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Degrowth is the only path to a sustainable future

It is incumbent upon us as a species to seriously consider radical alternative, anti-capitalist and ecological futures

Economic CrisisEnvironmentGlobalizationSocialism

Degrowth-Conference 2018 in Malmö, Sweden. Photo by Cindy Kohtala/Flickr.

There is no time left. Entire regions of the Earth’s surface bake at regular intervals, killing thousands in brutal and now-routine heat waves. The immolation of incomprehensibly large swathes of woodland is going on, somewhere, right now. Climate refugees are already a reality, as the floods in Pakistan demonstrate. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that “any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

Humanity has already surpassed four of the nine planetary boundaries established by the Stockholm Resilience Centre: climate change, biodiversity, land-system change, and biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus imbalance). The United States and Europe are primarily responsible for this.

Overall, the countries of the Global North account for 92 percent of carbon dioxide emissions since 1850. The US makes up 40 percent of this total, and Europe 29 percent. We also see this disparity illustrated in quantifications of resource use: on average, the amount of resources used by North Americans is 1.5 times larger than that of Europeans, and seven times larger than that of Africans.

It is incumbent upon us as a species, especially us in the Global North, to seriously consider alternative futures from an anti-capitalist, dialectical, ecological point-of-view. This will unavoidably entail challenging the ideology of growth that pervades the political institutions of Northern countries.

Growth for growth’s sake

Dialectics is, in Engels’ words, “the science of universal interconnections.” Economic matters germinate in, arise from, and change within what Marx recognized as “a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself,” but in capitalist societies, dominant models of economic growth lack any real consideration of the limitations of Earth’s resources. Additionally, growth-obsessed capitalists have managed to successfully correlate economic growth with human development, standard of living with quality of life, and GDP with social well-being in the minds of many (Simon Kuznets, who designed the GDP indicator, himself stated that his model should not be taken as a representation of social well-being in a given country).

As Alberto Garzón Espinosa demonstrated in a recent article for Monthly Review, economic models and policy proposals workshopped by almost all governments around the world totally ignore the dialectical relationship between economic organization and the finitude of natural resources. Espinoza explains:

[T]here is absolutely no vision of the social metabolism, which entails starting from a worldview where the economy is seen as a subsystem of the biosphere and not the other way around. This lack, wholly illegitimate in our times, relates to the physical aspects of the economic process, the use of energy and natural resources, and the ecological pressures and impacts of the production process.

“Growth for growth’s sake” remains the stubborn motto of an increasingly beleaguered global capitalist system. From the headquarters of the capitalist behemoth, the slogan strikes a more jingoist tone: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.”

While this is a fitting encapsulation of the US ruling class’s stance on meaningful economic progress generally, it was actually said by George H.W. Bush at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro—the same summit where Fidel Castro asserted that “an important biological species is in danger of disappearing with the rapid and progressive destruction of its life-sustaining conditions: man.”

Fidel Castro’s remarkably prescient speech at the Rio Earth Summit remains crucial to this day, not only because of its foregrounding of the ecological crisis at a time when leaders in the US, Canada, and Western Europe were too preoccupied with tearing the meat from the bones of the Soviet Union to give a damn. The speech is also important because it emphasizes the fact that responsibility for the environmental degradation of the Earth is not distributed evenly across the globe. Castro’s words are worth quoting at length:

It must be said that consumer societies are chiefly responsible for this appalling environmental destruction. With only 20 percent of the world’s population, they consume two thirds of all metals and three fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer. The forests are disappearing. The deserts are expanding. Billions of tons of fertile soil are washed every year into the sea. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Population pressures and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive, even at the expense of nature. Unequal trade, protectionism and the foreign debt assault the ecological balance and promote the destruction of the environment. If we want to save humanity from this self-destruction, wealth and available technologies must be distributed better throughout the planet. Less luxury and less waste in a few countries would mean less poverty and hunger in much of the world.

Washington’s response? “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.”

It is hard to imagine a more confoundingly arrogant statement. It carries the sound of Nero’s fiddle playing with a backing band of flames and crumbling infrastructure. And it has an obvious subtext: “You can all die in the floods and the droughts and the heat waves, we’ll happily die in our beds, AC blasting, munching snacks and sipping soda, the TV turned up so loud we can’t hear your screams.”

Decoupling growth from development

Without using today’s lefty parlance, Castro clearly drew a division between not only the states of the Global North and South, but the consumption habits of their societies. It is worth noting that Castro isn’t just blowing hot air. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund named Cuba the only country in the world to have reached a condition of sustainable development, meaning that the rise of Cubans’ human development indicators is no longer accompanied by a rising ecological footprint.

It is thus demonstrably possible to decouple human development from consumption—although Cuba is admittedly an extreme example given that the US economic blockade has made unsustainable consumption an impossibility in that country, especially since the early 1990s. But if, as this data seems to indicate, human beings are able to separate development from consumption, shouldn’t it also be possible to separate development from the ideology of growth? And shouldn’t we make this change now, given that our ability to organize and prepare for the continued effects of environmental catastrophe shrink more and more each year?

Working-class people appear to be far ahead of their rulers in this regard. In his book Less is More, economist Jason Hickel explains that “when people have to choose between environmental protection and growth, ‘environmental protection is prioritised in most surveys and countries.’” Up to 70 percent of people in the European Union and the United States agree that environmental protection should not be sacrificed for growth.

Polls are imperfect, as authors Paul Murphy and Jess Spear point out: they 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,” they add, “it shows that people can be convinced.”

Container ships are icons of international trade and globalization. Photo courtesy the National Ocean Service/Flickr.

Degrowth is the way

The targeted degrowth—or “deceleration” in Anthony Galluzzo’s words—of the most harmful aspects of Global North economies (fossil fuel industries, industrial agriculture, militaries), the end of sacrifice zones, the localization of production and consumption patterns, and the creation of sustainable economies geared toward human need rather than luxury goods or capitalist accumulation should be the pillars of the future we envision on the left.

Degrowth, as Murphy and Spear outline:

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.

In other words, it is possible for the left to simultaneously condemn the growth-driven capitalists who organize Global North societies as well as the consumption habits of the people within those same Northern societies.

Instead of a “green growth” that will continue and perhaps strengthen class division and the unequal development of North and South and drive imperialist intervention in nations that possess the finite resources needed to enact such a program, the left should seriously consider alternative sustainable consumption and the possibilities of an economic program of degrowth along ecosocialist lines.

“Ecosocialism is the horizon,” Hickel argues. “Degrowth is the way.”

Challenging the imperial mode of living

Degrowth is not left austerity or “hairshirt environmentalism.” In order for one to make that argument, they would have to buy into the fallacies of growth ideology, which equates social well-being with an unsustainable model of consumption. Instead, degrowth arises from a radically ecological recognition of the interconnectedness of all things, namely the interconnections between personal and national consumption, between all types of consumption and the limits of the Earth, and between the climate emergency and the actions of imperialist states in the Global North.

The way of life that degrowth must seek to restructure is not the American one. It is the Northern way of life—the imperial mode of living, which can only exist on the back of uneven development between North and South, unequal exchange, and the massive offloading of environmental consequences onto the people of the South.

“The imperial mode of living” is a term coined by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen as a way to conceptualize the reality that capitalist monopolists are not the only ones to blame for our many interlocking environmental crises. Under the prevailing systems of production, nearly the entirety of Global North populaces are also implicated.

“[W]ith all their differences,” Brand states, Global North consumers,

are inscribed in a mode of living and mode of production that constantly refers to an elsewhere: to cheap labour and nature. The products and the commodities that people are consuming don’t indicate the conditions under which they were produced. In the smartphone, in the car, in the plane, in the industrially produced food there is this elsewhere—this exploitative relationship—inscribed.

Many people are totally unaware of the horrific exploitation that undergirds their patterns of consumption. This is because most goods produced for the Global North consumer, and luxury goods especially, hide their origins behind sleek marketing campaigns and alleged convenience. In these ways, capitalism insinuates itself into the consumer gaze, “draws on the wishes and desires of the populace… becomes a part of individual identity, shapes it, and thereby becomes all the more effective” at reifying its domination of human social, economic, and political life.

The philosopher Howard Lee Parsons made a similar argument to Brand and Wissen in his 1977 book Marx, Engels, and Ecology. “If we are to describe the problem accurately,” he wrote, “we cannot simply say that the monopolies are the only ones responsible… the pollution of the environment… is a built-in consequence of the whole system as it is organized, and all who are engaged in production and distribution are, therefore, also engaged in pollution.”

Put simply? “In general terms, the whole productive system is the polluter.” Of course, this does not mean that lower-class individuals engaged in production and consumption are equally to blame, but they are, as Castro pointed out, embedded in a socioeconomic context that has served to naturalize an unsustainable mode of living.

One can see this naturalization at play in the green growth arguments of prominent techno-utopian thinkers, who declare that a “clean energy transition” can occur smoothly and without any noticeable adaptation of the consumption habits of the Global North. Such utopianism is simply a more couth way of reiterating George H.W. Bush’s proclamation that “our way of life is not up for negotiation.”

Under any green transition, the battery metals have to come from somewhere, the electrical power has to come from somewhere, and the production and distribution of these materials has to be done by someone. These are all questions that ecomodernists and techno-utopians tend to avoid, because any critical engagement with global systems of resource extraction and labour exploitation will inevitably lead to a critical encounter with the imperial mode of living, which will lead, as Brand and Wissen point out, to an encounter with the consumer-self that has been shaped by capitalism’s ready-made, blood-soaked faux-conveniences.

The seeds of ecosocialist degrowth

How can we dismantle this unsustainable mode of living? The first step is to recognize its unsustainability. The second is to start formulating alternatives.

Marxist dialectics and ecology are natural allies in this process. In his now hard-to-find book on Marxism and ecology, Howard Lee Parsons makes an important statement about the intrinsic similarity between the two perspectives, both of which are concerned with the constant, interdependent, transformative relations between organic systems. “Ecology is the application of dialectics to living systems,” he posits, “and dialectics is the generalization of the method of ecology from living systems to all systems.”

Ecology is specialized dialectics, and dialectics is generalized ecology. Any planning for an ecological future is necessarily a dialectical process.

A dialectical, ecological worldview apprehends that nature is a singularity of complete interdependence and perpetual interchange, a constant metabolic process in which any productive decision portends far-reaching consequences for the interwoven whole. Similarly, exponents of this perspective should grasp that any meaningful deconstruction of the imperial mode of living and growth ideology must begin first at the local level.

In his analysis of China’s transition from capitalism to communism, Xue Muqiao notes that large-scale economic transitions consist first and foremost of smaller but equally important transitions. Following each transition, the new society will inch closer to the planned future, although in many ways it will still resemble the old form of organization. “A new society invariably has certain remnants of the old,” he notes.

His next sentence is even more vital: “A dying society always exhibits some seeds of a rising one.”

It is self-evident that the moment to think critically about your consumption patterns, the possibilities of constructing or bolstering your local food networks, and the necessity of ecosocialist degrowth is right now. But what are the small-scale, incremental transitions that one can implement in one’s life in order to creep, slowly and steadily, toward a more sustainable future? This question should be at the centre of leftist debate right now.

To begin from an obvious starting point, decelerating consumption habits—a personalized degrowth—is a good start, as is researching new avenues of food production. Given that global agribusiness account for 34 percent of worldwide emissions, a widespread mobilization to build local food systems, self-provision resources, and engage with the local forces of change that constitute the larger dialectical currents would be a key first step in the long and tiresome slog toward the mitigation of eco-social crises.

These transitions seem, admittedly, infinitesimal when compared to the scale and urgency of the planet’s environmental emergency and the state forces that are aligned against any meaningful reorganization of the status quo. However, leftists should view the formulation of a sustainable future as their responsibility, and they should not consider themselves innocent observers of the system they condemn.

Everyone exists in the present, as an aspect of the whole. No two things are completely separate—certainly not human beings and nature, as preeminent theorists of economic growth seem to believe, and definitely not Northern consumers and the environmental emergency, as some on the left might posit.

From a critical standpoint, this means that residents of the Global North are complicit in the structures of unsustainability that their states impose on the world, the very systems that many of their more ecologically minded citizens criticize.

More hopefully, it means that small-scale local transitions can conceivably have far-reaching positive effects.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at


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