DEBATE

Ecosocialism and degrowth: A reply

Before criticizing, we need to understand what radical degrowthers actually say and propose.

Continuing our discussion of ecosocialism and degrowth.

In A critique of degrowth, David Schwartzman argued that ecosocialists should reject degrowth advocates’ analysis and solutions. In this contribution, ecosocialist Simon Butler challenges aspects of Schwartzman’s critique. We encourage respectful responses in the comments, and hope to publish other views in future.

Simon Butler lives in Scotland. He is co-author, with Ian Angus, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011).


by Simon Butler

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.

This relative underdevelopment of the South is part of what Che Guevara once called “the great formula for imperialist economic domination” which he likened to “the old, but eternally youthful Roman formula: Divide and Conquer!” (See Cuba: Historical exception or vanguard in the anticolonial struggle?)

Debates about degrowth and concerns about how it would be received in the North make me think it’s time to revisit the classical Marxist discussions about imperialism and the labor aristocracy.

Lenin’s original argument was that some of the super-profits accrued in the imperialist countries also flowed in part to the better organised and highly skilled layers of the working class. This creates a minority privileged section of the working class that is far more open to class collaboration.

In his classic speech Socialism and Man in Cuba, Guevara also alluded to the issue of “how the workers in the imperialist countries gradually lose the spirit of working-class internationalism due to a certain degree of complicity in the exploitation of the dependent countries, and how this at the same time weakens the combativity of the masses in the imperialist countries.”

My point is that global working class solidarity cannot be proclaimed or assumed in advance. It doesn’t exist today. It has to be fought for — it cannot be merely rhetorical. Our proposals for action in the North have to line up closely with, and take the lead from, those that arise from the radical movements in the global South.

So if one of the big strategic problems for ecosocialism is overcoming the “divide and conquer” system of imperialism then one of the strengths of the most radical degrowth critiques is their internationalism. Given the specific climate/ecological emergency, strategic degrowth of the wasteful aspects of the economies of the North will allow ecological space for the South to develop. In this way it is linked to the concept of repaying the North’s ecological debt to the South (something David Schwartzman also endorses).

Jason Hickel’s understanding of degrowth goes beyond this as well. He poses degrowth as an anti-capitalist alternative to ecological imperialism and unequal exchange.

“Degrowth, then, is not just a critique of excess throughput in the global North; it is a critique of the mechanisms of colonial appropriation, enclosure and cheapening that underpin capitalist growth itself. If growthism seeks to organize the economy around the interests of capital (exchange-value) through accumulation, enclosure, and commodification, degrowth calls for the economy to be organized instead around provisioning for human needs (use-value) through de-accumulation, de-enclosure and de-commodification. Degrowth also rejects the cheapening of labour and resources, and the racist ideologies that are deployed toward that end. In all of these ways, degrowth is about decolonization.”

There are some versions of degrowth I’ve read that I’ve found less convincing. For instance, there is a difference between the degrowth ideas of people like Serge Latouche and the more systemic, anti-colonial views of people like Hickel, Matthias Schmelzer and Aaron Vansintjan. Ecosocialist assessments of degrowth politics should take those differences into account.

Finally, the article says that degrowth is “a prescription for mass death for most of humanity,” because it would condemn the global south to energy poverty.

That isn’t accurate or fruitful. It fails to acknowledge the basic point that most degrowth advocates explicitly want more energy consumption in the global South. It echoes other oratorical attacks on degrowth that accuse it of triggering a new great depression or implementing global austerity. Such over-the-top claims deter serious discussion.

Let’s be clear in our future discussions: capitalism and imperialism are a “prescription for mass death,” not degrowth thinkers.

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8 Comments

  • This website is brilliant and I’ve learnt so much from it. However, I think there is a huge problem with this notion that there is a ‘transition’ between capitalism and the future society. So, all the contributions on this page are perfectly valid in their own way, whether we grow the economy, or just some parts of it, or whether renewable energy sources have to use fossil sources in their construction etc., but you need to recognise they are points of view to be discussed in the future society, and voted on within a democratic collective. Right now, i.e. within capitalism, it is all speculative, and very problematic to the extent it doesn’t grasp that the system as a whole is what is screwing up the planet, not this or that ‘bit of it’.

    So, for example, the military-industrial complex wherein the US military has a higher carbon footprint than the entirety of Portugal, cannot simply be abolished on its own. It is engendered by the expansionary logic of capital itself. If you want to get rid of it, which is of course correct, you have to undo the entire capitalist system. By trying to find some kind of ‘bridge’ between this society and the new, really you are trying to make your ideas acceptable and implementable to capitalist states. Even if some policy proposals were adopted by the profiteering state, you will quickly find they deepen the problem, sadly.

    So, solar energy everywhere. “Great!” one might think. But hang on: all that would happen with such renewable energy is more production and expansion in other sectors, probably more and more plastics, more and more military-industrial complex, more and more production of those solar panels that Ellen is correct to say do require coal burning to make.

    Capitalism is production for production’s sake; accumulation for accumulation’s sake. It is that demented priority which is at the heart of modern society’s encroachment on natural limits to growth, the source of environmental degradation. Only after a revolution can society be humanely rational with regard to the use of resources and our relationship to nature, not before. And the idea of a transition is a clumsy foolhardy myth. No ‘third way’!

    • I don’t think there is any disagreement amongst most readers of this web site that a break with capitalism is necessary in order to solve the ills of environmental destruction. The problem is how to get there: it is not going to happen immediately, or spontaneously, but through a process of struggle by those exploited and oppressed by capitalism.

      What is very much under debate on the ecosocialist left is how to get there. There is a lot of debate about how to respond to various (inadequate, if not destructive) “initiatives” by capital, because these are the things that inform what we should be doing now and what can help us build the ecosocialist movement. Without such a movement, there will be no “transition”.

  • I think after decades of a neoliberal class offensive the Global North working class is in quite bad shape. Theories of a global North labor aristocracy are totally inappropriate to this moment of defeat (the concept itself is debatable even in times of working class power!- see Charles Post’s take down here: https://brill.com/view/journals/hima/18/4/article-p3_1.xml?language=en).

    Overall, framing our struggles in terms of North vs. South really obscures the class dimensions of the struggle. There are lots of poor working class people in the North; and lots of capitalists in the Global South. We need a more fine grained class analysis to understand imperialism than this contemporary dualism.

  • I warmly welcome Simon’s very quick response to my article. My son Peter and I have long valued his book with Ian Angus, Too Many People?, as an important critique of neo-Malthusianism having cited it in our own book. We have emphasized in our publications the imperative need for degrowing, indeed terminating, the Military Fossil Fuel Industrial Complex, as well as wasteful consumption especially in the global North. I referred to degrowth as a brand, a slogan, which is now very commonly heard in the global North in green discourse. This is problematic, not for the reasons that Simon points to, but rather because the whole point of a global GND is to generate sustainable employment in sectors that will provide millions of union jobs in the creation of renewable energy supplies, public transport, green affordable housing, agroecologies for needed growth, not degrowth.

    Significant wealth redistribution in both the global North and South is of course necessary, but not sufficient since growth of the economic sectors addressing human and nature’s needs is required to eliminate the obvious global disparities in life expectancy, health, education, as well as to confront the threat of climate catastrophe.

    I completely agree with Simon’s point regarding the North’s unequal access to the South’s mineral resources and soil nutrients, and the imperative of challenging imperialism, see e.g., our book, and several of my papers, as well as the discussion of extractivism in my article that Simon is critiquing. Of course the level of global working class solidarity necessary to effectively challenge transnational capital is not yet a reality, it must be created, organized on every scale from the local to the global. Yes, as Simon says this agenda should look to the radical movements in the global South for leadership. I do respect Hickel’s reference to ecological imperialism and unequal exchange but his degrowth prescription, particularly in calling for global reduction in energy consumption, falls far short of what is needed to overcome them.

    In his quotation of my claim that degrowth is “a prescription for mass death for most of humanity” Simon leaves out the rest of my sentence, “as well as prevent the creation of the wind/solar power capacity necessary for climate adaptation and mitigation.” The people of the global South will bear the greatest impact of climate catastrophe, as they are now experiencing in a world that has not yet reached the 1.5 deg C warming level. This reality must inform the future global energy requirements. Indeed as Simon says, capitalism and imperialism are a prescription for mass death, and so the prevention policy to avoid climate catastrophe that ecosocialists should support must include not only their termination but sufficient energy on a global scale to confront the impacts of ongoing climate change.

    • I respectfully disagree that wind and solar will provide the capacity for climate adaptation and mitigation. Their production, in fact, will require massive extraction of minerals/rare earth metals from the global south and Africa and indigenous lands in North America. Moreover, the production of solar panels requires heat levels that can only be produced by coal.
      I feel that well-meaning eco-socialists should really consider total impacts of solar and wind on our environment. I am always surprised to find well informed people promoting these rebuildables (not renewables) as solutions to the global ecological crisis.

      • You are correct to point to the present impacts of extraction corresponding to wind/solar energy implementation, but their negative impacts are still far less than fossil fuel dependence. Please take note of what I say regarding this extractivism challenge. I argue that there is no alternative to a wind/solar transition to keep warming at no more than the IPCC warming target of 1.5 deg C. Simply going to a low-energy world powered by no more than biomass is a prescription for breaching this limit, going forward to a climate hell much worse than we now witness. And there is no indication that this low-energy scenario is going to happen. So what is the choice for our children and grandchildren, climate hell or a better future that is still possible?

        • Further, regarding Ellen Anderson’s point regarding solar panels requiring coal, indeed China is using coal to produce electricity and as a reductant to produce silicon for the photovoltaic panels. Nevertheless, the Energy Return over Energy Invested ratio (EROI) of photovoltaics is now sufficiently high to completely replace the dependency on fossil fuels, and new technologies can eliminate the use of coal as a reductant by electrolysis to make silicon photovoltaics (e.g., https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-13065-w). The latter is also the case for making iron from its ores, and carbon-neutral steel can be produced from charcoal as a carbon source. Just published is an advance in producing hydrocarbon fuel for airplanes from atmospheric carbon dioxide and water (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04174-y).

          • There is a reason why charcoal was replaced by coke for steelmaking, aside from some technical shortcomings, which is that it uses huge amounts of biomass. Vaclav Smil has calculated that to meet US production of 25 million tonnes of pig iron in 1910, 4,000 km^2 of old growth deciduous forest would have been required.

            Let’s assume that extraction efficiency has doubled, so now that would be 2,000 km^2 of forest. World annual steel production is nearly 2 billion tonnes, of which about 500 mt is recycled using electrci arc furnaces. The amount of forest felled for the remaining 1,5 bn tonnes would be 160,000 km^2. Our World in Data says deforestation rates are 10 million hectares per year, which is 100,000 km^2. So, for steel production alone using charcoal would raise deforestation rates by 160%.

            I know these figures are crude, but the general scale is about right. It is these kinds of considerations, as well as the political ones about inequality, which I will address in another reply, that make me very sceptical about the possibility of continuing to produce anything like as much “stuff” as is currently produced.

            I note also, that one of the articles linked to by David says the following: “Aviation and shipping currently contribute approximately 8% of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions, with growth in tourism and global trade projected to increase this contribution further”. (It then goes on to outline a method for making aviation fuel in the desert using solar thermal plants, water captured from desert air and CO2 from direct air capture. So we have four major new industrial technologies proposed (the last is making hydrocarbons or alcohol fuels from the hydrogen and carbon monoxide) to make about 230 million tonnes a year (and rising) of aircraft fuel. I can’t get through Nature’s paywall, so don’t know the full details of the amount of solar plant required to do this, but the authors have a diagram of a 1 GW solar plant that is about 2.5 x 1.5 km or about 3.7 km^2 in area. That’s a lot of hardware and doesn’t compare we;; with a gas plant: for instance Saltend in Hull, with an output of 1.2 GW, seems to cover about 0.6 km^2.

            These kinds of considerations mean that a green, just transition needs to be based on reducing energy use as much as possible, especially in those populations where the levels of consumption are highest. Perhaps resigning ourselves to increasing demand for aviation and proposing building (very rapidly) whole new industrial sectors to meet that demand – as the Nature paper suggests – is not the way to go. Understanding that aviation is a luxury enjoyed by a fairly small minority of the world’s population should make us consider social solutions first.