The ecological insights of these degrowth essays are undermined by blindspots about renewable goods, agriculture, unalienated labor, and the power of our enemies
Max Ajl is a doctoral student in Development Sociology at Cornell University, researching the Tunisian national liberation struggle and its aftermath.
Republished, with permission, from The Brooklyn Rail.
IN DEFENSE OF DEGROWTH: OPINIONS AND MANIFESTOS
edited by Aaron Vansintjan
Uneven Earth Press, 2018
reviewed by Max Ajl
It was that lyrical defender of the desert, Edward Abbey, who most damningly indicted growth for “the sake of growth.” This was, Abbey argued, “the ideology of the cancer cell.” As he observed, cancer has no purpose. But it does have a consequence: “the death of the host.” Growth is the anticipation, the patterned logic, and the secularized religion of capitalism. In an age when we are practically drowning in liquidity, as vulture investors and hedge funds slosh capital with the speed of a supercomputer from corporation to commodity futures to treasury bonds, always looking for the best bet, a firm that cannot promise growth is a firm which will soon collapse.
We might also look bigger — more systemically. GDP growth rests on growth in throughput, or the physical mass of resources used in production. The production processes which GDP measures in prices use more and more of the world with every passing day, appropriating ever-larger chunks not just of net primary production, but also of atmospheric and terrestrial space for the waste generated. We inch ever closer to, if not step past, “planetary boundaries,” shifts from the Holocene conditions within which what has lately passed for civilization gestated. Indeed, such boundary-shattering has already happened for the climate, species extinction, and the nitrogen cycle. If growth-as-usual is not working, posing questions of whether human activity will cause enough shifts in the earth system to shrink if not collapse the space within which humans can fit, what are the alternatives?
We might start with the intoxicating possibilities of nuclear fission or fusion — forget Fukushima for these folks — and the domestic terraforming possibilities of geo-engineering using the unproven technology of industrial carbon, capture, and storage. Then there is the neat notion of decoupling, or that GDP can grow without any negative ecological impact. This is the deus ex machina of green growthers and sustainable developers who insist we can grow our way to universal prosperity without radical economic shifts in the richer portions of the world, and while preserving the planet, too.
This theology, for there is no empirical evidence that decoupling is a real phenomenon, basically rests on exporting resource-intensive production to Asia. There are also Elon Musk’s Mars Chronicles, for which I wish him the best, as soon as possible, and only one way. There are the space miners. There are those who think we have too many people and are doing their best to remedy the situation in Haiti and Yemen (those dystopian sociopaths run the US government).
Then there are those who, chastened by Hiroshima, put themselves on the side of humanity — the spiritual children of Rachel Carson — who think hard about better options. One idea gathering pace, especially on the Mediterranean’s northern coasts, and this quirk of geography is no accident, is degrowth. One of its most prolific academic theorists, Giorgos Kallis, has released a collection of essays, In Defense of Degrowth, ranging from manifestos, to brief polemics and longer explanations. “Degrowth” is defined as an “equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions.” The point of degrowth is to change the organizing principles of society, to adopt a creed of “simplicity, conviviality, and sharing,” and design new institutions, paired with localized economies — production, distribution, and consumption — and more equal distribution of resources.
It might clarify matters if I make clear that Kallis sees degrowth as a “missile concept,” its targeting system zeroed in on the intellectual muffling device known as “sustainable development.” Sustainable development basically rests on decoupling. In some versions, it suggests we can continue to significantly grow the economy and ramp up energy use provided we transition to sustainable energy and install carbon capture technologies where we burn hydrocarbons. It is also a call for the elimination of some of the most stubborn centers of extreme poverty — the bottom billion. But at the same time, sustainable development has not imagined a world where inequality is markedly reduced if not mostly eliminated, and has often been openly hostile to Marxism.
Since the chimera of sustainable development is an alibi for permanent growth, degrowth is meant to grab hold of the dominant discourse of growth, envelop it and its apologists, and in fact take on fundamentalism where one must: at the roots. The idea of degrowth, this book included, is meant as invitation to debate. Degrowth is not meant to replace communism, anarchism, or democratic socialism as horizons for human hope, and it is certainly not a recipe for disregarding class struggle.
Degrowth has several intellectual taproots: One, André Gorz’s eco-socialism. Two, Ivan Illich’s call for convivial tools, premised on interaction amongst people as opposed to technologies based on the raw productivity of machines, and in many ways a non-Marxist account of alienated production. And three, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s work on entropy, or how the process of making things has an innate tendency to take order — that of ore, or hydrocarbons, or a sustainable eco-system — and sow disorder: ore scattered into a million granules of metal, burnt oil becoming carbon dioxide, and an eco-system degrading amidst the poisonous infiltration of wastes produced by coal and metal mining and processing, never mind a warmer world to which it was unaccustomed.
We might see Gorz as a call for distributive fairness and a just economy in the now, Illich as a non-Marxist call for unalienated social and productive interactions, and Georgescu-Roegen as a call for fairness, equity, lack of exploitation, and accountability, not to those living now on earth, but for those generations yet to come. Degrowth creatively fuses them, although with a certain de-emphasis of capitalism’s logic of accumulation, while borrowing from French-American technology criticism a heavier emphasis on the physical-technical elements of the social formation.
The elements of degrowth, as Kallis sees them flourishing in Spain’s solidarity economy amidst the post-southern-Eurozone economic meltdown, are urban food gardens, production-consumption food cooperatives, eco-housing cooperatives, local currencies, and squats (These are, of course, the elements that invite spite from techno-utopians about the ecologists’ desire for humanity to shack up in the huts of Hobbiton, which frankly seem preferable to Chernobyl and Fallujah). But this is not some retro survivalist withdrawal into the interstices of modern society.
Nor is it a call for a primitivist Arcadia. With echoes resonant of Cooperation Jackson’s “build and fight, fight and build,” degrowth means not just the construction but also the “political defense” of nowtopias. It does not sidestep politics, and indeed the Mediterranean degrowthers have thoroughly engaged with the now-dashed hopes of the “new” parties like SYRIZA, Podemos, and others, although, crucially, without surrendering their own autonomy.
Most simply, degrowth is a suggestion for a simpler economy, with more of what pollutes less and ever-less of what pollutes more. It rests on renewables. This is non-negotiable. The future forces and sources of energy will be wind, solar, and tidal. If renewables cannot produce enough power, and Kallis is sure they cannot (a claim which is at least contestable), then we will also need massive downscaling. The vision, a kind of echo of Ursula LeGuin’s spare Anarres in The Dispossessed, is frugal but convivial, with fewer material goods and more meaning.
I hope I have presented Kallis’s ideas fairly. I strongly agree with the socio-ecological orientation he sketches. So, I would raise the first of my objections this way: There is an unnecessary spartanness in how he (and perhaps the degrowthers more broadly?) imagines the degrowth transition and horizon. In a rationally and collectively planned economy, people must attend to the effects of production and consumption on the biosphere.
But material goods need not be unrenewable. Much of what is currently made in the non-renewable, or industrial mode can be made differently (tech like cellphones made with rare-earth metals which are mined only with great environmental damage is a thornier question). From houses which can be made of stone and wood, to leather goods and woolens, great swathes of what humans cherish most are procurable on an infinitely renewable basis. The affluent prefer such goods and prefer them hand-made.
It is the poor and middle-class Euro-American consumer of last resort who buys endless poorly and mass-crafted kitsch and crap, whose making rips into the poorer nations’ environments like a scythe. Products are built not to last. They are made poorly, cheaply, and heedless of the environmental costs of such a torrent of tchotchkes. Such poisonous production processes are made by monopoly capitalism. Almost no one chose such a world.
Whether artisanal crafts — wool rugs, furniture made by skilled carpenters and not churned out from factories fabricating carbon-copy items from pulped wood — and a cascade of craftsmen are luxuries for the few or fruit for the many is not a question, I think, which can be answered now. It would need massive studies, country-by-country, sector-by-sector, and is an empirical one of planning, teaching, training, and, in fact, massive reskilling.
Kallis, as he blurs quality and quantity, potentially overstates the kinds of changes in lifestyle which are needed in the nations of most concentrated wealth, or by those inhabitants of other countries who have middle-income lifestyles and consumption patterns.
This is because European degrowth imagines, a bit unrealistically, a radical reduction in work itself. This line of thought traces back to Gorz himself, as well as to Serge Latouche, a degrowth (décroissance) pioneer. For them, as for the mechanize-everything-and-let-machines-work crowd, work has been mostly something we ought to avoid in a sustainable society.
According to this way of thinking, we ought to expand time for play and leisure. The difference between the degrowthers and the accelerationists is the machinic intensity of the post-capitalist society. The idea of moving to unalienated labor does not really arise.
I don’t buy this. William Morris’s romantic utopianism is a vein of insight which degrowth ought to tap. It was the old man himself who thought that in the realm of freedom, one could “do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.” The world Marx wished to see was not one where we lollygag and wait for full-automatic servitors to bring us everything we need. It was one in which we work, but do not hate our work. Writing in the mid-19th century, he also understandably drew on agricultural references with an ease which is less common now, at least in the Euro-Atlantic world.
The book is rough around the edges in terms of the specific paths to the future for the wealthier or poorer nations, or the North or the South — a terminology Kallis only reluctantly embraces, as he states: “We all — to some degree, or at some periods — feel like ‘Southerners.’” A warm reading might find that degrowth is not in the business of drafting the blueprints for other peoples, out of respect for their self-determination but also as a matter of political and epistemological modesty: “We need to degrow so that ‘Southern’ cosmologies and political alternatives . . . can flourish,” Kallis states.
But if degrowth has a lot to say, implicitly and explicitly, about putting a brake on metastatic industrial growth, it has less to say about agriculture — although lately its kind-of-flagship review, The Journal of Cleaner Production, has devoted more and more space to the topic.
Kallis’s book also pays less attention to agriculture than, for instance, did one of its progenitors, Latouche’s touchstone Farewell to Growth, and despite the proximity of Kallis’s ideas and person to those of Joan Martinez-Alier, a kind of neo-Narodnik ecological economist who is involved with the agricultural struggles of the rural people the world over (they work together in Barcelona).
Urban gardens pepper the book and the solidarity economies, which thread through the commodity-capitalist market relations of the northern Mediterranean. But such metropolitan plots, important on social and ecological levels, crucial for teaching people about unalienated labor, and for connecting people back to the land, cannot possibly feed everyone. Even in the best of cases, they can replace purchased or imported vegetables but not supply all nutrient needs, at least not without undercutting the population density which makes cities urban.
So how does degrowth envision people eating, and securing the raw materials needed for replacing industrial-style production?
Because agriculture is at the center of human well-being and human society, the trade in agricultural products has been so central to the hierarchical and capitalist world food system, and because importing cheap tropical goods has been a priority for the powers-that-be for a very long time, I do not see a way around directly addressing this question, given how it threads through every inch of the social fabrics which degrowth seeks to reweave.
Indeed, agriculture is one of the primary ways richer and poorer countries interact. Let me explain. First, there is the question of labor. In wealthier nations’ agriculture, labor has generally been (1) replaced by machines and chemicals, and thus fossil fuel; (2) imported from devastated peasant or post-peasant societies to both US farms and US secondary processing: think post-NAFTA Mexico flooded with cheap, subsidized US corn, which destroyed milpa-based maize cultivation.
And food itself, where not secured domestically in the industrial style, is extracted from the formerly colonized world, especially tropical commodities which we cannot grow at home. How this affects the wealthier lands’ degrowth paths is a debate which must be opened because all countries are not structured the same way. If as production localizes, poorer countries are focused on feeding their own, and richer countries can no longer replace knowledge, attention, and labor with chemicals, we might find that we need somewhat more labor, or human presence on farms, than degrowth imagines.
In the medium-run, we cannot expect poorer nations to take on burdens which we shrug off. If they are not forced to grow our food, and we cannot use so many chemicals in lieu of labor, then there may have to be more humans involved in agriculture in countries which have long abandoned — in fact, hollowed out — the countryside. Degrowth’s investment in idleness may have to be qualified.
But perhaps not in the way one would expect. I also would have liked more from this book on agro-ecology, which is, or will have to be, a central degrowth technology which is negative-input (it absorbs carbon dioxide, when done properly). Once again, Cuba is more and more of a launching point for discussion in the scholarly literature, but not so much in this manifesto.
I think, though, that agro-ecological farming breaks apart, or can break apart, some of the dualities Kallis puts forth: work versus idleness, spartan living versus plenty. Instead, we might with Richard Levins imagine that degrowth will eventually rest on “the evolution of agricultural technology . . . from labor-intensive through capital-intensive to knowledge- and thought intensive.” Such agriculture rests on riding ecological currents such as farmers relying on integrated pest management instead of pouring pesticides on plants to poison pests. No machines, no capital, no pesticides, and minimal crop losses, too.
Amidst agricultural delinking and the loss of poorer and warmer countries as labor-intensive tropical-crop exporters, all parts of the world will have to decide how much social labor will be devoted to knowledge-intensive and attention-intensive agricultural systems.
Such delicate, intricate, brilliant lattices are the basis for a world which will be far from “simple,” as Kallis continually calls the post-degrowth world. Indeed, the challenge of “managing the future” is one of creating a human interaction with the ecology that, far from “leaving environments . . . idle,” will, if it is to work at all, think instead of planning human collective life which attends to the dizzying complexity of the environment and the social institutions needed to nestle humans within it.
Whether or not a knowledge-intensive agro-ecology can replace a labor-intensive agroecology remains to be seen. Some scientists are cautiously optimistic on this front. Be that as it may, the success of such a transition will determine directly the degree to which labor is freed up for non-agricultural pursuits.
This brings me back, less to my questioning of degrowth than to probing as to how much it may reflect the particular standpoint of peripheral European capitalism, and perhaps the struggles which spot the region. Although I am sympathetic to degrowth’s notion that we are saddled with amounts of industrialization which are neither socially nor ecologically sustainable, do we wish to infer from the just struggles against ecologically ruinous new high-speed rail lines in Italy that we wish to reject industrial manufacture of trains, let alone bicycles, and the rending of the connective tissue of modernity such decoupling would imply?
Rather than such a too-austere utopia, all worlds, or all the world, are going to have to decide for themselves how much industrialization is socially and ecologically permissible. Degrowth would be served by noting that industrialization needs to be socially controlled but not wholly suppressed. Recall that the Anarres settlement, the complex utopia of The Dispossessed, was “an anarchism [which] was the product of a very high civilization…a highly industrialized economy that could maintain production and rapid transportation of goods.”
As LeGuin continued, “However vast the distances separating settlements, they held to the ideal of a complex organicism,” based on interchange between regions — goods and communications.
I also wished while reading Kallis for a more global approach to the history which bears down on developmental models like an Alp, how the burden of a still-unequal and militarized North-South division weighs on the latter’s trajectories. Kallis’s perspective is plain as he blasts the range of extractivist developmental models, from Nigeria to Bolivia. In the former, petroleum has led to ripped-apart societies, with corporations’ private security forces running amok, pocked by spilled black gold, and marred by despoiled deltas.
Clearly, the development of natural resources has often cost countries like Nigeria much and gotten most of their people very little. But to blame Bolivia, for example, for deploying oil monies to lift people from poverty, to lower literacy, when those funds are received from oil which the West demands on international markets, paints a picture of oil-based developmentalism which places undue expectations on embattled poor and weaker governments. Furthermore, the portions of the oil money invested in vision surgery, community health clinics, and teaching people to read is quite emissions-light, at least in terms of how it is invested on the ground.
Although I am well aware of the broad range of internal criticisms of the petroleum-based welfare of the Latin American experiments (the agro-ecological revolution which has quietly occurred alongside such splashy policies receives less attention), it is important to bear in mind that such states need developmental space to figure out their own paths — which means political space spared from the intrigues of USAID, economic sabotage, and US Apaches assisting coup d’états against left-developmentalist governments.
It is difficult for governments to avoid what are rudely called “populist” temptations when they need to shore up their social support bases for fear of them becoming the basis for a Color Revolution. Furthermore, reliance on commodity-crop or raw material export, the starting point for the Pink Tide governments, was itself the structural legacy of decades of interference and colonialism.
Degrowth must account for US/EU interference in other lands if it is to speak to both and provide a unifying frame, a space for all to point out obstacles to building a world big enough for everyone.
Indeed, one irony — or is it? — is that it has been Jeffrey Sachs, the apostle of sustainable development, who has emerged as one of the most scathing high-profile critics of the US role in the Middle East. He understands that a sustainable, stable, patterned, and ordered world of any kind is not possible amidst US capacity and rapacity abroad.
Similarly, degrowth, which is a planned social system, or we can say a form of socialism, cannot possibly flourish amidst the whirlwind of US violence. Can anyone imagine that a planned degrowth society would be allowed to emerge anywhere in the world, unbothered by the intrigues of those whom it threatened?
So, if we need to degrow, and we do, one easy target is the machine of violence known as the US military, which is, after all, one of the world’s biggest polluters, and ought to be a primary target for removal, given that it is the sort of socially and ecologically corrosive production which most of the planet would be better off without.
The sooner the better.
Thanks to Mamadou Diallo for clarifying my thinking in several key places and Wendell Hassan Marsh for pushing me to broaden the essay.
 Edward Abbey, One Life at a Time, Please (Macmillan, 1988), 21.
 John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, December 2012.
 Romualdas Juknys, Genovaitė Liobikienė, and Renata Dagiliūtė, “Deceleration of Economic Growth – The Main Course Seeking Sustainability in Developed Countries,” Journal of Cleaner Production 192 (August 10, 2018): 1–8.
 Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (Penguin, 2008), 206.
 Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard University Press, 1971).
 Max Ajl, “A Socialist Southern Strategy in Jackson,” Viewpoint Magazine, June 5, 2018, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2018/06/05/a-socialist-southern-strategy-in-jackson/.
 John Bellamy Foster, “The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society,” Monthly Review, September 2017.
 Joan Martinez-Alier, “The EROI of Agriculture and Its Use by the Via Campesina,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): 145–60.
 Harriet Friedmann and Philip McMichael, “Agriculture and the State System: The Rise and Decline of National Agricultures, 1870 to the Present,” Sociologia Ruralis 29, no. 2 (1989): 93–117; H. Friedmann, “The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order,” American Journal of Sociology, 1982, 248–286; Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik, A Theory of Imperialism (Columbia University Press, 2016).
 A search in the Journal of Cleaner Production – as close as degrowth has to a house journal – for Cuba shows a sharp up-tick in search results in 2016.
 Richard Levins, “Science and Progress: Seven Developmentalist Myths in Agriculture.” Monthly Review, July-Aug. 1986
 Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming (New York Review of Books, 2010).
 Philip McMichael, “Commentary: Food Regime for Thought,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 43, no. 3 (2016): 648–670, 660.
 Colin Adrien MacKinley Duncan, The Centrality of Agriculture: Between Humankind and the Rest of Nature (McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 1996), 152–61.
 Miguel A. Altieri and Victor Manuel Toledo, “The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: Rescuing Nature, Ensuring Food Sovereignty and Empowering Peasants,” Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 3 (2011): 587–612; Ana Felicien, Christina Schiavoni, and Liccia Romero “The Politics of Food in Venezuela,” Monthly Review, June 2018.
Thank you! Very well and passionately written.
It is with some satisfaction that I see the ideas of decentralism and “back-to-the-land woven into this.
But, I would add, as harsh as it sounds, that cities as we know them must end to exist.