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The scarcity machine

from Jason Hickel

While the scholarship on  degrowth  has  outlined  the policy changes that would be necessary to achieve a safe and equitable transition to an ecological post-growth economy, the deep logic of such an economy remains undertheorized. Are the reforms that degrowth scholars propose in and of themselves sufficient to euthanize the capitalist growth imperative? Here I want to address this question by elaborating further on the argument that expanding public goods and services is central to a successful degrowth scenario. This argument is much deeper and more profound than it appears at first glance, and opens up a number of fruitful lines of inquiry.

Let us begin with an example that is close to my own experience. In London, house prices are astronomically high, to the point where a normal one-bedroom flat may cost £2,000 per month  to  rent,  or  £600,000  to  buy. These prices are fictional; they are no indication of the actual cost of building a house, or even of land, but are rather largely a consequence of the rapid privatization of the public housing stock in Britain since 1980, as well as financial speculation, zero-interest rate policy and quantitative easing, which  has driven asset  prices up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to the extraordinary benefit of the rich. Meanwhile, wages in London have not kept pace with housing prices. In order to purchase housing, then, Londoners have to either increase their aggregate working hours or take out loans, which are effectively a claim on their future labour. In other words, people are required to work unnecessarily long hours to earn additional money simply in order to access shelter, which they were previously able to access with a fraction of the income. In the process, they produce additional goods and services that must find a market, thereby creating new pressures for consumption – pressures that manifest in the form of, for example, aggressive and increasingly insidious advertising schemes.

The fictionally high housing prices in London therefore ultimately compel everyone to contribute unnecessarily to the juggernaut of ever-expanding production and consumption, with all of the corresponding ecological consequences that this entails.

from “Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance” in Economics and the Ecosystem

  1. April 15, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    Linkage of housing cost to financialization and infinite growth on a finite planet came to me in the late 1980’s. One of my side careers was as a builder of ferrocement houses, water tanks, etc. It occurred to me that I was building a fire-safe, storm-safe work of art that would pay the people to live in itself through reduced maintenance and insurance costs. Plus, it would pay the residents to live in itself more than once per generation and do so for many generations.

    What kind of economic system is it when houses pay the people to live in themselves? There is no reception or response for this question except here on this forum or possibly in fiction.

    My latest fiction starts the day Puerto Rico votes for independence. Some of the characters are discussing capitalist life where the people are homeless, without land and having hunger.

    One expert Irish woman has rushed from her work and studies on the frontier of Nicaragua and Honduras. She is a socio-economist working on food sovereignty and the system is being implemented in Nicaragua, which is currently under US coup threat for having the temerity to do so. Mora O’Malley, the Irish economist also suggests small houses like the indigenous Taíno people had.

    I am writing with the google translator converting to spanish and portuguese and a puerto rican is reading it now. If the story is accepted, I vow to forever quit attempting to contemplate degrowth in english, except here.

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    April 16, 2021 at 4:04 am

    Beginning in the 15th century in England (including Scotland and Wales) and later in other parts of Europe there was an agricultural revolution that involves technology culture and legal-social culture. This revolution involved significant changes in the ways people farmed in terms of tools, techniques, etc. and changes in the division of land and the creation of ownership property rights. I want to focus on just the second right now. Specifically, how the right to use land for the purposes of human sustainability was changed.

    Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure was the process that ended traditional rights such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner and the land cased to be for the use of commoners. In England and Wales, the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons were largely restricted to large areas of rough pasture in mountainous places and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.

    Enclosure could be accomplished by buying the ground rights and all common rights to achieve exclusive rights of use, which increased the value of the land. The other method was by passing laws causing or forcing enclosure, such as parliamentary enclosure. The latter process of enclosure was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed, and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England.
    The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies. English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor. Some practices of enclosure were denounced by the Church and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the large, enclosed fields were needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

    The Act of 1801 was one of many parliamentary enclosures that consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent. They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense of uninhabited places), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland (chalk), and moors. Voluntary enclosure also occurred.

    After 1529, the problem of untended farmland disappeared with the rising population. There was a desire for more arable land along with antagonism toward the tenant-graziers with their flocks and herds. Increased demand along with a scarcity of tillable land caused rents to rise dramatically in the 1520s to mid-century. There were popular efforts to remove old enclosures and much legislation of the 1530s and 1540s concerns this shift. Angry tenants impatient to reclaim pastures for tillage were illegally destroying enclosures.

    The primary benefits to large land holders came from increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price post enclosure. Protests against parliamentary enclosures continued, sometimes also in Parliament, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organized mass revolts. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, a price that could be sustained by its higher productivity. While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England as compared to the Continent; although others believe that this process began earlier.

    Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosures, employment in agriculture did not fall, but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently, large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

    Enclosure is considered one of the causes of the British Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. There was widespread agreement in contemporary accounts that profit making opportunities were better with enclosed land. Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.
    These changes in English law and custom increased the amount of arable land not because the total amount of land increased but because graziers, herders, and part-time farmers were pushed off the land in favor of landowners who wanted to and did make the land more agriculturally productive. More crops (wheat, barley, etc.) produced per acre. But this did nothing to change the distribution structure in place for those extra crops. Many, including many of the smallholders, graziers, etc. that had suffered due to enclosure could not afford to purchase sufficient food to feed themselves or their families. At the same time, the new, large landowners saw their wealth increase with each passing year.

  3. April 19, 2021 at 6:18 am

    Thanks for this excerpt, and the original, for clarifying a central driver of growth, the primary threat to the planet at present. It had not been clear to me how to stop mindless growth, now it seems clear. If there are sufficient commons we don’t have to be slaves to the treadmill responding to ever-greater artificial scarcity.

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