Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it

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

by Aaron Vansintjan

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So what needs to degrow?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with REDD+

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

by Vijay Kolinjivadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Cartel of the Parties”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Demanding an end to neo-colonialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

A version of this article was originally published on truthout.

 

How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

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

by Gabriel Levy

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Should we force supermarkets to send food waste to charities?

Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan
Food bank staff member loads supplies from Canadas largest food bank warehouse, Moisson Montreal. Photo: Aaron Vansintjan

by Aaron Vansintjan

I’ve been seeing a lot of news about food waste recently. In February, a report revealed that governments could save up to US$300 billion per year by cutting food waste. In March, it was announced that Loblaw’s, one of Canada’s major food retailers and supermarket chains, will start selling ‘ugly fruit’ at a discount. Then came the stories about start-ups in the US who are trying to source discarded vegetables from farmers, re-using them for other products.

And last week, many people excitedly posted the news from France: the government will force supermarket chains to send their food waste to charities. This announcement led several to suggest that the UK, and even the whole world, which tops EU in food waste, should follow France’s example. And now, I’m reading stories about a new ‘social movement’ in Germany, where people volunteer to pick up and redistribute food from grocery stores, food retailers, bakeries, and restaurants.

I recently completed a three-year research project where I studied the food waste system in Canada. Specifically, I interviewed food bank directors and researchers, trying to piece together the history of how food banks evolved. Knowing this, friends and family enthusiastically send me articles describing these new ‘solutions’ to food waste, thinking I’d also be excited. However, having studied the food waste system, I find it difficult to respond without being too much of a downer: it won’t work.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all promising developments. Sending surplus food to charities will mean that supermarkets will bear part of the costs of the food waste they produce, and that the poor get access to more food. Selling ugly vegetables will mean landfills don’t get filled with perfectly good produce. In short, they mean that we are in part succeeding at making our food system smarter. However, I don’t think this is really a cause to celebrate.

“If you care about changing the food system, then selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities is not the answer.”

A story might help explain why I don’t think such efforts will address the food waste problem. Any discussion around food brings up a lot of feelings, so I’ll use a proxy. Say you own a major retail company, selling toys. You sell toys at really cheap prices, allowing as many kids as possible all over the world to get them. But some kids, because their parents don’t have any money, don’t get the toys. Meanwhile, because you try to produce as many toys as possible, for as many different kids (and parents) as possible, you will make a lot of toys that no one wants to buy. Also, accidents happen, and often. A pallett of dolls falls to the ground, breaking the boxes. A whole line of toys gets mislabeled. Because toys are quite cheap to make, it’s actually less expensive to dump these toys in the landfill than to pay someone to unbox them, sort them, re-label them, and so on.

But say a bunch of concerned citizens realize all these toys are being thrown out. This is ridiculous–kids all over the world are crying because they don’t get toys (and for many other reasons too, but let’s put that aside). So they approach one of your store managers and ask, can we take your broken toys and give them away for charity?

At first, your store manager isn’t into it. It will be annoying to let these people into the warehouse and rummage around. But they say they’ll make it easy for her: volunteers will drive in, pick up all the toys really fast, and drive out. She also concedes that, actually, it is a real shame that all these toys are being thrown out. So she agrees.

Pretty soon store managers at different locations are telling you the same thing. People are picking up toys and giving them away… all for free! You didn’t have to lift a finger. What’s more, they’re minimizing the costs of sending more things to the landfill–which often is calculated by weight. So you call in a bunch of these benevolent citizens and you tell them, “Listen, what you’re doing is great. We want to help you. We’ll give you funding, and all the broken toys you want. We’ll make it easier for you, so you don’t even have to ask a store manager anymore. We’ll also organize country-wide advertising so that consumers can give away their toys and know about all the good work you–and my company–are doing.”

This is an offer they can’t refuse–the toy-charities were quite expensive to maintain, since the amount of refused toys just seemed to keep increasing. Volunteers, many of whom take the toys home themselves, are tired, and any less work is appreciated. They are glad to get the extra support.

In order to cut costs even further, you put some of the broken and ugly toys in your store–advertising them as a new, smarter way to cut waste. You might also send some of your new designs to the charities as test products, to see if any of them catch on–a cheap way to do consumer product testing.

Eventually, your efforts are rewarded. The ugly toys campaign turns out to be an excellent public relations strategy, at very small costs to you. Soon enough, the government mandates that all toys should make their way to charities, which you helped create in the first place. While this will incur some costs–you’d have to make it easier for charities to pick up the toys, which will mean hiring more staff–you still benefit from the publicity you receive from the charity efforts, and you won’t really need to change your production line. So in the long run, not a big deal.

But what’s the problem here?

  1. Even if you sponsor these charities, the financial support they receive doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of labor involved. Essentially, you’re shifting toy-waste-processing costs onto volunteers, who are doing the work that your company really ought to do. In the field of ecological economics, this is called cost-shifting, and it is one of the primary tools corporations use to increase their profit margin at the expense of society.
  2. Many of these volunteers are there because they themselves can’t get access to toys. Or they need to fulfill community service hours because of a sentence. Or they don’t have anything else to do–they live lives of isolation. While you’re making the profits, these (mostly marginalized) people are paying the price of sorting your toys.
  3. It’s not the waste that’s the root of the problem. It’s the production line. You’re producing cheap toys that break easily (endangering children), paying your workers minimum wage, and you constantly produce new toy designs that may not be bought but fill up the shelves nonetheless–guaranteeing a satisfied customer who’ll keep coming back for more.
  4. While the government may mandate that you send your toys to charities, they do nothing to support the charities–already over-worked and under-budget–that have to process the toys. At the same time, the government gets to cut costs on its welfare programs, since it is argued that the poor now have access to the food they need from charities.
  5. Even if you were to send the toys to charities, and if you were to pay the charities to process these toys, would it make things better? We’d just be making an extremely wasteful system more cost-effective, essentially subsidizing the production of crappy and wasteful toys.

“Forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system — where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack.”

Extend this situation to the food retail industry, and it gets much worse. Because of the highly efficient production line, the agricultural process is incredibly environmentally hazardous, relying both on high inputs of fossil fuels and the use of toxic pesticides. The food industry relies on unjust migrant labor to drive production costs lower. This industry makes most of its new products from all the same ingredients, just packaged and shaped differently. For this reason, most food donated to food banks is highly processed, and quite unhealthy. Unlike with toys, volunteers often rely on the food they hand out. Food rots, so it is incredibly difficult to store and sort. With little funding and no municipal support, food banks rely more and more on volunteer service, while being increasingly bound to the continued existence of the industrial food system.

Because of these combined problems, forcing supermarkets to donate their food waste is really just part of the neoliberalization of the food system–where both the food industry and the government cut costs, while society has to pick up the slack, leading to the privatization of social safety nets through the establishment of food charities.

If you care about changing the food system, then a ‘smart’ approach to food waste, such as selling ugly fruit or forcing supermarkets to send the food to charities, is not the answer. In addition to forcing supermarkets to send food to charities, there are several things that would be much smarter.

  1. Fine the corporations for the amount of food waste they produce. This will disincentivize a system that relies on charities to bear the costs of food waste processing. It will also ensure that the industry no longer makes most of its profit from endless lines of new products, which is one of the key drivers of food waste.
  2. Clarify governmental rules and regulations around food waste, in favor of community groups. This might involve legalizing dumpster-diving, encouraging networks of citizens who wish to harvest food waste, and allowing the safe and hygienic processing and sale of food waste by non-profit community organizations.
  3. This may sound crazy, but not only have food banks developed incredibly complex and efficient systems of dealing with food waste, they also aren’t just charities. They often are crucial spaces for poor, isolated people to meet others and break their loneliness, while learning how to cook food. But even though food banks have the will to run more community-oriented activities, they often don’t have enough funding, staff, or time. So create a fund that encourages food banks to start collective kitchens, cooking workshops for single mothers and migrants, urban gardens, compost programs, and community food events. This will generate local food systems and more inclusive, safe neighborhoods. It will give those who otherwise couldn’t buy at the supermarket support structures so that they too can access acceptable food. It will help shift food banks from disempowering, demeaning, top-down, bureaucratic organizations to ones that are engaged in their community, empowering, and fun. Furthermore, it may help deal with the other 95% of food waste not created by supermarkets.
  4. A bit more challenging: align the goals and activities of governmental departments. Why does one arm of the government fund employment in the community food sector for marginalized residents, when another agrees to free trade deals, leading to a food industry that relies on cheap migrant labor? Why does one department fund research on carcinogenic food, or ban toxic chemicals, when another turns a blind eye to destructive farming practices? In most countries, health, sanitation, agriculture, trade, and municipal policies are often misaligned and should be joined up, otherwise food waste–and injustices–will just keep piling up.

These policies–most of them quite simple to implement–would ensure a safer, efficient, more just, and smarter food system. They wouldn’t only force supermarkets to limit their food waste. They would allow for a transformation from a food system oriented towards the bottom line to one that responds to people’s needs.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

Degrowth in Detroit?

 

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by Seth Schindler

Speculative lending practices and the securitization of sub-prime mortgages were largely to blame for the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis was particularly severe in cities where the lack of liquidity in the financial system made it difficult for municipal governments to respond to the wave of foreclosures and resultant shrinking tax bases. With the worst of the crisis seemingly behind us it is time to reflect on its long-term impact on American cities.

Perhaps the most extreme example of a city in crisis is Detroit. The city’s beleaguered finances proved to be no match for the global economic meltdown and in 2013 Detroit filed for bankruptcy. This part of the story is well known, but much less attention has been paid to the vision of Detroit’s future development around which a consensus among local elites coalesced in the year-and-a-half since its declaration of bankruptcy.

While this plan retains some elements of out-of-the-box urban development programs, it dispenses with a growth-based strategy geared toward rejuvenating the city’s manufacturing base. Instead, it recognizes the likelihood of further economic decline and its emphasis is on improving the quality of life of Detroit residents, economic diversification and environmental sustainability.

In order to understand the willingness of policy makers in Detroit to relinquish the dream of returning to a golden era of Fordist manufacturing it is necessary to put the 2008 crisis in context. Like many American cities, Detroit is a casualty of the prolonged economic crisis that began in the 1970s. Auto manufacturers relocated production facilities to southern states and then overseas in an attempt to outflank organized labour and to counter a falling rate of return. The collapse of Detroit’s manufacturing base left the city’s finances in tatters, and policy makers responded by embracing market-oriented solutions that were in fashion in the 1980s.

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There was a broad shift in the United States during the 1980s, in which the primary function of municipal government went from managing day-to-day service delivery to fostering economic growth. To this end “growth coalitions” emerged in many cities. These coalitions practiced “growth machine politics” aimed to augment land value and attracted inward investment. Public bodies assumed risk for large-scale urban development projects while private firms reaped the financial rewards.

This led to a perception among investors that municipal bonds were safe investments that offered lucrative rewards, so when Detroit’s municipal government sought to make up for its shrinking tax base by issuing bonds there was no shortage of willing investors. By 2012 Detroit’s deficit stood at $326 million while its tax base and population continued to shrink.

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The textbook response to crisis in many cities has been to intensify neoliberal policies. Thus, when growth coalitions failed to attract investment or augment land value, the response has oftentimes been to offer even more favourable terms to investors while cutting back on services. This has led many scholars and activists to despair that while neoliberalism is the cause of the current crisis it is also perversely embraced as its solution.

Many municipalities have indeed imposed fiscal austerity since the onset of the financial crisis as a means of attracting investment. Some of these cities may have fundamentally sound finances, and policy makers may view fiscal austerity as a short-term detour aimed at calming skittish investors. According to this reasoning the pain caused by austerity will be offset in the near future once the growth coalition is able to resume a cycle of development and growth.

In the case of Detroit this optimism would have most certainly be misplaced because even the most aggressive version of fiscal austerity would not have reversed the city’s decades-long decline. This begs an obvious question: Why should a city endure the pain of austerity if further decline is inevitable from the outset?

Detroit’s elites decided that, while austerity was in the best interest of extra-local creditors, it also promised to make life even more difficult for residents, and they decided to repudiate the city’s debt and take the historic step of declaring bankruptcy. By freeing the city of its debt burden, bankruptcy has allowed Detroit’s future to be re-envisioned.

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A coalition among Detroit elites coalesced around this emergent vision, which is based on creative land-use, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. It is articulated in a 345-page document entitled Detroit Future City (DFC). It reads like a master plan and focuses on five “planning elements”: economic growth, land use, city systems, neighbourhoods, and land and buildings assets.

Unlike entrepreneurial urban policies whose time horizons are measured in quarters and election cycles, DFC aims to rejuvenate Detroit’s economy in the course of the next five decades. The first step is to make the city liveable in order to stem the tide of out-migration, and to this end the plan calls for investments in neighbourhoods. Residents in neighbourhoods characterized by high levels of abandonment are encouraged to relocate to neighbourhoods with high population densities. Fordist manufacturing is rejected in favour of economic diversity, the single-family detached home is rejected in favour of densely populated diverse neighbourhoods, and in a major shift for the Motor City the plan envisions an efficient public transportation network. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the DFC is “the re-imagination and reuse of vacant land for productive uses or, where there is excess vacant land, returning it to an ecologically and environmentally sustainable state.” The emphasis on sustainable land use is a significant departure from growth machine politics aimed at augmenting land value.

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It is too early to tell whether the vision articulated in the DFC will be realized or if it will indeed guide policy for the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that bankruptcy gave Detroit the opportunity to chart a new path. I refer to this as degrowth machine politics because it takes the further shrinking of Detroit’s economy for granted, and rather than placate creditors policy makers are focused on improving the quality of life for city residents.

The concept “degrowth” is not new but it has historically been used primarily by activists and scholars because politicians do not win elections by campaigning for shrinking the economy. This is changing since the onset of the financial crisis because there are many places in which degrowth simply seems to be a reality that cannot be reversed by fiscal austerity.

For example, elements of degrowth are beginning to enter mainstream policy discourse in southern Europe. Voters in Greece recently rejected fiscal austerity, and the concept has begun to enter mainstream discourse elsewhere in southern Europe. In the United Kingdom the Scottish National Party has chided mainstream political parties – and most notably the Labour Party – for not repudiating austerity.

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Thus, it is possible that we could see the emergence of other degrowth machine political coalitions, and this provides an answer for the pressing question: What comes after neoliberalism? The transition to degrowth is not a linear advancement to a new political system based on purportedly universal ideology. Instead it is a mixture of locally adapted policies whose coherence lies in their intended outcomes rather than ideological underpinnings. The objective is to simply do more with less and thereby improve the quality of life, and this will oftentimes (1) reduce the quantity of resources used and (2) put localities – and local elites who were hitherto part of multi-scaler growth coalitions with extra-local financiers – at odds with their creditors whose main priority is protecting their investment.

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Detroit may provide lessons for degrowth coalitions elsewhere. First and foremost, Detroit demonstrates that the intensification of fiscal austerity is not the only response available to policy makers faced with an economic crisis. In spite of declaring bankruptcy Detroit was not punished by creditors. On the contrary, the repudiation of debt transformed Detroit into an attractive destination for investors. For example, Goldman Sachs launched an initiative to invest $20 million in Detroit’s small businesses. Quite simply, an institution that is unburdened by debt seems like a better investment than one that cannot hope to repay its debt without the support of a guarantor (in this case the State of Michigan).

The reason why Detroit is able to attract investment is because its degrowth machine politics has clearly articulated an innovative plan for the city’s future. Thus, the rejection of austerity for austerity’s sake must be accompanied by a clear set of policies aimed at managing decline in a way that makes cities more liveable. In other words, the repudiation of debt should not be understood as a strategy to attract capital from different investors, but to rework with relationship with all investors so that any inward capital is leveraged toward the realization of a sustainable and equitable future.

 

Seth Schindler is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Sheffield.