The ideology of development has a justification in classical economics that says that the outsourcing of various life functions to specialists, aided by technology and mass production, allows human needs to be met more efficiently. It is true that modern society produces vastly greater quantities of wealth than traditional ones—when that wealth is measured in money. Economics assumes that more money equals more happiness; that the more goods we can buy, the more “good” life is. This logic is valid only to the extent that human needs and desires can be met by things that can be quantified, bought, and sold. We in the dominant culture have more of those things than ever before; meanwhile, much of what deeply nourishes the human being is artificially scarce. We have a scarcity of time, scarcity of beauty, scarcity of intimacy, scarcity of real connection to community and to nature. Thus deprived, we are always hungry for something, but no amount of money, possessions, status, cars, social media likes, or domestic floor area can meet these unfulfilled needs. Those aren’t really what we are hungry for. We call this endless hunger “greed” and rail against it as the cause of our present social and ecological nightmare, but as usual, we are warring against the symptom not the cause. Greed is a symptom of scarcity. What we call development has cut us off from real wealth. It has distanced us from place, from people, from other-than-human beings, replacing those relationships with standardized, mediated relationships. In the course of development, we have gained much of what we measure. But what have we lost?
As the Story of Interbeing suggests, a whole human being is one held in a close web of intimate relationships. To cut off these relationships is to amputate part of the self. To restore wholeness and assuage the hunger we call greed, we must therefore restore those lost relationships. This means rebuilding community, reconnecting with our food sources, and in general interacting with nature as a participant rather than as a spectator. It means reversing certain key aspects of development. It does not mean abandoning technology or global culture, but finding their proper place, reclaiming the territory they have usurped, and embracing a different conception of progress. In this conception, which emphasizes the qualitative dimensions of life and recognizes forms of wealth that our society ignores, we no longer see ourselves as more “developed” than agrarian villagers or Amazonian hunter-gatherers.
A friend runs a farm and retreat center in Brazil. He needed more accommodations for visitors, so he hired some nearby indigenous people to build a new building. “I didn’t hire them because they are Indians,” he said. “I hired them as architects.”
Using no measuring equipment, no metal fasteners, and no materials except what they procured from the land, in just three weeks these indigenous builders constructed a dwelling that could accommodate forty people in hammocks. It is a marvel of intelligent design, cool in hot weather, warm in cold weather. Smoke from the central fire pit rises quickly to be released through the permeable roof, proofing it against insects; yet it is fully waterproof. Its utilitarian genius is matched by its aesthetic perfection: despite the lack of measuring equipment, its dimensions are in precise golden mean ratios; moreover, the building conveys a striking presence and aliveness (judging from the photograph). My friend says that when professional architects visit the structure they sometimes weep in humiliation, so far beyond their capabilities it is.
In a truly advanced society, everyone would live in a building that beautiful.
A new kind of progress in a degrowth economy does not mean a regress in well-being. It might mean a regress in certain quantitative measures of wealth that we accept today: fewer units of floor space, automobiles, and energy consumption per capita. It might mean more herbal medicine and less pharmaceutical medicine, more bodywork and fewer high-tech medical procedures, more beautiful buildings and fewer big ones, more singing and fewer music purchases, more time outdoors and less in gyms, more free play for children and less time spent in organized activities. Childhood was not always so expensive.
The deemphasis of the measurable corresponds to the transition away from the conversion of nature into commodities. It allows us to see the beings of nature, the ecosystems and species, as sacred beings in their own right. Beauty and sacredness and love tend to get lost in the numbers, which put a finite value on the infinite. In both economics and ecology, we need to shift to values that cannot easily be measured.
Development has happened over centuries in the West, where there is hardly anything we do in community anymore, and hardly anything that has not become a product or a service. Because there is so little left to convert into money, the system reaches to “less developed” parts of the world to maintain overall growth.
Development loans finance the infrastructure to extract natural resources and haul them away, and to build industries to make local labor available to global corporations. Moreover, the pressure to repay the loans (with export-derived dollars or euros) ensures that that infrastructure will be used for its intended purpose. Since loans to less developed countries bear a higher rate of interest, overall return on investment remains high enough to keep the financial system functioning. In essence, growth is imported into the developed countries from the less developed.
Furthermore, because their debt is at hopelessly high levels, the pressure to “develop” never ends. If ever the pace of resource extraction or labor market opening falters, then the creation of new financial wealth lags behind loan payments, and the country must cannibalize its existing wealth instead to pay creditors. That process is called “austerity.” Creditors demand that the debtor nation privatize public assets, slash pensions and salaries, liquidate natural resources, and cut public services so it can use the proceeds to pay creditors and avoid default. Another term for avoiding default is “staying in debt forever,” since these debts are unpayable. According to a report by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, since 1970 Jamaica has borrowed $18.5 billion and paid back $19.8 billion, yet still owes $7.8 billion. The Philippines has borrowed $110 billion, paid back $125 billion, and owes $45 billion. These and many other countries might actually have a positive balance of payments if it were not for their interest burden, which essentially condemns them to render tribute unto the global financial system forever, exporting more than they import for the privilege of staying in debt.
The same pressure afflicts developed countries and individuals as well. In an environment of artificial scarcity, we are all under pressure to orient our lives toward the production of salable goods and services, just as less developed nations are. Those nations must constantly scramble to find some way to keep making payments on their debt. Does that sound familiar? It is the same for individuals. If you can’t make payments from rising income, then you’ll have to implement a personal version of austerity: selling off assets, cutting back on health and leisure, gearing your whole life to the production of money.
 Dear et al. (2013).