Above Photo: Keith Luke on Unsplash.
I’m in the Degrowth master’s program at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and in one of my classes on housing we were asked to envision: what would a transition to a degrowth society look like in your community? I’ve lived in different parts of New England like Connecticut and Boston throughout my life, but recently moved to central Maine for the first time last year with my partner who grew up here. So, my response kind of blended elements of the places I grew up in and the town we landed in.
We are in a pivotal moment in history where we all need to earnestly explore solutions to today’s crises that are best suited to the places we live and work. If we are to be intentional about equitably meeting human needs and prospering within ecological boundaries, I believe we need to do the work of imagining that world first if we want to create it.
This is not an all encompassing vision. I don’t think all of these predictions will necessarily come true, nor do I intend to suggest these are the exact solutions that Maine or places in the wider New England region need to pursue. (I also deviate a bit from housing as I describe how I imagine other parts of society will change in relation to changing housing needs). I just enjoyed writing and imagining this and I am sharing it in hopes it inspires some creative thinking about what a desirable future can and should look like in your part of the world.
Last year, my partner and I bought a 200 year old, recently renovated farmhouse in central Maine on less than an acre of land. Our town looks similar to other small towns like it throughout New England. The population is about 3,600 people and the landscape is rural-suburban: single family homes, some small businesses, municipal buildings and farms scattered over a forested area with long, winding paved roads that cut through town because everyone gets around by car. The roads aren’t very bike-friendly, though a few fearless cyclists still use them. Some people work on farms, in the local shops and municipal offices, or remotely from home like my partner and I, but most residents commute into and often get dinner in the larger cities and towns in the area.
Imagining a transformative housing path towards degrowth from the perspective of my house and my neighborhood in central Maine means making some assumptions about the general trajectory of humanity, and New England in particular, over the next few years and decades. Using a similar narrative style to Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future, or Ted Trainer’s writings, I will do my best to write about what I know and what is plausible based on our current political climate and ecological reality. I will be somewhat optimistic in my vision so that I can highlight some changes that I would like to see.
So, here it goes.
In the next few years, the prices of all fossil fuels continue to rise. Volatility and unpredictability continues to plague our international supply chains. The labor movement pushes harder every year for higher wages, better job quality, and shorter working hours. Prices for nearly everything climb, especially imported goods. Certain foods and imported commodities become scarce. At the same time, a slew of climate-related disasters like deadly heat waves, wildfires, mega-droughts, and increasingly destructive storms shift mainstream public opinion towards urgent action on climate change and rapid decarbonization initiatives.
The federal and state governments begin to respond, first by passing laws to overhaul the building sector with renewable energy technologies. A nationwide rebate program financed by targeted federal deficit spending, and a massive jobs and training program to create the workforce necessary for this transition is created and named the Green Building Jobs Program (or GBJP). Every property owner is incentivized to install proper building insulation, geothermal energy, electrified heating and cooling systems like heat pumps, rooftop or community solar power, and other energy efficiency upgrades. While the process takes years, overall energy usage, energy costs, reliance on fossil fuels, and emissions begin to drop rapidly. The drop in emissions is even more rapid thanks to a successful labor movement’s ability to secure reduced working hours for all Americans, and remote work wherever possible. A growing number of people in my town all over New England work in renewable energy installation in GBJP-funded companies that are worker-owned and offer four-day, or 32 hour work week schedules.
Farmers in the area begin growing more food for local and regional consumption as towns in the region pass laws that incentivize shorter supply chains to reduce emissions and stimulate regional economic activity. Land used for commercial livestock purposes gradually shrinks or gives way to local food production as a number of states, including Maine, implement a tax on beef and other resource- and carbon-intensive meat products. Jobs disappear in the affected industries such as meat-packing, trucking, warehousing, and distribution. New jobs and training programs (for workers in declining industries) grow rapidly as workers are drawn into various forms of regenerative agriculture, renewable energy installation, and other emerging industries. Maine’s industrial fishing industry is impacted as well, but a large share of its workers move into the newly thriving seaweed industry which provides low carbon food options, fertilizer, and other consumer products to the regional economy.
More and more homes and farms on my street are using seaweed fertilizer, which is becoming cheap and plentiful. Local farmers markets, grocers, and CSAs include seaweed products, too. Seaweed becomes the symbol of a new cultural identity in Maine, once known around the world for its lobster. Because Maine has the longest stretch of coastline in the United States, the seaweed industry expands easily here and becomes more critical to the regional economy than lobster ever was. Even though the industry grows, the wealth is spread evenly among Maine’s communities as most seaweed companies are now worker-owned, paying above-average wages for the area, and workers spend their earnings into the local economy. Unlike other traditional industries, this growth is actually good for the planet because seaweed is a carbon neutral industry and it replaces other industries in the area that were otherwise more carbon intensive.
The push for renewables begins to put huge demand pressures on the extraction of minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Pushback from the public over creating more sacrifice zones prevents the expansion of these projects, putting upward pressure on the prices of these resources and creating delays in the nationwide renewable energy installation program. Local communities, with the help of the federal government, put more efforts into different forms of energy storage in local neighborhoods. Gravity tower batteries, geothermal energy grids, salt water batteries (especially along the coast), and other existing and emerging forms of energy storage determined by and best suited to local communities fill in the gaps. More people leave jobs in declining industries to support these projects.
Despite the growth of energy storage, cultural behavior shifts begin to put downward pressure on energy use anyway. By 2030 or so, every part of life, including every aspect of people’s homes, in some way is shaped by a culture of energy conservation. State and local governments give tax breaks to individuals who have the lowest energy usage per square foot of property (under a reasonable threshold of kWh). Lots of homes add doors between different sections of the house for trapping warm or cool air. Some climate refugees from the Southwest United States, which is suffering from massive droughts, plus heatwaves and energy shortages, move into the area. Their newly-built homes are smaller, more thoughtfully designed, and as a result, less expensive to build, buy, and maintain.
Those in Maine who do not own property also begin easily finding housing in a number of areas. In rural parts of the state, farms with enough space to share begin to offer year-round housing for those who choose to work on the farm, building on the model of WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) already long-established in Maine. As this form of living and working becomes more popular in the area, federal and state authorities recognize the model’s positive impact. Subsidies flow into rural and suburban towns to support fair, monthly wages to the farm workers (and workers in other strategically important industries like seaweed) and encourage the proliferation of these farm-housing arrangements which are solving both the food crisis and the housing crisis, creating meaningful work, and bringing economic resilience to the area.
In more urban areas, like Portland and Lewiston, funds are also directed towards retrofitting old and neglected buildings into beautiful, affordable, energy-efficient housing complexes. At the same time, city planners implement ordinances to encourage the development of “15-minute-cities” so that the neighborhoods around these housing complexes offer plenty of healthy food options, markets, shops, entertainment venues, and nearly everything one could need to live a good life within walking or cycling distance. Meanwhile, Maine’s railway system — largely abandoned in the mid-20th century due to budget cuts and the increased reliance on automobiles — reemerges and becomes an increasingly popular form of transportation, allowing more people in the area to visit different parts of the state without needing a car.
The Green Buildings Jobs Program is soon expanded into a wider federal Job Guarantee (JG) program in which state and municipal governments collaborate closely through community-based organizations and local workforce boards to design jobs that help meet the needs of both local communities and national greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets. These jobs are targeted towards the unemployed and offer an occupation, a reliable income (set at a living wage) and skill-building opportunities set at a 32 hour work week to anyone able and willing to work. In turn, this encourages employers to compete with the job guarantee by offering higher wages, even shorter and more flexible working hours, more attractive benefits, or some combination of the three. As a result, full employment in the U.S. is reached and maintained for the first time since WW2. Income inequality and wealth gaps shrink as employers realize they can no longer continue to pay their executives hundreds of times more than their lowest paid workers. Hierarchy within companies begins to dissolve into more equitable organizational models based on cooperation, mentorship, and shared responsibilities for meeting organizational goals. Worker cooperatives, which become much more common business models, embrace these values and workplaces everywhere become more democratic.
Meanwhile, people in my neighborhood have a good time learning and sharing new ways to live frugally abundant lives during this transition. My town, and other surrounding communities, begin holding an annual festival to eradicate the brown tail moth caterpillar, an invasive insect that thrives in Maine’s warming climate, defoliates trees, and causes painful rashes on one’s skin when exposed to the caterpillar’s toxic hair fibers. In late winter, when the caterpillar’s nests have yet to develop their toxic hairs and are safest to handle, people snip them out of the trees on their properties and on public lands and then meet up in neighborhoods throughout the area to burn the nests in a massive pyre. It’s cold but heat lamps powered by biogas canisters produced by home septic systems—in addition to the flaming pile of nests—provide warmth for attendees. There is music from local bands, beer served from the local breweries, a pop-up swap-shop, and vendors selling various local foodstuffs like bread and canned goods made from surplus produce. The caterpillar is eventually eradicated but the festival still happens every year because people like it.
What would a degrowth transition to a socially just and ecologically sustainable economy look like where you live?