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Regrowth as a Radical Response to Rapid (Un)raveling

By Randall Amster

March 13, 2024

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

One of my favorite in-class mini-exercises is to draw the square root sign on the board and ask students what it is called. It sometimes takes them a while to recall that in addition to being about square roots it is also known as the radical sign—which leads to the “aha!” moment of correlating “radical” with “root” and thus reclaiming the actual meaning of the word apart from whatever pejoratives may come to mind.

As Kohei Saito’s provocative essay urges, we live in a time that calls upon us to think critically and act expeditiously in deeply transformative ways if we are to address the manifold interwoven crises at hand, and, as Saito summarizes, “to decolonize our imaginations, to envision a better future for all, and to save the planet.” To accomplish this, Saito advocates that we move from a perpetual growth market-based model to one that decelerates economies and centers values of well-being, sustainability, and justice. 

These are important observations and the framework advanced by Saito is a good start toward shifting both the material and perceptual landscapes in impactful ways. Yet, I would further propose that we need to go beyond negation with de-growth as the starting point and instead begin the conversation with a proactive vision of re-growth at the center of the project to dismantle unsustainable structures and reconstitute socially and environmentally just ones in their place. Saito at least implicitly suggests this with the opening invocation of the Naomi Klein quote that “no is not enough” to frame the essay.

Simply put, there is no guarantee that any vacuum created by mitigating the excesses of capitalism will inherently open space for values of wellness and justice to take root. Saito seemingly alludes to this realization by noting that “widespread apathy” can court “authoritarian regimes” and “a rise of fascism.” Indeed, the essay argues that “a much more radical egalitarian vision is necessary” and, to my mind, this should be the foundational premise for planting the seeds of new ways of thinking and habits of being.

Perhaps it is a subtle shift, but it feels important to lean into an explicit penchant for regrowth as the operative principle behind a bold new radical vision to stave off existential crises unfolding in real time. Let us name this burgeoning world at the outset, not simply as an exercise of the imagination but in tangible ways that enshrine the best, better, and promising practices that steadily have been emerging in recent decades: regeneration, closed-loop systems, nature-based models, intersectionality, and more.

Of course, none of this will be a panacea for the challenges that pervade the moment if it is merely a thought experiment or an exercise in fanciful longing. Material needs have to be met at scale, and any new paradigm still must address issues of supply and demand. Saito proclaims that “degrowth is anti-capitalism” yet “is not opposed to markets” in its impetus to “scale down” growth-based economies. Rather than starting with the current system as the baseline for conceiving of another path, I would submit that scaling up from regenerative, equitable methods may ultimately get us closer to the roots.

Randall Amster is a teaching professor in the College of Arts & Sciences and co-director of Georgetown University’s Environmental Studies Program.