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The Case for Degrowth and Conscious Consumption

By Aminah Koshul

March 13, 2024

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

Saito’s essay exposes the absurdity of capitalist logic which champions the pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet. The post-war order, in establishing the GDP as a measure of progress, obfuscates quality of life with an insular economic standard. It has proven to be an utter failure that overlooks factors of “social well-being, environmental justice, and sustainability.”

Amidst the multifaceted crises engulfing our world, the concept of degrowth emerges as an increasingly viable solution. It challenges the realities of environmental degradation and resource exhaustion that are required for the sake of excess consumption. Degrowth presents a fundamental overhaul that confronts capitalist convention—the privileging of profit above all else—and provides a path forward, marked by “sustainability, justice, and equality.” In particular, Saito’s work demonstrates how Marxist theory is enriched by a diversity of interpretations which emphasize the ecological limits imposed on economic growth. By foregrounding the interconnectedness of ecology and economy, Saito's analysis invites us to repair our relationship with the natural world.

While degrowth must be pursued on an institutional scale, the focus of this essay will be on the personal dimension of limiting consumption. Saito specifically mentions the advertising industry, or the broader ad-based attention economy, which exploits latent consumer demand and induces rampant consumerism. The “impulse buy” is an intentionally engineered action that takes place within an expansive ecosystem designed to guide clicks towards consumption. Here, capitalism takes on more insidious variations as personal data is commodified and deployed through targeted ads for the purpose of profit maximization. It is described by Dr. Shoshana Zuboff as “the machine invasion of human depths” and follows similar logics of extraction and exploitation. By operating with increased awareness of online advertising, it is possible to contribute to degrowth through the self-regulation of consumerist tendencies. It becomes crucial to resist norms of overconsumption which have been disseminated through cyberculture by way of microtrends and content creation.

In 2020 alone, the explosive growth of e-commerce resulted in the shipping and return of products that accounted for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions. This prompts a reprioritization of consumer concerns, where the necessity of features such as two-day delivery are called into question. While a common retort to the limiting of personal consumption is that individual actions cannot outweigh the harms of corporate activity, it is important to note that the restructuring of consumer choice and consideration of social values confers positive effects. The intention to disengage from exploitative and unnecessarily wasteful practices is powerful when taken in aggregate. Fundamentally, reduced demand is essential to forging new supply chains that reflect value systems which reject constant consumption. In doing so, it is possible to reorient the market forces of supply and demand towards ecological well-being.

Aminah Koshul (G’25) is a first-year student in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Georgetown University.