A Response to Branko Milanović's: “Degrowth: Solving the Impasse by Magical Thinking”

By Jasminka Dedić - 04 March 2021
A Response to Branko Milanović's: “Degrowth: Solving the Impasse by Magical Thinking”

Jasminka Dedić responds to a recent post by Branko Milanović on ‘magical thinking’ among the proponents of the degrowth agenda.

Ljubljana, 1 March 2021

Honorable professor Milanović,

After reading your opinion with the title “Degrowth: Solving the impasse by magical thinking, my first thought drifted to the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi, also known as Mahatma (“Great Soul”). Namely, it reminded me of the book Freedom's Battle, a collection of Gandhi's essays and speeches, in which he at a certain point replied to the Viceroy of India who ridiculed the movement led by Gandhi for being 'futile,' 'ill-advised,' 'intrinsically insane,' 'unpractical,' 'visionary' and 'most foolish of all foolish schemes'. In response to the Viceroy's attempt to pour ridicule on the movement Gandhi taught him that “ridicule is like repression. Both give place to respect when they fail to produce the intended effect.”1

Far from believing that the performance of international degrowth movement can be compared to the Indian struggle against British imperialism, at least for the time being. But I cannot help but understand your words, by which you attribute to degrowthers that they “live in a world of magic”, and that they “engage in semi-magical and then outright magical thinking” once they try “to do the numbers”, as an attempt to ridicule the entire degrowth movement. Nevertheless, it is not my intention to question your motives, nor do I want to enter into a debate about whether degrowthers are the captives of their own ideological blindness.  After all, as you yourself notice, degrowthers and the adherents of growthism “live in two different ideological worlds”, with which I (at least partially) agree. No, my intention is merely to speak on my own behalf as one of degrowthers, and by doing so, I will try to rebute (at least) the most salient misrepresentations about us.

In order to provide the most appropriate response to the misrepresentation that first, degrowthers do not bother with numbers or facts, trade-offs, first or second bests, or second, when they eventually try to “do the numbers” they are led to an impasse, it must first be said that degrowth movement unites researchers, academics, artists, acivists and practitioners who come from a range of disciplines, such as economics, physical and biological sciences, social sciences, humanities etc. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that some or, rather many degrowthers are not very skilled with the numbers, at least not to the extent as the top mainstream economists are. However, there are still many degrowthers reflecting on the biggest challenges of the contemporary world, including the exacerbating inequalities which are primarily manifested in the increasing income and wealth inequality.

Professor Milanović, degrowthers are all too well aware of the impasse that you write about, but they are not the ones who found themselves in this impasse. Namely, degrowth economic models, in contrast to the dominant economic models based on growth, imply a balanced human development, and in particular a readjustment of socio-economic disparities, while respecting the fragile balance of the Earth's ecosystems.

I have never heard any degrowther claiming that we will evolve smoothly from the growth-addicted societies into a degrowth economy and society. And, if we are completely frank to ourselves, it must be acknowledged that the transition to degrowth economy is practically impossible under the current global economic governance. So, if we are to achieve this transformation, new governance methods that would fill the gap between the existing welfare and environmental management must first be established. In contrary, it is the mainstream economists, economic policymakers and politicians who - despite strong empirical evidence that the tradeoffs between 'greening' and 'growing' can not be effectively transcended – still sell the perilous optimism to their constituencies.2 But, the truth is that even if only certain type of economic growth is generated, and no matter if you call it 'green', 'inclusive', 'smart', or 'sustainable', the Earth-system processes will be, sooner or later, irreversibly undermined. 

Therefore, instead of blaming degrowthers who have no real political power for not spelling out the unpleasant truth that if contemporary humanity wishes to lead a good life within planetary boundaries, it needs to reduce the level of resources dramatically, you should point the finger into the power-holders who have brought us to the brink of ecologocial breakdown in the first place. Furthermore, by consciously deceiving people that they can enhance their material well-being indefinitely, they are leading us straight into a collective catastrophe.

Another disturbing misinterpretation concerns the image that you try to portray about degrowthers as ascetic moral preachers. Although I can not put my hand in the fire and guarantee that there is no degrowther living as an ascetic or preaching material abstinence to others, I can say that I know no one in the degrowth community who would advocate an ascetic way of life. Rather, you can hear us talking a lot about living a good or decent life within  planetary boundaries, and about satisyfing basic human needs, but without transgressing the carrying capacity of Earth's ecosystems. It seems to me that one has to use a lot of imagination (or perhaps magic, if I am a little mischievous) to recognize a kind of degrowth proselytism in these concepts. Especially because they are based on uncompromising numbers and indicators, such as the number of undernourished people, femicide rate, military expenditure, the remaining carbon budget for the century, biodiversity loss indicators etc.

And probably the most troubling fact is the futility of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris climate agreement,3 for as the first UN assessment of countries' pledge to tackle climate change in the next decade published a few days ago found that “even with increased efforts by some countries, the combined impact falls far short of what is needed.”4 If we translate the words into numbers, the Initial NDC Synthesis Report says that to limit global temperature rise to of 1.5° Celsius by 2100, nations must cut global emissions by 45% below their 2010 level by 2030 and eliminate their impact totally by 2050. However, if the countries' pledges submitted so far were fulfilled, global emissions would be reduced by only 1% by 2030. Basically the report says that the first five-year after the adoption of the Paris agreement had been lost. One has to be really blind if s_he thinks that in the remaining ten years we will be able to close the gap by dressing growth in the green clothes. Or that we will overcome human misery if we give away a few crumbs of that growth to the most needy.

In short, no matter how hard I try, I can not find truly magical or religious elements in the degrowth movement. Perhaps we could say that some degrowthers endeavor to integrate heart thinking and scientific thinking alltogether. But I can assure you that heart thinking and magical thinking have practically nothing in common, which becomes even more evident, if we borrow definitions of both mental activities. Magical thinking, known also as a superstious thinking, is defined as follows: “Making causal connections or correlations between two events not based on logic or evidence, but primarily based on superstition. Magical thinking often causes one to experience irrational fear of performing certain acts or having certain thoughts because they assume a correlation with their acts or threatening calamities.”5

On the other hand, heart thinking or heart intelligence is a much more complex mental activity, so we can not grasp it with a simple definition. From the point of view of neuroscience, heart intelligence is understood as “the flow of awareness, understanding and intuition we experience when the mind and emotions are brought into coherent alignment with the heart.”6 And from a humanistic approach, which usually refers to an intuitive thinking, this mental activity, in contrast to analytical thinking, “does not usually advance in careful well-defined steps... Through intuitive thinking the individual may often arrive at solutions to problems which he might not achieve at all with analytical thought, and if so, certainly more slowly.”7

And, just as you can not attribute magical thinking to degrowthers, you do us even greater injustice by placing our common aspiration to construct a society that lives better with less in the domain of religious thinking. As it was noted by Michael Weber, this would only make sense if we understand degrowth as a heresy from the religious dogma of growth.8 I can not know if you mention 13th century Europe only randomly, but the reference to this historical period is more than symbolic for this discussion. Namely, 13th century is considered one of the most tragic periods in European history, as the persecutions against medieval heretics culminated at that time. In order to eradicate the presence of many heretic sects, most notably the Cathars and Waldensians, that for more than three centuries flourished among the lower classes  in Lombardy, Occitanie (Southern France), Flanders and in the lands of present-day Germany, the Pope established one of the most cruel institutions of state repression in the entire human history – the Holy Inquisition.9

The historians who have studied the persecution of heretics in the Middle Ages have shown as early as in the 19th century that the Church's gory persecution was not provoked by heretical doctrines, but by their social program that also radically questioned the Church's religious tradition and dogmas.  According to eco-feminist Silvia Federici,10

“Heresy was the equivalent of ‘liberation theology’ for the medieval proletariat. It gave a frame to peoples' demands for spiritual renewal and social justice, challenging both the Church and secular authority by appeal to a higher truth. It denounced social herarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and it disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the frst time in the Mjddle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms.”

Again, as I said above with respect to the Indian struggle for independence, my intention is not to draw historical analogies between medieval heretics and degrowthers, but still, we would be deceiving ourselves if we overlook one salient feature that is common to all three concerned movements. This feature that transcends specific historical, economic and socio-cultural contexts is a relentless determination not only to question the hegemonic dogma of their times, but foremost to initiate a radical political project that would replace an imploding  power regime.

Such ambitious political projects have always been accompanied by new visions, new words and new political grammar. Therefore, what you perceive as a 'phrase-mongering' in words such as 'thriving', 'flourishing' and 'self-fulfilling lives, is actually a conscious effort of degrowthers to introduce a semantic shift or break with the hegemonic discourses of growth. As you said, degrowthers are not irrational people, so we are well aware that “degrowth is incompatible with modern capitalist configurations”,11 and that the use of the economic growth-development conceptual apparatus, operationalizing with the terms such as productivism, technological inventions and innovations, competition, sustainability, human and natural capital and so forth, could eventually make us apologists for growth, just as has already happened to many ostensible critics of capitalism.12

I would like to conclude my letter with the words of a systems analyst Donella Meadows who wrote in her book The Global Citizen (2000): “Your paradigm is so intrinsic to your mental process that you are hardly aware of its existence, until you try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm.” I hope I managed to show that degrowthers are willing to reflect on the degrowth paradigm and that our goal is to bring a radical impetus in building a sustainable future rather than to engage in an exhausting power struggle. I am convinced that the same can rightly be expected from the advocates of growth as well.

With respect,

Jasminka Dedić

Degrowth activist and researcher



Jasminka Dedić holds a PhD in political science and is active in the degrowth movement. She is a public servant in the government Office for Development and European Cohesion Policy in Ljubljana. In her work, she addresses the sustainability paradox within the institutional framework of the welfare state and the green state. In an attempt to understand the roots of growth in modern capitalist societies, she tries to integrate her knowledge from the policy-making and the theoretical feminist concepts and the concept of degrowth. E-mail: jasminka.dedic@guest.arnes.si.  

Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

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