“Degrowth” – a problematic economic frame
Jan 15, 2015 – The term, “degrowth”, is increasingly used to designate a sort of environmental movement. And while it may be an effective label to unite people with similar views, it ignores pretty much all the advice from the field of cognitive framing on building popular alternatives to conservatively-framed “common sense”.
[M]any people engaged in environmentalism still have the old, false view of reason and language. (George Lakoff)
I touched on this in an earlier post on economic “growth” framing. Reaction to that post was mixed – some people “got” it; others seemed to think I was talking just about language. We have to remind ourselves that cognitive framing is about how we think – how we form worldviews. Ideas, beliefs and impressions which have been reinforced in our neural circuitry over decades, thanks to constant cultural repetition, cannot be undone simply by using a language of opposition (with some exceptions*).
With that in mind, here are some pointers on the problems with “degrowth”, starting with “growth” basics:-
“Growth” frame basics
♦ “Growth” of “the economy” is what George Lakoff calls an ontological metaphor. In plain English, this means we think about the unthinkable (eg immeasurable complexity) in terms of “entities or substances of a uniform kind” (Metaphors we live by, Lakoff & Johnson, p25). Thus, the diverse activities of millions of people are aggregated into a single entity called “the economy”, with a uniform attribute of “growth”.
♦ This metaphorical framing has some important downsides (as some economists have realised, at least since the establishment of Gross Domestic Product as a “measure”). For example, the crude binary logic of “growth”/”no-growth”, as if “the economy” has only two ways to go. Also, the dangerous illusion of uniformity in the aggregate measure of “growth”, as if different “economic activities” (with irreconcilable measures) can meaningfully be lumped together in a single quantitative measure.
♦ “Growth”, as metaphor for the increasing “sum” of diverse human activities, excludes qualitative differences. It thus conflates life-nurturing and life-destroying activities (both of which may count as “growth”). Qualitative frames (eg for differentiating types of activity creating well-being or environmental damage, etc) are diminished in cognitive importance by a repeated focus on “growth”.
♦ “Growth” overwhelmingly tends to be conceptualised as natural and good, while lack of growth is seen as bad and unnatural. This is universal, deep-rooted, and unlikely to be reversed by promoting “degrowth” as a good, or by analogies with special cases where growth is seen as bad – eg growth of disease. (See my earlier post for details, including cited research).
♦ Market ideology and the Protestant work ethic mutually reinforce the notion of “growth” as outcome of (and moral reward for) “efficiency”, “discipline”, “productivity”, “hard work”, etc. This moral framing system is deeply rooted in our culture.
Problems with “degrowth”
♦ “Degrowth” isn’t a different frame from “growth” – it entails the same set of conceptual metaphors: an entity (“the economy”) with a single aggregate measure (“growth”), and the implication of a top-down policy whose primary objective is to increase or decrease/stabilise “it”. Both “growth” and “degrowth” are single, quantitative ends for “the economy”.
♦ Although direct negation (eg as “degrowth” negates “growth”) may appear to logically undermine a frame, it activates the frame in our brains, strengthening its physical, neural basis. And, by a process which cognitive linguists call “mutual inhibition”, alternatives to the frame are inhibited by continual focus on its reinforcement/negation.
♦ The “growth”/”degrowth” frame of an aggregate quantitative measure, usually at a national level, reinforces both market capitalist and conservative nationalist conceptual schemas. (See my earlier post for details on reinforcement of the former.)
♦ Nationalist schemas include the Nation as Person metaphor in thinking about “national interest”. In conservative framing, this means competition between nations, in which “national interest” (ie economic health and military strength) is about aggregate maximisation of wealth and power. This ties in with (mutually reinforces) national economic “growth” (ie “growth”/”degrowth” framing).
In short, the way we think about “the economy” in terms of “growth” is reinforced in important respects by the “degrowth” vs “growth” narrative – including inhibition of alternative frames. And in what might be called conservative “felt” common sense (which is widespread as a result of cultural repetition of the economic “growth” and market frames over decades), “degrowth” will be “felt” as deeply unnatural, nefarious and weakening to the nation.
If the penny still hasn’t dropped for “degrowth” campaigners, I recommend they read, and carefully ponder, Lakoff’s paper, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.
Never accept the right’s frames – don’t negate them, or repeat them, or structure your arguments to counter them. That just activates their frames in the brain and helps them. (George Lakoff)
*In some cases, direct opposition seems the only way to go. When slavery (for example) is directly opposed, the slavery frame is, of course, activated and reinforced in our brains. Does that undermine the anti-slavery cause? Clearly not when slavery is already widely conceived as immoral and unacceptable. But what about before that point in a given society? You might want to ponder the differences between something like slavery and something like “growth” of “the economy” – in terms of conceptual metaphor and level of abstraction. Also, consider my article on Antiwork. Am I contradicting myself by using a term that opposes work? Or is the idea of negating all work so obviously ludicrous, that I must be attempting some sort of “guerilla ontology”, simply to provoke thought/debate?
Postscript: A few responses I’ve had indicate a confusion between criticism of the “growth” frame and opposition to “growth” itself (as a believed reality). It’s akin to confusing the map with the territory. Both respondents were quick to insist that they criticised the frame (ie the inadequacy of the aggregate “growth” metaphor), but then immediately contradicted themselves by insisting on opposing “growth” as if it were a tangible reality. I think this contradiction results because thinking in terms of conceptual metaphor is a new approach – we can easily slip back into reifying old frames if we’re not paying attention (especially with well-established frames such as “growth”).
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