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Degrowth and Datafication: Making Space for Stories Among Metrics

By Aayush Murarka

March 14, 2024

In Response to Degrowth as the Imperative in the Age of the Polycrisis

Kohei Saito’s essay, “Degrowth as the Imperative in the Age of the Polycrisis,” masterfully connects themes of climate change, structural reform, global inequality, and epistemological critique, each section of which deserves its own thorough analysis. However, for this piece, I aim to discuss Saito’s endorsement of degrowth as a vehicle for storytelling, nuance, rhetoric, and complexity within climate communication.

In alignment with the broader degrowth movement, Saito’s essay identifies capitalism as the unjust, inefficient, and unsustainable superstructure driving the worst impacts of climate change. More specifically, scholars critique the use of GDP as a measure of well-being and those who treat GDP as the ultimate object of development. GDP fails to measure the distribution of wealth within a country, social well-being, and sustainability, thus collapsing the dimensionality of our everyday lives and experiences into a single economic metric.

“Degrowth is anti-capitalism. It demands that we abandon GDP as the measure of social progress and scale down the economy in the Global North,” says Saito.

As students and young people bear the cross of anthropogenic climate forcing, it is imperative that we do not make the same mistakes of GDP fetishism, especially in a highly data-facing public policy landscape. It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in public policy discussions without a heavy emphasis on the role of “smart” methodologies like machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence. The fight against COVID-19 took place on public dashboards, trackers, and metrics, as infection and death rates obfuscated the disproportionate effects of structural violence against Black, brown, and Indigenous communities. By labeling every non-“smart” approach to climate change as “dumb,” we risk repeating the mistakes of GDP-based consequentialism and dashboard biopolitics. Degrowth demands that our generation of climate leaders embrace nuance and complexity, and I believe that students and young people should begin with climate storytelling, as opposed to broadcasting abstract carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature thresholds.

“Relativizing GDP is a prerequisite for social justice and democracy. It opens the way to freely deliberate on questions of justice, sustainability, and equality beyond the hierarchical binaries of the Global North/Global South, male/female, and human/non-human...A degrowth perspective is essential to decolonize our imaginations, to envision a better future for all, and to save the planet,” Saito argues.

I believe that climate storytelling aspires to what Saito outlines above. By immersing themselves in emotional and ethnographic realities and fictions, storytellers provide a deeply human and persuasive element to climate communication, allowing multiple points of contact in movement-building. I strongly believe that the importance of climate metrics and databases cannot be overstated, and consistent scientific presence in policymaking holds actors accountable and sets clear expectations for polluters. However, placing such metrics in context through incorporating our personal experiences bolsters us using data-forward policy approaches in counterproductive ways by constantly raising questions about who is represented and how they are impacted. Saito’s work is far-reaching, and its calls for action are as diverse as capitalism’s networks of violence, but if political action embodies cultural behavior, then degrowth ought to begin with storytelling.

Aayush Murarka (SFS’26) is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.