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Book Review: The Future is Degrowth

By Timothée Parrique - Timothée Parrique, July 3, 2022

The best the degrowth literature has to offer served on a silver platter. That’s how I would describe The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World beyond Capitalism(June 2022) by Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan.[1] Reading it, I felt like Neo in The Matrix learning everything there is to know about Kung Fu all at once – “I know degrowth.” 

This kind of synthesis was long overdue. The degrowth literature has grown rather large and I cannot think of a single text that maps it all. Research on degrowth used to be my favourite guide to degrowth but there is only so much you can do in a 20-page article (plus, the literature has more than doubled since it was published in 2018). Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era (2014) is a good pot luck of perspectives but lacks coherence and depth due to its multi-author, short-entry format. I tried my best in The political economy of degrowth (2019) but the end result is rather cumbersome. 

In The Future is Degrowth, the authors have achieved a colossal Spring cleaning of the field. Sufficiency, dépense, commoning, pluriverse, unequal exchange, conviviality, self-determination, and many more (I have counted more than sixty concepts throughout the book). With such an exhaustive span, this book is to degrowth what the IPCC is to climate science: the best available literature review on the topic. 

But warning: this book is not for the academically faint hearted. If you’re looking for a wide-audience introduction to degrowth, this is not one of them, and I would rather recommend The Case for Degrowth[G. Kallis, S. Paulson, G. D’Alisa, F. Demaria], a shorter, less demanding way of covering the basics. If you’ve never heard of the topic at all, Less is more[Jason Hickel], Post Growth: Life after capitalism[Tim Jackson], and Degrowth [Giorgos Kallis] are also good places to start. 

The Future is Degrowth is rather long (more than 100,000 words) but neatly organised. The literature is chiselled into six tidy lists: 3 dimensions and 7 critiques of growth, 5 currents and 3 principles of degrowth, 6 clusters of proposals, and 3 strategies for change. The book itself is divided in seven chapters. After a long introduction (12% of the total book length), the first two chapters deal with understanding economic growth and its critics (that’s about half of the book). The remaining chapters follow Erik Olin Wright’s famous triad: Chapter 4 is about the desirability of degrowth (11%), Chapter 5 about its viability (13%), and Chapter 6 about its achievability (11%). This leaves us with a short concluding chapter (5%) titled “The future of degrowth.” 

With such a monumental piece of work, I could not resolve myself to write a short review, which would feel like summarising all seasons of Game of Thrones in a single tweet. This book deserves a proper dissection, and so I will here process chapter by chapter, taking all the space needed to summarise its content and, in the end, analyse its (many) strengths and (very few) weaknesses.

Green New Deal agendas in tension: what decarbonisation, for what societal future?

By Les Levidow - London Green Left Blog, May 21, 2022

Green New Deal (GND) agendas have gained significant support as means to reconcile environmental sustainability and a net-zero economy with socio-economic equity. Their transformative vision has attracted proposals such as more public goods, workers’ cooperatives and caring activities. Such proposals stimulate people’s imaginations around pilot schemes prefiguring alternatives to a profit-driven, inequitable high-carbon economy.

Green Parties have elaborated a Green New Deal as an ideal wish-list of such measures, variously called truly green, greener or green-socialist. Green Parties initially have done so with little regard to significant allies, which hopefully would be attracted. 

By contrast, multi-stakeholder alliances became a difficult matter in 2019, when GND agendas were promoted within major political parties such as the US Democratic Party and UK Labour Party. They have undergone internal conflicts over decarbonisation pathways, partly expressing conflicts within the labour movement.

Fossil fuel industries have sought system continuity through decarbonisation technofixes, with political support from their sector’s trade unions, thus associating workers’ secure livelihoods with fossil energy. This agenda complements capitalist frameworks of Green Keynesianism and Green Growth, seeking to reconcile perpetual economic growth with environmental sustainability. This false promise helps to soften or defer societal conflicts over an economically disruptive transition.

By contrast, some public-sector trade unions and environmentalist allies have sought a socio-economic transformation. This would go beyond the fossil fuel industry and GDP-driven growth, towards an economy of sufficiency. Such alliances have been coordinated internationally by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

Those divergent agendas have conflicted over decarbonisation technofixes. Their false promises have provided an investment imperative for dubious low-carbon remedies, or an alibi to await their feasibility before abandoning fossil fuels, or both at once. This dominant agenda imagines the nation as a unitary economic space needing technoscientific advance for a global competitive advantage.

Consumerism and Degrowth

By Paul-Martin Fearon-Hernandez - London Green Left Blog, May 13, 2022

Our Actions Do Not Exist In a Vacuum

Between every blink of an eye, a hundred Amazon packages are shipped in a constant, ever growing barrage of internet consumerism. The past 20 years have been dominated by Amazon’s unwavering growth and revolution of the world’s shopping scene in never before seen ways. Their success thrives off capitalism's incessant gluttony for infinite growth, exploiting our biological hardwiring (by abusing our dopamine triggers to create a literal addiction to shopping) to draw dollar after dollar from our pockets. Capitalism’s reliance on continuous growth (to power the cycle of surplus to reinvestment) creates a need for constantly increasing consumption, even when the basic needs of a society are already met.

As a result, modern ad campaigns aim to convert wants into needs by directly associating fulfillment with material goods (like a man finding love after wearing a certain cologne or a loving family exchanging gifts as a sign of affection) and solidifying this culture of consumption. Nowadays, companies don’t just sell you a product. By marketing certain aesthetics in fashion, music, lifestyles, advertising sells you an identity. Instead of saying what you could have with this product, it’s what you can be with that product. It’s gotten to a point where just watching people buy stuff has become a market in itself. Shouldn’t that alone raise some alarms?

What most consumers fail to realize, however, is the environmental price tag of their consumption habits. While it’s true that the individual carbon footprint was created to distract the public from the fact that 70% of greenhouse emissions are caused by just 100 companies, this isn’t to say consumers can shrug off all responsibility. The money spent on a Shein haul (a popular website where consumers can buy a variety of items, primarily clothing, for dirt cheap) still directly supports their unethical business practices and the larger system of fast fashion.

Ultimately, these industries survive on the wallets of consumers who dump their dollars into their unsustainable consumption habits. It’s a tricky relationship. Take fast fashion, for example. Recent years have shown an absurd increase in textile consumption and more importantly, textile waste. The U.S.’s textile waste has quintupled since 1980 despite the population only having increased 40%. To make it worse, current data shows over 80% of American clothing consumption ends up in landfills, which produce methane, toxic runoffs, and take up land. 

Fast fashion is just one industry, too. In even worse business practices, like overfishing, 40% of sea creatures caught aren’t even loaded off the boat, they’re just thrown back into the ocean after they’ve already died. After discarding 38 million tonnes of dead sea creatures a year, the industry then goes on to dump record-breaking levels of plastic into the ocean. Reckless, wasteful practices like these are what lead to the collapses of entire ecosystems at rates never before seen. Waste statistics like these—40%, 60%, 80%—should be a clear sign that we are producing far more than we could possibly need, and the environment and global proletariat are paying the price

Capitalism Isn’t the Answer (again)

What’s capitalism’s proposed solution to these problems? More consumption (but this time it's “green”)! The rise of greenwashing, a new marketing trend where products are advertised as more sustainable than they actually are, is a perfect example of capitalism proposing itself as a solution to the problems it created. Preying on consumers’ environmental concerns, companies advertise their products as more environmentally friendly in order to increase sales, despite their new production practices having similar environmental impacts as before. They tell us they can do this whole capitalism thing sustainably, we just have to give them enough time that we don’t have.

Though they continue to promise green capitalism through endless, dangerous pledges of net-zero emissions by 20XX, the current state of things has shown that we don’t have time to pray for capitalism to solve the problem. Some propose divorcing carbon emissions from economic growth often known as “decoupling,” which focuses on breaking the link between economic growth and environmental degradation through recycling, pollution standards, and “green” investment. While these policies may be beneficial, any attempt at decoupling is just putting a bandage on a bullet hole. In fact, decoupling attempts often make things worse, such as in South Korea’s 2009 green growth initiative that tried to revitalize the economy while reducing carbon emissions.

While the plan did stimulate the economy, it also spiked emissions, completely defeating the initial purpose. Needless to say, we are beyond the days of experimenting new ways to make capitalism work for us. It’s time we take steps to move beyond the system that destroys the environment in search of another dollar.

Let Nature Play: A Possible Pathway of Total Liberation and Earth Restoration

By Dan Fischer - Green Theory & Praxis, April 2022

Many argue that we are running out of time, but perhaps the problem is time itself. Or rather, it is the alienated time that we spend working on the clock, obsessively looking at screens, letting consumption of commodities dominate our free time and even invade our dreams. And it is the perception we often have of the universe as a giant clock, an inert machine to be put to work. Too often, there is no sense that nature, ourselves included, has a right to relax, a right to be lazy, a right to play.

While Autonomist Marxists define capitalism as an “endless imposition of work” on human beings (van Meter, 2017), we could add that the system also imposes endless work on nonhuman animals and nature. Moving even beyond van Meter’s broad conception of the working class as inclusive of “students, housewives, slaves, peasants, the unemployed, welfare recipients and workers in the technical and service industries” in addition to the industrial proletariat, Jason Hribal (2012) describes exploited animals as working-class. He points to animals’ labor for humans’ food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and medicine. Corroborating such a perspective, capitalists themselves label exploited ecosystems as “working landscapes” (Wuerthner, 2014), exploited farm animals as “labouring cattle” (Hribal, 2012), genetically modified crops as “living factories” (Fish, 2013), and extracted hydrocarbons as “energy slaves” (Fuller, 1940). As summarized by Indigenous Environmental Network director Tom Goldtooth (2015) the dominant worldview posits that “Mother Earth is a slave.” This endless work has been disastrous for the planet. Humans’ long hours of alienated labor contribute to deeply destructive economic growth (Hickel & Kallis, 2019; Knight et al., 2013). So does the exploited labor of animals, with livestock taking up some 76% of the world’s agricultural land (Poore & Nemecek, 2018). Working landscapes “suffer losses in biological diversity, soil health, and other ecological attributes” (Wuerthner, 2014). And even the cleanest “energy slaves,” wind and solar power, can require large amounts of resources and land in the context of a growing economy (War on Want & London Mining Network, 2019).

How do we get there? Some thoughts on ecosocialist tactics & strategy

By Diana O’Dwyer - Rupture, February 2, 2022

Whatever your views on blowing up pipelines, Andreas Malm[1] has sparked a vital debate on the left of the environmental movement about tactics and strategy. The strategic problem he addresses is how should we organise to avert catastrophic climate change and which tactics will be most effective in achieving that? 

According to Malm, overthrowing capitalism in time to halt climate change is impossible[2] and he therefore advocates building an environmental movement capable of putting so much pressure on capitalist states that they are forced to act, even against their own class interests. It’s not spelled out fully in his work but he seems to think socialism can develop later out of this process.[3]

The immediate concern right now, however, is to deal with climate change before it destroys any basis for a decent quality of life, under socialism or any other system. 

This type of argument, that there isn’t enough time to build socialism and so we must focus on more pressing issues first, has dogged left politics for centuries. Ireland’s version - that ‘labour must wait’ - prioritised national independence over socialist change. Given the endless variety of ills thrown up by capitalism, many immediately deserving causes will inevitably challenge for precedence. If national independence isn’t pressing enough then surely the survival of our species is?

The problem with this argument is two-fold. 

Ecosocialism and Degrowth: a Reply

By Simon Butler - Climate and Capitalism, January 6, 2022

David Schwartzman makes some very good points about the ecological benefits of ending militarism. I was also pleased to read his arguments about the strong potential for 100% renewable energy to meet global energy needs, although I cannot judge if his specific calculations about global per-capita energy are correct.

I’m not a degrowther per se. I think the fundamental problem is capital accumulation, of which capitalist growth is a product, but there are some questionable aspects to Schwartzman’s critique.

First, there is a claim about political strategy: that degrowth will appeal only to “the professional class” (I suppose this means middle class/petty bourgeois/intellectuals etc) in the North and would alienate the “global working class.”

That’s a strange formulation because it seems obvious that it’s not the “global” working class that Schwartzman and similar critics are worried about convincing, but the working class in the North who, they fear, will be repelled by a message that emphasises sharing resources with people elsewhere. The degrowth answer to this is that living standards for working people in the North can still improve even if economic growth is halted, as long as there is significant wealth redistribution.

I suspect that hostility to degrowth ideas among some ecosocialists in the North is linked to glossing over the sharp inequalities that divide “the global working class.” Any worthwhile ecosocialist strategy must address the North’s unequal access to the South’s mineral resources & soil nutrients. We in the North cannot hope to form international alliances with mass movements in the South if we neglect to do this. It’s imperialism that so destructively distorts the economies (and political cultures) of the South and the North, producing glaring inequalities and reproducing the ecological rift on a global level.

A Critique of Degrowth: An ecosocialist perspective in the context of a global Green New Deal

By David Schwartzman - Climate and Capitalism, January 5, 2022

Ecosocialist responses to “degrowth” analysis and proposals have ranged from full support to total rejection. The author of the following critical commentary is an emeritus professor of biology at Howard University, and co-author of The Earth is Not for Sale (World Scientific, 2019). We encourage respectful responses in the comments, and hope to publish other views in future.

The positive contributions of the degrowth proponents should be recognized, in particular, their rethinking of economic growth under capitalism, critiquing its measure, the GNP/GDP, as well as pointing to capitalism’s unsustainable use of natural resources, in particular fossil fuels in its production of commodities for profit generation regardless of their impact on the health of people and the environment. Further, they wisely critique eco-modernists who claim that simply substituting the right technology into the present political economy of capitalism will be sufficient to meet human and nature’s needs.

But the degrowth solutions offered are highly flawed and their brand is not likely to be welcomed by the global working class, even as it attracts sections of the professional class.[1] Degrowth proponents commonly fail to unpack the qualitative aspects of economic growth, lumping all in one basket; i.e., sustainable/addressing essential needs of humans and nature versus unsustainable, leaving the majority of humanity in poverty or worse. Degrowthers point to the relatively privileged status of workers in the global North compared to those in the global South as a big part of the problem, instead of recognizing that the transnational working class will not only benefit from growth of sectors that meet its needs in both the global North and South but must be the leading force to defeat fossil capital.[1, 2, 3]

A common claim in the degrowth discourse is that “perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.”[4] This assertion fails to deconstruct the qualitative aspects of growth, what is growing, what should degrow, under what energy regime? While of course there are obvious limits to the growth of the global physical infrastructure, why can’t knowledge and culture continue to grow for a long time into the future in a globally sustainable and just physical and political economy?

Capitalism, Ecology, and the Green New Deal

By Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus - Voices for New Democracy, December 9, 2021

The world’s climate is changing, and it’s surprising — and disappointing — how little our responses have changed since we first recognized the problem decades ago. Since the 1970s, the world has been well aware of climate impacts of burning fossil fuels and many have recognized how our political economy lies at the heart of the problem. Marxist thinkers in particular, like Paul Mattick, were quick to describe the irreconcilable contradiction between our extractive and growth-oriented economic systems and the carrying capacity of our natural ecosystems. But despite these prescient warnings, the world today is still clinging to the same economic systems and largely failing to resolve these tensions. In the face of the accelerating crisis, it’s worth reflecting on the clear trajectory that thinkers like Mattick identified, and what it means for our options in the present moment. 

In 1976, Mattick published his analysis of the problem in “Capitalism and Ecology,” just four years after scientist John Sawyer published the study Man-made Carbon Dioxide and the “Greenhouse” Effect in 1972. Sawyer’s study summarized the scientific consensus at the time around the Earth’s pressing climate concerns: the anthropogenic attribution of the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, their widespread distribution and their exponential rise throughout the modern era. By the mid-70s, even the Club of Rome recognized the impending ecological crisis in The Limits to Growth. In short, everyone was beginning to recognize the issue: too many of us are using too many resources, too quickly, in too many places. 

As Mattick writes, Marx recognized that “the exhaustion of the earth’s wealth and relative overpopulation were the direct result of production for profit” (a point that has been explored in great detail by a new generation of eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster). And science bears this out. Our world has only become more productive, populated, and globalized since the Industrial Revolution, and this has correlated closely with rising levels of energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions every year. As our economic activity increases, we cannot avoid using more raw materials to keep the system moving and maintain profit margins.

Ultimately, it is capitalist social relations that drive this ecological crisis. “Social phenomena are ecological phenomena,” Mattick writes. To keep profit rates high (the motor driving the entire system), companies simply have no choice but to keep expanding and growing, and that always requires the use of raw materials — and as global capitalism expands (and demand grows as populations increase and more workers are brought out of the subsistence economy into the wage labor system), that rate of raw material consumption can only increase.

Building Bridges from Intersectional Ecosocialism to Radical Climate Justice and Systemic Transformation

By John Foran - Resilience, October 14, 2021

Ecosocialist strategic thinker Ian Angus has observed, with reason that “There is no copyright on the word ecosocialism, and those who call themselves ecosocialists don’t agree about everything.”

That’s true. One puzzle that many ecosocialists, especially here in the “global North,” seem to share is: Why are there so few ecosocialists?  For most of us – I count myself as part of the ecosocialist movement – it feels intuitively natural to hold a political orientation to the world based on the principles of the interconnectedness of an ecological approach and the universal solidarity, egalitarianism, and social justice orientation of a democratic socialism. Indeed, what other kind can there be after the authoritarian horrors of the 20th century?

Why, then, are we so few?

In my country, some may suppose that this can be explained away by the U.S. working class’s lack of consciousness of a world beyond capitalism, or by the pull that the values of feminism and racial justice exert on a younger generation preventing activists from recognizing the economic roots of the evils of the capitalist system that saturates our lives.

But aren’t these all caricatures? Are there not ecosocialists who have understood that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and indeed all systems of division intersect with class? Are there not working people and unions who live every day with the economic and political abuses of capitalism?  And are there not young social-justice activists who are acutely aware of how capitalism works to cause untold suffering?

There are, fortunately, in all these cases, and their numbers are growing.

I began thinking about this essay early in 2020. Now, in the waning months of 2021, everywhere, people live in a world transformed by pandemic, rebellion, and the multiple pre- and post-pandemic crises that remain with us. In a way, this new world only underlines the importance of ecosocialism’s promise, as well as gives life and urgency to my thesis that 21st-century ecosocialism will either be intersectional or remain marginal to the needs of, and alternatives to, our collective moment.

Our Existence is Our Resistance: Mining and Resistance on the Island of Ireland

By Lydia Sullivan - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

This analysis of geological and permitting data shows that a staggering 27% of the Republic of Ireland and 25% of Northern Ireland are now under concession for mining.

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

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