Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it

Diverse commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing, and future well-being.
Diverse leftist commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing and future well-being. But rarely do they define what they mean by economic growth.

by Aaron Vansintjan

Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.

One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.

When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.

Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.

In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position. 


Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!

Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.

This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economicsa “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”

Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.

With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.

Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.

What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.

Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.


This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.

In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:

Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.

So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:

Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.


This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.

In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:

Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.

As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:

Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.

Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.

The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.

 Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse. 

The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.

His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.

Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).

Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:

Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.

Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.

Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 

Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 


So what needs to degrow?

Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Most available evidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.

Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.

Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).

There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.

So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.

But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, as I argue in my next piece, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.

Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.

Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.

To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.

Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.

So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.

But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.

And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.

In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.

Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.

Thanks to Sam Bliss, Grace Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

The problem with REDD+

A barge transporting logs in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Source: CIFOR

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

When people take to the streets and demand climate justice, they expect their elected leaders to step up and address the drivers of what is clearly the largest global crisis humanity has ever faced. However, the so-called “solutions” that were brought to the table for COP 21 in Paris last week are anything butinstead they deflect attention away from consumption patterns linked to the burning of fossil fuels.

These strategies are devised by powerful corporations and government partners as a literal and metaphorical “smokescreen” for the real drivers of deforestation and carbon release to the atmosphere, including monoculture expansion of palm oil and soybean, oil and minerals extraction, industrial logging and mega-infrastructure projects.

REDD+ is a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.  

One of the most subtle and sinister “solutions” promoted by the UN, the World Bank and other global development institutions is REDD+, which stands for (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The “+” is meant to incorporate other environmental or development priorities, including biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation. US$ 10 billion has been pledged for addressing climate change through REDD+, though not many have heard about what this strategy is all about.  

Some people say REDD+ sends a signal that safeguarding forests through performance-based payments is key to combatting climate change. Maybe they are right, but the way in which REDD+ is framed also paves the way for appropriation of the landscape while reducing the capabilities of forest peasants to take control over their own development futures. While forests protection plays a vital role for maintaining critical ecological processes and the well-being of the people that depend on them, REDD+ does not place the forest at its heart. It is instead a cost-shifting mechanism, a potential get-rich scheme for local elites, and a placating strategy to prepare the broader landscape for the accumulation of “new” capital.  

REDD+ is premised on reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. While it is true that deforestation amounts to 25-30 percent of carbon emissions and is a major factor influencing climate change, carbon sequestered by trees is vastly different from sequestering carbon by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Firstly, it is a challenging endeavour to measure carbon emissions in an accurate and transparent manner, with many measurements tens of thousands of tons of CO2 off the mark.

Secondly, trees are unstable and only temporary repositories of sequestered carbon, since the carbon they store will eventually be returned to the atmosphere. Re-release of carbon might occur much faster than “expected” due to climate-induced forest fires. Indeed, just three weeks of raging forest fires in Indonesia have released more CO2 than Germany’s entire annual emissions.

It’s as though we are placing the blame on (remaining) tropical forests for not sequestering enough carbon when it is in fact actual carbon emissions through the burning of fossil fuels which has brought us to the brink of the climate catastrophe we face. Of course, it is all the more easy to place the burden on tropical forests for solving our climate problems when they conveniently reside in countries out of sight and out of mind from where carbon-intensive development paths occur, and of course where costs of taking responsibility for climate change are the cheapest. This is an all too-convenient recipe for shifting environmental costs and accountability of actions.

REDD+ implementation event at the FAO. Source: ©FAO/Roberto Cenciarelli

REDD+ projects are carried out by businesses or development NGOs in industrialized countries who pay communities residing in tropical forest areas, mainly in the Global South, to prevent forest destruction from happening, whereby it must be evident that deforestation would otherwise happen if payments are not forthcoming. The amount of payment provided by the industrialized country partner reflects the tonnage of carbon, linked to its price on the global carbon market, which is saved from being released into the atmosphere due to forest protection.

Damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.

The stipulation that the payment provided for forest protection and carbon sequestration has prevented the forest from being destroyed and that the forest continuously be safeguarded from destruction is important for the industrial country funders, who aim to score carbon-credits from the deal. These credits serve as “rights to pollute”—something of a reward for having done a good deed, in this case for paying to supposedly prevent deforestation from occurring. The incredulous, almost farcical nature of this arrangement becomes disturbingly obvious. The polluting country or company, who has been responsible for the majority of carbon emissions up until now, suddenly has the right to continue burning fossil fuels and releasing CO2 as before.

The tropical forests of the Global South are a precious new commodity to squabble over, this time with billions of dollars backing the potential spoils and rich countries as new rights-holders of land locked away for carbon offsetting the continued economic development of rich countries. This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.

As social anthropologist Melissa Leach and colleagues of the University of Sussex have argued, mainstream economics has successfully attributed value both in the exploitation of the environment and natural resources for growth in manufactured goods, but in recent times have also determined the potential for market creation in the repair of the environment in the name of “sustainability.”

This is the same image of colonization that we’ve seen time and again, but this time with a surreptitiously green face.

This new economic driver of environmental repair combined with the classical economic driver of resource extraction and resulting environmental degradation work in concert to extract the maximum value out of nature irrespective of whomever or whatever is in the way. In this way, damage to the environment and rehabilitating the damage both become socially justifiable market opportunities to spur economic growth.

REDD+ would be flawed even if the payments were targeted to major drivers of deforestation in the Global South, namely industrial-scale agriculture for commodities such as soybean and palm oil. This is because overall carbon stocks would not be reducing—which is ultimately what is so badly needed if we are to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. Without underestimating the important role that tropical forests could play in storing carbon, it would make far greater sense to curtail the burning of fossil fuels and other carbon-emitting activities and prioritize actions to halt carbon emission at the source.

However, what is so heinous about this situation is that REDD+ projects do not target those responsible for large-scale deforestation, but instead target poor shifting cultivators whose forest-dwelling livelihoods and associated socio-cultural knowledge systems and practices become ‘priced-out’ by the market because they are too low to compete with, in this case, the value of carbon for Western countries to keep polluting.

For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder- a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place.

As a recent report by GRAIN highlights, REDD+ proponents place the blame for deforestation on peasants under the guise of “slash-and-burn” farming practices, yet conveniently ignore and even simultaneously support the industrial palm-oil plantations, infrastructure projects and intensified agriculture strategies that are the real drivers of tropical deforestation.

The gospel of neoclassical economics explain this apparent contradiction, since the “opportunity costs” of paying off peasants for deforestation is overwhelmingly lower than halting the real drivers of deforestation. As the report emphasizes, this is a way for industrialized countries to pay very little, yet say they are doing something to combat climate change, while failing to reduce their historical and continued contributions to deforestation through the export of commodity crops and for mega-infrastructure projects largely to service resource extraction operations.

COP 20 side event: REDD+ Emerging? What we can learn from subnational initiatives. Source: CIFOR

For forest-dwelling communities who depend on forest areas for food security, housing, medicines and fodder, REDD+ projects which lock forests away for carbon mean that meeting basic human needs become all the more harder—a tough and very unfair price to pay for people who had very little to do with the climate crisis in the first place. Meanwhile, peasants desperate to feed their children continue venturing into the forest, risking fines and imprisonment. Where attempts, in response to donor requirements, are made by REDD+ project proponents to facilitate livelihood transitions to sustainable agriculture or ecotourism, project funds are often limited and short-lived, leaving communities with less capabilities than before the project started.

Just when you might wonder how this situation could get any more flawed, it doesn’t stop there! The strict contract obligations of REDD+ effectively immobilize peasant communities from achieving basic human needs of food and fodder for the duration of the project period (upwards of 10 years or more) while providing them “payment” which gets siphoned away through a cascading chain of carbon companies, auditors establishing certification standards, international consultants, conservation NGOs and “green” venture capitalists from primarily industrialized countries all seeking to grab a piece of the lucrative REDD+ pie before it ever reaches the community.

Contracted communities become legally bounded to follow suit with the terms of the carbon buyers in the West, even as many of the project documents are written in English rather than in local languages and introduce a seemingly foreign value of the forest for its ‘carbon’ which has little if any meaning for forest communities.

As this process unfolds, the already marginalized and now REDD-trapped forest communities are no longer a hindrance to the expansion of industrial agriculture, the mega-infrastructure projects, rare earth mineral exploration or commodity crop monocultures. Thus, despite having rights to the land, these rights become effectively weakened, since under REDD+, it is the carbon buyers who decide how the land is to be used and not the rightful owners of the land.

In essence, REDD+ sets the stage for a resource grab “free for all” under a swish green banner, while demonizing marginalized peoples as threats to the forest and ultimately inducers of climate change.

International Forum on Payments for Environmental Services of Tropical Forests. Source: FAO

The “Cartel of the Parties”

So who are these REDD+ proponents who are advancing this climate “solution” at COP 21 in Paris? It is startling to note that those groups that society has tasked with solving humanity’s social and environmental crises are the foremost advocates for REDD+.

WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are some of the leading proponents as they team up with some of the world’s most notorious climate polluters including Unilever, Syngenta, Monsanto, McDonalds, Walmart and Nestlé, whose business activities depend on actively promoting wholesale deforestation and depletion of soil fertility through dependence on commodity crops such as soybean and palm oils.

In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.

Another major player is the private investment arm of the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which paves the way for these corporations to access previously unexploited lands through promises of new markets and “environmental stewardship” for corporate social responsibility via carbon offsetting through REDD+ projects, among other similar ploys.

As James Fairhead and colleagues at the University of Sussex have suggested, the Conference of the Parties is in reality more of a “Cartel of the Parties” involving international development banks, conservation NGOs, the private sector and government agencies who are all dead-set on advancing the “green” economy, through which nature presents itself as a lucrative investment opportunity to permit market expansion and access deeper into the commodity frontier while paving the way for more traditional resource extractivist markets to gain a stronger foothold around the world. In this latest stage of capital accumulation, green is the new gold for the stock brokers of the global North who view tropical forest regions of the Global South as value that must be reaped and brought back home.

UNFF11 event: Strengthening finance for sustainable forest management. Source: FAO


Demanding an end to neo-colonialism

What then does it take to demand action on climate change for COP 21? What should COP 21 really be about? Well, besides the fact that strong measures to curtail climate change should have been made at COP 1, rather than waiting for 20 years, here are five forgotten agendas:

1. Limiting land-use practices and industrial activities that add further Greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and which depend on industrial agriculture involving the over-application of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides that deplete soil nutrients and damage water sources. These practices originate from over-developed countries whose demand-driven development trajectories have meant outsourcing industrial food production and resource extractive activities throughout the world to satisfy grossly unsustainable domestic consumption.

2. By turns, this means that an overhaul of the current industrial food trading system must be at the heart of any climate deliberation. Agri-business corporations with their herbicide-infused genetically-modified seeds must be heavily regulated by governments to prevent dangerous climate change from occurring. As an important positive spinoff, regulating these companies would also diversify the food system and open opportunities to give living-wages back to millions of farmers around the world.

3. A climate solution must put the self-determination, food sovereignty and basic needs of resource-dependent communities at the forefront of any sustainable natural resource management initiative. This means resource use, access, and management rights must be prioritized for forest-dwelling communities to collectively manage their own resources, facilitated by domestic policies which encourage sustainable soil management. In order to achieve this aim, it is absolutely crucial to be clear as to who wins and who loses from strategies such as REDD+ or any other proposed “solution” that emerges from the Paris agreement. Rather than seeking climate policy panaceas, closer historical, socio-cultural and political scrutiny is required to understand when and where any given strategy can be successful and what kinds of unintended repercussions might occur as a result of its widespread promotion and implementation.

4. Dismantling the myth of the “green economy” that, rather than addressing the drivers of climate change, only serves to deflect blame away from those perpetuating climate crimes while permitting new opportunities to exploit marginalized communities as indentured labour to service new markets for nature. Falling under this strategy includes the increasing appropriation of agricultural land for biofuels, which creates the same alienating effects on communities who depend on their land for food security. Similarly problematic are investments in green start-up technologies by green venture capitalists who demand double-dividend returns in the name of financing an energy-efficiency revolution. Such an approach fails to come to terms with the Jevon’s Paradox: that increasing improvements in energy efficiencies become quickly over-compensated by ever-increasing consumptive demands fueled by unchecked economic growth.

5. Rather than permitting over-developed regions of the world to continue exploiting resources and people for their benefit, solutions that emerge through indigenous knowledge and non-Westernised knowledge systems are critical for re-balancing the social-ecological equilibrium of our planet. This socio-cultural conundrum is substantially more challenging than addressing the global climate crisis, as it requires an active process of “unlearning” what the West has taught the world, often through systems of oppression, as to what constitutes “development.”


Anything short of seriously considering these five points will once again result in a political circus that reinforces neoliberal strategies and colonial geo-political manoeuvres. If citizens of the world demand fair and just solutions to address climate change, we must not allow our elected leaders and national negotiators to blindly advocate for strategies such as REDD+. The devil is really in the details!


Vijay Kolinjivadi, PhD, is a researcher of the Ecological Economics research group at McGill University. His research has led him to report on the dangers of commodifying nature and to identify how and when human-nature relationships can be resilient in the face of inevitable change. He enjoys traveling and reading in grassy meadows among other things.

A version of this article was originally published on truthout.


How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.
The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Source: IC Magazine.

by Gabriel Levy

This article originally appeared on the blog, People and Nature.


Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments. And first – addressing ourselves to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the talk Sasha Lilley gave at the Planetary Natures conference: “limits” discourse tends towards a sort of left catastrophism, a left austerity plan that says “there is no alternative”, and that whatever political agenda we are advocating is a dictate of nature. This is true of some strands of eco-Marxism that in the 1960s and 1970s picked up some of the thinking of ecological economists and environmentalists about limits, and presented a sort of survivalist argument for the transition to socialism. I think this is in fact a deeply conservative position, and I am uneasy with the idea that a survivalist politics could lead to a liberatory programme. [Note. Sasha Lilley puts her case against left catastrophism in this interview here and this video here.]


Let me probe a little more what you mean by absolute limits and relative limits. Let’s take the most important example: there is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gases that can be put it into the atmosphere over the next few decades, if the serious damage to human society already implicit in rising sea levels and other outcomes of global warming is to be contained. Of course the climatologists don’t exactly know where it is because of the inexact nature of the science. But there is no doubt that that limit is out there. People try to quantify it e.g. by talking about 350ppm [i.e. 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere] as a safe limit.

Yes, but even that limit is still being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The commitments made by various countries don’t seem to offer much hope for actually staying below even a 2ºC increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times, which is what many climate scientists think is an acceptable level of risk. But at the talks last year in Lima there were still countries demanding that warming stay under 1.5º. Small island states for example were saying that 1.5º or 2ºof temperature increase doesn’t look the same all over the world, that the 2ºmark privileges the interests of Northern countries. So the limits look very different depending on where you are. There are certainly tipping points, so reference to global average temperature, parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc. is a necessary way of marking those tipping points. But what our relationship is to that limit, how we deal with it – that’s a political question. (See for example the policy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum within the UNFCCC.)

Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of.

There are limits, and some of them are absolute in the sense that, if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will experience unacceptable levels of global warming. But where talk about limits becomes problematic is when we look at that type of tipping point and suggest that it dictates a particular socio-political future. Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of, and that underestimates the adaptability of capitalism at overcoming such limits. It may well be that capital can go on accumulating long after we’ve traversed certain thresholds that would make life on Earth intolerable for most humans and animals.

We therefore have to talk about what the limits are that bound our desirable conditions of existence. That’s a political question, although that doesn’t mean that humans are entirely in control of the answer to it.


You have been researching the political and social context of the 1970s, in which the Limits to Growth report appeared. Could you say something about this?

I have been doing some reading about how that report fitted into the broader conversations in the 1970s about the new international political order and what a multilateral order might to look like. One thing I have found interesting is the way that the idea of natural resources as a global commons, coupled with a notion of biophysical limits, cuts both ways politically. On one hand it can operate in a progressive register: it says that we all live on this earth and have some responsibility of stewardship. But in the 1970s, it also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources – for example the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution, which was only beginning to be discussed at that time, mainly in terms of “pollution havens” for corporations. The ability to enact environmental controls and to govern exhaustible resources was at stake for third world countries in many of those conversations.

The language of the global commons sounds very progressive. And the idea of “limits to growth” can serve to protect that vision, but it can also serve a neo-colonial purpose. Again, in the 1970s, the argument that scarce resources really belong to everyone – and so they shouldn’t be entrusted to national governments whose interests aren’t shared by the “global community” – was useful, for instance, to the industrial elite that made up the Club of Rome. The political implications of these types of ideas can therefore vary quite dramatically.

In the 1970s, the notion of biophysical limits also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources


The context was the so-called “energy crisis”, which was more than anything about a sudden increase in the price of energy sources, especially oil, for rich nations, who then had to adjust their strategy towards other nations, especially poor nations, who were producing it.

Yes. And that takes us back to the question of control. What level of control did those producing states – such as [the oil producing countries’ group] OPEC, in this example – have over their resources, vis-a-vis multinational corporations that might have different interests?


You have found some work by the Bariloche institute in Argentina, that offered an alternative to the Limits to Growth report produced by the Club of Rome. What was their approach?

Their critique of the original report, which was similar to those made by many different commentators, was that it had a very first-world-centric approach, one that located global problems in third-world population growth. The Bariloche model criticised this Western-centric and Northern-centric perspective, and the way that the Limits to Growth model was presented as a supposedly objective picture of global limits without a normative valence.

The Bariloche model was, in the words of one of its designers, intended to be a response from the South to the Limits to Growth report … to say look, modelling does not just give us an objective representation of the world; it is a technology to enact and explore the possibility for certain kinds of futures. They therefore proposed a counter-model oriented towards exploring the biophysical basis for an international socialism. However, they positioned their vision of socialism between state socialism, which was the dominant model at the time, and market capitalism, to say essentially – what would a democratic, decentralised socialist or egalitarian system look like, and what are its biophysical conditions of possibility? That is, what are the biophysical conditions for creating what they called an egalitarian world? The designers framed it as a Latin American model, but one that aspired to be a third world model, recognizing that Latin America didn’t stand in for the third world. But that was their goal – to use modelling as a technology for envisioning alternative political futures from a third world perspective.


You have looked at the emergence in the 1970s of ecological economics and resilience theory. Your conclusion on resilience theory is that it “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”. But you are not saying, if I have understood correctly, that socialists or anti-capitalists should ignore or write off resilience literature. In the conclusions of your article on resilience you say that we should ask “how the forms of control exercised under the rubric of adaptability may present new possibilities for resistance”. I took that to mean that you suggest taking as a starting point the integration of social and ecological, the rejection of a dualism, in the resilience literature, but rejecting the way that that literature normalises capitalist social relations.

There is much to say about the relationship between ecological economics and resilience, which mainly came together in the Beijer Institute in Sweden and in some workshops in Stanford as well.

Both of those fields were quite heterodox in the 1970s. Ecological economics was articulating a vision which was not neo-liberal and not even fully market-oriented, but one that demanded state control to constrain resource use and population growth to certain kinds of limits, within which market activity can operate. Within those limits it wanted to say that prices would determine the best distribution of environmental goods and bads, and resources in general, but it didn’t advocate a wholesale marketisation of everything. I think that it registered a broader crisis in the economy and wanted to re-establish economic and ecological equilibrium on a global scale through a sort of capitalist planned economy – an interesting mix of planning and markets.

Resilience theory, for its part, has been critiqued by many people as having an analogous resemblance to neoliberalism. It advocates decentralised planning and adaptive management approaches that enable systems – whether ecological, economic, or social – to move through various equilibria. It therefore doesn’t try to stave off a crisis by maintaining stability, but by increasing the system’s flexibility or “resilience” to disturbance, and even its ability to absorb and redirect those disturbances to its own advantage. Many critics have argued that resilience takes this ecological metaphor and applies it to social systems in a way that naturalizes the experience of economic and ecological crisis. They have pointed out that, in its demand for decentralised control and flexible management under crisis conditions, it looks a lot like the neoliberal imaginary.

However, what interests me about resilience is that, especially in its earlier articulations, it really is developed as a universal theory. It’s not just an ecological theory that’s later applied to other things. From the very beginning of his work on resilience in the 1970s, Charles Holling, the ecologist who developed it, is interested in asking: how applicable are these principles to industrial planning, to organisations, to economic and social systems in general? He was working at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, exploring this.

I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.

In those conversations, which were very interdisciplinary, the relationship between planning and markets, and decentralised and centralised control, was still under discussion. I see resilience as a symptom of a broader crisis of management paradigms in both ecology and industry, and one whose basic conceptual framework does not necessarily lead to neoliberal policy proscriptions. In this way, I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.


You also argue, if I understood correctly, that the same driving forces that push capitalism at its current stage to disrupt and damage the ecological space in which humans live are essentially the same forces that spread into the sphere of social reproduction, and that we need an analysis that brings all these things together. In your article on Limits to Growth, you quote Suzanne Schultz, who wrote: “It is not that the boundary between production and reproduction has been effaced, but that it has been transformed, requiring new analytical approaches. Your conclusion: resilience theory “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”.

Again, going back to the 1970s, Marxist feminists such as Silvia Federici, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and many others theorised the crisis of Fordist-Keynesianism in terms of a crisis of reproduction – among other things, a breakdown of the gender relations that ensured the reproduction of the labour force. Federici looked to the work of economists in that moment to argue that their efforts to quantify the contributions of housework to GDP [gross domestic product], alongside the expansion of the service economy, was a manifestation of this crisis of reproduction. I think we can certainly see a parallel development in economic thinking at the time concerning the environment. That is, both ecological and environmental economists are asking: how can we account for this other sphere of important productive activity – the “work” of biospheric reproduction, we might call it – that economics, in its narrow mode of looking at production in terms of GDP, can’t comprehend? We can therefore see environmental reproduction as the other side of the coin of social reproduction and the reproduction of labour power in the way that it is brought into economic thinking in the 1970s.

Much of this early work starts to describe biophysical functions such as absorption of pollution, the function of wetlands to mitigate flooding, or even the production of soils through composting, in sort of infrastructural terms – that is, as a whole array of systems whose functioning underpins the economy as it was formulated in mainstream economics.

This view I think is really the precedent for what we now think of as ecosystem services, which has become a dominant discourse in the present. Based on the idea that ecosystems perform “services” – such as carbon sequestration – that are useful to people, we have a whole generation of payment- and market-based programmes to finance conservation and, at times, to commodify these services, for instance through emissions markets. Sometimes this involves paying landowners to perform certain conservation activities based on the idea that these produce such services. That infrastructural conception of resources is being talked about in the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of “how do we account for these reproductive functions?” They don’t use those terms, but that’s my reading of it.

If we think of ecosystem services as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

What interests me, and what I mentioned in the article, is: if we think about this as a repositioning of the division between productive and reproductive labour, such that what was devalued and made invisible as reproductive labour is coming into view in a certain way, then it changes the political questions we can ask. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement made the basic point: “It’s not enough to say just that we don’t want to participate in the wage economy and have our labour alienated. What about those of us who are precisely excluded from that economy on the basis of our supposed natural instinct to be mothers, or to do housework, or whatever?” They really posed that problem. And there is a similar problem implicit in the critique of payments for ecosystems services, or other market-based conservation schemes.

Some critics suggest that payment programmes corrupt ecological values by paying people to do this work, or are concerned with how market-based conservation is implicated in further alienating people from nature. Those critiques are not wrong; they have their place. But if we think of this as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?

That’s where I find the work of those Marxist feminist thinkers useful, in dealing with that problem. What would a critical abstraction of “ecosystem services” look like? What would a non-capitalist “ecosystem service” economy look like? That’s not a question that the critical literature has asked, but it’s one that I think is really interesting. I don’t have any answers for it!

Maybe it’s actually happening in some places, and I think there is some emerging research on case studies that has started to point to it. For instance Bolivia is trying to develop a compensation programme for stewardship of ecological resources in non-market ways. Not that Bolivia is a perfect example. But there is a lot of heterogeneity in payment for ecosystem services programmes – programmes for compensating people for “ecosystem services”, which might be in the form of direct payment for conservation work, in kind, compensation for not farming parts of their land –  and it’s worth trying to look at them and think about the differences between them. Proponents and critics alike see these as market-based programmes, but there is a great deal of difference among them.


An issue running through all these discussions on society and environment is the repeated re-appearance of different types of Malthusianism. In one of your articles you mentioned Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, advocating “transferable birth licences”, in line with this ideology of control. How significant is this?

Such ideas are hugely pervasive. In the 1970s, all these conversations were going on in the context of a real – or at least a perceived – crisis of the international order and the role of the US and Europe in that order. A big fear that came out was a xenophobic anxiety about the rise of the third world in the form of population growth as one really important vein in environmental thought. I taught a course on population in my department a couple of times, and I asked students to read the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – it is a graphic description of his drive through Delhi and his horror at the masses of poor people. It shows an incredibly visceral response to the bodies of Indian people that Ehrlich perceives as being excessive and abundant.


I know the passage you mean. How strong do you think that is in environmentalism today?

I think a lot of it comes out in discourses about climate refugees, and about the causes of climate change. For instance, the idea that in order to address deforestation, we should offer certain incentives to small farmers, as if they are the main culprit and there are not much larger drivers behind their actions. A ton of market-based conservation programmes are targeted at individuals as drivers of ecological problems – and not at structural economic drivers. These programmes ask: “How do we incentivise the poor to change their behaviour?” Which is really the same paternalistic and anti-political attitude that informed early population control programmes. It’s just not quite as targeted at reproductive bodies; it’s in this ecologically reproductive mode. In that sense Malthusianism is still quite powerful.

Getting back to Daly’s original idea, however, there actually exists a UK organisation called Pop Offsets where you can purchase a carbon credit by financing the so-called “unmet need” for family planning – the idea is that you’re offsetting the carbon emissions associated with another human life on the planet. So it comes full circle.


To what extent has the left put together a convincing alternative? I completely agree with your complaints about catastrophism that says, “if we don’t overthrow capitalism tomorrow we’re all doomed”. But how far has the left gone in responding to these Malthusian logic?

That is a hard question! And I’m not equipped to answer it. But I will say that political actions alone do not necessarily articulate a viable alternative. Scholarship and political theory can asses the conditions of possibility for other alternatives and how do we might strategically build on those. But I don’t think political theorising, or even political action, has to come in the form of articulating a coherent vision of a future political order – it comes in the form of refusing the claim that there is no alternative and insisting that there are alternatives. Again, that’s where I see Malthusianism as disempowering, as it forecloses alternatives. What those alternatives are is worked out in an emergent political process.

As a side note, one reason that Malthusianism looks different in contemporary environmental movements – and is much less pronounced today – is that many formerly third world countries vehemently resisted that discourse. In fact the emergence of the environment as a political object was really mobilised very powerfully by poorer nations, to resist the neocolonial relations that still stucture the international order. The politics of the environment today is shaped by resistance on any number of fronts. The narrative that argues that in environmental crises we simply see capitalism playing out its contradictions really obscures that resistance, in a way that is not politically empowering.

Indian agricultural workers’ protest in India. Photo from La Via Campesina South Asia

So are we talking about movements of landless farmworkers, or Bolivia’s refusal to go along with multinational companies?

There are a million examples in the past several decades: global indigenous organising, the landless peasants’ movement, and other grassroots movements. And also on the part of governments – taking seriously the internal political contradictions in Bolivia, in terms of its recognition of the “rights of Mother Earth” (Pachamama) in its constitution, while it also remains economically dependent on an extractive economy and grapples with land conflicts among various indigenous movements – Bolivia has been extremely active in international fora such as the UNFCCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to use environmental discourse to articulate an anti-neoliberal agenda. Since the Stockholm Convention on the Environment in 1972, formerly third world nations have intervened in the politics of the environment in a way that has had real geopolitical implications. For instance, the Convention on Biological Diversity was something of a watershed moment for Southern countries gaining control over resources subject to biopiracy.

There are multiple logics at work in determining what the environment means as a political object, how it’s articulated, and how it’s mobilised. That’s sometimes overlooked in narratives that see only triumphant neo-liberalism doing its thing.


Sara Holiday Nelson is a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s.

Gabriel Levy is an activist in the workers’ movement from the UK. He writes the People & Nature blog that reflects his interest in the relationship of socialism and ecology. He has been visiting Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan since Soviet times.

Cinco argumentos a favor del decrecimiento

A pig eating an old car, from the film Black Cat White Cat

Un cerdo comiendo un coche viejo, extraído de la película Gato negro, Gato blanco


Giorgos Kallis

The English version of this article is available here

El desarrollo sostenible y su reencarnación más reciente, el crecimiento verde, prometen la imposible hazaña de continuar el crecimiento económico sin dañar el medioambiente. Los defensores del decrecimiento, a diferencia, no pretenden apostar por un desarrollo mejor ni más verde, sino idear y aplicar una visión alternativa al desarrollo moderno basada en el límite al crecimiento.

El decrecimiento hace vacilar la mirada de sentido común que ve al crecimiento como algo bueno. Como decía la autora Estadounidense de ciencia ficción, Úrsula le Guin, se trata de “obstaculizar con un cerdo la vía del tren que nos lleva a un futuro de una única dirección, el crecimiento.” O, dicho de otra forma, el decrecimiento es un “concepto misil” que abre el debate silenciado debido al irrefutable consenso que existe en torno al desarrollo sostenible.


1. El decrecimiento es subversivo

La primera crítica común contra el decrecimiento es que este representa un punto de vista pesimista y limitado —más una pesadilla que un sueño—. Pero esto depende de la perspectiva personal. Para los 3 500 participantes que asistieron a la última conferencia sobre el decrecimiento, el crecimiento es una pesadilla, el decrecimiento, un sueño. El crecimiento tiene más coste social que beneficios, como documentó Herman Daly, y es actualmente anti-económico. Nos acerca al desastre climático como muestran Kevin Anderson y Naomi Klein. Siendo así, ¿por qué tendríamos que proteger las ideas de crecimiento como si se tratara de una visión optimista?

Principalmente por dos razones. La primera que el decrecimiento asusta a mucha gente que aún cree que el crecimiento es beneficioso. La segunda porque el decrecimiento es políticamente ‘imposible’. Muchos dicen que no se puede hablar de decrecimiento en medio de una crisis.

Si nuestro papel como científicos y educadores fuera complacer a la opinión pública y satisfacer a aquellos que están en el poder, la tierra seguiría siendo plana. El decrecimiento, tal y como lo plantea Serge Latouche, es una afirmación secular contra el dios del Crecimiento. El crecimiento ha sustituido a la religión en las sociedades modernas, dando así sentido a todos los esfuerzos colectivos. El decrecimiento está pensado para ser subversivo. El decrecimiento modifica la percepción de los bueno y la percepción de los malo. En un principio, puede que el término “decrecimiento” no suene bien en una u otra lengua. Entonces, el objetivo es hacer que suene bien. A juzgar por un artículo reciente en The Guardian, que sostiene que el decrecimiento es una “palabra preciosa”, los defensores del decrecimiento lo están consiguiendo.

El decrecimiento no es un objetivo final. La “economía solidaria”, los “bienes comunales” o la “convivialidad” son visiones optimistas impulsadas por la comunidad defensora del decrecimiento. Aun así, si este futuro llega, vendrá acompañado de una reducción drástica en la extracción de materiales y energía, junto con una “forma de vida” que se simplificará de forma radical. El obstáculo principal en el camino hacia una Gran Transición de este tipo es la obsesión por el crecimiento. Vencer el miedo al decrecimiento y revertir la aprensión a vivir con menos en alegría, es un primer paso. 


2. Menos de lo malo + más de lo bueno = Decrecimiento

La segunda crítica contra el decrecimiento afirma que lo malo no es el crecimiento en sí, sino el mal crecimiento económico actual. El cuidado medioambiental, las energías renovables y los alimentos orgánicos necesitarán crecer en una Gran Transición; “necesitamos menos de lo ‘malo’… y más de lo ‘bueno’, como argumentó cierto comentarista.

¿Y quién no estaría de acuerdo? Los problemas empiezan cuando lo que nosotros vemos como bueno, otros lo ven como malo. El liberalismo, agrupado en nociones generalmente aceptadas como la “sostenibilidad”, aboga por una neutralidad apolítica cuando se trata de intereses conflictivos. Por el contrario, el decrecimiento apuesta por una parcialidad transparente. Aquello que normalmente se considera “Crecimiento” (autopistas, puentes, ejércitos, presas) es malo para “nosotros” los defensores del decrecimiento. Por lo contrario, algunas realidades que se consideran anacronismos en el escalafón del progreso (instituciones comunales, comida local fresca, pequeñas cooperativas, o molinos de viento), son buenas. Quizá decrecimiento es un término imperfecto para denominar este fenómeno. Aun así, es mejor que términos neutrales como “sostenibilidad” o “transición” sin más detalle de las implicaciones a futuro.

Otro problema con este argumento es que “lo bueno” se calcula en términos de crecimiento. Un 2 % anual duplica “algo bueno” cada 35 años. Si Egipto empezase a contar sus bienes con un metro cuadrado, y los multiplicara cada año hasta un 4,5 %, para finales del año 3 000, su población necesitaría 2,5 mil millones de sistemas solares para guardar sus trastos. El crecimiento perpetuo, incluido el de comida orgánica, es absurdo. Ya es hora de dejar atrás la idea de expansión perpetua y el término crecimiento. Debemos centrarnos en cosas beneficiosas que florezcan en una cantidad y calidad suficientes para satisfacer las necesidades básicas de las personas.

También tengo mis dudas en cuanto a que una transición hacia una economía de “cosas beneficiosas” pudiera soportar el crecimiento económico de PIB. Paul Krugman recientemente ha sugerido que si este fuera el caso, esto implicaría que una escisión absoluta, donde el crecimiento de la actividad económica continúa y el uso de recursos se reduce, sería posible. Sin embargo, déjenme nombrar tres razones por las que esto es poco probable.

En primer lugar, una economía renovable produciría menos exceso de energía (tasa de retorno energético) que la economía del petróleo. Una economía con un nivel de superávit menor tendría más intensidad de trabajo y sería por lo tanto más pequeña.

En segundo lugar, en teoría, podría parecer que lograr incrementar el PIB en las energías renovables, educación y salud, y reducirlo en asuntos militares, haría crecer el PIN y reducir el consumo de recursos. Esto se llama la desmaterialización de la economía hacia la dirección de una economía inmaterial. Pero esto es una fantasía. Los paneles solares, los hospitales, los laboratorios universitarios, entre otros, no son inmateriales, sino más bien productos finales en cadenas largas que utilizan material intermedio y primario, y que utilizan la energía y los recursos intensamente. Aun arriesgándome a llevar mi ejemplo demasiado lejos, el emblemático servicio de salud nacional británico fue subvencionado por el petróleo que está protegido con armas en todo el Suez.

En tercer lugar, la transición de lo que llamamos una economía de todoterrenos, que explota las fuentes intensivamente, a una economía sin peso, de coches eléctricos o de libros electrónicos, reduciría la producción pero sólo momentáneamente. Una vez se complete la transición, un mayor crecimiento de la economía de coches eléctricos y libros electrónicos, por muy pocos recursos que se utilicen, seguirá aumentando la producción.

Por supuesto que todo esto es muy complicado. En teoría, no podemos descartar la posibilidad de un crecimiento verde y desmaterializado, especialmente si redefinimos qué entendemos como crecimiento. Me gustaría ser aún más incrédulo: estoy de acuerdo en que simplemente deberíamos ignorar el PIB y hacer más de lo bueno, independientemente del efecto que esto pudiera tener en el crecimiento.

El problema, sin embargo, es que el sistema actual no es incrédulo. Sin el crecimiento del PIB, el sistema se colapsaría (véase Grecia). Los intereses establecidos que controlan el sistema no tienen ninguna voluntad de dejar caer el PIB (véase la reacción ante la regulación del clima por parte de los lobistas y los foros conservadores, como el club del crecimiento en EE. UU.). Ser incrédulo no es una opción.

En otras palabras, no podemos permitirnos ser incrédulos en un sistema que sí depende del crecimiento del PIB: tenemos que actuar para cambiar los fundamentos del sistema, de modo que no dependa más del crecimiento del PIB. Necesitamos más instituciones para hacer sostenible y socialmente estable el inevitable decrecimiento.


3. Superar el PIB equivale a superar el crecimiento

La tercera crítica al decrecimiento es que el problema no es el crecimiento sino el PIB. Si pudiéramos medir solo los bienes que ofrece una economía, como los masajes, y descontar los perjudiciales, como los vertidos de aceite, entonces no habría razón para no querer crecer.

En primer lugar, el crecimiento continuo de cualquier bien, incluso el del PIB perfeccionado, es un objetivo absurdo. Yo no quiero una tierra donde la gente dé suficientes masajes para satisfacer a 2,5 billones de sistemas solares. Medir el éxito según una serie de indicadores fiables es una cosa, pero pedir que sigan creciendo de manera continuada va a ser siempre una postura sin sentido.

En segundo lugar, el Producto Interno Bruto cuenta lo que vale para el sistema económico actual: la circulación de capital, sea cual fuese su fuente. La decisión de la UE de incluir las drogas y la prostitución en el PIB, pero excluir los servicios de asistencia social no remunerados, es ilustrativo. El PIB cuenta el valor total monetizado. Esto es lo que produce beneficios corporativos y fondos públicos y esto es lo que los gobiernos quieren asegurar y estabilizar. La medición es un epifenómeno; es el resultado del sistema social, no su causa. Es por esto que el PIB persiste a pesar de las críticas de economistas prominentes.


4. Tenemos que disminuir nuestro crecimiento, pero no para que ellos” crezcan

A menudo se argumenta que el decrecimiento es irrelevante, incluso insultante, para la mayor parte del mundo que permanece en la pobreza. El argumento es que mientras “nosotros” (los ricos y sobrealimentados del norte) podríamos tener decrecimiento, “ellos” (los pobres, poco alimentados del sur) todavía quieren y necesitan crecer. Este es el discurso más poderoso que perpetúa la ideología del crecimiento que hay que descartar, pero con cuidado.

Todos nosotros, hasta cierto punto o durante algunas épocas, nos sentimos como ‘los del Sur’. Mis compatriotas griegos me dicen que el decrecimiento no es para nosotros, ya que ahora somos pobres y estamos en crisis. El 99 % de la población de EE. UU. tiene buenas razones para creer que es el 1 % el que debe decrecer para que ellos puedan crecer. Incluso cuando se encuesta a los millonarios sobre cuánto dinero necesitarían para sentirse económicamente seguros, normalmente aseguran que el doble de lo que ya tienen, independientemente de su salario en ese momento.

Las comparaciones de posición llevan a perseguir y perpetuar el crecimiento. La inseguridad económica, en todos los niveles de salario, hace que todos corran cada vez más rápido para no caerse. Y las crisis económicas, cuando los estándares de vida decaen repentinamente y la inseguridad se intensifica, son los momentos en los que la búsqueda de crecimiento resurge con más fuerza, y por lo tanto, como una causa progresiva en estos momentos. Nunca será un buen momento para decrecer.

La mayoría de los habitantes de este planeta no cuentan con acceso a los bienes básicos, como agua o salud pública, pero lo merecen, y esto puede llevar a un mayor uso de la energía y los recursos. No obstante, esto no se necesita formular en los términos absurdos del crecimiento perpetuo. Es una cuestión de distribución y suficiencia. En el Norte necesitamos decrecer para que las cosmologías y las políticas alternativas más cercanas al espíritu de suficiencia del sur (como Sumak Kawsay o Ubuntu) puedan florecer. Las alternativas del sur han sido colonizadas intelectualmente por el desarrollismo, y materialmente a través de industrias extractivas que en nombre del crecimiento traen destrucción y pobreza. Esta colonización tiene que acabar.

La misma lógica se puede aplicar a otros países en crisis económica. En Grecia no necesitamos “crecer” para salir de la crisis económica (como si fuéramos niños, que es la manera en que nos trata la Troika en la actualidad). Necesitamos elaborar modelos alternativos de suficiencia, algunos basados en el pasado griego, materializados en instituciones que nos dejarán prosperar sin crecimiento.

Desconfío de aquellos que hablan en nombre de otros, recordándome que, a diferencia de lo que yo, un intelectual elitista, creo, ‘la gente pobre’ sueña con televisiones de plasma y Ferraris, y no podemos negarles esos sueños. La mayoría de la gente que conozco, incluyéndome a mí mismo, sí que tienen sueños materialistas: nuestra sociedad de clases fuerza estas ideas en nosotros si queremos permanecer como miembros seguros y dignos de ella. Afortunadamente, también tenemos el anhelo de llevar una vida más sencilla, de vivir en comunidad, de contar con amistades, y muchas otras necesidades que van con el imaginario del decrecimiento. La pregunta es cómo cambiar las estructuras sociales y los contextos institucionales de forma que satisfagamos estas últimas aspiraciones y no nuestros peores deseos materialistas.


5. Dejar el crecimiento atrás es dejar el capitalismo atrás

El capitalismo es el conjunto de instituciones de propiedad, financieras y comerciales que crean competencia insaciable, y fuerzan de ese modo a las compañías a crecer o perecer. El exceso que esta dinámica genera se invierte constantemente en más crecimiento. Una sociedad sin crecimiento puede seguir teniendo mercados, propiedad privada o dinero. Pero como sostienen Edward y Robert Skidelsky, un sistema económico que no crece y en el que el capital deja de acumularse, deja de ser capitalismo, lo quieran llamar como lo quieran llamar. Las instituciones de propiedad, crédito o empleo tendrían que reconfigurarse de forma radical para que el sistema fuera estable aun sin crecimiento. Tales reformas radicales incluyen propuestas como la asignación de un salario básico por ciudadano o el control público del dinero.
Las compañías benévolas como Mondragon o Novo Nordisk, que combinan la apreciación económica social y del medioambiente, son excepciones poco comunes por una razón. En una economía capitalista el beneficio es el punto de partida. Las preocupaciones sociales y medioambientales pueden admitirse por unos pocos actores, que pueden aumentar sus mercados y hacer dinero gracias a consumidores socialmente responsables. Tal y como lo describía George Monbit, “el capitalismo puede vender muchas cosas, pero no puede vender menos”.
Si la corporación comprende la economía de crecimiento globalizada, las cooperativas son el emblema de una economía de decrecimiento localizada. En una economía que no va a crecer más, las cooperativas de trabajadores o consumidores que no dependen de beneficios en continuo crecimiento tienen una ventaja natural. Es evidente que no todas las cooperativas poseen las características que las hace aptas para una transición al decrecimiento. Distinguiré la economía colaborativa de la “economía de alquiler” de AirBnB y otras corporaciones capitalistas similares que, independientemente de lo innovadoras que sean, reproducen la búsqueda de rédito y la dinámica de crear un superávit constante.


En conclusión

En este apartado sería apropiado citar a Tim Jackson: “El crecimiento no es compatible con un medioambiente sostenible, pero el decrecimiento es socialmente inestable”. Curiosamente, esta afirmación a menudo se menciona en contra del decrecimiento, de manera que se insiste en plantear un futuro único en el que tenemos que hacer sostenible el crecimiento y esperar un milagro tecnológico o social. Los adeptos a este paraíso tecnológico a menudo hacen referencia a innovaciones como casas inteligentes, hidroponía, robótica, la energía de fusión y los superordenadores. Yo me excluyo. A lo que voy es a que este futuro es insostenible, innecesario e indeseable (al menos para aquellos que nos consideramos partidarios del decrecimiento). Las soluciones tecnológicas suponen un coste para otros, para el medioambiente y para las generaciones futuras, a una escala aún mayor. El cambio climático es el legado de nuestros logros tecnológicos pasados.

Yo leo a Tim Jackson desde otra perspectiva. Dado que continuar creciendo es insostenible, tenemos que poner en marcha los cambios institucionales y sistemáticos que estabilizarán el decrecimiento.


Giorgos Kallis es un economista ecológico, ecologista político y profesor en el Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnología Medioambientales de Barcelona. Es el coordinador de la red europea de ecología política y editor del libro ‘Decrecimiento: un vocabulario para una nueva era’ (Ediciones Icaria).


Traducción del Inglés: Santiago Forés-Barrachina

Revisión editorial: Diana Vela-Almeida