Vive la décroissance
My Chief Texas Correspondent, a great enthusiast for the burning of fossil fuels, ping’d me yesterday a link to Charles Hugh Smith’s blog, on “Degrowth, Anti-Consumerism, & Peak Production.” To my surprise, he pronounced himself amenable to it, “except for the knock on fossil fuels.” I proposed a compromise, in which we continue to dig, pump, frack, & pipe at a merry old rate, but instead of using the products to fuel anything, simply flare them off directly into the atmosphere. Thus we might benefit global agriculture (plants just love carbon dioxide), & contribute what we can to global warming (against the threat of the next Ice Age), while sparing the planet from all these frigging cars.
I love the vocabulary of the Degrowth Movement: “financialization,” “phantom collateral,” “Keynesian cargo cult enablers,” combine in a rich emulsion that may be rolled into sentences as, “the quasi-religion of growth is just the public relations narrative that mesmerizes the debt serfs, political toadies, & media sycophants.” … “Décroissance” (French), “decrescita” (Italian), “decrecimiento” (Spanish) are apparently the alternative labels for this movement, among those sophisticated, cheese-eating furriners. (Americans shouldn’t be told about them.) From sources discovered in a quick Google search, I see it must be internationally trending.
That the “spiritual” consequences of consumerism are frequently mentioned is all very nice, except, these days “spiritual” in no way implies “Christian,” nor precludes any of the dozen or less standard gnostic heresies — known to us through twenty centuries; patiently & repeatedly explained & exposed — that are exhumed & relaunched yet again in every fervid round of New Age fallacy.
The first point to make is that there are worse sins than consumerism; & consumerism itself cannot be effectively attacked without a fairly full understanding of this. Nor is it really a particular sin, but a glom of many, most of them venial. Without some larger view of the moral order, within which fast & abstinence take their part; without some joyful apprehension of the purposes served in human life, I don’t think attacks on consumerism will get us anywhere. They tend to devolve into attacks on other people’s consumerism or, when precept is put into practice, become the ghostly fuel to power spiritual pride. Do we propose to be holy, or do we propose to be smug?
Notwithstanding, the “degrowth analysis” is basically right. More & more we inhabit a bubble economy, in which we have amateur physicists dressing as bankers, inventing exotic financial instruments to summon new & illusory forms of wealth for themselves, from out of thin air. We have built “consumer confidence” into a network of confidence tricks, many easily spotted. The term “financialization” is as good jargon as any to describe economies that depend on “phantom collateral,” starting from the paper & electronic money that is, even in principle, ultimately exchangeable only for itself.
Paradoxically, the Degrowthians are prone to recommend new statistical indicators that are every bit as tomfool as the ones they would replace. “Gross domestic product” is an insane way to measure the “progress” of any society, but there is no way to quantify “gross domestic happiness” that does not equally depend on grossly arbitrary assumptions.
I am a real Chinaman in this regard. Which is to say, I hugely admired traditional Chinese ways of doing business, & going about the government of trade, which survived in many locations into my own earlier manhood. These were businessmen who eschewed abstract statistics; who made their contracts verbally, & had no use for courts. They operated in a marketplace where reputation was everything, & where it was also put into question the moment wealth was flaunted. Numbers were of course used, but they were numbers corresponding to real things: weights & volumes of the commodities, for instance. You know to the tael what you have in your warehouse, & you deliver it to the measure, intact & on time — or you are no longer in business. Indeed, no legal action is ever necessary, because no one will ever buy from you again if you fail, even once.
A question such as, “How much are you worth?” — asked typically on North American visa applications — was meaningless to these people. Dollars, whether Yankee, Mexican, or Hong Kong, meant nothing to the traditional Chinese businessman, except as weights of alloyed silver. The Chinese, after all, invented paper money, & were therefore the first to see through it.
(Which is another thing I love about Mediaeval Man. He was pretty Chinese about things. He did not confuse forgiveness with mercy, nor extend mercy on behalf of his unconsulted neighbour. He did not feel the modern obligation to let himself be suckered again & again. He was habitually inclined to Christ’s preferential option for direct action.)
The modern advice of the Degrowthians is sound enough, so far as it goes, for it was the advice of our ancestors, passed parent to child, constantly reinforced by church & community. Do not buy what you can make for yourself. Buy nothing for show. Use anything you own until it can’t be fixed any more. Buy, when you must, the best you can afford. Avoid clutter. Ignore advertisements & salesmen. Do what you can to drive any kind of tempters out of your environment, & use violence when necessary to keep them away from your kids. Give to those genuinely in need, care directly for your sick & old, volunteer when a barn needs raising. Regardless of cost, be reliable.
This was sound advice because anyone could do it; no one had to wait for Armageddon. Then or now: no one need wait for some other person to do something first, nor think about the result of the next meaningless federal election. (From the thinnest vine, the vineyard may be restored.)
Yet it was made sounder still, by fretting & interlacing each sensible point of domestic doctrine into the crown of a solid theology. For in the view not only of the Church, but of my own Calvinist & Methodist ancestors, the purpose of life was not to increase some abstract efficiency. Rather, the opposite is closer to the truth: that the purpose of efficiency is to increase life; to grow both materially & spiritually towards an end that is in God. And not just any god, mind, but the One revealed in Christ Jesus.
I know this sounds crazy & impossible to the emancipated man of today, steeping in our contemporary consumerism. He is constantly told to maintain confidence, & keep his pecker up for hope & loose change. His capacity for trust, so far as it goes, is invested in the hope that his debts will not be called in, that everything he owns won’t be hauled away, & himself in the next truck turned into the landfill. Under all the anxieties of his fast-paced life — work till you shirk, shop till you drop — he believes himself to be a team player. He is anyway reminded in a thousand subtle ways, & a thousand more obvious, of his most solemn public responsibility. What would his friends say if he broke rank, & stopped doing his bit for “the economy”?
He must make his obeisance to the clichés that bind us all together, as worthy citizens of a modern secular state; to “the Gods of the Market Place,” as Kipling called them, “& their smooth-tongued wizards,” operating in politics & business alike. He must maintain the common faith that animates our democracy; that sacred faith in Peter Pan — that if we all keep our eyes closed together, the facts of life will eventually go away.
How can he dare let go of that? What would be the consequence if he did? Who could reasonably expect him to embrace an alternative “blind faith,” that might separate him from his fellows, & from the safety of the crowd?
And why anyway should he believe in what, according to the scientific consensus, is a crop of old myths? For that’s the real rub. According to the scientific consensus, he’s just a lump of dirt, or at best a worm crawling in it. Why should he believe that his soul has any value? That he is not just a worm, or a number, but a man? Sounds like narcissism to him; sounds rather selfish; sounds downright unscientific. For in his heart he believes that he is worthless. In his heart is the counsel of despair.
What is impossible today was not always impossible, however. There was a world before Peter Pan. Even I retain glimpses of another way of life, not in some distant place, but right here under the asphalt, in a country that once had a little dignity. (Canada today is a country of which her ancestors, of every confession, would be rightly & deeply ashamed.)
That it was never secure can go without saying, for it is gone. Nothing in this world survives, that is not constantly maintained & replenished, & what is built in faith requires the renewed faith of every generation. And the truth is that faith was broken, except a few resilient threads. (Which the devils try so desperately to sever, from the fear that they might grow again.)
Yet I recall an old house in Cape Breton, where every degrowthing principle was once observed, as a matter of course, & where this text adapted from the Book of Joshua (24:15) was embroidered & framed:
“If it seem evil to you to serve the Lord, you have your choice. Choose whichever strange gods you will serve. But as for me & my house, we will serve the Lord.”