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I've long been deeply concerned with the kind of exploit you mention in academia. To the extent it may happen in some subfields of econ and STEM fields is nothing compared to it's abuse in some softer areas of the humanities.

And it's not something that should be shrugged off lightly. Every professor employed in a non-productive field is using up resources that might be better used elsewhere. Worse, it exacerbates the problems of distrust of expertise since these fields often have the cachet of serious scholarship yet their results can't be trusted.

However, I've long struggled with how to successfully respond. When it's an area that's already embedded itself in the academy the response of: you obviously haven't read some obscure dense German treatise deeply so you don't have standing to critisize is really hard to overcome and it's so very easy to just label critics as Philistines or (if you lean towards the more STEM side of academics) as embodying the kind of arrogant 'everything but physics is dumb' attitude (prob worse if you're actually a physicist).

And at least degrowth is relatively closely connected to empirical claims that can be checked. Many disciplines also armor themselves against anything like that.

Any thoughts on a strategy? How do you kick a field of research that has effectively become an ideology not truth seeking from the academy? Internal criticism isn't enough if you'd have to waste 10 years studying bullshit to even just not be pushed out of the room much less listened to?

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“There is no conceivable, stable scenario where the great preponderance of individuals, business interests, and governments choose to reduce wealth and productive capacity—to become poorer—voluntarily.” Paul Crider on degrowth: https://www.liberalcurrents.com/degrowth-neither-left-nor-right-but-backward/

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Some people just want a justification for their decision to not have kids. It's okay to not want kids and not buy a bunch of stuff, you don't need to invent a crazy environmental philosophy to justify it!

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To paraphrase Lincoln: "Whenever I hear any one arguing for degrowth and poverty I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

We need a way to talk about sane growth as opposed growth at any cost which our society has been practicing for quite a while (which is the same as Cancer) We can have abundance and ecological safety, but we have to work hard to reverse the destructive direction of most of industrial society and build a world of sustainable abundance.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

It has always been a mystery to me why the degrowth and depopulation types never lead by example.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Degrowthers are just the conservatives of the left. Both need an out group that must be punished and made to suffer for not meeting the moral standards of the in group.

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II think the degrowth mindset is gesturing at something real and important, however clumsily.

I am 100% against degrowth in the sense of "modern human civilization is evil, we should go back to living in caves and scrounging for edible roots and berries." Where degrowth does have a point is that the hedonic treadmill exists and declining marginal utility exists.

I grew up as a child in the People's Republic of Poland in the 80s. We had no dishwasher, microwave, or clothes dryer. When I was nine years old, we got a VCR, which was considered a great luxury. And we weren't much unhappier, on a daily basis, than a typical American family is today. That's the hedonic treadmill - you go from "wow, we have a dishwasher now! Amazing!!!" to "yeah, of course we have a dishwasher, duh, why do you expect me to be happy about it?"

And there's the related concept of declining marginal utility. Back in Poland in those days, LEGOs, like all imported Western goods, were very expensive. Getting a small (200-300 piece, say) LEGO set was a huge deal, reserved for special occasions. You had only a few LEGO sets, if any, and you cherished each and every one of them. Now, my husband and I are upper-middle-class professionals in the US, and when we buy a fancy 1000-piece LEGO set for our son, he barely blinks an eye. He's happy for a little bit, and then it goes on a pile with all his other LEGO sets - I've lost track of how many he has. The marginal utility of a new LEGO set for my son is a tiny fraction of what it was for me back in Poland when I was a child.

So, in a nutshell, that's what the degrowthers are trying to say: we are consuming resources and polluting the environment for tiny gains in human happiness and wellbeing.

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May 24, 2023·edited May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

> What they all share is a reliance on past trends to forecast future trends — decoupling has never happened, they say, so it won’t happen in the future.

I don't really know anything about Iceland other than spending a few weeks there on holiday but it struck me as an entire country that has decoupled. They completely deforested themselves, they destroyed their cod fisheries (in the 1930s and again more recently). They don't seem to have any actual industry or exports. (Looking at https://oec.world/en/profile/country/isl it says their #2 export is "raw fish fillets", which doesn't really scream "developed country with per capita GDP of $70,000".)

I honestly don't really understand their economy at all but they seem to continue to have economic growth while having abandoned most of their destroy the natural environment stuff.

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Re: degrowth, do you have a psychological explanation as to why this is such an appealing idea to so much of the left?

I mean it was rampant in early environmentalism (eg the long opposition to things like dishwashers) and it's only been after a long battle that some success has been had decoupling environmental concern with a dislike for progress (maybe that's why they are not creating their own seperate movement). And since the products of progress are pretty nice it seems like there must be some explanation of why there seems to be such a strong reaction by some in opposition.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

"So the degrowth people tell us quite frankly up front that this is an activist agenda. It’s not about finding the truth; degrowth people have already found their truth, which is that degrowth is desirable and good. Having decided on their conclusion, they then proceeded to look around for research that supported that conclusion (or at least, that they felt seemed to support it)."

This could describe the vibe of many activist movements. Too much ideology, not enough theorizing.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Ann Widdecombe... A name I have been pleased not to hear for more than a decade. Glad to know Widders is still as insufferable as I remember from my time in the UK. Sounds like she's moved on from scolding gays to scolding cheese sandwich eaters, a broader audience, and probably just as appreciative.

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Based on birthrates, we're going to hit peak global population this century. I'm wondering how many of our "laws of economics" contain hidden assumptions of a rising population.

Does degrowth follow naturally from a declining population? Fewer people, fewer inventions, fewer production needs, etc... Like so many human features, might we see a very long term (millennia+) oscillation between high standards of living & low birthrates vs low standards of living & high birthrates? Essentially all of Western history has been on one side of this curve. What happens when we roll over to the backside?

I don't know -- I just think it's an interesting question, and one I doubt we're going to be able to predict well in advance.. I'm reminded of Asimov's Nightfall short story, in which scientists on a planet with 5 suns all speculate on what "night" would be like and how people would react to it.

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May 24, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Branko is right. Good piece, thanks.

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May 24, 2023·edited May 25, 2023

I think being frugal is a virtue. Most Americans are driving ever larger cars and living in ever larger houses but it doesn’t really seem to make them any happier and is not good for the environment. Most serious environmentalists I know don’t own cars, have one or no kids, are vegetarians, etc, as I have been most of my life.

This is sort of spitting into the wind given most peoples desire to consume more and more stuff and our economic, political, and media (advertising) paradigm, which is in fact built on economic growth.

Something is going to have to give when the population starts seriously declining. I guess it’s far enough in the future we don’t have to figure it out now. We can look at places like Japan to have some idea.

I know that being an environmentalist is not exactly the same as being a “degrowth” person. As an economic movement, it seems wrongheaded. But they are probably at least half right about the environment. Noah seems to think that we can just merrily use more and more energy without there being any serious environmental damage. I certainly hope that he is right and I am happy to share his posts on solar energy with anyone who will listen. I would prefer to be an optimist. But I am pretty sure he is wrong. One way or another we will stop polluting so much. I hope it’s the easy way and not the hard way.

It’s good to encourage people to consume less. It should he voluntary though, not some economic policy. Unlike most of you it appear, I would hope that it catches on.

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While I don't necessarily agree with the hijacking of the term 'decolonisation' by the degrowthers, I'd suggest talking to a few indigenous Australians, Canadians or Americans before assuming that colonialism is something that's been dead and gone for 50 years.

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