It’s getting to look a lot like degrowth: Part 3

Involuntary degrowth: the storm before the calm

Steve Genco
15 min readApr 14

Image generated by DALL-E2, “ants on a log in the water, a waterfall up ahead”. What’s with this picture of ants on a log? See the first post in this 3-post series.

This is the final post of a three part series on the existential problem of degrowth in a world that still believes in perpetual economic growth. Part 1 looks at why the capitalist model of perpetual growth is unable to accept the concept of degrowth. Part 2 discusses why degrowth is inevitable, but unlikely to be adopted voluntarily due to the many forces arrayed against it, not least of which is humanity’s innate resistance to change. Part 3 considers how involuntary degrowth might unfold over the rest of this century, and what kind of civilization it is likely to leave us with once fossil fuels are gone.

If we’re not going to voluntarily enter an era of planned, controlled degrowth, what are we going to do instead? To answer that question, we need to return to a statement highlighted in Part 1 of this series:

As a general rule, deeply-held mental models are only abandoned when the pain they inflict finally outweighs the psychological comfort they provide.

As noted in Part 1, we do not abandon our deeply-held mental models easily. The point I want to make here is that we don’t abandon them when they start failing to explain a changing world. Rather, our first instinct is to deny the evidence and reaffirm the model: the world isn’t really changing at all. Our second instinct is to (grudgingly) acknowledge that the world is changing, but to call the change temporary, declaring that things will come back into alignment with the mental model eventually. As long as the gain exceeds the pain, these efforts at denial and delay will continue.

Only when the pain exceeds the gain — that is, when the pain is undeniably severe, universal, immediate, and with no end in sight — will the model finally be abandoned. By that point, of course, the world is in much worse shape than it would have been if our leaders had acted when the mental model first started failing. But sadly, that’s not how humans are wired and not how human societies operate. So here we are.

One of the ways the perpetual growth model distorts reality is that it doesn’t take resource…

Steve Genco

Steve is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019) & Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013). He holds a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University.