You are here

science, ecology, energy, and technology

Ecosocialism is the Horizon, Degrowth is the Way

Jason Hickel interviewed by Samuel Miller-McDonald - The Trouble, February 11, 2021

“Degrowth” means many things to many people. To most, it probably doesn’t mean much beyond an antonym to “growth,” the process of getting larger or more complex. To some detractors, the term represents a scary violation of the imperative to increase GDP annually, what’s now a holy sacrament to policymakers and economic pundits (though less so to actual academic economists, who are more ambivalent). To its less pedantic and more hysterical detractors, it’s a ploy to take away everyone’s Hummers and return to a mushroom-foraging-based economy. 

At its most distilled, “degrowth” refers to a process of reducing the material impact of the economy on the world’s many imperiled ecologies, abandoning GDP as a measurement of well-being, and forging an equitable steady-state economy.

Although the concept of placing limits to economic growth is not very new, having been articulated by environmentalists several decades ago—most famously by the Club of Rome in 1972—the more recent iteration, only just over a decade old, emerges from the French décroissance. Given that the community and scholarship is so young, there’s still a lot of debate around some of the fundamentals of what the term means, and what it should mean. Some who believe in the principles recoil at the term itself: Noam Chomsky has said “when you say ‘degrowth’ it frightens people. It’s like saying you’re going to have to be poorer tomorrow than you are today, and it doesn’t mean that.” But many degrowth defenders, one of the most prominent being ecological economist Giorgos Kallis, stand by it and see value in such a unifying notion. 

Even so, there lurks some danger in all such terms and political communities, like socialism or democracy, as I have warned elsewhere of the perennial risk of being co-opted and ill-defined by bad-faith actors. If the degrowth critique goes only as far as targeting economic growth, or even general anticapitalism, there’s little intrinsic to it to stop a right-wing authoritarian program from co-opting degrowth rhetoric to justify imposing authoritarianism, or giving cover to cynical Global North states to demand degrowth of the Global South while continuing to disproportionately consume and pollute. Degrowth, if it is to get traction and if that traction is to be desirable, needs to be abundantly clear about what it stands for and what it rejects. Luckily, we have just the book to offer this much needed clarity. 

Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel is among the most eloquent advocates of degrowth, and has been intimately involved in the community’s attempt to stake out a useful, clear meaning for the term and pathway to integrating its principles into a coherent program. Hickel’s latest book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World published in August 2020 (with a paperback edition released this month), offers an abundance of facts, concepts, and research alongside a passionate defense of ecocentric and humanistic values. Hickel has achieved something many writers of popular nonfiction seek in vain: a high density of ideas and data delivered in a light, enjoyable narrative prose. The book makes a very strong case for a topic in need of strong cases. And Less Is More arrives in good company: degrowth advocate Timothée Parrique counted 203 essays, 70 academic articles, and 11 books on degrowth published in 2020. 

Some bad-faith commentators have attempted to paint degrowth as dressed-up primitivist austerity, intrinsically harmful to the Global South, but Hickel does a persuasive job emphasizing that degrowth actually means the opposite. He musters an army of historical and contemporary data, anecdotes, and theory to argue definitively that an equitable degrowth scenario is more likely to increase material abundance and resource access. If the ideology of growthism offers an ethic of constant amoral expansion and exploitation, degrowth(ism) offers a more restrained ethic that values an abundance of time, leisure, love, and equality over concentrated wealth and distributed waste. 

While the book explores the moral imperative for controlled degrowth, Hickel is equally comfortable arguing for degrowth from a standpoint of a purely rational approach to fundamentally shifting an economy that is currently heating the world to death, guaranteeing centuries of mass death and destruction. The only way to slow the rapid race to collapse civilization and accelerate extinctions is to stop the omnicidal political economy that rules the globe. Given the natural limits that thermodynamics and terrestrial ecologies impose on human economies and non-human populations, degrowth is inevitable: it’s just a matter of deciding whether human agency will play a positive, benevolent role in the process, or continue to maximize the chaos and violence involved. I asked Dr. Hickel via email about some of the major challenges to achieving degrowth reforms and some important peripheral issues. Here is our discussion:

Canada’s net zero future should include policies to support technology “wild cards”: report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 10, 2021

Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition is a policy document released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, the national research network created by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2020. The report provides a simple definition of net zero: “shifting toward technologies and energy systems that do not produce emissions, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.” Based on technical analysis by Navius Research which examined more than 60 modelling scenarios, the report is announced as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It concludes that the goal is doable, using two pathways: “safe bets” and “wild cards”.

Most impact will be made by “Safe bets—commercially available, cost-effective, existing technologies like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and smart grids” which they estimate can generate at least two-thirds of the emission reductions required. In the longer-term, to reach the 2050 target, the authors rely on results from unproven “wild cards”— “high-risk, high reward technologies like advanced biofuels, zero-emissions hydrogen, and some types of engineered negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available”.   The conclusion: “To scale up safe bets, governments should continue to steadily increase the stringency of policies such as carbon pricing and flexible regulations. To advance wild cards, governments should spread their bets—supporting a portfolio of emerging technologies, without delaying progress on existing smart bet solutions over the next crucial decade.”

Of the four formal Recommendations, #4 is “Governments should work to ensure that the transition to net zero is fair and inclusive”.  ….. “It is vital that governments understand the full range of implications the transition will have on all of Canada’s regions, sectors, workers, communities, and income groups. This is necessary to ensure that policies successfully address adverse impacts and work to lift up groups who have historically been left behind, instead of exacerbating those inequalities. This will require direct engagement with all of those groups.”

The lead author of the report is Jason Dion, Mitigation Research Director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but the report is a “consensus document” involving many advisors who compose its Mitigation Expert Panel Working Group, as well as expert external reviewers.  Two accompanying blogs condense the message in “What puts the “net” in net zero?” (regarding three means of negative emissions) and “Net zero is compatible with economic growth if we do it right” (emphasizing the importance of likelihood of GDP growth through the recommended policies.) 

How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 19, 2021

Several articles and reports published recently have re-visited the question: how “clean” is “clean energy”? Here is a selection, beginning in October 2020 with a multi-part series titled Recycling Clean Energy Technologies , from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes: “Wind Turbine blades don’t have to end up in landfill”; “Cracking the code on recycling energy storage batteries“; and “Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen” .

The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it” (National Observer, Nov. 2020) states that “While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.” Yet right now, Canada has no capacity to recycle the 350 tonnes of solar pv waste produced in 2016 alone, let alone the 650,000 tonnes Canada is expected to produce by 2050. The author points the finger of responsibility at Canadian provinces and territories, which are responsible for waste management and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. A description of solar recycling and waste management systems in Europe and the U.S. points to better practices.

No ‘green halo’ for renewables: First Solar, Veolia, others tackle wind and solar environmental impacts” appeared in Utility Drive (Dec. 14) as a “long read” discussion of progress to uphold environmental and health and safety standards in both the production and disposal of solar panels and wind turbine blades. The article points to examples of industry standards and third-party certification of consumer goods, such as The Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International. The article also quotes experts such as University of California professor Dustin Mulvaney, author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (2019) and numerous other articles which have tracked the environmental impact, and labour standards, of the solar energy industry.

Regarding the recycling of wind turbine blades: A press release on December 8 2020 describes a new agreement between GE Renewable Energy and Veolia, whereby Veolia will recycle blades removed from its U.S.-based onshore wind turbines by shredding them at a processing facility in Missouri, so that they can be used as a replacement for coal, sand and clay in cement manufacturing. A broader article appeared in Grist, “Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges” (Jan. 8 2021) which notes the GE- Veoli initiative and describes other emerging and creative ways to deal with blade waste, such as the Re-Wind project. Re-Wind is a partnership involving universities in the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland who are engineering ways to repurpose the blades for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more. The article also quotes a senior wind technology engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. who is experimenting with production materials to find more recyclable materials from which to build wind turbine blades in the first place. He states: “Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” for wind energy companies and blade manufacturers alike …. All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”

These are concerns also top of mind regarding the electric vehicle industry, where both production and recycling of batteries can be detrimental to the planet. The Battery Paradox: How the electric vehicle boom is draining communities and the planet is a December 2020 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). It reviews the social and environmental impacts of the whole battery value chain, (mining, production, and recycling) and the mining of key minerals used in Lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese). The report concludes that standardization of battery cells, modules and packs would increase recycling rates and efficiency, but ultimately, “To relieve the pressure on the planet, …. any energy transition strategy should prioritize reducing demand for batteries and cars… Strategies proposed include ride-sharing, car-sharing and smaller vehicles.”

Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen

By James Gignac - Union of Concerned Scientists, October 30, 2020

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on wind turbines and energy storage batteries. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Growth of solar panels and their lifespans

Solar energy is converted into electricity primarily with photovoltaic (PV) panels (there is another technology, called concentrating solar power, or CSP, but it is less commonly used and not addressed here). PV panels are comprised of individuals cells linked together, forming various shapes and sizes based on the needs of the system. The panels themselves are made with semiconductor materials—generally silicon, but sometimes various rare metals—and generally covered in glass.

The cost of PV panels has declined dramatically in recent years while their efficiency has gone up. These trends are continuing, leading to rapid growth of the solar industry globally. Solar panels on average last 25-30 years (and maybe even longer); thus, solar installations occurring today can be expected to remain productive until the middle of this century.

The reliability and longevity of new panels means that the volume requiring recycling or disposal is currently low, except for very early generations of PV panels and small numbers that may get broken during the installation process or damaged in storms.

However, options for recycling and disposal need to be addressed as PV production continues to ramp up. And while the larger recycling need may not come for another decade, infrastructure and policy should be put in place now to accommodate future needs.

Cracking the Code on Recycling Energy Storage Batteries

By James Gignac - Union of Concerned Scientists, October 30, 2020

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on solar panels and wind turbines. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Lithium-ion batteries dominate the energy storage scene

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries might be known to everyday consumers as the rechargeable batteries which power our cellphones, cameras, and even toothbrushes. Apart from storing energy for small devices, Li-ion batteries are now being used at a much larger scale to store energy for electric vehicles (EVs) and as storage for renewable energy systems like wind and especially solar.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that prices for battery packs used in electric vehicles and energy storage systems have fallen 87% from 2010-2019, much faster than expected. As the prices have fallen, battery usage has risen.

So have the conversations on what can and should be done with Li-ion batteries when they reach the end-of-use stage. Here we will focus on recycling of lithium-ion batteries from energy storage systems, but for more information on increasing possibilities for second-life uses of EV batteries, see our former colleague Hanjiro Ambrose’s blog and podcast episode.

As a key energy storage technology, batteries are important for incorporating higher amounts of wind and solar power on the grid.

Wind Turbine Blades Don’t Have To End Up In Landfills

By James Gignac - Union of Concerned Scientists, October 30, 2020

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on solar panels and energy storage batteries. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Wind turbines have increased in size and quantity to meet clean energy capacity demands

Modern wind power converts the kinetic (movement) energy from wind into mechanical energy. This happens through the turning of large fiberglass blades, which then spin a generator to produce electricity. Wind turbines, as they are known, can be located onshore or offshore.

Wind power is projected to continue growing across the US by 2050. The latest Wind Technologies Market Report prepared by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that wind energy prices are at all-time lows, and for 2019, 7.3 percent of utility-scale electricity generation in the US came from wind. In this blog post, we will examine land-based wind turbines and the recycling opportunities that exist but are not yet widely implemented for the turbine blades.

Source: Berkeley Lab Electric Markets & Policy (https://emp.lbl.gov/wind-energy-growth)

Energy Democracy: Taking Back Power

By Johanna Bozuwa - Next System Project, February 27, 2019

Executive summary

Electric utility (re)municipalization is gaining popularity as a strategy to shift away from a reliance on fossil fuel extraction in the context of combating climate change. Across the world—from Berlin to Boulder—communities have initiated campaigns to take back their power from investor-owned (private) utilities and create publicly owned and operated utilities. Moreover, such efforts are increasingly taking on the perspective and language of energy democracy.

Energy democracy seeks not only to solve climate change, but to also address entrenched systemic inequalities. It is a vision to restructure the energy future based on inclusive engagement, where genuine participation in democratic processes provides community control and renewable energy generates local, equitably distributed wealth (Angel, 2016; Giancatarino, 2013a; Yenneti & Day, 2015). By transitioning from a privately- to a publicly owned utility, proponents of energy democracy hope to democratize the decision-making process, eliminate the overriding goal of profit maximization, and quickly transition away from fossil fuels.

Utilities are traditionally profit-oriented corporations whose structures are based on a paradigm of extraction. Following the path of least resistance, they often burden communities who do not have the political or financial capital to object to the impacts of their fossil fuel infrastructure. Residents living within three miles of a coal plant, for instance, are more likely to earn a below-average annual income and be a person of color (Patterson et al., 2011); similar statistics have been recorded for natural gas infrastructure (Bienkowski, 2015).

These utilities are in a moment of existential crisis with the rise of renewables. From gas pipelines to coal power plants, their investments are turning into stranded assets, as political leaders and investors realize that eliminating fossil fuels from the energy mix is paramount to creating healthy communities and stemming climate change.

Unfortunately, often publicly owned utilities in the United States have similar energy generation profiles to their privately owned counterparts (American Public Power Association, 2015). This paper explores the extent to which publicly owned utilities are reticent to take on the new energy paradigm and evaluates their ability to provide energy democracy compared to investor-owned utilities.

We Need to Talk About Technology

By Simon Pirani  - The Ecologist, October 5, 2018

Housing for working people is becoming as central an issue for labour and social movements in the twenty first century as it was in the nineteenth and twentieth. And not just decent housing, but housing that is comfortable, aesthetically pleasing – and, crucially, low energy, zero energy or even energy positive. 

Here is a wonderful opportunity for our movement to get a grip on technology. We can and should find ways to bring the experience of architects and energy conservation engineers into discussions about housing among community activists and building workers.

A good example of how not to do this is the call for mass installation of air conditioners, made by Leigh Phillips in his article, In Defense of Air Conditioning published by Jacobin

Improved design

The problem that Phillips purports to address – the cruel effect of heat on millions of urban residents, during summers such as 2018’s – is real enough.

The need to provide ourselves with homes that shelter us from extreme heat as well as colder weather – something ruling classes down the ages have never done for working people – is indisputable. 

But Phillips’s techno-fix – mass AC installation, supported by a grand expansion of nuclear and hydro power – is not the answer. He sounds like someone proposing the state-funded distribution of armour-plated BMWs to parents demanding safe cycle routes to school for their children.

Better temperature control can and should be achieved not in the first place by AC, but mainly by better building design, better insulation and better urban planning, in the context of better ways of living generally.

This ABC of AC is widely understood by three groups of people, ignored in Phillips’s article, who spend time thinking about our homes: community groups organising on housing issues; building workers and architects; and energy conservation researchers. 

Building post-capitalist futures

By various - Transnational Institute - June 2018

Over several sunny days in June 2018, a diverse group of 60 activists and researchers from 30 countries convened for a multi-day meeting to discuss the collective building of post-capitalist futures. The meeting provided the opportunity for a rich exchange of perspectives and experiences, as well as deep discussion and debate. The goal of the meeting was not to achieve consensus both an impossible and unnecessary endeavour but rather to stimulate mutual learning, challenge one another and advance analyses.

One session of the meeting – Transformative Cities – was held not as a closed discussion but as a public event attended by 300 people at which prominent activists and academics engaged with municipal leaders and politicians on the role cities can play in building post-capitalist futures.

In line with the meeting, this report does not intend to advance one line of analysis, but rather summarise some of the key ideas and issues discussed and debated (not necessarily in the order they were articulated). To summarise necessarily means to leave things out. It would be impossible to fully capture the incredible richness of the discussion that took place, but hopefully this report provides a valuable sketch.

Read the report (PDF).

How to change the course of human history

By David Graeber and David Wengrow - Eurozine, March 2, 2018

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Pages

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.