After Growth

After Growth

Is there any alternative to planet-destroying growth?

Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in 1985 (Rob Bogaerts/Anefo via Wikimedia Commons)

Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa
by Julie Livingston
Duke University Press, 2019, 176 pp.

In the 1960s, President Julius Nyerere had a difficult message for citizens of the newly independent nation of Tanzania: accept less. Rapid economic growth would require taking loans, threatening Tanzania’s autonomy as a nation. Importing consumer items from abroad would enrich foreign countries at Africans’ expense and make Tanzanians dependent on the outside world. Nyerere urged Tanzanians to reject the forms of wealth that former colonizers had enjoyed and to forge a different version of well-being. Why build cement buildings with corrugated metal roofs, he asked, when the mud clay houses with thatched roofs our parents and grandparents lived in can be made with materials found within our borders? Don’t import clothes or cars or other luxury items; instead make your own clothing with Tanzanian cotton cloth, ride bicycles, and take public transportation. Rather than move to cities, he told Tanzanian youth, stay in your village and participate in communal agriculture.

For the ambitious president, lowering material expectations was not an act of political piety, but a revolutionary declaration of autonomy in a world system that had long exploited sub-Saharan Africa. But in his idealism, he was asking a lot from his fellow citizens. Under colonial rule, Africans had been denied access to the material trappings of “the good life” while Europeans became wealthy on the fruits of African labor and resources. After winning independence, many Tanzanians were not expecting to be told, once again, that they should accept poverty. Nyerere faced a difficult political task: how do you tell dispossessed people to accept less, in an unjust world in which they have not yet had the chance to have enough?

Nyerere’s challenge—how to make a compelling argument for less—resonates anew in the context of global climate change. It is also one of the central challenges posed by Julie Livingston in her book Self-Devouring Growth. In giving this name to our collective planetary predicament, she is not invoking a metaphor, but describing an observable physical process. Our collective way of life, as it is currently organized, requires us to grow by devouring the material substance of our planet. There are two problems with self-devouring growth: First, there are the nonrenewable materials that we consume. Second, there is the waste produced by this extractive process. “In other words,” Livingston explains, “self-devouring growth is a cancerous model.” Like cancer spreading through a body, we live by devouring the material basis of our existence, creating necrotic tissue in the form of hollowed-out environments, toxic dumps, and poisons that we spread across the world. We must grow in order to mainta...