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The necessity of ecosocialist degrowth

Originally published: Global Ecosocialist Network on June 4, 2022 by Paul Murphy and Jess Spear (more by Global Ecosocialist Network)  | (Posted Jun 18, 2022)

Article originally published in Issue 7 of Rupture, Ireland’s eco-socialist quarterly

No Planet BIn recent years, the concept of degrowth has seen significant discussion and debate amongst ecosocialists worldwide. In this article from issue 7 Paul Murphy and Jess Spear analyse these debates and make the case for the necessity of ecosocialist degrowth in confronting the climate and biodiversity crises. We welcome further contributions and responses from readers to this debate.

Capitalist growth is destroying our life support systems. Its parasitic relationship with nature (both human and nonhuman) is as Marx wrote, “vampire-like”1 and “will not lose its hold…so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”2 Every single year the material taken from the Earth to feed the insatiable capitalist appetite for profits grows larger and larger, and the waste spewing into the atmosphere, land, rivers, and sea grows bigger and bigger. Out of the nine planetary boundaries identified–which together delineate the “safe operating space for humanity”–four have been crossed.3

The latest IPCC reports make clear that the “window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all” is “rapidly closing”.4 Either the Capitalinian,5 the first geological age of the Anthropocene, will be brought to a close by ecosocialist revolution, or it will bring humanity into a new dark age. And, it is increasingly easy to foresee what will happen if we don’t take rapid action: more famine, floods, drought, and super storms as well as new pandemics; war, as imperialist states and their allies clash over access to dwindling resources; and, deepening authoritarianism as those who can avoid catastrophe for now seek to insulate themselves from the crisis surrounding them. Never has it been more clear that we face a choice between socialism and barbarism.

Energy UseHowever, what socialists mean by “socialism” is not settled. It ranges from the “ecomodernists” and “fully automated luxury”6 communists, who place an emphasis on technological solutions to the climate emergency, to the ecosocialists and “ecosocialist degrowthers”7 focused on urgently reducing emissions and ecosystem destruction.

We want to make the case for ecosocialist degrowth, which is “a planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way.”8 As a guiding concept for the revolutionary left today, ecosocialist degrowth can help illuminate the ecologically-sustainable path forward.

What’s in a word?

“Every single year the material taken
from the Earth to feed the insatiable capitalist appetite for profits grows larger
and larger.”

In our view, many of the debates about degrowth have proved unproductive as people argue past each other using different definitions. Does degrowth mean a reduction of GDP? Does it entail a reduction in all aspects of economic activity? Does it require a reduction of economic activity in all areas of the world?

Too many socialists erect strawman, suggesting that degrowth advocates argue that “the real class struggle is not between workers and capital but between geographical regions: North and South”;9 or put forward baseless claims like “degrowth would bring an end to progress itself that”10 or is “a prescription for mass death for most of humanity”.11

On the more sympathetic end of the degrowth critical spectrum, we hear arguments like we need “both degrowth and growth of different sectors of the productive forces”.12 But, this is already what many degrowth advocates argue.

The richest 1% are responsible for 15% of emissions.

We need degrowth in industries ranging from armaments and advertising to fast fashion and fossil fuels, together with a dramatic reduction in consumption of the richest 1% who are responsible for 15% of emissions.13  We need growth in public services like healthcare, education, public transport, renewable energy, childcare, etc. (the list could go on), particularly in developing countries.

In our view, though, this response sidesteps the bigger question degrowth is seeking to address: does humanity need to reduce energy consumption and material throughput overall?

We answer unambiguously–yes.

Despite all the efforts at “decoupling” GDP from material use, in the entire history of the global economy, increases of GDP have always come together with expansion in energy consumption and material throughput. This isn’t to deny that technological breakthroughs can and do increase efficiency, or that, under the control of a workers’ state focused on producing for need, not profit, they would very likely lead to a decrease in material energy use. But, within the capitalist system, the Jevons Paradox14 holds quite firm. Efficiency leads to growth in material and energy use, not reduction. So the necessary contraction in energy usage and material throughput, certainly within the framework of capitalism, would result in a decrease in GDP at a global level. That, for us, is a consequence, rather than the aim. But for the purpose of the argument it is important to be upfront about it.

This of course can bring an immediate objection from other socialists–similar to the argument against the term ‘Anthropocene’15–that in talking about “humanity’s” usage of energy and GDP as a whole, you are eliminating the responsibility of the capitalist class for the crisis we are in. Or that it obscures the fact that the top 10% of humanity uses 20 times more total energy than the bottom 10%16 (see Figure 1 below).  It’s true that, in making the case that current climate change is caused by human activities, most media and too many scientists fail to distinguish between rich and poor, workers and bosses, and countries within the global North and global south. The blame for climate change and environmental destruction is all too often placed on the shoulders of “humanity” as a whole, whether you’re a private jet-owning billionaire or a Ugandan subsistence farmer. This framing repels working class people who, even in the wealthiest countries, struggle to secure even the basic necessities. It also ignores the centuries-long struggle against this system by indigenous peoples.

However, rather than adding to the obfuscation of “humanity is all to blame”, in our view adopting degrowth as a guiding concept actually better enables ecosocialists to expose the capitalist roots of the crisis. It brings much needed attention to the growth imperative inherent to capitalism and all that goes with it, from planned obsolescence and advertisement to the gargantuan waste produced and ever expanding energy requirements. Instead of blaming people as a whole, degrowth can underscore the class divide in consumption, within rich countries, but also importantly, between so-called developed and underdeveloped countries (ie., global North17 and global South). By focusing on the capitalist class’ decisions aboutut production it also puts a giant spotlight on the violent extractivism and “sacrifice zones” required for further growth, including in renewables.

It is not enough to openly accept the scientific necessity of a significant reduction in energy consumption and material throughput on a global scale. We have to immediately add that this can and must be done in a way that improves the quality of life for almost everybody on the planet, but only on the basis of a rational and democratic plan of production. All of the harmful and wasteful activities of the capitalist class and the luxury consumption of the individuals who make up that class should be rapidly reduced to nothing (that is, degrown). It is also necessary and possible for the mass of workers, small farmers, unemployed and young people, including in the global South, to have dramatically improved quality of life.

Growth as an ideology

This positive embracing of degrowth as a concept for ecosocialists should not be taken as an uncritical acceptance of all that has been said by degrowthers up until now. Jason Hickel, for example, seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding about where the growth imperative comes from at its core. Again and again, he repeats statements like:

Now [in the age of neoliberalism] the goal is to tear down the barriers to profit–to make humans and nature cheaper–for the sake of growth.18

He has the relationship between growth and profit the wrong way around. The end goal of each capitalist and the system as a whole is the maximisation of profit. Growth is a means to that end, rather than the other way around.

However, when Hickel writes about what he calls the ideology of growthism, he is making an important point. The idea that economic growth is the route to improved living standards–“a rising tide lifts all boats”–is a pervasive part of the dominant ideas of the ruling class. It is one of those ideas that is so hegemonic that it is simply ‘common sense’, and one of the reasons why many socialists are so understandably wary of using the term ‘degrowth’. It is not only business organisations, like IBEC in Ireland, or right-wing commentators who will talk about growth, trade unions and socialists will talk about growth too.

GrassUp to a certain point obviously there is truth to this idea. If we lived in a society without sufficient material production to provide quality housing, food and access to leisure pursuits, growth in these sectors would be necessary to meet people’s basic needs. A large portion of the world’s population live in countries in the Global South where this is the case. However, in the world as a whole, there is more than adequate production of goods to provide everybody across the planet with a quality and meaningful life. The problem is how this wealth and income is distributed and how production is prioritised and organised.

A concept–not a slogan

The most common objection from revolutionary socialists to the idea of degrowth was expressed succinctly by John Molyneux in a recent article:

But in terms of mobilising such people, whether they are located in Los Angeles or Liverpool, Sao Paulo or Soweto, the concept or slogan of degrowth will be a non-starter.19

Contained within this sentence are two ideas. The first is the argument that the slogan of degrowth will not work to mobilise large numbers of working class people. We agree–it is too abstract and it jars too sharply with the ‘common sense’ ideology of growth.

But we think as a concept that informs our slogans, an ecosocialist degrowth is a powerful base to start from. It challenges us to reconsider how to build a powerful socialist movement on a solid ecological footing.

An imprecise parallel would be Lenin’s concept of “smashing the state”. In State & Revolution, Lenin drew the conclusion, in line with what Marx already wrote in the wake of the Paris Commune of 1871, that the working class “cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatus and put it to work at their service”,20 they must smash it and build a radically different one that serves their interests.

“Smash the state” was not and is not a slogan to mobilise large numbers of working class people. But it assists socialists in developing demands and slogans that point in the right direction and which have the potential to reach, and in certain circumstances, mobilise masses. For example, that essential concept informed the popular Bolshevik slogan “all power to the Soviets.”

It might be challenging to win car factory workers to degrow their industry, but we have to start from the needs of the working class as a whole. We cannot base ourselves on replacing combustion engine cars with electric cars. We must make the case for converting private car factories into producing public transport infrastructure, and for a democratic and just transition. The same is true for a whole suite of industries. Workers in armaments, fossil fuels, big agribusiness, air travel, etc. will understandably resist the loss of their existing jobs. Instead of just echoing that, we have to struggle within the trade union movement for a programme which challenges the hegemonic ideology of growth and outlines how these industries can be converted to socially useful production, with guaranteed jobs and improved conditions for all workers.21

In the EU between 55-70% responded positively to the question, ‘Do you believe that the environment should be made a priority even if doing so damages economic growth?’

In addition, the proposition that degrowth is a “non-starter”22 for working class people is not supported by recent polls. In Less is More, Hickel explains that “…when people have to choose between environmental protection and growth, ‘environmental protection is prioritised in most surveys and countries’.” In the EU between 55-70% responded positively to the question, “Do you believe that the environment should be made a priority even if doing so damages economic growth?” Even in the belly of the beast, the United States, 70% “agree with the statement that ‘environmental protection is more important than growth”.23

Sure, polls are snapshots of people’s ideas and mood, and are undoubtedly affected by the state of the economy when the poll is taken. But, still, it shows that people can be convinced. If we agree that we need degrowth to resolve the ecological crises, then our programme, slogans, and demands have to be shaped to that reality, not the other way around.

No more sacrifice zones

Degrowth also forces us to seriously consider the existing plans to replace fossil fuels with clean energy technology. Where will you get the material necessary to build all those solar panels, wind turbines, electric buses, trains, and batteries? What communities will be displaced and harmed by unearthing those minerals? How much do we need to ensure everyone has a good living standard? Socialists in the global North have a responsibility to raise awareness of the ecological crises, including not only the existence of technological solutions that the ruling elite have refused to deploy, but also the impact of such solutions on other peoples.

The bridge to an ecosocialist future cannot be built by stepping on the backs of workers, women, and peasants in
the global South.

Sandstone mountain formation in the San Pedro de Atacama desert.

Sandstone mountain formation in the San Pedro de Atacama desert. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The way out is not increased mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, and South Africa to build solar panels and wind turbines for cities in the global North, destroying local environments and communities. The bridge we build from here to an ecosocialist future cannot be built by stepping on the backs of workers, women, and peasants in the global South. Therefore, we must make the case for ramping up renewable energy production while simultaneously reducing overall energy needs, starting with the luxury consumption of the 1% and unnecessary production (e.g. planned obsolescence).

What does it mean for us?

In this period of interlocking and deep climate and biodiversity crises, the concept of degrowth can play an orienting role and assist us in developing an ecosocialist programme and slogans. It means breaking free from the ideology of growth which has wrapped its tentacles around not only the reformists, but also the revolutionaries. It is not enough to reject the productivism and Prometheanism which dominated much of the Marxist left until recently. We have to go further and consciously discard the language of growth–regardless of the adjective (e.g. sustainable, social, ecological) put in front of it.

Instead of advocating for ‘sustainable’ growth, we should describe our aim as delivering a good life for every person on the planet. As part of that, we should reject the aim of a superabundance of material private goods. On a finite planet, there cannot be infinite goods, nor should we assume everyone wants to purchase, own, and care for every material item they might want or need to use. Instead, socialists should advocate the provision of high-quality public goods, the decommodification of the commons and all aspects of life, and the healing of the rift between humanity and nature. It means putting forward a vision of an ecosocialist society which has an emphasis on the quality of life, as opposed to the quantity of material goods.

Adopting degrowth as a concept means emphasising slogans, demands and potential struggles which help to mobilise working class and oppressed people in a struggle against capital’s destruction of life, but which point towards a better life.

We should begin by demanding a reduction in the work week without loss of pay. A four day or 30 hour week without loss of pay would result in a significant decrease in energy consumption, while giving workers more leisure time.

A vital demand which addresses both the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis for workers is the call for a mass retrofitting programme of people’s homes. Heating homes is responsible for 61% of domestic energy consumption or 16% of all energy consumption.24 With deep retrofits, most homes could slash energy consumption by more than half while also being converted from fossil fuels to electricity in the form of heat pumps. Such a programme in Ireland has the potential to create tens of thousands of green jobs.

We should also insist on a concept of green jobs which includes so-called ‘care jobs’–in childcare, education and healthcare. These are workforces that are traditionally feminised, undervalued and low paid. We should campaign for a massive expansion of these jobs, through the creation of an Irish National Health Service and a National Childcare Service. These are jobs which provide significant benefits for the quality of life for all, while adding very little in the way of carbon emissions.

Similarly, the call for free, green and frequent public transport is one that is in line with a degrowth concept. The achievement of such a network that large sections of people are moved out of individual car usage and into public transport would dramatically cut emissions, especially considering that transport is the second biggest emitting sector in Ireland.

Expanding public services should go hand in hand with the creation of new ones aimed at liberating women from the hours of backbreaking domestic labour. For example, free public canteens that provide three healthy meals a day and laundrettes to replace individuals purchasing, maintaining, and replacing private washing machines.

Expanding public services should go hand in hand with the creation of new ones aimed at liberating women from hours of backbreaking domestic labour.

Ecoocialists should also champion demands that will break the cycle of consumption and waste while improving the quality of goods that people have. For example, implementing mandatory extended warranties on products, while outlawing planned obsolescence of items like mobile phones. Connected to that could be a ‘right to repair’, ensuring that all consumer goods are repairable at low cost.

Yellow tram carriage suspended at the top of a narrow street with traditional architecture, Lisbon, Portugal.

Yellow tram carriage suspended at the top of a narrow street with traditional architecture, Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

These positive demands (and many more could be listed) need to be combined with negative demands to eliminate the emissions of the capitalist class and the personal luxury consumption of the rich. The Bill proposed by People Before Profit to ban the future development of data centres as well as fossil fuel infrastructure is a perfect example of this. These data centres which are due to use 29% of our electricity by 202825 are not, by and large, performing useful work from the point of view of the majority. Instead, they are running algorithms to target people with advertising.

Speaking of advertisement, it too should be dramatically curtailed. This is an open goal for socialists because everyone hates advertisements. We all try our best to escape it whenever we can, yet capitalism absolutely requires it. As Michael Löwy explains,

Rather than seeking to force individuals to “lower their standard of living” or “reduce their consumption”—an abstract, merely quantitative approach—what is needed is to create conditions under which people can, little by little, discover their real needs and qualitatively change their ways of consumption: for example, by choosing more culture, education, health, or home improvement rather than buying new gadgets, new decreasingly useful commodities. For this, the suppression of harassment by advertising is a necessary condition.26

The armaments industry and the military industrial complex must be put out of business. Fossil fuels should be expropriated from the oil companies and left in the ground. Private jets should be banned, as should the production of SUVs, which should be banned from cities immediately.

In addition, our demands for progressive taxation on the rich (corporation tax, Millionaire’s Tax, new rates of income tax for high earners) have a vital position in a programme inspired by degrowth. Taking wealth out of the hands of the energy and resource wasting ultra-rich and investing in public services is the simplest way to reduce carbon emissions.

Of course, the crowning demands of an ecosocialist programme informed by the concept of degrowth has to be the nationalisation and democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy in order to allow a rapid and just reduction in energy usage and shift to renewable energy. Only on the basis of a globally planned system will it be possible to rationally reduce the overall envelope of energy and material usage, while ensuring big leaps forward in the quality of life for everyone.


Jess Spear Paleoceanographer and National Organiser for RISE

Notes:

  1.   Karl Marx, ‘The Working Day’, Capital Volume 1, Marxists Internet Archive.
  2.   Karl Marx, ‘The Working Day’, Capital Volume 1, Marxists Internet Archive.
  3.   These are climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen removed from the atmosphere, and chemical pollution (see The Tipping Point, this issue).
  4.   IPCC report ‘Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’ (February 2022)
  5.   Some ecosocialists argue that we should use Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene. We agree that the categorisation argued for in Foster and Clark’s recent article ‘The Capitalinian: The First Geological Age of the Anthropocene’, Monthly Review, Vol 73, number 4, September 2021, best expresses the character of the period in which we are living.
  6.   Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Verso Books, 2018).
  7.   Michael Löwy, Benji Akbulut, Sabrina Fernandes, and Giorgos Kallis, ‘For an Ecosocialist Degrowth’, Globalecosocialistnetwork.net, 8 April 2022.
  8.   P. 29 Jason Hickel, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World (Random House, 2020)
  9.   Matt Huber, ‘Lifestyle Environmentalism Will Never Win Over Workers’, Jacobin, 2 August 2021.
  10.   Leigh Phillips, The Degrowth delusion, (30 August, 2019)
  11.   David Schwartzman, ‘A critique of degrowth’, Climate & Capitalism, 5 January 2022.
  12.   John Molyneux, ‘Growth & Degrowth: What Should Ecosocialists Say Part Two?’, (Rebel News, 5 April 2021) http://www.rebelnews.ie/2021/04/05/growth-degrowth-what-should-ecosocialists-say-part-two/
  13.   Oxfam, ‘Confronting Carbon Inequality’ (September 2020)
  14.   The Jevons Paradox is the proposition that an increase in efficiency in resource use will generate an increase in resource consumption rather than a decrease.
  15.   For example, Jason Moore and Andreas Malm argue we should use the term ‘Capitalocene’.
  16.   Oswald, Y., Owen, A. & Steinberger, J.K. Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nat Energy 5, 231–239 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0579-8
  17.   “Global North” is the “IMF’s ‘advanced economies’ grouping (as of 2015), which includes the USA, Canada, Western and Northern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan, plus South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and a number of small island territories” from Jason Hickel et al., ‘Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990–2015’, Global Environmental Change, Volume 73, March 2022.
  18.   P. 94 Hickel, Less is More
  19.   John Molyneux, ‘Growth and Degrowth: What Should Ecosocialists say?–Part Two’, Rebel News website, 5 April 2021.
  20.   Lenin, ‘The State and Revolution’ (1917) quoting Marx’s 1872 preface to the Communist Manifesto.
  21.   The Lucas Plan developed by workers at Lucas Aerospace in Britain 1976 gives a glimpse of how that could be done.
  22.   John Molyneux, ‘Growth and Degrowth: What Should Ecosocialists say?–Part Two’, Rebel News website, 5 April 2021.
  23.   Figures from p. 25-26, Hickel, Less is More
  24.   SEAI statistics on energy usage
  25.   Eirgrid Report, ‘All-Island Generation Capacity Statement 2019-2028’
  26.   Michael Löwy, ‘Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe’ (Haymarket, 2020)
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