The Dark Face of Degrowth: Argentine's President, Javier Milei
Rulers are the Slaves of History
“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes a historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.”
‘The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.’
A king is history’s slave.
Leo Tolstoy, (1)
Do you remember how we imagined what “degrowth” would be? A world of small communities practicing social equality and sustainability. Sorts of Hobbit villages, but with some technology included, just to make sure that you can still connect to the Web. In Italy, we even refer to it as “Happy Degrowth.”
But, as time goes on, we see that degrowth has a different and darker face. The face of the newly elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei, with his antics and tirades against the enemies of the people. It comes with the promise to dismantle everything we thought was granted in our world, all in the name of defending the people from the evils of socialism and communism while at the same time restarting economic growth. No such silly things as “degrowth” are involved, and climate change is a socialist lie.
Milei is just the most vocal and extreme example of an upcoming wave of extreme right politicians, whom we usually call “populists.” He claims to be an economist, but his proposals are based mainly on a mix of slogans, platitudes, and legends. Just as an example, in a recent interview, he launched himself into a tirade against the Club of Rome, accusing it of having predicted with their “Limits to Growth” study that fossil fuels would have run out by the year 2000 and that by now we should all have been dead. And, instead, we are two billion people more than when the prediction was made, in 1972. Didn’t you notice that, you silly communists who pretend to be ecologists?
The story of the “wrong predictions” of the Club of Rome is one of the many legends that surround the Limits to Growth study. But it is among the most resilient ones, so much that some 50 years after it appeared, it is still widely believed. It was useless that some poor guy (your humble author, U.B.) wrote an entire book, “The Limits to Growth Revisited” debunking it. It was also useless that several other quantitative evaluations (e.g. by Graham Turner, Gaya Herrington, and Nebel et al) confirmed the correctness of the basic scenarios of the study. What can mere scientific studies do against slogans spoken with absolute certainty on TV? Unfortunately, Mr. Milei is a typical politician whose primary instinct leads him to search for a culprit for all problems. If that leads him to repropose old and debunked legends, well, that’s the way to be elected president of Argentina, apparently.
For everything that happens, there is a reason, and there is also a reason for Javier Milei being president of Argentina. He is part of a trend that sees governments as inherently bad, and hence they must be downsized, if not taken down completely. Once you realize that the Argentinean government had a “Ministry of Women, Genders, and Diversity,” you can understand Argentinians for having seen Milei as a relief for their plight.
But why is this happening? There are reasons for that, too. Modern states are examples of “complex adaptive systems” (CAS) that turn energy into low-temperature heat and resources into waste. An army, a manufacturing company, a university, a political party, or a whole state all are structures that require an input of energy to function. No energy, no complex adaptive systems. And, hence, no state.
The CAS systems that rely on non-renewable resources grow as long as the resources are abundant and then decline when the resource starts becoming scarce. The decline may be very rapid, helped by the accumulation of pollution. It generates a cascade of breakdowns that rapidly affect the whole system. In material science, you call it “fracture.” In single biological organisms, you call it “death.” In social systems, you call it “collapse.” I call this behavior the “Seneca Effect” or the “Seneca Cliff.” You see it schematically represented in this figure, where “intensity” may represent the rate of resource consumption by a society.
If collapse is an unavoidable destiny for these systems, it doesn’t mean people can’t try to do something to avoid it, but they usually worsen the situation. It was noted long ago, and it is called “pulling the levers in the wrong direction.” An example: everyone is noticing that the quality of the public health-care system of most Western States is getting worse and worse. It is a consequence of having fewer resources available and also of bureaucracy having accumulated well above the levels that the system can sustain. If left to itself, the system will nicely go through the Seneca cycle and vanish into thin air. But governments may think of doing something to avoid that.
The political Left will typically try to maintain the system output by making it more efficient and eliminating such things as corruption and incompetence. That implies more regulations, laws, guidelines, assessments, and the like. To enforce the new rules, the system needs more administrators, controllers, bureaucrats, police, etc. All that will increase costs, requiring higher taxes levied on the citizens. Nevertheless, it is a popular approach in managing the Health Care System in Western countries (read the posts by Dr. Malcolm McKendrick to understand how bad it can be). The final result is a classic example of solutions that worsen the problem.
The political Right will typically slash down the input of financial resources into the health system and let it decline or collapse, probably faster than it would do if left to itself. This is called “optimization” and is based on the claim that private Health Care services are always better than public ones, and that only communists would want the State to take care of public health. The result is that the costs of the unregulated system skyrocket, and the poor are shut off from health care services. The disaster of the US healthcare system shows how this is another example of a solution that worsens the problem.
The difference between these two options is not large. Most governments will do both: they will increase bureaucracy AND slash down services, all in the name of doing a favor to the people. They don’t have a choice: shuffling the remaining resources from one subsystem to the other changes nothing. The whole system is desperately short of resources and has to shrink. And shrink it will, no matter what populist or socialist governments proclaim.
So, Javier Milei is acting as a “slave of history,” as Tolstoy termed kings and rulers. He is pushing Argentina in the direction where the country is slated to go: down the cliff. It won’t solve any problem; on the contrary, it will generate much worse ones than those Argentina already has. But, to give Milei his due, at least he clearly stated what he wanted to do and those who voted for him can’t complain for whatever is going to hit them as a consequence. It is also a good thing that Milei doesn’t seem to plan military attacks against other countries. That doesn’t mean he won’t transform Argentina into a police state, as is typical of populist dictators. But that will make little difference to a future that doesn’t look good.
Milei is showing us the ugly face of degrowth. His aggressive style and substance seem to be as far as possible from the gentle attitude of the typical supporters of degrowth. But they all make the same mistake: they neglect the fact that a complex system is a beast that needs energy, and if you starve it, it will die. Before it dies, it has plenty of chances to become nasty. Very nasty. Milei is an initial manifestation of this nastiness. Things could considerably worsen in the future. Degrowth will definitely not be happy.
If we see Milei as a problem, can we think of ways of solving it? Again people tend to pull the levers in the wrong direction, worsening the problems they try to solve. Politically, there are no solutions to a crisis that depends largely on events such as the formation of the oil wells during the Jurassic period, which cannot be influenced by politics (2). So, the way to keep the system alive and not too nasty is to feed it with cheap energy, and that means we have to grow the production of renewable energy. It is unlikely that it can avoid decline, but it can make it less steep and less unhappy.
Complex systems that feed on renewable resources tend to attain an approximately stable level of complexity compatible with the energy available. That is what’s going to happen, no matter what we do: the system will find a new equilibrium by itself. That doesn’t mean humankind will survive the transition, but if it does, with new energy resources available, new social structures will appear and prosper. It is the “Seneca Rebound,” and, who knows? It may involve small villages where people live happily together as imagined by the supporters of degrowth.
(1) This sentence is said to be a quote from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” novel, but I haven’t been able to find these exact words in any of the editions I have access to. But it is very much in line with Tolstoy’s thoughts. So, I think it is a correct attribution.
(2) This is a quote from Colin Campbell, the founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO)