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Class Struggle Environmentalism, Degrowth, and Ecosocialism

By x344543 - IWW Eco Union Caucus, May 27, 2023

Calling for "DeGrowth" without conditions or even "Ecosocialist DeGrowth" is far too vague and could potentially alienate the working class (and no version of socialism, let alone ecosocialism, can be achieved without support of the working class.

Consider the report that the UC Labor Just Released: Fossil fuel layoff - The economic and employment effects of a refinery closure on workers in the Bay Area. This report de­tails the experience of union refinery workers who have lost their jobs at the Martinez

On October 30, 2020, the Marathon oil refinery in Contra Costa County, California, was perma­nently shut down and 345 unionized workers laid off. The Marathon refinery’s closure sheds light on the employment and economic impacts of climate change policies and a shrinking fossil fuel industry on fossil fuel workers in the region and more broadly.

In the aftermath of the refinery shutdown, workers were relatively successful in gaining post-layoff employment but at the cost of lower wages and worse working conditions. At the time of the survey, 74% of former Marathon workers (excluding retirees) had found new jobs. Nearly one in five (19%) were not employed but actively searching for work; 4% were not employed but not look­ing for a job; and the remaining 2% were temporarily laid off from their current job. Using standard labor statistics measures, the post-layoff unemployment rate among Marathon workers was 22.5% and the employment rate was 77.5%. If workers who have stopped actively searching for work were included, the post-layoff unemployment rate was higher at 26%.

Former Marathon workers find themselves in jobs that pay $12 per hour less than their Mar­athon jobs, a 24% cut in pay. The median hourly wage at Marathon was $50, compared to a post-layoff median of $38. A striking level of wage inequality defines the post-layoff wages of former re­finery workers. At Marathon, hourly pay ranged between $30 to $68. The current range extends as low as $14 per hour to a high of $69. Workers reported benefits packages comparable to their pre-layoff Marathon benefits.

Workers found jobs in a range of sectors. The single most common sector of re-employ­ment was oil and gas, where 28% of former Marathon workers found post-layoff jobs but at wages 26% lower than at Marathon. These lower rates of pay stem from loss of seniority and non-union employment.

Overall, workers reported worse working conditions at their post-layoff jobs, even in higher wage jobs. Workers described hazardous worksites, heavy workloads, work speed-up, increased job responsibilities, and few opportunities for advancement. Above all, workers cited poor safety prac­tices and increased worksite hazards as the most significant and alarming characteristics of degraded working conditions.

Some caveats:

  • While this report frames the closure as a result of energy transition in its press releases and in the media, they admit that the refinery really closed due to COVID, although the employer is opportunistically retool­ing the refinery for "renewable biodiesel" (a greenwashing scam, mostly);
  • Job losses and retooling happens all the time under capitalism.

This is NOT an example of "DeGrowth" andy more than it is an example of "Decarbonization" or "Energy Transi­tion", because fossil fuel profits are experiencing record and/or near record highs (for a variety of reasons)

Editorial: The Jevons Paradox Myth

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 6, 2023

As the climate crises deepens and the push to decarbonize the world's energy systems intensifies, a chorus of skeptical and pessimistic voices continually warns against placing hope in renewable energy as a solution (whether partial or wholly), arguing instead for vastly reducing energy consumption (as well as everything else). One of the most commonly invoked pieces of putative evidence made to bolster the argument is the oft cited, but poorly understood concept known as "Jevon's Paradox" (see also Wikipedia for a quick reference).

For example, in an article featured on the degrowth blog, Resilience (run by degrowth advocate Richard Heinberg), "Resources for a better future: Jevons Paradox", author Sam Bliss declares:

In 1865, (English economist William Stanley) Jevons found that as each new steam engine design made the use of coal more efficient, Britain used more coal overall, not less.

These efficiency improvements made coal cheaper, because steam engines, including the ones used to pump water out of coal mines, required less coal to produce a given amount of useful energy. Yet increasingly efficient steam engines made coal more valuable too, since so much useful energy could be produced from a given amount of coal.

That might be the real paradox: the ability to use a resource more efficiently makes it both cheaper and more valuable at the same time.

In Jevons’ time, more and more coal became profitable to extract as more and more uses of coal became profitable. Incomes increased as coal-fired industrial capitalism took off, and profits were continually invested to expand production further.
A century and a half later, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that as industrial processes have gotten more efficient at using dozens of different materials and energy sources, the overall use of these materials and energy sources has grown in nearly every case. The few exceptions are almost all materials whose use has been limited or banned for reasons of toxicity, like asbestos and mercury.

In an economy designed to grow, the Jevons paradox is all but inevitable. Some call it the Jevons phenomenon because of its ubiquity. Purposefully limiting ourselves might provide a way out.

This is by no means the only such example, nor is it even necessarily the most illustrative one, but it perfectly summarizes the all too often careless application of what is an overused and debatable trope.

There are several problems with Jevon’s Paradox and the way in which Bliss presents it:

Degrowth? A Succinct Reaction

By Michael Albert - ZNet, April 6, 2023

Degrowth is a vague term. On the one hand, Degrowth arouses fear of personal impoverishment. On the other hand, Degrowth encompasses a wide array of policies that seek social enrichment. While Degrowth emerged from many sources and while it features many facets, it has few if any positive institutional commitments. Instead, Degrowth mainly features a thematic commitment. To avoid ecological disaster and even total ecological collapse, society needs to substantially cut production and consumption. Some Degrowthers say we must cut by as much as 90 percent. Other Degrowthers have in mind an unspecified but much lower reduction.

In most accounts, the origin of Degrowth traces back to the 1970s and particularly, though not exclusively, to the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. A survey undertaken in 2014 found 220 Degrowth-focused texts. A similar survey in late 2020 found 1166 such texts. Other accounts now report upwards of 3,000 or more. So Degrowth is a rapidly growing focus in academia, but it also stretches beyond campuses, particularly in Europe (especially Spain) and to a lesser degree in North America.

One theme common to virtually all variants of the Degrowth school, movement, or perspective, (which of these you call Degrowth depends on how you assess it), is the observation that infinite growth on a finite planet must result in escalating ecological crises and eventual collapse. This observation owes first to Roegen who derivatively felt that even no growth, often called a steady state economy, wasn’t viable. Roegan argued that society instead needed (and now needs) serious cutbacks. Regarding Degrowth writ large, it is often overlooked that the basic theme that you can’t build infinitely on a finite foundation is trivially true. It is also often overlooked that to use this truism to argue for Degrowth would by the same logic motivate that there should have always been Degrowth on our always finite planet. Roegen wanted major cutbacks in the 1970s. Were he alive at the time, he could with the same logic have called for them in 1790. Of course, he could reply now, but not then, yes but now we are hitting a wall. Now disaster looms. True, but unless elaborated, the finite planet argument doesn’t say why particular outputs are bad. It doesn’t say how to determine the worthiness or badness of production choices. It doesn’t tell us under what conditions production we deem bad should be reduced or eliminated. It doesn’t tell us what areas of growth are not only not damaging but even beneficial and sometimes absolutely essential.

What then, we might reasonably ask, is likable about Degrowth? If you seek to transcend gender, sexual, race, religious, ethnic, class, and political hierarchies of income, wealth, circumstance, and power, if you seek to attain a society that delivers diversity, solidarity, equity, self management, internationalism, and ecological sustainability/reciprocity, what should you like about Degrowth.

Kohei Saito’s new book asks: was Marx a degrowth communist? (Review)

By Simon Hannah - Anti Capitalist Resistance, February 2, 2023

The Guardian caused a stir on the British left when it reported in 2022 that a Japanese Marxist, Kohei Saito, had written a runaway best seller on degrowth communism. Many were eager to read an English translation. Marx in the Anthropocene is not exactly that book, but a more theoretical one which “builds on wholly new arguments with a more careful reading of materials and the reconstruction of key debates on Marxian ecology in recent years.” (Page x)

So this is a much more detailed academic look at debates within Marxology over Marx’s green credentials. If you are allergic to more academic books this one is still readable, and some of its arguments are very useful contributions to the debate on how to stop the capitalist death cult. 

Saito previously published a book in 2017 where he examined Marx’s notebooks to construct an ecological Marxism, one he argues Marx was working on when he died. (For this, Saito won the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2018.) Here he continues that theme. His basic argument is that there has been a political rift between the green movement and the left for too long, essentially characterising each other as either middle class crusties or Stalinist productivists ruining the environment. He hopes to reclaim a more ecological Marx free from claims of productivism (economic expansion for its own sake) or Prometheanism (being pro-technological, anti-ecological) as a way of healing this division.

In his analysis, Marx had a kind of ecological break after writing Capital Volume One. Readings of the Grundrisse from the 1850s as well as some of the more simplistic or vulgar explanations of historical materialism only as the “development of the productive forces” (e.g. The Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1859) indicated a one-sided view on production.

Saito argues that Marx abandoned productivity and Prometheanism in the late 1860s after publishing Capital Vol One and engaging in intense study of both ecological questions and pre-capitalist societies (173). This study of non-western societies shifted Marx from a Eurocentric view of historical materialism towards an interest in the particularities of different kinds of social development.

What could a just transition to a ‘degrowth’ economy look like?

Climate Change As Class War: A Review

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, December 6, 2022

As the burning of fossil fuels continues to pump up the size of the carbon dioxide layer in the atmosphere, the global warming crisis becomes ever more acute. In its “Code Red for Humanity” warning in 2021, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth…”

But we’re losing the climate battle thus far. In Climate Change as Class War, Marxist geographer Matthew Huber argues that the climate movement is losing because it is rooted in the “professional class.” He argues that this class lacks the power to defeat the powerful capitalist interests that drag their heals against the kind of drastic cutting back of fossil-fuel burning that is needed. For Huber, the climate movement needs to be rooted in the working class to have sufficient power to enact radical structural reforms needed to effectively fight global warming. 

Huber analyses the existing climate movement as consisting of three layers. First, there are the “science communicators” like James Hansen who try to do popular education about climate change science. A second group are “policy technocrats” with expertise in law or policy studies and work in think tanks, the university world, or non-profits. Their orientation is to craft “smart” policy solutions. A third group are the “anti-system radicals” whose exposure to the science of environmental devastation “leads to a kind of political radicalization.” Huber views these groups as part of the “professional class” and tries to use his theory of this class to explain the politics of the climate movement. Huber pinpoints two features of the climate movement that he sees as sources of weakness: (1) The emphasis on high levels of personal consumption as a factor in global warming, thus leading to a “politics of less” — especially a feature of “degrowth” politics; and (2) an emphasis on science education. “Making climate politics purely about science evades the question of power. It allows us to attribute…inaction on climate change as simply due to misinformation rather than a lack of power.”

Huber appeals to the theory of the “Professional-Managerial Class” (proposed by Barbara and John Ehrenreich) to try to explain the origin of these features of the “professional class” climate movement. Here he points to the centrality of credentials which mediates the access of the “professional class” to the labor market. This includes “the existence of a specialized body of knowledge, accessible only by lengthy training,” degree and licensing programs, professional associations, which he regards as “forms of class organization.” This tends to encourage acceptance of meritocratic ideology which favors decision-making power for managers and professionals. This emphasis on the importance of knowledge and the role of professionals tends to favor the science education emphasis of the climate movement, as Huber sees it.

In the Ehrenreichs’ theory of the PMC their class position is based on their control over cultural and social reproduction. This is how teachers and writers are included in the class. Among both Marxists and libertarian socialists, however, class has historically been seen as an institutional group-to-group power relation in social production, as in Marx’s concept of capital as a social power relation. Looking at it from this point of view, I think the PMC theory tends to paper over a distinction between two different class groups. First, there is a group I call the bureaucratic control class. This group’s class position is based on their relative monopoly of decision-making power, via bureaucratic hierarchies that exist to control labor and run corporations and government agencies day-to-day. This includes not only salaried managers but high-end professionals who work closely with management to control labor and defend corporate interests, such as corporate lawyers, HR experts, and industrial engineers who design jobs and work organization. This class power relation is the basis of the clear antagonism between this layer and the working class. 

It’s noteworthy that school teachers, newspaper reporters, script writers, and nurses all form unions and occasionally go on strike. These lower level professional employees are not usually part of the management apparatus, and don’t manage other workers. As such, they have a structural position like the core working class of manual workers, not the bureaucratic control class. The people in this lower professional layer often have college degrees, and sometimes do show elitism towards the core manual working class. They also tend to have more autonomy in their work. However, the “skilled trades” in the early 20th century often showed elitism towards less skilled manual workers and often had relative autonomy in their work. But we generally regard skilled blue collar workers (such as tool and die makers) as part of the working class. 

Lower level professional employees may be tempted to middle class meritocratic ideology. As such they will be in a conflicted position, as they also share the subordination of the working class position. This is why Erik Olin Wright’s phrase “contradictory class location” is appropriate for this group — a point that Huber concedes.

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).


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