The circular economy has become, for many governments, institutions, companies, and environmental organisations, one of the main components of a plan to lower carbon emissions. In the circular economy, resources would be continually re-used, meaning that there would be no more mining activity or waste production. The stress is on recycling, made possible by designing products so that they can easily be taken apart.
Attention is also paid to developing an “alternative consumer culture”. In the circular economy, we would no longer own products, but would loan them. For example, a customer could pay not for lighting devices but for light, while the company remains the owner of the lighting devices and pays the electricity bill. A product thus becomes a service, which is believed to encourage businesses to improve the lifespan and recyclability of their products.
The circular economy is presented as an alternative to the “linear economy” – a term that was coined by the proponents of circularity, and which refers to the fact that industrial societies turn valuable resources into waste. However, while there’s no doubt that the current industrial model is unsustainable, the question is how different to so-called circular economy would be.
Several scientific studies (see references) describe the concept as an “idealised vision”, a “mix of various ideas from different domains”, or a “vague idea based on pseudo-scientific concepts”. There’s three main points of criticism, which we discuss below.
Too complex to recycle
The first dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that the recycling process of modern products is far from 100% efficient. A circular economy is nothing new. In the middle ages, old clothes were turned into paper, food waste was fed to chickens or pigs, and new buildings were made from the remains of old buildings. The difference between then and now is the resources used.
Before industrialisation, almost everything was made from materials that were either decomposable – like wood, reeds, or hemp – or easy to recycle or re-use – like iron and bricks. Modern products are composed of a much wider diversity of (new) materials, which are mostly not decomposable and are also not easily recycled.
For example, a recent study of the modular Fairphone 2 – a smartphone designed to be recyclable and have a longer lifespan – shows that the use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible. Only 30% of the materials used in the Fairphone 2 can be recuperated. A study of LED lights had a similar result.
The large-scale use of synthetic materials, microchips, and batteries makes closing the circle impossible.
The more complex a product, the more steps and processes it takes to recycle. In each step of this process, resources and energy are lost. Furthermore, in the case of electronic products, the production process itself is much more resource-intensive than the extraction of the raw materials, meaning that recycling the end product can only recuperate a fraction of the input. And while some plastics are indeed being recycled, this process only produces inferior materials (“downcycling”) that enter the waste stream soon afterwards.
The low efficiency of the recycling process is, on its own, enough to take the ground from under the concept of the circular economy: the loss of resources during the recycling process always needs to be compensated with more over-extraction of the planet’s resources. Recycling processes will improve, but recycling is always a trade-off between maximum material recovery and minimum energy use. And that brings us to the next point.
How can you recycle energy sources?
The second dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the fact that 20% of total resources used worldwide are fossil fuels. More than 98% of that is burnt as a source of energy and can’t be re-used or recycled. At best, the excess heat from, for example, the generation of electricity, can be used to replace other heat sources.
As energy is transferred or transformed, its quality diminishes (second law of thermodynamics). For example, it’s impossible to operate one car or one power plant with the excess heat from another. Consequently, there will always be a need to mine new fossil fuels. Besides, recycling materials also requires energy, both through the recycling process and the transportation of recycled and to-be-recycled materials.
To this, the supporters of the circular economy have a response: we will shift to 100% renewable energy. But this doesn’t make the circle round: to build and maintain renewable energy plants and accompanied infrastructures, we also need resources (both energy and materials). What’s more, technology to harvest and store renewable energy relies on difficult-to-recycle materials. That’s why solar panels, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries are not recycled, but landfilled or incinerated.
Input exceeds output
The third dent in the credibility of the circular economy is the biggest: the global resource use – both energetic and material – keeps increasing year by year. The use of resources grew by 1400% in the last century: from 7 gigatonnes (Gt) in 1900 to 62 Gt in 2005 and 78 Gt in 2010. That’s an average growth of about 3% per year – more than double the rate of population growth.
Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient. The amount of used material that can be recycled will always be smaller than the material needed for growth. To compensate for that, we have to continuously extract more resources.
Growth makes a circular economy impossible, even if all raw materials were recycled and all recycling was 100% efficient.
The difference between demand and supply is bigger than you might think. If we look at the whole life cycle of resources, then it becomes clear that proponents for a circular economy only focus on a very small part of the whole system, and thereby misunderstand the way it operates.
Accumulation of resources
A considerable segment of all resources – about a third of the total – are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods. In 2005, 62 Gt of resources were used globally. After subtracting energy sources (fossil fuels and biomass) and waste from the mining sector, the remaining 30 Gt were used to make material goods. Of these, 4 Gt was used to make products that last for less than one year (disposable products).
The other 26 Gt was accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods that last for more than a year. In the same year, 9 Gt of all surplus resources were disposed of, meaning that the “stocks” of material capital grew by 17 Gt in 2005. In comparison: the total waste that could be recycled in 2005 was only 13 Gt (4 Gt disposable products and 9 Gt surplus resources), of which only a third (4 Gt) can be effectively recycled.
About a third of all resources are neither recycled, nor incinerated or dumped: they are accumulated in buildings, infrastructure, and consumer goods.
Only 9 Gt is then put in a landfill, incinerated, or dumped – and it is this 9 Gt that the circular economy focuses on. But even if that was all recycled, and if the recycling processes were 100% efficient, the circle would still not be closed: 63 Gt in raw materials and 30 Gt in material products would still be needed.
As long as we keep accumulating raw materials, the closing of the material life cycle remains an illusion, even for materials that are, in principle, recyclable. For example, recycled metals can only supply 36% of the yearly demand for new metal, even if metal has relatively high recycling capacity, at about 70%. We still use more raw materials in the system than can be made available through recycling – and so there are simply not enough recyclable raw materials to put a stop to the continuously expanding extractive economy.
The true face of the circular economy
A more responsible use of resources is of course an excellent idea. But to achieve that, recycling and re-use alone aren’t enough. Since 71% of all resources cannot be recycled or re-used (44% of which are energy sources and 27% of which are added to existing stocks), you can only really get better numbers by reducing total use.
A circular economy would therefore demand that we use less fossil fuels (which isn’t the same as using more renewable energy), and that we accumulate less raw materials in commodities. Most importantly, we need to make less stuff: fewer cars, fewer microchips, fewer buildings. This would result in a double profit: we would need less resources, while the supply of discarded materials available for re-use and recycling would keep growing for many years to come.
It seems unlikely that the proponents of the circular economy would accept these additional conditions. The concept of the circular economy is intended to align sustainability with economic growth – in other words, more cars, more microchips, more buildings. For example, the European Union states that the circular economy will “foster sustainable economic growth”.
Even the limited goals of the circular economy – total recycling of a fraction of resources – demands an extra condition that proponents probably won’t agree with: that everything is once again made with wood and simple metals, without using synthetic materials, semi-conductors, lithium-ion batteries or composite materials.
For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”
But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”
After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.
These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.
Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.
But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.
The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.
Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.
The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.
Talk about selection bias.
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?
Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.
Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.
These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.
When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.
What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.
If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.
As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.
Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.
However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.
The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”
What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.
Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?
Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.
In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.
At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.
Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”
However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.
This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.
The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.
Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.
From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.
A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.
And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.
Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.
But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.
Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”. Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.
Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’
I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.
In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.
What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North
Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.
Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism
For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.
In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.
Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.
Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.
As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.
I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:
Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.
This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.
There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.
Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.
Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.
This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.
Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.
But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.
It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.
When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.
The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.
We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”
This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.
In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.
If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.
Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.
What is Speed?
It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.
In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.
They do so in very different ways. For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.
Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?
Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.
But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.
To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.
What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.
Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.
To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.
Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?
To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?
If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.
Things are big in the United States of America. Returning home after a year away reacquaints me with big detached single-family homes, big single-occupant vehicles, and big single-species grass lawns. I find wider roads, longer distances, larger supermarkets, and more stuff everywhere.
As a student of ecological economics, it makes me a little anxious. Such individualistic extravagance isn’t ecological or economical. I remind myself: it is precisely why I came back.
I spent most of the past year in Barcelona, studying with a group of researchers who are interested in degrowth – the idea that humans and other species might live better if the former had a smaller economy. Degrowth is not recession. It is a purposeful, equitable slowing of the rate at which we transform nature into stuff.
Our politicians pledge economic growth like priests promising eternal paradise in heaven, as if producing and consuming 3 percent more smartphones, assault rifles, and bacon-flavored beverages this year than we did last year is our best bet to achieve the good life. According to a 2015study, the United States’ yearly material footprint – the materials taken from farms, forests, mines, and other extraction sites to make the products Americans consume – measures about 27 metric tons per capita. In other words, 163 pounds of nature is extracted every day to feed, house, clothe, entertain, and satisfy the average U.S. resident. While the gadgets and garbage have piled up, the number of wild animals hashalved over the last four decades. People, rich people in particular, have conquered the planet in the quest for more.
Degrowth means downscaling the human enterprise to share the world nicely with other species and our grandchildren. Degrowth means distributing wealth equitably and prioritizing needs over wants.
But why the word “degrowth” anyway? Alively, complex debate rages over whether the term isuseful orharmful. I only want to make a few points that relate to the U.S. context.
Renouncing growth today has the potential of flipping every politician’s favorite narrative: that only growth can save the poor.
In the wake of elections that gave all three branches of government to the Republican party, the reeling American left must rethink, regroup, and rekindle the smoldering embers of the Bernie campaign. But Bernie Sanders, just like the politicians and financiers he rightly criticizes, is firmly pro-growth.
I cannot understand why. Growth over the last four decades has not brought substantial wage increases or a functioning healthcare system to the 99 percent, but it has made the U.S. economy unsustainably big in terms of resource use and carbon emissions. We must demand that leaders address inequality and other issues head-on instead of promising that a growing economy will make things better. Degrowth should be our rallying cry.
But degrowth has not yet caught on among academics or activists in the oversized United States. Don’t get me wrong, many initiatives here exhibit the values of the degrowth movement – simplicity, democracy, sharing, the rejection of economic growth as the goal for society. There’s a network of organizations fighting to create an economy based on justice and ecology, a campaign to work less, a scholarly groupfocused on downsizing consumption, and countless community-scale projects from urban food forests to bike cooperatives to tool-lending libraries. And there are the water protectors at Standing Rock, standing peacefully in the way of the growth economy’s ever-extending tentacles. Yet these projects lack a defiant unifying frame for their collective crusade to construct a socially and environmentally sustainable country.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?”
Why hasn’t degrowth spread in the United States? At September’s international degrowth conference in Budapest, I spoke with some other degrowthers living in the U.S. about why the word has not been adopted and how we might spark a movement.
Mostly, people suppose that degrowth is too negative a term for the American culture of optimism. Per social norms, people in the U.S. are not typically any less than “fine” when asked, “How are you?” A downward-oriented word like degrowth produces reflexive repulsion.
In response to Trump’s victory and the calls by many to “give him a chance,” Jelani Cobb, a professor in journalism at Columbia University, tweeted that he “had not fully appreciated until now how much the relentless American drive for optimism resembles abject denial.” Denying that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth is just another aspect of that abject denial.
Yet in other ways degrowth is too positive for the United States. Bear with me. Barbara Muraca, an Italian environmental philosopher who arrived at Oregon State University two years ago, says that ecological intellectuals in the U.S. urge rapidly transforming society to avoid imminent civilizational collapse, whereas the European school of degrowth tends to promote a slow revolution toward living well together with less. The deep-green environmentalists of this country foresee hardship accompanying the end of growth. Degrowth tends to look at the bright side of freeing ourselves from our current unsustainable, unjust economy.
As Muraca sees it, U.S. enviros do not fear the end of the world, but the end of the American Dream. The science on global environmental limits shows that all humans cannot drive gas-guzzling trucks and eat sausage every morning – which means it is unfair if some folks do get to live that way. The news is frightening, for its recipients and for the messenger.
To my friend Deric Gruen, who manages theRethinking Prosperity project, it is simpler: Americans love growth! Emotional growth, sales growth, spiritual growth, crop growth, earnings growth, growth spurts, growth of my social network. People from the U.S. hear about degrowth and reply, “So you are kind of like redefining growth, right?”
So mainstream green groups refuse to renounce growth. Prominent voices from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt reject the existence of any constraints on human activity. Muraca’s catastrophist colleagues counter this denial of limits with pleas to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world by consuming less.
Most folks do not want to hear these pessimistic-sounding appeals. So the earnest ecologists shout louder, which turns off everyone not already convinced. Who are we to tell our fellow citizens to restrain themselves, and be happier while doing so? Many residents of the highly unequal U.S. cannot comfortably afford to fill their trucks with gas to guzzle. Meanwhile, the plutocrats in charge of the nation jetset to important gatherings around the world where they discuss what to do about climate change and income inequality.
America doesn’t just need a wake-up call. We need new narratives about what the good life is and how to achieve it. Coming to the University of Vermont to take part in the Economics for the Anthropocene research initiative is a chance to bring degrowth home, as both a scholarly concept and an activist slogan. Perhaps one day it can be a social and political movement, too. Instead of boasting about the new wave of cancerous growth their policies will trigger, we need candidates that lay out plans to ensure everyone economic security and opportunities to flourish regardless what happens with GDP.
Last year I cycled across North America, talking about degrowth to anyone who would listen and listening to whomever had something to say about it. Now, in Vermont, I discuss degrowth with other graduate students, undergrads, faculty, and also with the woman who helps me fix my bicycle and the guy kneeling next to me as we dig carrots from the soil. Just mentioning it leads to dynamic and interesting conversations, especiallyamong people previously unfamiliar with the concept.
In the end, it is not about the word, it is about sparking socio-ecological change toward a fairer, smaller, and simpler economy. Degrowth explicitly or by other names.
Sam Bliss suffers from an acute strain of the imposter syndrome that affects most first-year PhD students. He makes okay improvised salads from whatever he finds in dumpsters, though, and is hopeful about surviving his first Vermont winter.
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 economics—a “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. Mostavailableevidence 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.
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 but—instead 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+ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sustainable development and its more recent reincarnation, green growth, promise the impossible goal of perpetuating economic growth without harming the environment. Degrowthers argue that economic change is not about implementing better or greener development. It is about imagining and enacting alternative visions to modern growth-based development.
Degrowth unsettles the commonsensical gaze which sees growth as good. To quote Ursula Le Guin, the intention is to “put a pig on the tracks of a one-way future consisting only of growth.” Or, in other words, degrowth is a “missile concept” to open up a debate silenced by the “sustainable development” consensus.
Here I will respond to five common critiques of Degrowth, which I hope can clarify and advance the case for the concept . For a detailed explanation of Degrowth, you can read our book here or a set of policy proposals derived from our book here.
1. Degrowth is subversive
The first critique is that degrowth signifies a limited and negative viewpoint; a nightmare, rather than a dream. This depends on the eyes of the beholder. For the 3,500 participants in the latest degrowth conference, growth is a living nightmare and degrowth, the dream. Growth has more social costs than benefits, as Herman Daly has documented. It brings us closer to climate disaster, as Kevin Anderson and Naomi Klein show. Then why do we still have to protect it as a positive vision?
For two reasons. The first is that degrowth scares many people who still think that growth is good. The second is that degrowth will be impossible to implement in a system that is against it. Well, if our role as scientists and educators were to please the public opinion and cater to the powers that be, then the earth would still be flat. Degrowth, as Serge Latouche puts it, is an atheist claim against the god of Growth. Growth has substituted for religion in modern societies, providing meaning to all collective endeavours. Degrowth is intentionally subversive; it inverts what is seen as good and what as bad. “Degrowth” initially may not sound nice in this or that language. The point is to make it sound nice. If I judge by a recent article in The Guardian, which argues that degrowth is a “cute word,” then we are succeeding.
Degrowth is not an ultimate objective. “Sharing,” “commons,” or “conviviality” are positive visions used by the degrowth community. Yet if these futures are to come, they will come with a dramatic reduction of material and energy throughput and a radically “simpler way” of living. The fixation with Growth is the main obstacle to a Great Transition. Overcoming the fear of degrowth, and turning the grief of living with less into joy, is a first step.
2. Fewer of the bad things + more of the good ones = Degrowth
The second criticism is that it is not growth per se that is bad, but the current un-economic growth. Care, renewables, and organically-grown food will need to grow in a Great Transition; we need “fewer of the ‘bad’ things…and more of the ‘good’ things,” as one commentator has argued. Who would disagree? Problems start when what we think is good, others think is bad. Liberalism, embodied in consensual notions such as “sustainability,” professes an apolitical neutrality to competing interests. Degrowth, instead, is a partisan claim: these things that typically count as “Growth” (highways, bridges, armies, dams) are bad for “us” degrowthers. Things that are considered anachronisms in the arrow of progress—communal institutions, fresh local food, small cooperatives, or windmills—are good. Perhaps degrowth is an imperfect term for signaling this. Still, it is better than neutral terms like “sustainability,” or “transition”.
Another problem with “the good things argument” is that it is couched in growth terms. 2% annual growth doubles a “thing” every 35 years. If Egypt started with one cubic metre of possessions and grew them by 4.5% per year, by the end of its 3,000-year civilization, it would need 2.5 billion solar systems to store its stuff. Perpetual growth, even of organic food, is an absurdity. It is time to abandon the idiom of growth and focus on good things that need to flourish to a quantity and quality sufficient for satisfying basic needs.
I doubt that transitioning to a “good things” economy could sustain growth. But if it could, then it would mean that absolute decoupling—whereby the growth of economic activity continues and resource use declines—would be possible, as Paul Krugman has recently argued. Let me list three reasons why this is unlikely.
First, a renewable economy will produce less energy surplus (energy return on energy investment) than the fossil fuel economy. An economy with lower energy surpluses will be more labor-intensive, and hence smaller.
Second, a static, disaggregated snapshot of the economy is misleading. It might appear that more GDP from renewables, education, and health and less from the military will equal net GDP growth. This is wrong. Solar panels, hospitals, or university labs are end-products in long chains utilizing primary and intermediate inputs that are energy and resource-intensive. With the danger of overstretching my examples, Britain’s emblematic National Health Service was subsidized by oil secured with arms through the Suez.
Third, a transition from, say, a resource-intensive economy of SUVs to a “weightless” economy of Priuses and Kindles would reduce throughput, but only for a while. Once the transition is complete, any further growth of the Prius-Kindle economy, however resource-light, will still grow throughput. In other words, even if we attempt to ‘grow’ our supply of Priuses, we will still need to increase material and energy use.
There is definitely room for empirical work here. I am willing to consider that a shift to “more good things” may increase GDP, especially if we devise and count a ‘greener’ GDP. I would like to be even more agnostic: I agree that we should simply ‘ignore GDP’, doing “more good things” independent of whatever effect they might have on GDP.
The problem however is that the current system is not “agnostic”. Without GDP growth it collapses (witness Greece). And the vested interests that govern the system are dead against falls in GDP (witness the reaction to climate regulation by lobbies or conservative forums such as ‘the Club for Growth‘ in the U.S).
In other words, we cannot afford to be agnostic in a system that does depend on GDP growth: we have to actively change the institutions of the system so that it no longer depends on GDP growth. We need new institutions to make the inevitable degrowth socially stable and sustainable.
3. Beyond GDP means beyond Growth
The third critique is that the problem is GDP, not growth. If we could only measure the goods an economy provides, say “massages,” and count out the bads, say “oil spills,” then there would be no reason not to want growth.
First, perpetual growth, of whatever, even of a “perfected ” GDP, is an absurd objective. I do not look forward to an Earth with people frantically giving enough massages to satisfy 2.5 billion solar systems. Quantifying success through a set of reliable indicators is one thing, but demanding that they grow perpetually will always be a pointless undertaking.
Second, GDP counts what counts for the current economic system: capital circulation, whatever its source. The decision of the EU to count drugs and prostitution in GDP, but not unpaid care work, is illustrative. GDP counts total monetized value. This is what feeds corporate profits and public coffers, and this is what governments want to secure and stabilize. The metric is an epiphenomenon; it is the result of the social system, not its cause. This is why GDP persists despite criticisms from prominent economists.
Many argue that mainstream economics with its reductionist obsession with maximizing a homogeneous quantity called utility (aka “money”) is part of the problem. I would go further. The emergence and entrenchment of the neoclassical orthodoxy has to be situated within its social context: the triumph, first, of growthism and, then, of neoliberalism. Maximizing money is what the system cares about. As Serge Latouche puts it—tellingly, if somewhat exaggeratedly—”economists are the priests of the religion of growth.” A different type of economics will be part and parcel of a transition to a different social system.
4. “We” should degrow, but not so that “they” grow.
It is often argued that degrowth is irrelevant for the great part of the world still living in poverty. The argument is that while “we” (wealthy, overfed Northerners) may have to degrow, “they” (poor, underfed Southerners) still want and need to grow. This is the most powerful discourse that perpetuates the ideology of growthism. It has to be discarded.
We all—to some degree, or at some periods—feel like “Southerners.” My Greek compatriots tell me degrowth is not for us, for we are now poor and in crisis. The 99% in the US has good reasons to believe that it is the 1% that has to degrow so that it can grow. Even when millionaires are surveyed on how much money they need in order to feel economically secure, they typically state twice what they already have, irrespective of their actual income. Positional comparisons drive and perpetuate the quest for growth. Economic insecurity, at all levels of income, makes everyone run faster and faster so as not to fall. And economic crises, when standards of living suddenly fall and insecurity intensifies, are the moments where the quest for growth reappears most forcefully, as a progressive cause this time. There will never be a time for degrowth.
The people on this planet, perhaps a majority, who lack access to basic goods, such as water or public health, deserve them, and this might entail higher energy and resource use. This need not be couched though in the absurd terms of growth. It is a matter of redistribution and sufficiency. “We” need to degrow so that “Southern” cosmologies and political alternatives closer to the spirit of sufficiency (such as Sumak Kawsay or Ubuntu) can flourish. Southern alternatives are colonized intellectually by developmentalism and materially through the extractive industries that in the name of growth bring destruction and poverty.
I propose the same logic for countries in economic crisis. We do not need to grow our way out of economic crisis in Greece. We need to come up with alternative models of sufficiency rooted in Greek tradition, materialized into institutions that will let us prosper without growth.
I am wary of those talking in the name of others reminding me that unlike what I—an elite intellectual—think, “poor people” (sic) dream of plasma TVs and Ferraris and we can’t deny them their dreams. Most people that I know, including myself, do indeed have materialistic dreams: our positional societies force those on us if we are to remain its dignified and secured members. Fortunately, we also have a longing for a simpler life, for community, friendship, and many other needs that collide with the imaginary of growth. The question is how to change social structures and institutional contexts so that it is these latter aspirations that come to be fulfilled and not our worst acquisitive desires.
5. A transition beyond growth is a transition beyond capitalism
Capitalism is an ensemble of property, financial, and exchange institutions that create relentless competition, forcing enterprises to grow or die. The surpluses generated by this dynamic are constantly reinvested into further growth. A society without growth may still have markets, forms of private property, or money. But as Edward and Robert Skidelsky argue, an economic system which does not grow and in which capital no longer accumulates is no longer capitalism, whatever one might want to call it. Property, credit, or employment institutions will have to be reconfigured in radical ways so to make the system stable without growth. Proposals such as a basic citizen’s income or the public control of money are such radical reforms.
Benign enterprises such as Mondragon or Novo Nordisk, which combine economic with social and environmental considerations are rare exceptions for a reason. In a capitalist economy, the bottom line is profit. Environmental and social concerns can be accommodated by few players who can increase their market share by cashing on socially-responsible consumers. As George Monbiot put it, “capitalism can sell many things, but it can’t sell less.”
If the corporation signifies the globalized growth economy, the sharing cooperative is the emblem of a localized, degrowth economy. In an economy that will no longer grow, worker or consumer cooperatives, which do not depend on perpetually growing profits, have a natural advantage. Of course, not all sharing enterprises have features that make them apt for a degrowth transition. I distinguish the sharing economy from the “rental economy” of AirBnB and similar capitalistic corporations, which, however innovative, reproduces rent-seeking and the dynamics of perpetual surplus creation.
It is appropriate here to invoke Tim Jackson’s dictum that “growth is environmentally unsustainable, but degrowth is socially unstable.” Curiously, this dictum is often invoked against degrowth, insisting on a one-way future where we will make growth sustainable, by a technological, or social miracle. Adherents of this techno-paradise often appeal to innovations like smart housing, hydroponics, robotics, fusion, and supercomputers. Count me out. The point is that such a future is unsustainable, unnecessary, and undesirable (at least by those of us who consider ourselves proponents of degrowth ). Technological fixes shift costs to others, to the environment, and to future generations, at an ever-grander scale. Climate change is the legacy of our past technological achievements. I read Tim Jackson differently. Given that further growth is unsustainable, we have to bring forward the systemic and institutional changes that will make degrowth stable.
Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, political ecologist, and professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona. He is the coordinator of the European Network of Political Ecology and editor of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era. His research is motivated by a quest to cross conceptual divides between the social and the natural domains, with particular focus on the political-economic roots of environmental degradation and its uneven distribution along lines of power, income, and class.