When it comes to explaining destructive growth, many green writers confuse cause and effect
In 1846, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began the first comprehensive statement of their political and philosophical views with this fable:
“Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.”
The “new revolutionary philosophers” that Marx and Engels criticized are long dead and forgotten, but their mode of thought is very much alive. In particular, the view that environmental problems and crises are caused by false ideas, and so can be overcome by changing the way humans think, is deeply embedded in modern green political thought.
A case in point is the frequent assertion that capitalism’s unsustainable drive for economic growth is caused by wrong ideas. “The more we examine the role of growth in our society,” writes Australian environmentalist Clive Hamilton, “the more our obsession with growth appears to be a fetish – that is, an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical properties.”
Other writers describe the drive for growth as an obsession, an addiction, or even a spell.
As Fawzi Ibrahim writes, such accounts present capitalism’s inexorable drive to expand not as an inevitable result of the profit system, but as “a matter of individual choice by economists or a collective decision by government and society that can be turned on and off…. A psychological obsession, a sort of collective whim that simultaneously grips all governments and all economists worldwide, or some kind of elaborate global conspiracy.”
“You might as well describe fish having a fetish for water as capitalism having a fetish for growth. Growth is as essential to capitalism as is water to fish. As fish would die without water, so would capitalism drown without growth.”
A related idea is the argument that unsustainable growth would be stopped if only governments would replace measures such as Gross National Product with more rational measurement systems that incorporate the costs of environmental damage and depleted resources. Advocates of the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Happy Planet Index are undoubtedly sincere, but they fail to understand the fact that GNP is perfectly rational from a capitalist perspective. As Martin Ryle explains:
“These ‘false indicators’ that are the basis of GNP (which aggregates monetary transactions and makes no distinction between ‘useful’ and useless, ‘intended’ or enforced) are also real indicators. They measure the economic activity, and use the criteria, which concern the profit-accumulating institutions (companies, banks) by which our economy is regulated. If – to use Marxist terms – they ‘indicate’ exchange value without reference to use value, this is precisely what makes them satisfactory indicators of a system in which production is not for use but for profit. ‘Conventional economics’ is not a mistaken theory/ideology; it is the institutionalized practice of a system with particular agents and beneficiaries.”
Expecting that replacing GNP with some other metric will change economic behavior is like thinking that taking your pulse using a fast watch will lower your blood pressure.
Unsustainable growth isn’t a mistake: it’s the way the system works. Pro-growth ideology reflects and excuses that irrationality: it doesn’t cause it.
As Marx wrote in 1844, “In order to abolish the idea of private property, the idea of communism is quite sufficient. It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property.”
More from my notebook …
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. “The German Ideology.” Collected Works, Volume 5. International Publishers, 1976. p. 24
- Clive Hamilton. Growth Fetish. Pluto Press, 2003. p. 3
- Fawzi Ibrahim. Capitalism versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict. Muswell Press, 2012. pp. 161, 164
- Martin Ryle. Ecology and Socialism. Radius, 1988. pp. 43-44
- Karl Marx. “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.” Collected Works, Volume 3. International Publishers, 1976. p. 313