Degrowth Economy

Just read this article: Life in a de-growth economy and why you might actually enjoy it.

I like the idea of a steady state economy. Simple maths shows how stupid endless growth is. And yet our politicians cling to it. We will get a steady state, energy neutral economy one day. It’s just a question of if we are forced, or if it’s managed.

Some thoughts on the article above:

  • I don’t agree that steady state implies localisation. Trade and specialisation and wonderful inventions. It’s more efficient if I write your speech coding software than you working it out. It’s for more efficient for a farmer to grow food than me messing about in my back yard. What is missing is a fossil fuel free means of transport to sustain trade and transportation of goods from where they are efficiently produced to where they are consumed.
  • Likewise local food production like they do in Cuba. Better to grow lots of food on a Cuban farm, they just lack an efficient way to transport it.
  • I have some problems with “organic” food production in the backyard, or my neighbours backyard. To me it’s paying more for chemically identical food to what I buy in the supermarket. Modern, scientific, food production has it’s issues, but these can be solved by science. On a small scale, sure, gardening is fun, and it would be great to meet people in communal gardens. However it’s no way to feed a hungry world.
  • Likewise this articles vision of us repairing/recycling clothing. New is still fine, as long as it’s resource-neutral, e.g. cotton manufactured into jeans using solar powered factories, and transported to my shopping mall in an electric vehicle. Or synthetic fibres from bio-fuels or GM bacteria.
  • Software costs zero to upgrade but can improve our standard of living. So there can be “growth” in some sense at no expense in resources. You can use my speech codec and conserve resources (energy for transmission and radio spectrum). I can send you that software over the Internet, so we don’t need an aircraft to ship you a black box or even a CD.

I live by some anti-growth, anti-consumer principles. I drive an electric car that is a based on a 25 year old recycled petrol car chassis. I don’t have a fossil fuel intensive commute. I use my bike more than my car.

I work part time from home mainly on volunteer work. My work is developing software that I can give away to help people. This software (for telecommunications) will in turn remove the need for expensive radio hardware, save power, and yet improve telecommunications.

I live inexpensively compared to my peers who are paying large mortgages due to the arbitrarily high price of land here, and other costs I have managed to avoid or simply say no to. No great luck or financial acumen at work here, although my parents taught me the useful habit of spending less than I earn. I’m not a very good consumer!

I don’t aspire to a larger home in a nice area or more gadgets. That would just mean more house work and maintenance and expense and less time on helping people with my work. In fact I aspire to a smaller home, and less gadgets (I keep throwing stuff out). I am renting at the moment as the real estate prices here are spiralling upwards and I don’t want to play that game. Renting will allow me to down-shift even further when my children are a little older. I have no debt, and no real desire to make more money, a living wage is fine. Although I do have investments and savings which I like tracking on spreadsheets.

I am typing this on a laptop made in 2008. I bought a second, identical one a few years later for $300 and swap parts between them so I always have a back up.

I do however burn a lot of fossil fuel in air travel. My home uses 11 kWhr/day of electricity, which, considering this includes my electric car and hence all my “fuel” costs, is not bad.


In the past I have written about why I think economic growth is evil. There is a lot of great information on this topic such as this physics based argument on why we will cook (literally!) in a few hundred years if we keep increasing energy use. The Albert Bartlett lectures on exponential growth are also awesome.

9 thoughts on “Degrowth Economy”

  1. Hello David,

    Some comments on your comments:

    The impact of longer supply lines will not be eliminated by just using a green energy source. You need to build and maintain more ships, planes, trucks and all the infrastructure (airfields, ports, roads) to support it.

    Decisions should not be solely made based on efficiency. For sure, specialization will increase efficiency. Adam Smith was right about that. But at the same time it also makes a society more susceptible to externalities. On top of the human impact, the 2011 Thailand floods caused a global shortage of hard disks well into 2012. All because hard disk manufacturing was so ‘specialized’ in Thailand. Besides efficiency, resilience is a parameter to be taken into account. And not as an afterthought. Since our production has become so efficient due to the incredible and breathtaking pace of electronics and robotics, we might as well become a bit less efficient, and a whole lot more resilient by producing key products locally again. And ‘local’ in this context could go from village to country to even continent. But at least one step down from what it is now.

    On a very small scale we can already observe such a spontaneous move in the DIY/maker scene, with people building and operating laser cutters and 3D printers in their garage or local hackerspace. It is definitely less efficient to manufacture a chair in your garage than to buy it in an Ikea megastore. But conversely, it’s a lot more enjoyable and fulfilling to make stuff yourself. Even better: to build it with your friends and neighbors. This is where open source is a key enabler. Software/hardware designs can be forked and iterated on a global scale, while being locally (and sub-optimally) produced and customized. Paradoxically, the more efficient (in terms of #items/manhour) our means of production, the more irrelevant efficiency becomes. We can waist manhours on a project, just for the fun of it!


  2. Thank you Bart you make some good points. Yes I agree about the trade off between resilience and specialisation.

    1. Just had another read of your comments with more coffee in me :-)

      Your point about “local in this context” is exactly what I was getting out. Some de-growth circles suggest we must contract to the village level, (survivalists even further) but I don’t see why that is necessary.

      I wonder if software and 3D printing has the potential to break Adam Smith. Specialisation is reduced to knowledge, which can be embodied in software. Software can be open, and hence free as in beer. In my field (telecommunications) Hardware is migrating to software, which can be distributed for free. Robots like 3D printers make labour costs close to zero.


      1. A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
        — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

  3. Hi David,
    I’m agree with you about Cuba, there is needed to grow food at gardens because government lack of sense.. not just efficient way to transport it.

  4. Hi David,

    Good points. I have just started a poor man’s aquaponic lettuce garden.

    Lots of fun and very low tech — gold fish with a floating ‘garden’ on top.

    Now how can we send messages to each other without the internet?

    Just another application running on the mike!!


  5. Hi David,

    Your garden was growing better than mine is :) !!

    I think a ‘ping’ command that returns the signal level and the BER of the remote would
    be a good way to begin?

    Perhaps there could be an escape in the vocoder path to make this available. I suppose short
    messages could just tag along.

    I think it would be lots of fun to send you a ‘ping’ and get an answer even when you are not right there.


  6. We are engineers, let’s look at some numbers.

    The rallying cry of the Occupy Movement was that the richest 1 percent of Americans is getting richer while the rest of us struggle to get by. That’s not quite right, though. The bottom nine-tenths of the 1 Percent club have about the same slice of the national wealth pie that they had a generation ago. The gains have accrued almost exclusively to the top tenth of 1 Percenters. The richest 0.1 percent of the American population has rebuilt its share of wealth back to where it was in the Roaring Twenties. And the richest 0.01 percent’s share has grown even more rapidly, quadrupling since the eve of the Reagan Revolution.


    To be in the top 0.01 percent — that’s the 1 Percent club’s 1 Percent club — required net worth of $100 million.


    16,000 families possess $6 trillion in assets — equal to the total wealth of the bottom two-thirds of American families.

    Most of these people in the 1/10,000th of population are not rock stars or software company founders. They have not earned this wealth through production. Instead, they are redistributors who have redistributed this wealth from the middle class to themselves through various forms of taxation, such as government purchasing contract awards, subsidies, monopolies, bailouts, currency inflation, etc.

    Now, if you propose that these net tax recipients have “their” wealth redistributed back to the people who produced it, until the 0.0001% are mending and wearing second-hand clothes, then maybe you have something. But which legislators do you think will vote for that law? Most political election campaigns are not funded by a bunch of $10 donations from the middle class.

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