No Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability
by Wayne Ellwood
Between the Lines
2014, 978-1-77113-135-3

“…[W]e will need the equivalent of two Earths by the late 2030s to keep up with our demands,” warns Wayne Ellwood, in The No Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability. The former co-editor of New Internationalist Magazine, Ellwood shows in detail how human activity is heavily straining the earth and its ecosystems, and emphasizes that the planet’s natural resources are finite.

The notion that continued growth will trickle down to the poor hasn’t proved true, says Ellwood. In India, for instance, the spectacular growth of the Gross Domestic Product has not benefited the majority; two out of three Indians live in “crushing poverty.” Economic growth is often justified by the notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, but, in fact, the poor are raised only marginally, while relative poverty stays the same, or increases.

Ellwood packs a great deal of information into his 192 pages. He discusses ominous signs of strain on the earth, such as the depletion of major world fisheries, the melting of Arctic ice, and depletion of fossil fuel resources. Capitalism, he says, is to blame for the relentless pillaging of Earth’s resources. Though capitalism “wears different masks…adapts to different political configurations,” the common denominator is growth. Like a shark, it constantly moves forward, consuming. Profit, not production, is its over-riding preoccupation, as Karl Marx pointed out.

Ellwood reminds us that companies are legally bound to maximize profits for their shareholders. Currently “there is a global overcapacity in everything from shoes and steel to clothing and electronic goods.” Companies are sitting on profits; in 2012, then Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney criticized Canadian corporations for hoarding $600 billion in profits instead of circulating it back into the economy.

Historically, writes Ellwood, companies have increased profits through investment in new inventions (e.g., railways, computers), producing goods, equipment and finance for war, and speculation. He quotes John Maynard Keynes to the effect that a few speculators are bubbles on the stream of enterprise, but that trouble arises when enterprise becomes “the bubble in a whirlpool of speculation.” He reviews the way speculation on debt led to the 2008 recession, reminding us that governments used public funds to bail out financial institutions and companies and bring about the shaky recovery in which everyday people face austerity, unemployment, “hunger, homelessness, social breakdown and stress-related health issues.”

Reviewing the history of sustainability and degrowth, Ellwood begins with Thomas Malthus’s 1800 essay on “The Principle of Population”. Witnessing the growth of capitalism and the early industrial revolution in England, Malthus worried that world population would increase faster than the earth’s capacity to support it. Later in the 19th century, philosopher/feminist John Stuart Mill, observing advanced capitalism’s frantic pace, said that a “stationary state” of non-growth would eventually have to follow. John Maynard Keynes, (whose ideas on government economic stimulation were practised during the Great Depression to alleviated human misery) believed there should be “moral limits to growth” based on a proper understanding of “the good life.” More recently, in the widely-read book Small is Beautiful, (1973) E.F. Schumacher urged man to see himself as a part of nature, not an exploiter of it. Just recently, The Spirit Level (2011) by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, showed with facts and figures that a high level of economic equality benefits everyone.

In Ellwood’s view, it is too late for “managed growth”, as advocated in the 1987 UN Bruntland report, Our Common Future. Instead, non-growth and scaling back must become the worldwide goal. In essence, he suggests the sort of legislation, intervention and policy change that we must demand from our governments. Individual efforts are insufficient: “Just as replacing your old light bulbs with compact fluorescents or driving a hybrid electric car will not stop climate change, greening the production of one corporation or even an entire industry will not make growth sustainable.” There must be limits and caps on what can be taken out of the environment and what can be dumped back. Work must be shared, the “free trade genie” must be put back in its bottle, and community level resilience must be encouraged. Democratic institutions such as credit unions, non-profits and co-ops must be encouraged. Wealth and income must be more fairly distributed.

World population stability is a necessity, but Ellwood notes that “controlling human fertility by edict has never worked.” When healthcare improves and infant mortality drops, and when women win the right to education and employment and have the power to control their fertility, birth rates will fall.

Ellwood excels in simple, non-condescending, even amusing explanations of key concepts and complicated subjects. Explaining “exponential growth,” Ellwood uses the analogy of a hamster, which doubles in weight weekly from birth to puberty, and then levels off. If it didn’t level off, a hamster would weigh 9 billion tonnes on its first birthday and would eat, daily, more corn than is produced annually worldwide.

“How can increases in population, industrial production and limitless consumption continue forever on one finite planet?” Ellwood asks. “The damage to people, communities and the natural world is growing. The search for alternatives has never been more urgent.”

For more information about Ruth Latta’s writing visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

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