We here at the ACM have long discussed circular economics, productivity, ecology, socialism and crazy infinite growth yet always scarce economic models. I have mentioned the need to reconsider contraction, while prolific DK and ACM contributor annieli is more thoroughly outlining economic paths for beneficial or benign degrowth. Here, I want to consider one scenario of potentially widespread practical degrowth that follows from my reporting on urban agriculture. The purpose of this is to illustrate that there are a number of facets to degrowth, and that resulting impacts depend on net effects of these multiple aspects. As a volunteer contributor, the best I can do is a short qualitative analysis. This is part of a conversation, not a definitive analysis.
To start, we need to acknowledge that all assessments of growth are based on the special unit of exchange, currency, ie money. Growth is measured in terms of GDP and similar measures of finance. Economic degrowth does not necessarily mean that there will be less goods and services available, or that populations must be left wanting for basic needs or even convenient amenities. If we plan and apply fixes equitably, fewer will suffer than when nature forces us to cut back.
Now, let’s consider urban agriculture, which can mean
everything from growing herbs and small crops on the rooftop of a high-rise condo to raising chickens in a backyard, to planting food alongside neighbors in a community garden.,
I will add to that list, organized collective actions funded either publicly or through donations.
Degrowth happens when economic impacts of agriculture shrink
If all impacts were equal and direct, then shrinking agriculture would mean less harvest and less food. However, all things are not equal.
Day labor weeders and pickers are not valued equivalent to patent and intellectual property supporting tech workers. Disparities are not merely market measurements of economic contributions in a circular economy. First, we don’t have those measures. Second, racial, gender and social disparities, such as some work being considered “informal”, make it clear that there is no reasonable accounting being enforced at present.
Weeding in smaller, diverse plantings is often done manually, not through TMed and IPed chemistry. For that matter, fewer seeds of more diverse crops typically means less patented and regulated seed management and lower costs.
Directly, increasing urban agriculture might lead to degrowth in seed, chemical, energy and labor exchange, while shifting production to more local, currently low valued labor. A beneficial outcome may be that more local production improves resiliency over our current models focusing on trade in commodity crops.
Other cost savings, and, therefore, economic degrowth resulting from increasing urban agriculture might be realized in transportation and heavy machinery. OTOH, there could be offsetting gains in local processing and food production. Notably, there may also be declines in speculative commodity markets, though financiers will look to work markets for gains as much as they can.
Through direct and secondary effects, shifts in agriculture can result in economic degrowth. Most of those effects do not necessarily impact available calories or most food choices.
Overall, degrowth in agriculture doesn’t have to mean less food. A lot depends on our models, culture and choices.
Distribution is a problem
If this degrowth occurs in the current economic climate, then those losing money will be challenged to find food, even if the same amount of food is available. On large scales, food companies might respond to more urban agriculture by cutting back on unprofitable offerings. Moreover, there will be ripple effects through less spending on housing, cars, electronics and other goods. That is more degrowth.
In an unregulated, scarcity and profit driven economy, we scramble and compete for shrinking resources.
I can argue that there are enough cars, buses, trains, devices and square footage of shelter to provide for nearly everybody. Yes, we should continue innovating, maintaining what we have, and making more as we can, as long as we account for all costs in a circular economy that doesn’t make our children pay for our car driving.
Even in more incremental approaches, there are concerted public actions available to avoid fighting over disappearing resources. One such step would be to return to more Keynesian economics, in which the government helps people through tough times and transitions.
I also argue that less fighting and hoarding will be less wasteful, and, therefore, provide more resources for all, especially in a shrinking economy.
Finally, more reliance on democracy in deciding what to produce, and less on investor choices on where to put billions, can also help us to maintain production and improve distribution. We tie our own arm behind our back when we fail to involve government in industrial policy and development.
One final note, we will face impacts of our growing population and ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels. We are facing more shortages and wars, and calamitous degrowth if we don’t act. In short, we can implement degrowth rationally in real world economics, or we can continue and see how nature and warlords dole it out.