books growth

Book review: Degrowth in the Suburbs, by Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson

The suburbs are an easy target for environmental campaigners, often written off as the fountainhead of unsustainable consumerism, sprawling and soul-less. To writers like James Howard Kunstler, they are a tragedy and a waste.

Alexander and Gleeson see something else. They see the potential for the ‘new world suburbs’ of their native Australia to be radically reimagined. They also argue that if there is ever to be a true postgrowth future, it will be a bottom-up transformation, not a government-led transition. It will need a mass movement of ordinary people, and in developed countries that means the suburbs.

The suburbs are the archetypal landscape of consumerism. Acquisition and material progress are its defining dreams, getting our own place and filling it with nice things. It’s individualistic by design. The lifestyles of the suburbs are entirely dependent on fossil fuel transportation, and thus, it is on borrowed time. Oil depletion will make it less viable, and the suburbs will have to choose between a deliberate transition to a more sustainable model, or a fundamental breakdown of how it works.

In this, the authors are rather counter-cultural, given the falling silent of the peak oil community. (A lot of people think the boom in unconventional oil has refuted the theory, when the opposite is true: we’re fracking and digging tar sands precisely because conventional oil production has peaked.) Degrowth in the Suburbs argues that oil supplies will decline, and that renewable energy won’t be able to make up the difference. The book’s opening chapters outline the critical dependencies of the suburbs, and why there is no technological revolution coming to the rescue. This is not a popular message, as the prevailing assumption is that we can switch to renewable energy and electric vehicles and more or less continue as we did before.

Governments favour these easy options because they have to support economic growth, and the book helpfully outlines the growth imperatives that tie their hands. Ultimately governments cannot deliver on an agenda that involves downsizing consumption or energy, or a shorter working week, or many of the other measures that would support a transition beyond growth. This is counter-cultural too. Most books on these sorts of topics have policy suggestions for government. We got feedback along these lines on our own book, and were encouraged to write more about policy. But Alexander and Gleeson argue that no government will push for degrowth, and nor should they if society doesn’t welcome it. So we should be directing our energies to the grassroots, and a bottom-up transition.

“If it is the case that the zebra of growth capitalism will not change its stripes, it arguably follows that people should not dedicate their efforts towards convincing it to do so, no matter how desirable that top-down change may be” say the authors. Instead, “the areas that have the greatest leverage lie amongst the grassroots of social movements and culture, not in parliament or the courts.”

On a practical level, that means re-imagining the suburbs through retro-fitting, urban farming, reducing car dependency and encouraging walking and cycling. Some environmental measures are particularly well suited to the suburbs, such as biogas – common in China and almost unheard of at the domestic level in the West. Degrowth comes out of the suburbs as people choose a slower, simpler way of life, reducing their consumption and disconnecting themselves from the demands of the market society. Whether such a movement could ever be large enough to make a difference is a moot point, and the authors aren’t optimistic about the chances of degrowth generally. “We do not argue that degrowth is likely, only that it is the most coherent response to the global predicament, and thus deserves critical attention.”

Degrowth in the Suburbs is not a how-to manual. It’s a more academic work than that, and it looks like the publisher is pitching the book more at university libraries than at activists and practitioners. This is a challenge to sustainability theorists to think more creatively about the suburbs, to connect degrowth and grassroots movements, and to resist inadequate but politically palatable solutions.

However, if you’re ready to start and it’s the manual that you need, the authors recommend David Holmgren’s RetroSuburbia.

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