Debate

Degrowth and ecosocialism – a reply

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The critical issue is not today’s elections, but preparing for tomorrow’s mass movements

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by Alan Thornett

This is a response to an article by Jonathan Neale published on the Climate and Capitalism website on July 11 entitled The ‘eco’ in ecosocialism must mean climate, or we are lost.

Jonathan Neale is a veteran climate campaigner at both UK and international level, and has published two books on the subject. The first was Stop Global Warming – change the world published in 2008. The second was Fight Fire – Green New Deals and global climate jobs published in 2021.

I have known Jonathan a long time. We were both involved in the Campaign Against Climate Change for many years, and in the Ecosocialist International Network (EIN) in the early years of the century. We both helped to organize a conference, in 2014, on ecosocialism, called by Socialist Resistance and RS21 soon after the it had left the SWP.

He is right about the scale of the crisis we face and that climate change is the overarching threat we face and must be stopped before catastrophic feedbacks take over and irreparable damage done.

We must be careful, however, not to counterpose this to the other crucially important planetary boundaries such as biodiversity, oceanic acidification, freshwater depletion, and the destruction of the rain forests and the wetlands. They all represent existential threats to the future of the planet in their own right and they are not, in any case, mutually exclusive. Defending the rainforests for example, not only takes carbon out of the atmosphere, but defends biodiversity and gives us oxygen to breathe.

Most environmental campaigners, in any case, already see climate change as the overarching and most immediate challenge to the planet, and treat it as such. They rightly see campaigning in defense of one planetary boundary as complementary to the struggle against the others including climate change. There are two other specific issues raised in the article that I want to take up. The first is Jonathan’s critique of ecosocialism  – with which I largely agree. The other is his announcement in the article that he no longer supports the idea of degrowth – with which I could hardly disagree more.

Ecosocialism

Ecosocialism, Jonathan argues, suffers from niche politics and abstract propagandism that will have to change if it is to maximize its contribution to the struggle to save the planet.

He puts it this way: “Many socialist or Marxist parties have used the idea of ecosocialism as a sort of niche part of party business. The ecosocialist part of the party is given the task of arguing with the greens and the anarchists. In practice, this means producing propaganda saying nuclear power is not the answer, capitalism is the cause of the environmental crisis, and we are not in favor of growth. In other words, tokenism and abstract argument, whilst failing to focus on building a mass movement to save the world here and now.”

This is true. There has long been a tendency on the radical left to simply add the environmental struggle to an existing (very long) list of other priorities and call it ecosocialism, with only marginal changes in practice. If ecosocialism to mean anything it must involve a fundamental restructuring of priorities putting the environmental struggle  front and center to everything we do. In fact, it was exactly this that led to the eventual demise of the EIN. It set standards of involvement and commitment to the environmental struggle that most the organizations involved were unable to meet because the environment was not central to either the theory and practice of their own organizations.

Degrowth

Johnathan strongly supported degrowth in Stop Global Warming – change the world in 2008. In fact he slammed the Blair government for its addiction to growth, and for the “lying and hypocrisy” it  practiced trying to achieve it. He described economic growth then as: “the living contradiction between the human necessity of halting climate change and the capitalist necessity of economic growth” ­ and he was right.

He also pointed out that a global growth rate of 3.5% a year (which was the annual rate at that time which was just above the longer-term average of 3%) which, “would mean a doubling of global production in 20 years, and quadrupling in 40 years. That would (in turn) mean an inexorable rise in manufactured things, and therefore in GHG emissions.”

He was more equivocal in Fight Fire – Green New Deals and global climate jobs in 2021 –though he still regarded degrowth as a useful concept. Now, he tells us – in 2023 – at a time when there is an upsurge of interest in degrowth – that is an impossible dream, that it could never win popular support, and if introduced, would lead to catastrophic social breakdown.

He puts it this way: “If a government decided to limit growth, the country would go into recession and stay there forever. Employment and incomes will fall – which is the point of degrowth. But so would investment. That national economy would be unable to compete with other national economies on the world market. Quite rapidly, the stock market and the job market will go into free fall.”

Ironically, this is exactly what Tony Blair would have told him, had he replied, in 2008.

Degrowth ‘will not stop climate change’

Jonathan argues (rather strangely) that degrowth will not stop climate change. If you reduce global GDP by 50% in the next twenty years, he says, and you don’t stop burning fossil fuel we are all utterly lost. If the GDP of the world grows by 50% in the next twenty years and we stop all burning of fossil fuels, we will have stopped climate change.

There is, however, a clear link between GDP and GHG emissions which were reflected, in a distorted form, during the pandemic. According to Statista GDP fell by 3.4 during the lockdowns and GHG emission by even more, by a whopping 4.6 per cent. This is not the ‘degrowth’ that degrowthers advocate because, of course, since it was un-planned and contained no, socially just, transition that is the essential feature of a progressive degrowth proposal.

Not a new debate

This is not a new debate, of course  – as Jonathan acknowledges. An important study into growth was initiated, in 1970, by two American environmental scientists, Donella and Dennis Meadows, and an impressive team of young scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA. The results they came up with were published in 1972 as the Limits to Growth Report.

The Report’s monumental conclusion was that: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continues unchanged”, they said, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

It had a huge (and global) impact on the environmentally conscious world. Twelve million copies were sold world-wide. It was translated into 37 languages, and remains the top-selling environmental title ever published. It was also an important factor ­ along with Rachel Carson’s stunning Silent Spring a decade earlier which took on the chemical industry ­ became a driving force behind the emergence of the ecology movement and then the Green Party in the 1970s, and indeed produced degrowth movement itself.

It’s was not only a very strong analysis, but it was also remarkably accurate in terms of the catastrophic events it predicted.

The socialist left, however ­ with a few important exceptions ­ totally ignored the Report and remained wedded to growth and productivism. They/we regarded the emerging environmental and ecology movement of the 1970s as a middle class diversion from the real struggle. As a result of this damaging blunder no section of the socialist left, neither radical or social democratic, was able to  challenge the increasing grip that growth and productivism was able to establish over the trade unions and the Labour Party, and which remains largely unchallenged today.

The struggle for degrowth today

Jonathan insists that no one can win an election in Britain today – or anywhere else in the world – on the basis of a degrowth agenda, and as result remains an abstract concept that no one is fighting for in the real world. The same could be said of the full socialist program, of course, in terms of winning elections under today’s level of consciousness, but this is not the only consideration.

The key issue today is not whether a degrowth agenda could win an election, but whether campaigning for it can prepare the ground, in the course of the struggle, for it to be adopted by a mass movement that is thrown up as the climate runs out of control and societal breakdowns escalate.

The degrowth idea is far from abstract. It combines a struggle for change today with a strategic alternative to growth and productivism. It offers government’s, for example, a means by which they can reduce the size of their economies by design rather than by a series of catastrophes. A point that is strongly made by Giorgos Kallis and his co-authors in The Case for Degrowth published in 2020 – the best book available in my view on this subject – in other words, when in a hole stop digging.

Nor does it lack detail, as Jonathan alleges. The Case for Degrowth, for example, devotes more page-space to the detailed implementation of a longer term degrowth agenda than to its general principles. It argues that: “That we have to produce and consume differently, and also less. That we have to share more and distribute more fairly while the pie shrinks and to do so in way that support pleasurable and meaningful lives in resilient societies and environments requires values and institutions that produce different kinds of persons and relations.”

It urges people to “work, produce, and consume less, share more, enjoy more free time, and live with dignity and joy.” Policies packages reflecting this, they argue, are: Green new deals without growth; a universal basic income and universal basic services; and a big reduction in working hours. The first responsibility for such changes, of course, must come from the rich countries of the Global North. Ultimately, however, they have to embrace the global economy.

What kind of mass movement

Winning a full degrowth agenda not only poses the issue of a mass movement, but the broadest possible mass movement. It should include everyone prepared to fight to save the planet on a progressive basis: the environmental movements, the indigenous movements, peasant movements, and farmers movement, as well as trade unions and progressive political parties.

It would need to demand – in my view – that the big polluters are made to pay for the transition to renewables via heavy taxation fossil fuels production to facilitate a major redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor and thereby a socially just transition that can win wide popular support.

Without a progressive proposition of this kind any mass movement thrown up under conditions of societal breakdown would be seriously vulnerable to far-right and fascist populism.

Meanwhile important advances can be made within a degrowth perspective that could be built on as the struggle develops. It is what I would call this a transitional approach, though I am aware that Jonathan is opposed to such an approach since he made it very clear in a discussion at an Historical Materialism conference several years ago. Such an approach must be the cornerstone of ecosocialism and an ecosocialist strategy designed to save the planet from ecological destruction and create a post-capitalist, ecologically sustainable, society for the future.


Alan Thornett’s most recent book is Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism.

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6 Comments

  • “Now, he tells us – in 2023 – at a time when there is an upsurge of interest in degrowth – that is an impossible dream, that it could never win popular support, and if introduced, would lead to catastrophic social breakdown.”

    Yes, there is an upsurge in interest in degrowth… accompanied by an upsurge in spirited resistance to it. It is a toxic word to most people, provoking immediate rejection, revulsion, even violent condemnation. I’ve been communicating about it in the trenches for quite a while now, so I know whereof I speak. And it is not just ignorant people; it is a great many intellectuals as well.

    So yes, it would have an extremely difficult time winning popular support, to put it mildly, just on the basis of that horrid name, let alone on any actual policy issues.

    The degrowth *program* (if you will) is a long list of obviously desirable and necessary changes — decommodification of fundamentals, radical reduction of socially-useless production, reduced working hours, etc., etc. This stuff could easily win popular support, just not under the name “degrowth”.

    The problem — apart from the terrible name — is in the idea that absolute reduction of GDP (or growth by some other metric) is necessary as a primary goal, and indeed if it were adopted and effected as primary goal it likely would result in said “social breakdown”, if not catastrophic then at least very bad. Some things, such as the renewables and EVs transition, absolutely need to be grown faster, while other things need to be radically curtailed. The ultimate effect of these countervailing trends on GDP is unpredictable, and not necessary to predict: we need this to happen, no matter what happens to GDP. If this is “productivism” or “CO2 reductionism” or whatever, then I plead guilty. This is what must happen, regardless of labels.

  • What does the reference book “The Case for Degrowth” say about cars and transportation? Within the core it seems impossible to do anything about transportation without either electric vehicles and/or added density. Does the book answer the question does anyone need a car? This is a much more important question to answer than if Degrowth is a good slogan or if one particular proposal is the same as a concept.

  • I read Neale’s article just now, and curiously it doesn’t allow any comments. Be that as it may, I find many of his statements problematic, and moreso because in this article Thornett states he actually used to be a degrowth advocate.

    In Neale’s article, he states: “Employment and incomes will fall – which is the point of degrowth. But so will investment. That national economy will be unable to compete with other national economies on the world market. Quite rapidly, the stock market and the job market will go into free fall.”

    The thin is, what he is describing above – the stock market, private investment, and a job market – is capitalism, not socialism. I don’t know Neale and all I know about his past is in the article above, but I find it hard to take seriously an argument that socialism really isn’t any different from capitalism; he is really making an argument that private wealth creation – that is, the result of speculative stock markets and private investment, and also a job market which means the private ownership of the means of production, reification, alienation, and a “reserve army” of the unemployed.

    Besides, those who write articles for Climate and Capitalism should be aware the the great host of statistics which show us that the world’s richest 10% emitted 49% of global CO2 in 2015 (by contrast the bottom 50% emitted 7%). That means in order to curb emissions it is only the richest 10% who need austerity, and that paired with actual socialism – no speculative stock markets, publicly managed investment, and job guarantees (actually, I don’t think you have socialism without austerity for the rich to begin with).

  • It is all about pollution! Pollution in all its forms is slowly but increasingly killing off all life on the planet. The problem is that solving for just or two nearly always increases many others proportionately. This was just illustrated in Kansas City where they are ramping up a coal fired electric plant due to the increased demand from an EV battery plant going in.

    Limits to Growth sorely underweighted pollution in their model. Pollution should track parallel to production.