Smart Decline

James Shelly posted yesterday on the “greening” of capitalism, and he suggested that we should perhaps replace the idea of smart growth with the idea of smart decline.  This was the first time that I had heard the phrase “smart decline” myself, though it seems already to be in use, particularly by some urban planners, who are using it to describe practises that allow cities to cope with shrinking populations and tax bases.  This kind of usage has to do with managing decline, however, whereas James’ usage has to do with encouraging decline, not in every respect, but in strategic ways, in order to live more responsibly, and it is related to what I have written on doing with and doing without.  It is at odds, therefore, with a green economy that still has growth as its goal, that still understands success as growing production and growing consumption.  It proposes an economy that is willing and even purposing to grow smaller and less consumptive and less productive and sometimes also less technological in order that it be more responsible.

This means, I think, that the choice between whether to do with or to do without becomes weighted heavily in favour of doing without, or at least in favour of doing with much less.  When the choice is to produce or to consume something, an economy of smart decline always chooses to do without it unless there are compelling social and ethical reasons do with it.  It assumes that it is always better to produce and consume and dispose less unless otherwise proven.

Let me give a fairly banal example: whether to do with or without a dishwasher.  Standard green economics says, “Buy an energy efficient and low-water dishwasher.  They use less water than doing dishes by hand.  They are therefore environmentally friendly.  We even have cool logos that say so.  If you buy one, you will be both energy efficient and environmentally aware.  All of your friends will be jealous because you are enviro-hip and because you also have a nice new toy.  You get the best of all worlds.  Consuming green makes you green.”  This is smart growth.  We keep the economy churning, keep producing and consuming, all under the sanctifying label of environmentalism.

Another approach is possible, however, one that might say, “Yes, an energy efficient dishwasher is better than an energy guzzling dishwasher, and it is certainly better when a dishwasher is absolutely required.  Yes, it may even use less water per wash than doing dishes by hand, but washing dishes by hand does not require the huge amounts of input materials and energy that a dishwasher does, and it does not eventually break and result in massive chunks of non-biodegradable waste, and it does not cost the household several hundred dollars to purchase, and it does not alienate the household from its own labour.  Washing dishes by hand may take more time and labour, perhaps, but not much more, and it is time and labour spent in the home rather than spent away in the office in order to pay for a dishwasher.”  This is smart decline.  It both consumes and produces less, wresting time and labour from the workplace and returning it to the home and the community.  It does not understand environmentalism as a product to be purchased like a designer label, but as a lifestyle to be lived, even if it does sometimes require that different products be purchased in different ways.

Of course, if everyone began to live like this, the effect on the economy would be staggering.  There would likely be a massive loss of manufacturing jobs and an equally massive increase in manual labour jobs.  Especially during the period when this shift was occurring, there would be tremendous unemployment and economic hardship.  There would be a shift in the remaining manufacturers toward simpler products that were easier to maintain and repair and retrofit.  There would be much larger local barter and grey market economies.  There would be a return of the repair shop, of the salvage shop, of the used good shop.  There would be an increase in parents who worked in the home some or all of the time.  There would be a resurgence of practical education, in home repair and sewing and cooking and gardening.

Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, we are not ever likely to see such a systemic shift to an economy of smart decline.  Our long standing economic patterns have produced a culture that is too invested in a particular notion of growth ever to change voluntarily.  I do think, however, that there may come a time, and perhaps not too far into the future, when this decline will be imposed on us, and not in a controlled or gradual way, but in sudden and violent economic shocks, as debt ridden national economies and diminishing resources increasingly disrupt traditional capitalist economies.  It is not possible for the world economy to grow indefinately.  The resources simply do not exist.  One way or another, at one point or another, we will find ourselves in an economy of decline, and maybe it is best to get used to the idea now.

  1. Isaiah said:

    Interesting. Although I disagree that the crisis of scarce resources and abundant debt will produce a new, permanent geopolitical situation. It seems to me that the technologies exist that will eventually be able to reverse the situation that will be caused. My question is how can we use these upcoming destructive situations, which I think are inevitable, to produce good and to find new, more vibrant, less alienating and more convivial forms of life?

  2. Isaiah, you should look for a book entitled, ‘Paradise Forged in Hell’. It is all about the hopeful and successful communities that arrise out of imperial and geopolitical Collapes. Also look for ‘How The Irish Saved Civilisation’, for similar reading on the same topic.

    Luke, I enjoyed this very much, on the stance for the benefits of a low energy dishwasher, I felt like I was watching one of ‘those how to’, or ‘did you know/ be aware’ infomercials from the sixties and seventies. However I don’t think that the upheaval will happen in much the same degree was you suggest. If all industries break into decline at the same time, the need for manual labour will actually flourish. Even if they break down systematically the absence of needed employement would be brief. I think the only bearier to be faced would be adequate hortecultural and practical ‘old wives’ advice on how to actually do the activities. And this is not bad either, we would have to become once more, explorers scientists and druids.

  3. I think there’s a third way between decline and accelerated growth, namely, investment. Let me give you an example to lay beside the dishwasher you’ve mentioned. When we built our home, we made a couple of significant investments (not least in the home itself). One of them was to purchase a Miele dishwasher. This was a very significant purchase, and I won’t mention how much we spent, because its scandalous even to think about. But we felt comfortable in this decision because it represented an investment for our family. First, it was an investment of resources in something that would last. We have owned a so-called “Energy Efficient” dishwasher, and it was, as you note above, dead in a matter of years. It was made entirely of plastics and cheap electronics, and couldn’t be fixed. Not by anyone. Second, we saw this purchase as an investment in the life of or our kitchen, which is the centre of our home. We decided to not do other things in order to do this, and we did this in order to maximize the time we could spend cooking and eating together. I understand the appeal of washing dishes together, and we still do that (not everything goes in a dishwasher). But for us, the move to increase time for things other than dish washing was important. Third, we invested in our home. That is, we made a purchase that will last 20 or 30 years easily. We believe in home, in our home, and wanted to make an investment in it and in its permanence.

    I think that choosing to invest is another way to escape the cycle of the throw-away economy. It may not be the greenest, or most idealistic, but neither of those inform my decisions as much as the concerns of my family and home.

  4. Isaiah,

    Though it may be some time before the kinds of violent shifts I am describing take place, I would suggest that scarce resources and increasing national debts have already created new, though certainly not permanent, geopolitical situations. Furthermore, I have no faith whatsoever that any technology, so long as it is being utilized by human beings, will ever result in less harm than good.


    Yes, I mentioned in my post that there would likely be an increase in manual labour jobs corresponding to the decrease in manufacturing jobs, and yes, I think that our ability to survive in this new economic situation will require us to relearn the very practical skills that were an integral part of everyday living even within the past century, but are totally foreign to most of us now.


    I will confess that I hate the word ‘investment’, for reasons that we may have to discuss at length sometime, and I am not certain that this third way is even necessary here. As I said in the post, there may be compelling social and ethical reasons to do with rather than without, and it may be that the reasons you list are compelling for you, but I would still maintain that the default should be to live without, and that the choice to live with something should only be made if the reasons for doing so are compelling.

  5. You mention the re-advent of the small business, but otherwise your description of employment circumstance is all in the negative- with the small business exception there’s only mention of job loss.

  6. Curtis,

    My exact words are, “There would likely be a massive loss of manufacturing jobs and an equally massive increase in manual labour jobs.”

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