Seeking space and light: a review of Kate Soper’s Post-Growth Living

A new book argues that the case for moving to a sustainable economic model should use the language of desire rather than sacrifice, emphasising what we might gain, not just what we might lose.

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Early every morning the commuters descend to the underground, crushing onto the choking tube train. Or they queue at the bus stop, shielding their phones from the enveloping drizzle. Or sit, waiting, in their cars as the traffic lights slowly change.

They enter nondescript offices, from which they emerge only fleetingly for the next eight — or more — hours, to grab an expensive coffee and sandwich from the crowded fast-food outlet. During the afternoon the working day stretches endlessly, as the weary eye seeks to refocus on the blinking cursor. In a couple of hours it will be time to start the journey home, for a few hours respite before it all begins again the next day.

For many it’s a kind of hell. But it has its rewards. The energy of the crowd. Conversation with colleagues. Occasional pride in work done well. The prospect of a pay packet that will afford some access to the items for sale in the shop windows that tantalise beside the offices.

And all the while, the world beyond, just out of reach, is glimpsed. The silent clouds moving over the city towers. The river moving, oblivious, past the meeting room window. The soughing trees in the park. The quiet face in the coffee shop window, watching.

Our conflicted attitude to modernity, sensing both the immanence and the seeming impossibility of another mode of life, is the subject of Kate Soper’s intriguing new book Post-Growth Living.

Soper seeks to untangle a contradiction that troubles the literature advocating a turn to a more sustainable pattern of life: how to win public consent for limiting the demands we place upon the earth when our concept of the good life is premised on the promise of endless consumption.

Appeals for sustainability often carry a moral charge, chastising us for our greed before exhorting sacrifice, or at least reconciliation to making do with less. Soper asks us to look again: to see what we might gain, not just what we might lose, by shifting to an economic model that does not compel ceaseless accumulation. She advocates an ‘alternative hedonism’ better aligned with the grain of human desire, recognising the possibility that human pleasure ‘might be made richer and stranger in a post-capitalist society.’

For Soper our ‘implicit aspirations for living differently’ are evident in the widespread, deeply felt, but often inarticulate frustrations so many express with our current way of life. Capitalist modernity promises freedom, novelty, dynamism and material abundance, yet our lives are characterised by an odd mix of discipline and licence, the promise of liberty compromised by ‘the ugly, puritanical and self-denying aspects of the high-carbon lifestyle’.

Seeing anew

Elements of the story Soper tells will resonate with many. Each morning we wake, perhaps sooner than we would like, to drive through busy streets or crowd on to trains and buses to make long, expensive journeys to unremarkable offices to do unremarkable, repetitive work. Formal workplace hierarchies may have softened somewhat, but there is a new emphasis on emotional labour, the expectation that we make a personal commitment to our companies and their brands, not just dispassionately discharge our duties. Soper shares David Frayne’s observation that employment, the supposed gateway to freedom, tends to afford us little agency, noting the paradox that ‘paid work should represent such a powerful symbol of maturity and independence, given the realities of employment as a situation of profound dependency.’

The demands that work makes on our time and energy pushes us towards more consumption, both out of necessity and for consolation. We buy convenience foods rather than prepare meals, cram exercise into gym sessions rather than take long walks, and jet off for carbon-intensive mini-breaks to ‘get away from it all’. We consume for consolation as much as pleasure, finding ephemeral satisfaction in fast fashion and the shine of the latest electronic gadget. The pressure to continually market and upgrade our employability exerts itself beyond office hours. Many evenings and weekends are spent working from home or attending networking events. Education is pursued not for its own sake, but for the employment possibilities it may open.

And yet amidst the demands of maintaining our position within the present economic order we are aware of another way of being, on edge of our vision. Soper tries not to be prescriptive about the precise form it might take, content to indicate something of the texture of the mode of being our current frustrations point towards.

It is clear it would accommodate our common desire for more time and space, reducing the current pace of our working lives, and opening new ways of working. With more time, we would be free to pursue interests outside formal employment, and to pay greater attention to the dimensions of life that current work commitments restrict, everyday tasks like cooking, home-making, and gardening.

It would seek to eliminate wasteful consumption, placing much more emphasis on the reuse and repair of existing products. Soper is keen to rehabilitate the idea of craft, as an ‘an image of an exemplary form of human activity and possible ground for future emancipation’. Slowing the pace of working life would afford more opportunity to complete tasks with care and attention.

A pattern of life that depended less on travel would encourage us to become more aware of and build a closer relationship to our local environment. We might, for example, walk and cycle more, experiencing our surroundings in new ways. Soper quotes Martin Ryle, for example, on the pleasures of cycling:

In cycling the relationship between body and machine is symbiotic. Riders are subject to rhythms that they themselves create and sustain. … This is why the first riders, manufacturers and advertisers sought to convey the pleasures of bicycle riding in images of bird-like flight and centaur-like celerity, which suggest an extension of human powers within a new, integral and still-organic being.

Reducing our consumption would mean reducing our access to cheap international travel. But relying less on the stimulation provided by distant places for novelty would encourage us to see the strangeness of what is closer to home. Soper suggests the ‘extreme contrasts to ordinary life presented by holidays in distant and culturally unfamiliar locales may even militate against the surreal and dream-like experience that can accompany a removal to somewhere closer to home yet still strangely different from normality.’ A less consumer-oriented culture would also afford opportunities to experience our urban environments in new ways, as true civic centres rather than shopping centres, with more theatres, museums, libraries, playgrounds and parks.

An ‘avant-garde nostalgia’

Soper invites us to contemplate the possibility of patterns of life that immerse us more completely in the physical world, encouraging us to experience its concrete particularity, rather than something we simply pass through, observed through a car or office window. With her emphasis on the tactile and the sensual, she seems to have in mind something akin to the Zen concept of mindfulness that asks us to attend closely to the everyday world, and thereby see it anew.

Her critique of modernity has clear parallels with those of deep greens, social conservatives, and those writing within religious or new age traditions. But here her argument takes an interesting turn. Though the future she wants would break with the circuit of relentless capital accumulation, it would not be some form of neo-medievalism, of the kind envisaged by cultural conservatives and — from the left — Ruskin and Morris, but would embrace technology, modernist aesthetics and humanist values.

Soper does want us to learn from elements of the past that embodied a certain wisdom — a less hurried relationship with time, appreciation for craft, a preparedness to reuse and repair — but in the spirit of an ‘avant-garde nostalgia’ alert to the social conservatism, parochialism, and obscurantism in which past modes of life were so often embedded.

She acknowledges that the new way of life she commends might justifiably called ‘spiritual’, but only if the word can be used without its habitual overtones of austerity, asceticism, and mysticism, insisting that her position ‘shares more with Nietzsche’s debunking of priestly asceticism, than it does with punitive self-denial of erotic and convivial pleasure.’ Indeed her critique is ‘directed more against the limited and partial rein given to such appetites in our materialistic society than against the culture of desire as such.’

But while Soper is clear that a more deliberate, less hurried existence need not retreat to some form of cultural conservatism or new monasticism, and indeed should embrace modernism and technology, she emphasises its distinction from the influential left futurism popularised in recent work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Aaron Bastani, and — to some extent — Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski.

For Soper visions of a world of Red Plenty, in which material abundance and leisure are secured through benign management of digital, automation, AI and other fourth wave technologies, threaten to entangle us within a world of machines. Everyday tasks such as domestic chores are not necessarily chores to automated away, and caring for dependants is not simply a drain on time. Even socially necessary labour — the unglamorous day-to-day work that must be undertaken to maintain our material security — can be rewarding if does not demand so much of our time as to exhaust us.

She fears the kind of always-on, networked world envisaged by digital utopians would further overwhelm us with information overload, crowding out the ‘subtler properties of language, its potential for irony and its connotative richness, whose apprehension requires sustained and careful attention, at risk when speed of access and ease of understanding are at a premium.’

For Soper ambitions for some kind of fully automated luxury communism are conditioned by capitalist desires for an uninhibited materialism, which, even if we should want it, cannot be realised on a finite planet, and are doomed forever to contemplate ‘an ever-receding utopian horizon of universal plentitude’. She reserves some of the book’s most scathing passages for some of more promethean passages in Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future:

In recommending a fascination with space travel “and all the traditional touchstones of science fiction’” for the way they “can feed a utopian imaginary beyond the profit motive”, Srnicek and Williams appear surprisingly unaware of how conventional and banal (and environmentally unsound — and boyish?) these astronautical fantasies can seem.

New life, new problems

Srnicek and Williams might respond that Soper’s position exemplifies the ‘folk politics’ their book subjected to influential criticism: the tendency of left radicals to present shimmering visions of new societies without specifying the political institutions and economic systems through which they might be realised, or indeed how the political challenges their implementation would confront might be navigated.

And Soper is indeed vague about the political and economic structures that might allow for the world she envisages. She points to emergent networks of exchange that model ways forward — like Slow City, Slow Food Buen Vivir, and New American Dream — encouraging reuse, car-pooling, the multiple use of household and gardening tools, and land sharing.

She refers to ‘communally owned enterprises and cooperatives’, freed from compulsion to produce as much as possible, as vehicles for the new forms of work she envisages. As to whether their realisation requires ‘a break with capitalism as we now know it’ or ‘require at the very least a highly regulated version of it’, she is not sure. Certainly it would seem unlikely that her vision could be realised through capitalism, a system that compels its participants to prioritise perpetual growth as a condition of their survival.

Soper’s thoughts on how the transition to a new society might be engineered are still more nebulous. She is sceptical about the left’s belief that system change ultimately depends upon labour’s capacity to disrupt capital, placing her hopes instead in the emergence of some form of green-left coalition

But Post-Growth Living is not intended as political strategy, or a blueprint for new political and economic structures of the kind detailed in the now extensive literature on degrowth and the circular economy. Soper is appealing to our imagination, suggesting how we might reconcile the necessity of material limit as an opportunity rather than a threat: ‘Alternative hedonist thinking about the good life, which alters conceptions of self-interest among affluent consumers, can thus play a critically important part in setting off a relay of political pressures for a fairer and more sustainable economic order.’

Soper’s ideas have clear parallels with the aspirations of the countercultures of the late 1960s and early 1970s to channel technology towards a sustainable, equitable future. Inspired by programmes and manifestos such as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, movements like the New Communalists sought to blend computing, cybernetics and modernist architecture to develop technologically sophisticated yet sustainable forms of life, efforts manifested in brief but potent experiments like Drop City in Colorado, a rural community organised into a cluster of geodesic domes modelled after the designs of Buckminster Fuller.

Something of the spirit of that movement, and Soper’s text, is captured in the feminist science fiction of the early 1970s, perhaps most famously Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, an uncanny realisation of a technologically advanced anarchist society in the tradition of Murray Bookchin and Peter Kropotkin.

Le Guin’s novel neatly highlights the challenges that might be encountered by a steady-state social system of the kind imagined by Soper. Her anarchists succeed in designing a society that breaks the circuit of capitalist accumulation, but in doing so generates new frustrations, notably an uneasy sense among its members that their world lacks the visceral dynamism of the neighbouring, capitalist world the founders of their community had left behind. In a perceptive commentary Jasper Bernes suggested that capitalist ‘growth will always mean unfree development, with humans subordinated to an economy that proceeds automatically rather than in accord with their needs; LeGuin, for her part, shows that a steady-state system is no solution, either, as it lacks the dynamism, open-endedness and futurity which people value and desire. We need, then, a development without growth, a history without progress.’

Here, Bernes frames perhaps the sharpest question we might ask of Soper’s ideal: can it offer adequate space for human restlessness, and make room for the inevitable advance of technology that would occur in a free society. Can the desire for technological and other forms of novelty flourish in a system beyond capitalism?

Another important question is raised by Soper herself. Her vision might seem somewhat elitist: a paradise for middle-class intellectuals, perhaps, but not necessarily for all. She anticipates the criticism, suggesting that the pressures capitalism places on us limit our capacity to imagine a life beyond, a capacity that only some enjoy in our present circumstances. We have ‘to speak of the privilege of appreciating what money can’t buy: which is itself the privilege of other privileges, namely, of a caring and supportive family background, extended education and the self-knowledge and confidence all that provides.’

These are serious challenges to Soper’s thesis. But her book succeeds in showing that one path towards a more sustainable society might be in plain view: limiting our capacity to consume may be understood as working with the grain of human desire rather than against it. With Post-Growth Living Kate Soper gives us a fresh, wise and elegantly written contribution to sustainability literature.

Post-Growth Living by Kate Soper is published by Verso Books.

Written by

A London-based business writer and essayist. Find me at translucence.io and @_translucid.

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