We need radical change to address climate change. But degrowth needlessly shackles its vision of a socialist future to a program of aggregate reduction.

Field of solar panels in Laghouat, Algeria. (Jemo2200 / Wikimedia Commons)

The environmental perspective of degrowth is gaining traction. A couple months ago the European Union parliament held a multiday conference “Beyond Growth” featuring many speakers aligned with the perspective. Liberal environmentalist Bill McKibben offered a sympathetic assessment in the New Yorker.

Degrowth is even making inroads on the socialist left. Two years ago the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in New York City published an article, “Degrowth and Revolutionary Organizing.” A major book, The Future Is Degrowth, was favorably reviewed in Democratic Socialists of America’s journal Socialist Forum. In Japan, the ecological Marxist Kohei Saito has sold five hundred thousand copies of a book laying out a case for degrowth communism (the volume, titled Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, will be released in an English translation early next year).

And now one of the oldest journals on the socialist left, the Monthly Review — its first issue in 1949 included “Why Socialism?” by Albert Einstein — has fully embraced degrowth. It’s latest issue is entitled “Planned Degrowth: Ecosocialism and Sustainable Human Development” and features many of the most prominent degrowth proponents, such as Jason Hickel and Matthias Schmelzer. The issue also includes a long introduction by the long-standing ecological Marxist John Bellamy Foster. As usual for a Foster essay, there is much thought provoking and worth agreeing with in it. But ultimately, like much of the degrowth movement, it needlessly shackles its vision of a socialist future to a program of aggregate reduction.

Ecosocialism, Human Needs, and Planning

We all can agree with some aspects of Foster’s proposals: first, we want to shift to an economy that prioritizes ecological sustainability and provisioning human needs. We want an economy that produces for “use value” against capitalism’s focus on profit and exchange value.

Indeed, degrowth proponents and Foster are correct to reject our society’s fixation on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the indicator of economic health. GDP ultimately fixates on exchange value regardless of whether it contributes to popular and environmental well-being.

Second, solving the ecological crisis requires a shift away from the anarchy of the market under capitalism and toward planning. Most of our ecological problems are rooted in fixed infrastructure investments — housing, transportation, the electricity grid — that the market is uniquely bad at provisioning. Restructuring such systems requires planning.

Are the Productive Forces “Fully” Developed?

It is on the question of the productive forces where Foster departs from a standard Marxist position. Traditionally, Marxists argued that the relations of private ownership and the profit motive inhibit or “fetter” the full development of the productive forces, and only a transition to socialism can allow us to fully develop the productive forces. Yet, Foster says that while this might have been true in the nineteenth century, we must reevaluate this proposition in light of the twenty-first century ecological crisis:

[T]he context in which [Marx and Engels] were writing was not today’s “full-world economy,” but rather a still early stage of industrialization. In the period of industrial development, extending from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the first Earth Day in 1970, world industrial productive potential increased in size around 1,730 times, which from a nineteenth-century perspective, would have seemed “a practically unlimited increase.” Today, however, it raises the issue of ecological “overshoot.”

Foster then goes on to draw from Engels in saying, “the goal of socialism was not the expansion of production itself, but rather the ‘free development’ of human beings.” This is true. The goal is not necessarily to increase production but to create the maximum conditions for human freedom. But the reverse is also true: the goal is not necessarily to decrease aggregate production.

Nearly all degrowth proposals have some call for “aggregate” reductions of “energy use” or “material throughput.” For example, take this from The Future Is Degrowth: “degrowth can be defined as the democratic transition to a society that . . . is based on a much smaller throughput of energy and resources.”

What Engels actually calls for in the cited passages from Anti-Dühring is for society to take full social control (planning) over the social relation to nature, as opposed to capitalism, which cedes it to anarchic markets. This requires total flexibility to what must be grown or degrown, and not rigid adherence to aggregate reductions.

More to the point, the climate crisis actually fits Marx’s “fettering thesis” quite well. It is entirely clear that solving climate change requires massive development of the productive forces — productive forces that capital is specifically reluctant to invest in.

For example, prominent modeling from Princeton University suggests that zeroing emissions by 2050 will require, among other things, 80 to120 million heat pumps, up to five times an increase in electricity transmission capacity, 250 large nuclear reactors (or 3,800 small ones), and the development of whole new industry — carbon capture and sequestration — from scratch.

This is why socialists argue that it will require a massive social effort of public investment and planning to accomplish this. In other words, we need entirely different social relations of production to fully develop the productive forces necessary for our historical crisis.

But, even if we look beyond the ecological crisis, at the core of the socialist project is the aim to abolish class itself and the widespread poverty that afflicts humans all over the planet (even in “rich countries” like the United States). Imagine what it would take to give the entire planet public housing, public transit, reliable electricity, and modern water-sewage services. Now imagine trying to achieve this while also shrinking aggregate material resource use. To say the least, this sounds like a difficult task.

Overall, it would be quite sad to build a socialist movement capable of seizing the means of production only to prohibit from the outset the further development of the productive forces. Socialism is not stasis. What about fusion power? Curing cancer? We still have so much left to accomplish as a species that capitalism might be holding us back from.

Planetary Boundaries?

Of course, degrowthers say that the reason we need aggregate reductions is because the crisis is rooted in “the crossing of planetary boundaries” (not just climate change, but others such as biodiversity and freshwater resources). Foster writes: “Science has established without a doubt that, in today’s ‘full-world economy,’ it is necessary to operate within an overall Earth System budget with respect to allowable physical throughput.” Oddly, this sweeping claim is backed up by a citation to a nearly twenty-year-old paper by an advocate of immigration and population control, Herman Daly.

But as soon as the concept of fixed planetary boundaries was proposed, it was hotly debated and critiqued by scientists of various stripes. And, even if we accept that the science on these boundaries is fixed and settled, it is not at all clear that the answer to many of them is degrowth or aggregate reductions. Again, the solution to climate change requires at least initially a massive expansion of production and infrastructure investment.

One of the boundaries — stratospheric ozone depletion — has basically already been addressed by a simple technological switch initiated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Overall, addressing each of the boundaries is complex and calls for more contextual qualitative transformations of specific sectors of production, rather than some abstract or generalized commitment to degrowth.

Ecological Austerity

Degrowth advocates push back against accusations of eco-austerity because they, as Foster does, call for the decommodification of basic human needs. Indeed, this should be every socialist’s core demand to mitigate the insecurity and indignity of market dependence under capitalism.

Yet Foster’s essay shows that degrowth is a kind of austerity in its original meaning: a fiscal commitment to budgetary restraint. Degrowth is not advocating for cutting actual government budgets, but the language of accounting and restrictions pervades the discourse.

Foster equates degrowth with “net-zero capital formation,” invokes something called an “Earth-system budget,” and claims, “[c]ontinued growth would occur in some areas of the economy, made possible by reductions elsewhere.” Whereas governments must balance budgets in monetary terms, degrowthers rely on equally abstract quantitative concepts like “material throughput.”

However, this concept, like GDP itself, would not be a useful proxy for ecological progress. As Kenta Tsuda put it, its crudest measures fail to ascertain “the differential ecological harms of materials, for example, that of a mercury-infused coal ash pile and an equal mass of food scraps in a compost bin.”

Overall, a quantitative commitment to “net zero capital formation” would usher in an austerity mindset throughout all of society, where all increases must be balanced out. It is one thing to advance a strategic critique of degrowth: In a capitalist system defined by deprivation, who will support a program centering reduction? But its other problem is that it seeks to place de facto constraints on our future political programs. The point of socialism, however, is to unleash human potential from the shackles of capitalism and its market imperatives.

There is of course a possibility that if we seized the means of production, science could inform a collective determination that it is necessary to “degrow” in some way, but why would we make this a prerequisite of our program and foreclose that democratic determination?

Foster’s essay contains many other strange claims — including the suggestion that “labor itself might be substituted for fossil-fuel energy,” a proposal that would condemn us to a more labor-intensive economy of drudgery — but at its core, Foster’s degrowth socialism is yet another attempt to dress up post-1960s environmental ideology in Marxist clothing.

Foster ends by citing the political economist Paul Baran’s call for socialism as a “planned economic surplus,” only to insist that ecological necessities might force a “reduction in the economic surplus.” But Baran’s concept sounds useful. Socialism will require a surplus: the question is, what we do with it? Planning the surplus with ecological goals in mind is something that capitalism is uniquely bad at. Socialism can do better.

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