Zartosht Ahlers | A Politics of Sacrifice—A Review of ‘The Future Is Degrowth’

By Zartosht Ahlers

Much of The Future Is Degrowth is spent anticipating the ample criticisms ‘Degrowth’ invites: Degrowth is nice, but not a possible economic configuration; Degrowth is nice, but not an actual solution to climate change; Degrowth is nice, but not possible politically; Degrowth is nice, but unclear as an ideology: what sectors of the economy should be reduced, what sectors of the economy should be incentivized to grow and who makes these decisions?

The advocates for degrowth respond to these criticisms with a heavy dose of pragmatism. Throughout the book, the authors walk back their own radical language, arguing that of course, degrowthers are not against growth in all economies and of course, current and future technology must be utilized to combat the climate crisis. What degrowth is, the authors seem to admit, is a move towards investments in care work, away from car culture.

In these concessions, the authors struggle to differentiate the politics of degrowth from the politics of a more robust Western democracy, one that has calibrated its economy more effectively along human welfare values while still existing within the confines of capitalism. It is even harder to parse the differences of degrowth from the politics of the Green New Deal. The authors write that

In contrast to most Green New Deals, degrowth formulates active policies to achieve a selective downscaling and de-accumulation of those economic activities that cannot be made sustainable, contribute little use values, or are superfluous consumption – and these include things like advertising, planned obsolescence, ‘bullshit jobs’, private planes, or fossil fuel and defence industries.[1]

This is all well and good, but I am skeptical whether any Green New Dealers are not opposed to private planes, planned obsolescence, the defence industry, or the fossil fuel industry (although the degree to which we should continue to rely on some fossil fuels is an open question amongst even the most radical of environmentalists). Degrowthers and Green New Dealers want to invest in green technology. Degrowthers and Green New Dealers want some reduction in many resource-heavy, low-value providing industries (yes, the ‘cheap plastic trinket’ industry must go. Goodbye Ü-Eier!). The difference between the two seems to be one simply of degree, not necessarily ideology. Realistically, the difference might be one more of political pragmatism than ideology, but that is beside the point.

Then what can the degrowth ideology offer us? Degrowth offers us an alternative vision of well-being that anti-capitalist secularists have long struggled to articulate. I want to offer an example from my previous professional work as a case study to examine the shortcomings of the existing ideology while highlighting the ideological value of Degrowth.

On September 16th, 2022, California passed Senate Bill No. 1020,[2] committing California to transition their energy sources to depend 95% on renewable energy by 2035, and 100% renewable energy by 2040.

In the hopes of meeting these energy needs, environmentalists, ecologists, government officials, and solar industry lobbyists have built a decade-long relationship to identify areas of low-ecological value and sited these areas for solar development. The relationship has been fruitful: a number of large-scale utility solar sites have sprung up around California, Nevada, and Arizona’s public lands. These solar sites have been advertised as huge successes by environmentalists, highlighting the economic and environmental benefits.[3]

During my time working in DC as an energy researcher for a major environmentalist organization, this approach became the environmentalists’ lodestar: make a pitch for environmental policies that highlights the economic benefits.

This pitch came at a cost: conservationist organizations such as my own began advocating for the development of pristine desert landscapes in order to make a stronger case to Democratic state senators on legislation committing their respective states, i.e. California, to certain renewable energy goals.

While the loss of pristine natural landscape of this ideological compromise is not one to brush aside, the human loss is staggering. The land that had been identified as being of ‘low ecological value’ was precisely the land most sacred to countless Indigenous groups.[4] Indigenous groups protested the development of these solar sites by pointing to the fact that almost every major development of desert land results in the unearthing of ancestral remains,[5] or otherwise disturbed sacred areas. The coalition between environmentalists and Indigenous activists became unmoored: whereas before, the sacredness of the landscape was inviolable, the very assumption on which their work rested, the economic imperative forced environmentalists to brush these protests aside.

The imperative to prove that environmentalism was re-concilable with capitalism, that The Monkeywrench Gang was a mere youthful foray into radicalism, led environmentalists to move away from a language of proclaiming the sacredness and the inherent value of all natural landscapes, to becoming mouthpieces of developers. It is precisely the political sense of this trade-off that incentivized environmentalists to abandon their unyielding ideology in favor of economic bargains.

But what could have been the alternative? The key is by understanding what pathways carbon neutrality were missed. The California Energy Commission projected California’s energy needs to be between 324,184 and 375,892 GWh annually by 2035. The world’s largest solar plant is Ivanpah Solar[6], stationed in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the world’s prime solar real estate, and is expected to contribute 940 GWh annually. This means that you need about 400 of the world’s largest solar plants, running each at a cost of about 1.6 billion dollars, to meet California’s energy needs. In the face of these immense energy needs, environmentalist abandoned the frugality of yesterday in favor of growth.

It is at this ideological juncture in which Degrowth finds its stride. Degrowth responds to a landscape of environmental activists afraid of being seen as luddites, afraid of advocating for sacrifice. It is this precise re-imagining of the language of sacrifice that allows the Degrowth movement to breathe new air into the imagination of environmentalists.

The authors of The Future Is Degrowth thread a fine needle in their approach to sacrifice. At once, they point to James and Grace Lee Boggs as arguing that “ ‘the revolution to be made in the United States will be the first revolution in history to require the masses to make material sacrifices rather than to acquire more material things,’ because, they continue, these were ‘acquired at the expense of damning over one-third of the world into a state of underdevelopment, ignorance, disease and early death.’”[7] Yet it is this sacrifice that The Future Is Degrowth rejects, “ ‘far from being about ‘belt-tightening sacrifice’, degrowth is about strengthening more meaningful and less destructive forms of happiness, new forms of the joy of life.”[8] But even in rejecting that degrowth is sacrifice, the authors provide careful nuance (“The ecological humanist approach can run into trouble, however, when it is uncritically romantic and anti-modern, or when it lacks a critique of capital and colonial relations.”[9]) So where does Degrowth stand in its approach to sacrifice?

The Future Is Degrowth explains that “[s]trategically, these individual practices are formulated as positive models rather than as appeals for self-sacrifice and renunciation.”[10] But surely, we cannot have it all: abandoning cheap plastic trinkets is a sacrifice, albeit perhaps an easy one.

Degrowth excels in this reimagining of sacrifice. What takes the place of sacrifice in Degrowth? The authors advocate for “a radical reduction in working hours without lower pay groups losing income; access for all to good, non-alienated, and meaningful work; a valorization of reproductive and care work and the distribution of this work among all; collective self-determination in the workplace; and, finally, the strengthening of worker’s rights and autonomy through the provision of basic services, independent of people’s employment.”[11] The notion of sacrifice of which growthers shy away depends on the idea that something will be lost once the churning stops. But Degrowth rejects the very notion that belt-tightening is sacrifice in favor of an anti-work ideology that rejects the very premise that to consume is to be happy.

In questioning the very assumptions that there is something that could be sacrificed, the Degrowth movement finds its strongest stride in its embrace of anti-work, of ideological laziness, of reapproaching the values and virtues of interactions—in its rejection of the very notion of sacrifice.

In reframing what we might lose into what we might gain, the Degrowth movement dips into a political strategy that found its strength during the pandemic in subreddits such as r/antiwork. But this move is not a simple one: Thoreau still strived to create value. Degrowth rejects assumptions of value in favor of a politics of simple, interrelated community.

This should be freeing for environmentalists. Instead of sacrificing pristine nature, sacred landscapes, and the working lives of thousands of people, embracing sacrifice allows environmentalist to be freed from having to advocate for more development. Degrowthers don’t need to create jobs to achieve the same climate benefits. Instead, they can advocate for more free time/time spent caring for loved ones, as thousands of people don’t need to work these solar sites, in a mere exchange of a reduction of energy use. Rejecting the logic of sacrifice results in the realization that we can pay for free time with consumption. I give up consumption, and gain freedom.

Degrowth offers much in its reimagining of a more just society, but it excels in reshaping anti-consumerism as a modern political movement with force and persuasion, rooted in contemporary labor struggles, environmentalism, and mental-health.

Degrowth’s reframing allows us to see more clearly what we lose when we construct large-scale utility solar plants. The monetization of energy ignores the spiritual value of the landscape. How do we put a price tag on spirituality? How do we value worship in the context of growth? When the imperative is to grow at all costs, we grow at the detriment of our spiritual health. The sacrifice of growth, degrowth shows, is not a sacrifice at all, but instead can be an embrace of other sources of human joy, ones that maintain our dignity.


[1] The Future Is Degrowth, p. 130






[7] The Future Is Degrowth, p. 25

[8] The Future Is Degrowth, p. 36

[9] The Future Is Degrowth, p. 124

[10]The Future Is Degrowth, p. 279

[11] The Future Is Degrowth, p. 254