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Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

Building eco-socialism: A review of Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal

By David Camfield - Tempest, July 22, 2021

There’s nothing more important today than the politics of climate change. How societies respond to global heating will increasingly shape all political life.

A People’s Green New Deal by Max Ajl, an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, gives us some insightful analysis of different political approaches to global heating (a term I prefer since it packs more punch than global warming) and many good ideas about how society should be changed to respond to capitalism’s ecological crisis. However, the book is much less helpful for thinking about the political strategy we need to make these changes.

Although some hard right-wing politicians are still intoxicated by the climate change denial nonsense that organizations funded by fossil capital have been spewing for years, smarter ruling-class strategists are planning for what Ajl calls “Green Social Control.” This “aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worse consequences of the climate crisis.”

The European Commission’s announced measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are an example of this approach. It’s what Joe Biden had in mind when he appointed John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. It’s also the vision of the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, a group of finance capitalists headed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a vision that Ajl skewers.

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

The Ecosocialism vs Degrowth Debate

By Mike Shaughnessy - London Green Left Blog, February 21, 2021

A piece written by Timothée Parrique and Giorgos Kallis titled Degrowth: Socialism without Growth, which was re-posted on this blog a couple of weeks ago, has led to a debate within the ecosocialist community. The subject was discussed at the most recent Global Ecosocialist Network members meeting, prompting a number of different views from those present. This is my take on degrowth in an ecosocialist context.

In a way, it depends on what you mean by growth. The most widely used measure and definition of growth is that of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country, usually measured over one year. Value in this sense, is a monetary one, and so excludes many productive activities, many of them unpaid, and provided by women, child care, housework and so on. Like-wise nature is exploited, and not counted in GDP. Without which, we might add, GDP could not grow at the rates it does under capitalism.

More formal types of ‘voluntary’ work too, like the proliferation of foodbanks in the UK over the last decade or so, go unmeasured in the calculation of GDP growth. These activities have an important ‘use value’ which from an ecosocialist perspective is how we see the goal of productive activity in an ecosocialist society.

A Just Transition to a Fair and Sustainable Society or Healthy Green Growth?

By Cynthia Kaufman - Common Courage, February 18, 2021

The main goal of Norwegian economist Per Espen Stoknes’ new book, Tomorrow's Economy: A Guide to Creating Healthy Green Growth, is to offer the concept of healthy green growth as an alternative to simple GDP growth. Stoknes teaches in a business school, and the economic tools he creates around this concept will probably be very helpful for businesses wanting to measure if, as they create profit, they are also creating environmental and social wellbeing. But for those of us working to shift how we think about the economics of wellbeing, this book is a step backwards in an already rich conversation.

Mainstream economists insist that the way to measure the health of an economy is in growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or how much is bought and sold within an economy. Stoknes by proposing a better form of growth is engaging with the mainstream of Economics, hoping to move it in a direction that takes human and ecological wellbeing into account, while still maintaining the core of its approach.

There are many economists doing work to shift the discipline more significantly away from a focus on growth. They have produced an impressive body of literature that this book would have done well to take more seriously. These economists are developing tools and conceptual frameworks for increasing human wellbeing while maximizing ecological health. Much of that work takes seriously the devastating impacts current trajectory has on the poor in the Global South and on poor and racially marginalized communities in the Global North. In her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, Kate Raworth uses the image of a doughnut to talk about the twin problems of alleviating poverty and staying within the world’s ecological limits to outline the “sweet spot” of what an economy needs to aim at achieving. Raworth is joined by many people doing important work in this area such as Amartya Sen, Juliet Schor, Robert Bullard, Michael Pollan, and Clair Brown.

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:

Degrowth: Socialism without Growth

By Timothée Parrique and Giorgos Kallis - Brave New Europe, February 10, 2021

Notable (eco)socialists have recently criticized the idea of degrowth 1. Here we want to argue that such criticism is misplaced. Growth is a problem over and above capitalism. A sustainable eco-socialism should reject any association with the ideology and terminology of growth. 21st century socialists should start thinking how we can plan for societies that prosper without growth. Like it not, growth is bound to come to an end, the question is how; and whether this will happen soon or too late to avert planetary disasters.

Ecosocialism versus degrowth: a false dilemma

By Giacomo D’Alisa - Undisciplined Environments, February 9, 2021

Ecosocialists and degrowthers need to map the many overlaps of their views to improve the effectiveness of their shared struggle for an ecologically-sound and socially-fair world free from patriarchal, racial and colonial legacy.

In a recent article Michael Lowy ponders if the ecological left has to embrace the ecosocialist or the degrowth ‘flag’; a concern that is not totally new. Lowy is a French-Brazilian Marxist scholar and a prominent ecosocialist. Together with Joel Kovel, an American social scientist and psychiatrist, in 2001 he wrote An ecosocialist manifesto, a foundational document for several political organizations worldwide. Thus, entering into a discussion with Lowy is not a simple academic whim, but a demand that many politically-engaged people of the ecological left are wondering about.

Recently, members of an ecosocialist group within Catalonia en Comù, part of Unida Podemos (itself part of the centre-left coalition governing Spain), invited me to debate about the end of the economic growth paradigm. This hints that ecosocialists are interested in degrowth vision and proposals. On the other hand, during talks, speeches and discussions I have participated in, I also have noted that ecosocialist projects intrigue and inspire many degrowthers. Indeed, people on both sides feel they are sister movements. The following reflection is a first and humble contribution to making the two come closer.

In the above-quoted article, Lowy supports an alliance between ecosocialists and degrowthers, and I cannot but agree with this conclusion. However, before justifying this strategic endeavour, he feels the necessity to argue why degrowth falls short as a political vision. He narrows down his critical assessment to three issues. First, Lowy maintains, degrowth as a concept is inadequate to express clearly an alternative programme. Second, degrowthers and their discourses are not explicitly anti-capitalist. Finally, for him, degrowthers are not able to distinguish between those activities that need to be reduced and those that can keep flourishing.

Concerning the first critique, Lowy maintains that the word: “degrowth” is not convincing; it does not convey the progressive and emancipatory project of societal transformation that it is needed; this remark echoes with an old and unsolved debate for many. A discussion that Lowy should know, as well as those that have followed the last decade of degrowth debate. Sophisticated criticism has mobilized the American cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff’s study about framing. Kate Rowarth, for example, suggested to degrowthers to learn from Lakoff that no one can win a political struggle or election if they keep using their opponent’s frame; and degrowth has in itself its antagonic vision: growth. Ecological economists supported the same argument in a more articulated way, suggesting that for this reason, degrowth backfires.

On the contrary, my intellectual companion Giorgos Kallis, back in 2015, gave nine clear reasons why degrowth is a compelling word. I want to complement them with one more. Looking at the search trends in Google (figure below), after ten years, degrowth keeps drawing higher levels of attention worldwide than ecosocialism. Perhaps ecosocialism can result clearer at a glance. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the populace will be immediately convinced. Indeed, the ecosocialist concept also has similar and possibly worse problems of framing, given the post-Soviet aversion to “socialism”, but this cannot mean we should abandon the term. The recent upsurge of popularity in the US of “democratic socialism” suggests that the negative association of a term can be overcome.

On Green Socialism and Working Class Politics

By Staff - Pittsburgh Green Left, February 8, 2021

Green Socialism is inspired partly by traditional worker-oriented socialist views, but attempts to transcend class struggle by organizing popular struggle for true democracy, ecology, and freedom.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, ecological and social crisis exist simultaneously in multiple forms within the US and across the world. Global neoliberal capitalism has captured the world’s economic and political structures, and we feel the growing pressures of poverty and climate change under the threat of a pervasive police state.

These deteriorating conditions imply that historical socialist revolutionary movements have largely failed to produce the widespread change they described in their visions. There’s an increasing feeling, particularly by the youth, that the “old ways” are insufficient to confront 21st century capitalism and win — particularly with the climate change clock running out — and that a new form of social movement and politics is necessary to directly confront capitalism and broader ecological and social issues.

I believe the new model for the 21st century must be Green Politics, or what I will call “Green Socialism” here to distinguish from other tendencies that lay claim to the more broad term “eco-socialism”. Green Politics is today largely associated with the Green Party, however anyone can practice Green Politics in or outside of the Green Party.

A simplistic description of Green Politics might be to list the 4 pillars — grassroots democracy, peace, social justice, and ecological wisdom — and the 10 Key Values of the movement, but to create a deeper discussion of what Green Politics and Green Socialism really means, a good place to start might be to address some complaints and criticisms of the Green Party and Green Socialism that you have no doubt already heard, particularly from other socialists.

Left Voice for example ran an opinion piece by author Ezra Brain making “a socialist case against” the Green Party and Howie Hawkins, the party’s 2020 presidential candidate, which echoes a number of common leftist complaints against Green Politics. 

However these complaints often ring hollow, either as grave misunderstandings of the Green platform that betray a lack of deeper research and knowledge about the subject — ironically often appropriating bourgeois neoliberal talking points against Green Politics — or as legitimate complaints that have a feel of “stones thrown from glass houses” as those same complaints often apply to other socialist and leftist organizations in the US and simply illustrate the challenge of organizing against global neoliberal capitalism in the 21st century.

Ecosocialism: A Brief Description

By Mike Shaughnessy - London Green Left Blog, January 27, 2021

This is a write up of a talk I gave to my local Green Party meeting in Haringey, north London, a little while back, on ecosocialism. 

Ecosocialism is a green political philosophy - it is an ecocentric and democratic socialism, not to be confused with social democracy, at least in the longer run.

It is not like twentieth century socialisms, it is more like nineteenth century socialisms and owes a fair amount to anarchist theory. Twentieth century socialisms had, if anything, an even more dismal record than capitalism on ecology.

Ecosocialism is anti-capitalist, and sees the capitalist system as the effective cause of the ecological crisis.

Capitalism commodifies everything and puts a price on it, which is exchange value, and uses the earth as a resource for production and sink for the dumping of toxic waste from the production process, usually free of cost. Climate change is the most spectacular aspect of the ecological crisis, but not the only one. Capitalism releases toxic pollution, into the air, land and sea.

Capitalism is unable to solve the ecological crisis it has set going, because the logic of the system is to ‘grow or die’. Growth that is exponential and the earth is now close to its limit of being able to buffer the damage caused by this required infinite growth, on a finite planet.

I’m going to say something about the historical lineage of the philosophy, threads of which can be traced back for as long as human beings have formed communities, where some elements of ecosocialism can be found in the way people have lived in balance with nature. And today, many indigenous peoples around the world still practice some of these forms of social and economic management.

Karl Marx is somewhat of a controversial figure for ecosocialists, with some believing that he was essentially a ‘productivist.’ For myself, I believe that Marx’s work was of its time, and incomplete, but he certainly had a green side to him. Take this quote for example from the third volume of Capital:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. (Marx 1894: 776). 

In South America ecosocialism has found its way into government. Venezuela, has a Department of Ecosocialism, although the ecosocialism pursued is not the purest in form. Bolivia runs forms of ecosocialism in government and has fought off many capitalist corporations plunder of the country’s natural resources, in mining and gas extraction on common land.

There is an English line too. The first stories to be told about Robin Hood, were of a man fighting against crown enclosures of common land. He has become famous for ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’, but in fact what he was doing, was fighting to stop the rich robbing from the poor.

Then there were the Diggers during the English civil war, who set up communes on common land and called for a ‘common treasury of the land.'

And William Morris, the nineteenth century socialist and craft movement champion. If you read his novel News from Nowhere, it describes an ecosocialist utopia.

In the modern age, ecosocialism emerged in the mid 1980s, in the west, in the United States, although you can argue quite convincingly that in the US it goes back to Murray Bookchin’s social ecology movement in the mid 1960s. And in the east, in India, where to a lesser extent ecosocialism emerged but more so in the philosophy of ecofeminism, which is a similar philosophy to ecosocialism. 

For example, ecosocialists agree with ecofeminists that the oppression of women in our society is part and parcel of the system's domination of nature, reproduction in particular. This is done by the capitalist system co-opting the prevailing patriarchal practices, to extract extra surplus value from the workers, in terms of unpaid domestic labour, without which the system could not function. 

And all for free to the system.

Examples of modern day ecosocialism, to an extent, can be found in the Kurdish area of northern Syria called Rojava and the Zapatistas in Chiapas the most southern state in Mexico.

So, what are the component parts of ecosocialism? There are many, but I’ve selected four of the main ones:

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