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Beyond the limits of nature: a social-ecological view of growth and degrowth

By Eleanor Finley - Entitle Blog, February 7, 2017

In this second article of the series “Ecology after capitalism“, Finley revisits the concept of growth from the libertarian socialist perspective of social ecology. She draws on Bookchin’s work to interrogate the limits of a degrowth conception of ‘growth’ and argues that we might find more opportunities for social and political transformation in social ecology’s analysis of post-scarcity and growth as ecological development. 

For more than two centuries, a critical narrative has emerged problematizing economic development, consumption, and growth. While its terms and definitions have shifted over time, the underlying logic remains the same: human society is growing too fast, faster than the limits of nature can accommodate.

In order to avoid global catastrophe by destroying the environment on which we depend, human beings must dramatically reduce the quantity of our own energetic and material consumption. Since the 2008 global financial collapse, a revised form of this analysis called degrowth has gained momentum among European environmental activists and Left academics.

In contrast to their predecessors who rejected the ‘industrial society’,  degrowth advocates blame capitalism as the engine of current ecological crisis. Joining a chorus of eco-socialists and radical ecologists, degrowth advocates argue that a planet of finite resources simply cannot sustain a social system based upon an axiom of production and consumption for its own sake.

In Can there be a socialist degrowth? ecological economist Giorgios Kallis argues that a tension is present between socialism and the apparent need for degrowth, arguing that a socialist society may not necessarily be post-growth, and thus ecologically sustainable. Such a conclusion rightly suggests that degrowth calls for the transcendence of traditional socialist concerns of labor, production, and technological advance. Yet, it does not yet account for how a socialist society may pursue growth along qualitatively different lines to produce a comfortable, materially abundant, and technologically sophisticated society.

In this article, I revisit the concept of growth from the libertarian socialist perspective of social ecology.  Social ecology, first introduced by revolutionary social theorist Murray Bookchin (1931- 2006), shares degrowth’s concern over the conflict between capitalism and nature. However, it rests on a fundamentally different core theoretical analysis. Social ecology situates capitalism within a broader historical development of domination and hierarchy, arguing that the current ecological crisis- including the problem of capitalism’s endless growth- cannot be solved without dealing with hierarchy in general.

Here, I use insights from Murray Bookchin’s collection of essays Post Scarcity Anarchism (1970) to interrogate the limits of a degrowth conception of ‘growth’, and argue that we might find more opportunities for social and political transformation in social ecology’s analysis of post-scarcity and growth as ecological development.

Growth and Degrowth

The basic parameters of growth-centered discourse was established in 1798 by clerical scholar Thomas Malthus. In his highly influential work An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus warns against the rise of industrial society because it  removes the natural “checks” upon growth of the global population. In his work we find that technology, consumption, and population are linked in a tight causal progression:

“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second”.

In other words, the continuous death of poor people ultimately benefits society by keeping food available for the rest of us. This state of affairs is produced not by social systems, but by nature itself:

“Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them…Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds”.

In Malthus’s view, people are consumers, not producers. And while the “imperious” and “all pervading” laws of nature may give life to many organisms, they just as easily take life away. Famine for all is the inevitable result if society’s elites are unable to appropriately measure and restrain the existence and consumption of common people.

The post-war period in the U.S and Europe witnessed a reemergence in anti-humanism and population alarmism. In 1972, Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s elite transnational research group, the Club of Rome, published a highly influential text, The Limits to Growth, which sought to delineate the objective boundaries to global population by assessing “tangible, routable items, such as arable land, fresh water, metals, forests, the oceans”. The book represents a discursive shift from traditional Malthusian alarm over population onto the subject of societal ‘growth’. However, it too ultimately prescribes a rapid and immediate controls on global population and targets society’s most vulnerable members.

Inspired by population discourse, anti-humanist targeting of women, people of color, and the Global South penetrated the Radical Ecology Movement of the 1980s and early 1990s. Advocating “deep ecology” some adherents went so far as to advocate mass extinction and the eradication of human life altogether. Yet this sensibility extended to progressive ecologist and activists circles as well. For instance, the radical ecological journal EarthFirst! repeated injunctions against women having children. Rather than focusing on wealthy elites who control vast majority of the worlds wealth, Earth First! chided women to “Love your mother, don’t become one”.

Leftists, eco-socialists, political ecologists, social ecologists, and degrowthers alike have passionately critiqued population alarmism for its racist and sexist conclusions. They rightly point out that “industrial” society is in fact capitalist society; a system driven by unabated, blind exploitation the natural world for sale in the marketplace. The degrowth movement in particular has responded by calling on wealthy, consumer-driven post-colonial nations of the Global North to repay an ‘ecological debt’ to the Global South. They also promote feminist and ecological economics as an alternative form of economic valuation.

Nonetheless, degrowth draws the basic framework of its discourse from a tradition of economic thought underpinned by the hegemonic assumption of natural scarcity. Within this mindset, nature is approached as a finite pool of resources from which society detracts. The central problematic continues to be conceived as “growth”, and the solution continues presents itself inevitably as “restraint”. This mechanized account of the natural world derives from bourgeois society itself. We also see this represented in the discursive field of degrowth, which is dominated by quantitative terms such as “limits”, “surplus”, “consumption”, and “sustainability”. By definition, this economistic conception of the world flattens qualitative difference and reduces nature to measurable quantities.

While degrowth arguments are useful in policy boardrooms or economics classrooms, by ascribing political meaning to nature only for its “limits”, a degrowth framework is systemically incapable of transcending the conceptual framework which gave rise to the very problems it seeks to address. The “limits of nature” we conceive as scientific facts are just as much moral limits; boundaries that our sense of ethics refuses to cross. Yet a mindset of limitation and scarcity is precisely the mindset an ecological society must overcome.

Reclaiming Growth

The framework of social ecology offers a more nuanced account of the natural world and points the way forward for those seeking to build a socially just, rational, and ecological society. First, drawing from the work of Theodore Adorno, social ecology conceives of human society as located within nature, rather than outside of it.

Modern, bourgeois society has taught us to view society and nature in binary opposition. As the needs of society are seen in inevitable conflict with nature, political authority is legitimized as a mediator and a manager of society’s rapacious expansion. In contrast, social ecology recognizes capitalist society’s destruction of the natural world not as an inevitability, but as only one aspect of the human potential. We also have the capacity to intervene as a creative force that can “produce changes in an ecosystem that would vastly improve its ecological equality”. Social ecology brings clarity to the fact that our current predicament depends not on society’s scale or external limits, but rather its internal quality and ethics.

Social ecology emphasizes nature’s creative features; it’s fecundity, resilience, and open-endedness. Social ecology recognizes that organic entities are not finite in the same way as inorganic entities such as a rocks or minerals. Forests, for example, mature over time, acquiring qualitatively new attributes as well as greater degrees of diversity and differentiation. Bookchin referred to this organic unfolding as dialectical naturalism. The natural evolution of which humanity is a part is an open-ended dialectic, moving toward increasing degrees of differentiation, diversity, mutualism, and creativity.

Thus, rather than accepting bourgeois society’s picture of growth as endless appropriation and expansion, social ecology also invokes an alternative understanding of growth as qualitative development. An ethical society, infused with the recognition of humanity’s role within nature, actualizes ecological principles through moral and democratic institutions. Yet in order to do so, we need not to abandon sophisticated technology, material comfort, transportation, or leisure time. To the contrary, technology has a vital role to play in the realization of a liberated society.  By freeing human beings of onerous toil, machines liberate human beings to interact with the material world through the practice of craftsmanship. Bookchin calls this a “technology for life”,

“In a liberated community the combination of industrial machines and the craftsman’s tools could reach a degree of sophistication and of creative interdependence unparalleled in any period in human history…We could truly speak of a qualitatively new advance in technics- a technology for life”

Bookchin uses the term post-scarcity to describe the economic and cultural sensibility that underpins the development of a technology for life. While bourgeois society is characterized by the imposition of manufactured scarcity, a post-scarcity society cultivates an attitude of abundance. This sense of abundance does not live in the realm of ideology alone, it is also a lived reality practiced through ecological and democratic institutions. In this way, a post-scarcity society would enhance not only ecosystems, but also lead toward human life characterized by comfort, leisure, and intellectual, cultural, and social stimulation.

How might a post-scarcity society approach production, consumption, and the management of collective resources?

The economic principles and practices of a post-scarcity society can be described succinctly as a moral economy. Visionary historian E.P. Thompson coined the term moral economy to describe the presence of moral and ethical values in patterns of working-class and peasant economies. Self-interest and material need can only partially explain economic choices, even at the individual level. Equally important are conceptions of fairness, expectations of reciprocity, and social bonds. As an analytic device, moral economy calls upon social scientists to privilege our understanding qualitative economic values rather than quantitative measurement.

Social ecology invokes moral economy not only as an analytic device, but also as a normative principle. A moral economy can also be understood as one based on ethical principles of reciprocity, usufruct (or ownership by use), the abolition of property, and production for use and not profit.

Equally important to a post-scarcity society is the politicalization and democratization of the economy. The people who live in a given city, town, or neighborhood ought to have the power to directly manage the basic economic decisions which structure everyday life. It is not coincidental that the terms ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ share the same etymological root, which is oikos, the ancient Greek term for household. The principles of an ecological society and a moral economy are one in the same.

As global climate and ecological crises worsen, the deeply intertwined nature of social, economic, and ecological life is growing more apparent urgent than ever. Degrowth attempts to address this problem by calling for a significant and rapid reduction of global production and consumption. Such a process constitutes human society reigning itself back within the limits of nature.

In this article, I have criticized some of the underlying assumptions of degrowth critiques, suggesting that our appeals to the ‘limits of nature’ are really appeals moral and ethical boundaries. On a social ecological framework, we might reclaim growth as development, and move toward a free, ecological, and comfortable, technologically sophisticated society.

Human beings have the ability to play an elaborative role in natural ecosystems that fortifies their stability while enhancing their diversity and fecundity. What is called for today is not restraint, but an unleashing of humanity’s creative, elaborative, and social potential.  Material degrowth can describe this process only partially. In order to achieve the kind of society the vast majority of degrowthers are after, we are tasked with integrating a de-growth prescription with a coherent movement for holistic social emancipation and popular political power.

*Eleanor Finley is an organizer and a board member at the Institute for Social Ecology, Vermont. She is currently doing her PhD in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, political ecology, and energy politics in Northern Spain.

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