Consume less, care more: The case for degrowth in England and Japan

Frankly, the left has to start caring a lot more about growth, about creating wealth, attracting inward investment and kick-starting a spirit of enterprise… It is the only show in town for those who dream of a brighter future.

This, believe it or not, is the leader of British Labour Party, Keir Starmer, writing in The Observer in July this year.

I expect this kind of nonsense from the Conservative Party but for the leader of the Labour Party to parrot it so enthusiastically is utterly depressing. I guess that after 13 years in opposition, the party has decided it must rebrand itself as Tory Light if it is to have any chance of winning at the next election.

Consequently, as a lifetime labour voter, I am considering voting Green. It should have been apparent by now – four decades after Thatcher – that growth at all costs disproportionally benefits the already wealthy and does nothing for the working class, except create low-paid jobs serving the needs of the rich.

Britain is not a poor or developing country, we don’t need to create more stuff and consume even more stuff in order to boost the economy, we just need to find ways to distribute the wealth we have more equitably.

I have no idea how many people here share my views but I was heartened to learn that similar ideas are gaining popularity in Japan, another developed nation with an ageing population and declining workforce.

University of Tokyo philosophy professor, Kohei Saito, has published a degrowth manifesto, Capital in the Anthropocene, which has sold more than half a million copies over the last three years. The Anthropocene era of the title is one in which humans have had a significant impact on the Earth.

Professor Saito argues that the ability of capitalism to deliver yet more growth is running out and that our obsession with consumption has had a devastating impact on the environment, exacerbated inequality and wasted resources that could and should have been put to better use.

“There are too many cars, too many skyscrapers, too many convenience stores, too much fast fashion,” he told the New York Times.

A typical railway station gift shop in Onomichi, southwest Japan, selling a vast array of local produce.

Despite his Marxist leanings, Saito is certainly not advocating a return to the centralised, authoritarian, state-dominated communism of the twentieth century. In fact, he does not have clear prescription for the future of Japan, he just knows that business as usual is not an option.

One useful first step, he suggests, is to abandon the gross domestic product as a measure of national success or value and move to a healthier index of human and societal development that focuses on the provision of basic services such as education, health and social care, and the reduction of wealth inequality.

There is a very good case for following in similar path In England too. Degrowth in the middle of a cost of living crisis may sound scary but reorienting government priorities to focus on social equity and environmental protection, combined with a commitment from well-off to consume less and contribute more to society, is perfectly feasible.

Another long overdue step is for Britain to stop thinking of itself as “Great” and accept that it has not played a significant role in geopolitics since the end of World War Two. Do we really need a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council or our nuclear deterrent? Do we really need to spend more than two percent of GDP on defence when most NATO countries can’t be bothered? Standing up to Putin is of course important but there are other ways of doing it rather than just sending munitions to Ukraine. Going after Putin’s crony oligarchs in London might actually be more effective.

A smaller, kinder, less pretentious Britain, a place that does not think it is somehow better or apart from its neighbours in Europe, would be a much pleasanter place to live. But, I am not optimistic. From what I have seen of Britain since my return, the desire to consume yet more still burns brightly. The media is flooded with obnoxious influencers and betting companies promising to make you millions. It seems that everyone wants to upgrade their home, their car, wardrobe, and their self-image.

On the other hand, there are very few people in the media discussing how to downgrade their existence and live a simpler life. I guess there is not much money in that kind of programme.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *