Degrowth in the suburbs

Dallas suburbs and cityscape
The authors of 'Degrowth in the Suburbs' discuss their vision for a radical urban imaginary.


‘Growth’ is one of the defining metaphors of our global civilisation - widely considered a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘progress.’ In fact, we might even call growth a zombie metaphor, in the sense that it operates unconsciously, as something so obvious that it need not be questioned. 

Yet question it we must – and a growing body of zombie-hunting scholars are doing just that. The global economy is in gross ecological overshoot, billions still live in destitution, and the human population is growing.

If humanity is to move toward a just and sustainable way of inhabiting Earth, then the richest nations - including Australia - need to embrace a ‘degrowth’ process of planned economic contraction. 

Urban landscapes

Our new book has been exploring how this degrowth process might unfold in the low-density urban landscapes of suburbia.

While people who are locked into the ideology of growth might assume this suburban transformation implies hardship and painful sacrifice, we argue that there are opportunities here for a ‘prosperous descent’. 

Suburban affluence is the defining image of the good life under capitalism, commonly held up as a model to which all humanity should aspire.

Every aspect of this way of life is dependent upon the cheap and abundant fossil energy supplies that have become accessible in the last two centuries, yet this very same fossil dependency is at the same time proving to be a fatal addiction.

Promising things are happening with renewable energy technologies - but to keep within the small carbon budget available for a safe climate, it is likely that energy-intensive societies will need to reduce energy demand not just ‘green’ the supply. 

Given that economic growth is closely correlated with energy use, significantly reduced energy demand almost certainly means embracing degrowth.

Downscaling economies

Degrowth envisions a process of deliberately downscaling overgrown economies in order to leave enough ecological room for the entire community of life to flourish in mutual co-existence. This distinguishes it from recession - which means unplanned economic contradiction.

We don’t argue this is likely, only that it is necessary.   

So what would become of the suburbs if we gave up fossil fuels and moved toward a low-energy, post-carbon society beyond growth?

Suburban catastrophists like James Kunstler in the US argue that fossil fuel depletion will imminently render the suburban landscape an inhospitable wasteland. Such curdled imaginations fail to recognise suburbia’s latent capacity to become something new.

Inspired by research and advocacy from the likes of Ivan IllichDavid Holmgren, and Ted Trainer, we see the suburbs as an ideal place to begin retrofitting our cities according to a new vision of prosperity. 

But what form will the transformation take? And who or what will drive it?

Growth fetsishism

First of all, we are hardly going to knock down the suburbs and build them again in a ‘green’ way.

Typically for Australia’s major cities, the built environment is transformed at less than five percent per year, meaning that in the next critical decades, the primarily challenge is to reinhabit - not rebuild - the suburban landscape.  

Secondly, governments seem to be firmly in the grip of growth fetishism, such that any degrowth economy will probably need to be driven into existence by urban grassroots movements, rather than wait for an enlightened state to lead the way.

This is not to deny the need for structural change. It is only to suggest that the structural change required is more likely to be the outcome, not the driving force, of a new suburban economy. 

We can hardly provide a complete blueprint of what degrowth in the suburbs would look like, but we will outline several features that shape our vision. 

Cultural foundations

First, suburbanites should retrofit their homes and develop new energy practices in order to prepare for an energy descent future. David Holmgren’s new book, Retrosuburbia, is a masterful practical manual which provides 600 pages of detailed instruction.  

Second, households must be encouraged to seek meaning and wellbeing beyond consumer culture. High-impact suburban affluence is clearly unsustainable, so any transition to a just and sustainable world is going to involve radical ‘downshifting’ of consumption.

As well as providing the cultural foundations for political change, downshifting will involve an exchange of superfluous ‘stuff’ for more free time outside the formal market economy.  

Third, more free time will enable informal or non-monetary economies to flourish. This will involve increased self-provision through home-based production, including growing food, producing energy through solar or perhaps biogas, and sharing and borrowing things, instead of always purchasing.

By developing a collective economics of sufficiency, suburbanites have the potential to create a new degrowth economy within the shell of the old.

Systemic response

Fourth, suburbanites should seek to creatively reinhabit, rather than rebuild, the built environment. As the old economy withers away by design or disaster, we will discover that much urban space is wasted and under-utilised.

The vast areas dedicated to car parking is but one example of wasted space, ripe for reimagination and reclamation.  

Finally, and most importantly, we must never lose sight of the fact that the crises of our age are systemic crises that will ultimately require a systemic response. Given that we live in an age of political paralysis, we must not wait for governments to solve our problems.

But in the end, urban social movements must organise politically as the momentum for change develops, and one of the key transformations will be a broadening of access to land and secure housing to ensure distributive equity and economic security.   

The well-known documentary ‘The End of Suburbia’ presented a coherent narrative of a post-petroleum future but got at least one thing wrong. There is not a single end to suburbia - there are many ends of suburbia as we know it.

Our challenge today is to chart a course between the Scylla of catastrophe and the Charybdis of false hope, and to see whether the descent ahead may yet entail a reconceived prosperity for those communities who are able to navigate these unknown waters mindfully, creatively and in the spirit of solidarity.   

These Authors

Dr Samuel Alexander is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a research fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

Professor Brendan Gleeson is the director of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, at the University of Melbourne. He joined Melbourne University in January 2012 as Professor of Urban Policy Studies and then took on the directorship of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute in early 2013.