Degrowth ¬ facing up to harsh reality

This article by Alan Thornett provides an overview of the concept of degrowth and why it is needed to address the climate crisis, based on a presentation he gave at a meeting of the West Midlands Climate Coalition. Thornett argues that exponential economic growth is unsustainable on a finite planet and that the left must embrace degrowth as an alternative to capitalism's endless pursuit of growth that is driving ecological breakdown.

 

This article is based on the introduction I gave on degrowth at a meeting of the West Midlands Climate Coalition on October 10th. It was an excellent meeting of 20 well-informed activists, which produced a very good discussion, which I have attempted to summarise at the end. I have included several points that I managed not to include in my presentation, in particular on population in relation to the Limits to Growth Report and on the transitional method at the end.

I started by pointing to the recent upsurge of interest in the idea of degrowth, which is in response, no doubt, to the frightening acceleration of global warming that is taking place. The average global September temperature this year has risen by an unprecedented (and huge) 0.93°C warmer than the previous record in 1991–2020. (My earlier article, Degrowth: a Remarkable Renaissance can be found here.)

I had just watched Keir Starmer’s speech to the Labour Party conference that afternoon, however, where his main theme was growth, growth, and more growth. The Tory conference was the same as the previous week. Growth is seen across the political class as the holy grail that can open the door to anything and everything, with the implication that there is no alternative. This is a ludicrous proposition on a finite planet that has to be challenged.

I was speaking, however precisely, in order to advocate a very different position, i.e., that economic growth is the biggest generator of carbon emissions and global warming, to which the strategic alternative is degrowth, or the planned reduction in the size of an economy to meet the natural limits of the planet.

Degrowth remains a controversial proposition, of course. The ruling elites reject it because it contradicts the logic of capitalism, which indeed it does, and the bulk of the socialist left rejects it because it runs counter to the support that they have given to economic growth and productivism for the whole of the 20th century and into the 21st, and from which they have failed to break.

The elephant in the room

The harsh reality is that, like it or not, exponential economic growth is a direct threat to the future of life on the planet, including our own. It is the elephant in the room that cannot be mentioned in polite company. Yet without degrowth, we are sleepwalking towards ecological and societal breakdown, the outcome of which is deeply uncertain.

The figures are stark. At an average (global) GDP growth rate of 3% a year, which has been the case for the last 50 years and is set to continue, the global economy doubles every 23 years. This means that it will double by 2146 and then quadruple by 2192. The idea that this is remotely containable on a finite planet beggars belief.

Some argue—Kate Raworth, for example, in Doughnut Economics—that the problem is not growth as such but the way it is measured, i.e., by GDP, and if we can find a better one, Doughnut Economics, for example, all will be well. This makes no sense. While we would not use GDP to measure a future ecosocialist society, today, under capitalism, it provides us with crucial information as to the growth of the capitalist economy, nationally and internationally, and therefore the implications of this for the future of the planet. (My review of Doughnut Economics can be found here.)

Other measurements are also, in any case, available.

The Total Physical Technosphere, for example, measures the total physical infrastructure needed to sustain human life on the planet at its existing level. This includes, for example, roads, buildings, energy supply, water supply, transport, vehicles, plastics, shipping, hospitals, waste disposal, etc., which comes in at a total of 30 trillion tonnes. This is 4,000 tonnes for every human being on the planet, and, like GDP, it doubles every 20 years.

There is also the global consumption of cement, which closely reflects the expansion of infrastructure and also doubles every 20 years.

The Limits to Growth

This is not a new debate, of course. My opinion is that a group of young environmental scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the direction of Donella Meadows, conducted the seminal study on the effects of exponential economic growth on the planet in 1970. Their conclusions were published two years later, in 1972, as the Limits to Growth Report.

At the same time, though separately, the renowned Austrian social philosopher and pioneer of political ecology, André Gorz, posed the question: “Is the earth’s balance, for which no growth—or even degrowth—of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system? Today (he said), we can answer this question with “no”.

The Limits to Growth Report’s conclusion was along the same lines. It put it this way: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialisation, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.” (p24) In other words, we were (and are) heading towards a short- to medium-term global ecologically driven catastrophe.

The response to Limits was dramatic. It sold twelve million copies worldwide, was translated into 37 languages, and remains today the top-selling environmental book ever published.

It also became an important driver—along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring a decade earlier—in the emergence of the ecology movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In 2002, it went on to inspire the emergence of the degrowth movement, initially in France and then globally, which established a degrowth study institute and organised a series of international conferences, which have kept the idea alive—in its multiple variations—ever since.

The socialist left, however, whether radical, social democratic, or Stalinist—with some important exceptions—rejected the report outright and went on to dismiss the rapidly emerging environmental movement and the Green Party as middle-class diversions from the ‘real’ struggle. Instead, they continued to support capitalism’s dominant productivist mantra. Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Policy of the 1980s, for example, was entirely based on growth. It also called into question the idea of a prosperous future based on material abundance, which had been the model on which the left had based itself for many years.

The left’s stance was a failure to recognise the historical importance of the rather late arrival of the ecological agenda on the scene, which would be increasingly impossible to ignore. It also rendered them incapable of challenging the growth and productivism agendas that the trade unions and the Labour Party were signed up to and that remain unchallenged today.

It also led to a damaging historical divide between socialists and environmentalists, from which we are still suffering today, with socialists seeing the environmentalists as not socialist enough and environmentalists seeing the socialists as not environmental enough, which unfortunately was the case and remains so today.

The left’s rejection of Limits was partly a response to the fact that it took the rising population into account in its calculations—a subject that the left, and the Marxist left in particular, refuses to discuss. It was hard, however, to argue that this was in any way disproportionate since the authors based their conclusions on four principal factors: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production, and pollution. I have long considered their decision to have been right. The global population rose by 74.6 million.1972 was and has continued to rise to around that figure ever since.

Degrowth in practice

The principles of degrowth are clear. It rejects growth and productivism in favour of useful production, democracy, economic redistribution, and well-being.

The best book expressing this point of view, in my opinion, is The Case for Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis et al. It insists that we have to produce and consume differently to ensure that people can live socially rich and meaningful lives in resilient societies while reducing our impact on the planet and the natural world. It calls for green deals without growth, a universal basic income, and universal basic services to protect people during the transition to renewables. A big reduction in working hours, and curbing the advertising industry. These are all important demands that we need to fight for in the here and now.

The book cover of the case for Degrowth

The first responsibility for this, of course, must come from the rich countries of the Global North, which must also fund the impoverished countries to both make the transition and catch up.

We cannot assume, however, that global warming will be halted incrementally—or indeed peacefully—despite all our efforts before runaway climate chaos, societal and ecological breakdowns, and civil unrest overtake us with the authoritarian woke-hating ult-right waiting in the wings. As the Limits to Growth Report warned us, such breakdowns are highly likely and are therefore something we have an obligation to prepare for, yet at the moment they are not even part of the discussion.

The defence of the planet under such conditions, therefore, implies the building of a mass movement with progressive content, developed in the course of the struggle, that can understand the crucial importance of a smaller economy, which would reduce the pressure on the resources and the biosphere of the planet. In other words, such a movement would need to have degrowth—i.e., a planned reduction in the global economy—as its central demand in order to bring human impact into line with planetary limits.

Such a mass movement would need to include everyone prepared to fight to save the planet from a progressive standpoint. It must include the environmental movement in all its diverse forms, indigenous movements, peasant movements, and farmer movements, as well as trade unions and progressive political parties. It should also demand, in my view, that the big polluters be made to pay for the transition to renewables via heavy taxation of fossil fuel production to facilitate a major redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor and thereby a socially just transition that can win wide popular support.

It would also need to demand, in my view, that the big polluters be made to pay for the transition to renewables via heavy taxation of fossil fuel production to facilitate a major redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor and thereby a socially just transition that can win wide popular support. It is what I would call, since we are not in a revolutionary period, a transitional approach, which must be the cornerstone of ecosocialist strategy if we are to contribute to saving the planet from ecological destruction and move forward to a post-capitalist, ecologically sustainable society of the future.


The discussion

As I have mentioned above, it was an excellent meeting of 20 well-informed activists, with an excellent discussion at the end. No one opposed degrowth in principle, but many questions were raised, mostly about the implementation of degrowth.

Carol Hyatt, a Wolverhampton Labour Councillor and a member of the West Midlands Combined Authority, said that she supported much of what I had said, including the need for a universal basic income and universal basic services, but there was a lot of detail that needed to be discussed. I was unable to give her an adequate answer, and there is clearly a lot more work to be done. I raised the issue of 15-minute cities and low-traffic neighbourhoods, which I think are entirely complementary to a degrowth framework.

Rick Hatcher from Birmingham Against the Cuts intervened on the issue of the West Midlands Combined Authority and degrowth. He gave me his contribution in writing afterwards, in which he said the following:

“Here in the West Midlands, economic development is supported on behalf of the government by the West Midlands Combined Authority. The purpose is economic growth. The WMCA has an Economic Growth Board of Local Authority Councillors and business representatives; it has a business plan, ‘Global West Midlands; and it has £84 million in funding for business support. The question is, what does this mean for the climate crisis? The WMCA has a Decarbonisation Net Zero Programme that provides ‘expert advice’ to businesses. What impact does it have in the context of the drive for profit through growth?

The short answer is that we don’t know. The trade union movement in the West Midlands has no analysis of the climate impact of the WMCA’s policies or of any of its economic policies. There is nothing on the website of the Midlands TUC, even though its secretary is actually a member of the WMCA’s Economic Growth Board. There is nothing at all about the Combined Authority or analysis of the WM economy on the websites of the Birmingham, Coventry, or Wolverhampton Trades Councils.

This is a huge weakness. It is not enough to wait until the workers in the West Midlands suffer the repeated blows of local capitalist economic policy before reacting. We need up-to-date analyses of how national policies play out in local economies and the role of state agencies like the Combined Authorities, so we can develop pre-emptive policies now, and the issue of economic growth and climate impact is central.”

Bob Whitehead from Birmingham argued that we need to look at growth and degrowth separately. We need to grow, for example: free time, educational, health, and social services provision, public transport, social housing, building insulation, renewable energy, culture, participatory sport, and community facilities such as laundry, cooking, childcare, and social events. educational and reproductive rights for women.

What we would need to degrow would be, for example, unnecessary products, consumerism, advertising, individual car ownership, road building, plastic, beef and meat production, aviation, armaments, and of course, fossil fuel use. The balance of the two, he said, would be posed differently in different sectors of the world, the global south, for example; the list presented here is aimed mainly at the global north. All this would be combined with a sharing and cooperative approach, with a social rather than an individual approach to doing things.

I was asked where all this left the Global South and was able to reiterate that while degrowth will eventually need to apply to the whole of the planet, the main responsibility at this stage is with the rich countries of the Global North—who are the highest polluters anyway—to not only drastically reduce their own impact on the planet but to fully fund the impoverished countries of the South, both to decarbonise their own economies and to converge with the Global North in terms of standard of living at the same time.


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Alan is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism which can be purchased from Resistance Books.

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