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Growing Small: The Nihilism of Degrowth

Joseph Grosso

February 7, 2023

General complaints against “industrial civilization” in its various forms have always been among the most reactionary of sentiments, reflecting a desire to turn back the wheel of history. Indeed, for a long time that was the very point. Longing for the days of pre-industrialization was always the realm of aristocracies, popes, and feudal lords, who saw their power slipping away with the rise of the bourgeoisie.

In his classic 1965 novel, The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon’s main character Oedipa Maas comes across an outfit first founded by a Confederate officer called the Peter Pinguid Society. Its current member, Mike Fallopian, when confronted with the organization and its founder’s dislike of industrial capitalism, declares “Good guys and bad guys. You never get to any of the underlying truth. Sure he was against industrial capitalism. So are we. Didn’t it lead, inevitably, to Marxism? Underneath, both are part of the same creeping horror.”

A few years later in the real world, fears of industrialization, and the economic growth it brings, began to find its way into more mainstream circles. In 1972, MIT researchers published The Limits of Growth, a report commissioned by the Club of Rome, an international think tank of bourgeois elites dedicated to discussing “humanitarian challenges.” Published with much fanfare, the book predicted that by the year 2100 the planet’s resource base will have shrunk so badly that the global economy would quickly find its way back to the 19th century:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, 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.

Analysis like this will inevitably find its way to anti-human sentiment. Only a few years before Limits of Growth was released, Paul Ehrlich had published his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich really made the rounds after the book was published, appearing on The Tonight Show over 20 times. In 1970, he told CBS News. “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come. And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.” Ehrlich’s remedies for overpopulation included steep taxes on diapers, mass sterilization, and the addition of sterility agents to food exported to foreign populations.

Such thinking recently received a shot in the arm from Michael Moore’s latest documentary Planet of the Humans. Featured in the film was Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth, declaring “too many human beings, using too much, too fast.” Anthropologist Nina Jablonski claims, “Population growth continues to be, not the elephant, the herd of elephants in the room.”

In reality, the rate of global population growth was declining for years prior to Ehrlich’s book being published and has been in consistent decline since. Most projections agree that the global population is going to peak at some point in the second half of the 21st century and then plateau or gradually drop. Indeed, with birth rates in many places hovering at or below replacement level, in recent years dozens of governments have attempted to adopt pro-natal policies. Meanwhile Total-factor productivity (TFP) in agriculture, productivity calculated in a way that includes all the costs of labor, land, and inputs, has more than doubled since the early 1960s.

The present day version of all this goes by the name “degrowth.” Degrowth is a notion that has spread in recent times. Degrowth is certainly anti-capitalist, and largely eschews population control, however this alone by no means makes a movement progressive. Feudalism, romanticism, even at times fascism waved the anti-capitalist banner. In a new book, The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, degrowth is defined as “a proposal for the radical reorganization of society that leads to a drastic reduction in the use of energy and resources that is deemed necessary, desirable, and possible.” A core idea is a critique of “industrialism,” referring to “the overall structure of a modern industrial society based on mechanized work …this critique questions the central factor by which both capitalist and socialist societies measure or have measured their success.” It is a version of the same Malthusian ideas that were given a shellacking by Marx and Engels.

Touted by advocates such as Noami Klein and Jason Hickel, along with NGOs such as Greenpeace and, degrowthers target the most developed places for their downgrading schemes. How exactly would this play out? Both Hickel and Klein have an ironic fascination with the 1970s. Here’s Hickel writing in November 2017:

Imagine cutting the GDP per capita of the US down to less than half its present size, in real terms. This might sound horrible on the face of it, but it would be equivalent to US GDP per capita in the 1970s. Folks who lived through the 1970s remember them as heady days. And the poverty rate was lower back then and happiness levels were higher than now. Real wages were higher, too. The difference is people consumed less unnecessary stuff.

Depending on one’s perspective, or better still one’s class, the 1970s may be a strange time to romanticize in the US. The urban crisis was worsening, the result of capital flight, austerity, and racism. Neoliberalism was rapidly being asserted as an economic cure-all. Smog and water pollution were bigger problems than they are now. The trucking and meat industries were being deregulated with wages crashing. As for the real wages Hickel refers to, for the working class they have hardly budged in the decades since. Would it be consolation to the workers in the slums of St. Louis, Lowell, and East Baltimore that their wages are in line with the degrowth agenda? It would save them the trouble of union-organizing. The difference in American society stemming from the 1970s is not increased consumption by everyone, it was the resurgence of capital over the working class.

Pointing out the unrealistic nature of this proposal, the economist Branko Milanovic estimates that the global median income is $PPP 16 per day. Only 14 percent of people in Western countries live at a level income less than this mean. Leaving aside the feasibility of convincing everyone in the Western world and plenty of others elsewhere to cut their incomes quite substantially, this would seem to be austerity on a scale far beyond the dreams of even Reagan and Thatcher.

Suggestions for pulling this off found in degrowth literature range from legislating extended warranties on products ensuring that they last longer, a “right to repair”, breaking corporate monopolies on products to enable repairs to be affordable, and tool-lending libraries, to taxing red meat (meat eating is a consistent target in degrowth literature) , limiting single-use plastic, scaling down the airline industry (including eliminating frequent flier miles) banning food from landfills, and worker cooperatives. Some of these are fine ideas, others get quite dicey (repair cafes where one can learn to repair one’s own devices, clothes, and furniture sound a bit tedious). It would be a society of endless rules and regulation. Yet even these reforms would hardly be enough for the 70 percent reduction in resource use that Hickel claims is necessary. For degrowth proponents transitioning off fossil fuels isn’t enough, not to mention difficult given degrowth hostility to mining, energy usage would need to decline for its own sake. Despite the good intentions, living standards surely will have to decline as well.

Naomi Klein writes in her book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal of an “ecological crisis that has its roots in overconsumption” and the necessity of “reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.” 20 percent is obviously a minority in terms of overall global population, but it still encompasses about 1.6 billion people—equal to the combined populations of the US, Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, and Argentina.

The absurdity of this proposal is revealed by an Oxfam analysis with the Stockham Environmental Institute that found that for about 20 percent of the human population—mainly corresponding to the working and lower-middle classes in rich countries—per capita emissions actually fell from 1990 to 2015. Meanwhile, it was the richest 5 percent who were responsible for over a third of the growth in global emissions. Of course degrowth proponents claim to target the wealthiest people in society and thereby empower the masses, and surely the wealthiest stand to take the biggest hit, however they somehow overlook the effect their policies will have on everyone else. In an article titled In Defense of Degrowth, prominent degrowth advocate Goirgos Kallis honestly describes this part of it as “a change of direction, at the macro-level of economic and political institutions and at a microlevel of personal values and aspirations. Income and material comfort is to be reduced for many along the way, but the goal is that this is not experience as welfare loss.” How can such a message be sellable to the working class?

Besides minimizing the class factor, degrowth suffers from two interconnected flaws. First, degrowth underestimates, even ignores, the extent that technology and innovation can decouple economic growth from material usage. As Engels wrote in his critique of Malthus:

There still remains an element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist—science—whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population… Science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science?

Examples of this abound. US crop tonnage has consistently increased for the past 70 years while precision agriculture has enabled the use inputs such as fertilizer and water to decline the past two decades and crop acreage (the amount of land used to grow crops) to remain at a steady level. There’s been the digitization of goods and services. Smart phones have generally replaced cameras, clock radios, calculators, and camcorders, fitting what used to be numerous material devices into one device that fits in the palm of a hand. Aluminum cans are 75 percent lighter than they were decades ago. Building materials are more flexible. As Andrew McAfee describes in his book More from Less, real GDP growth was symbiotic with the consumption of metals for most of the 20th century. However since around 1990 the US has been consuming less metals such as steel, copper, and aluminum all while real GDP growth has continued. Research by Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, found a decoupling of emissions and GDP growth happening in 32 countries. The Economist recently found such decoupling in 33 countries.

A familiar canard that has emerged out of the degrowth movement claims something like “infinite growth on a finite planet isn’t possible.” “Infinite” is perhaps too much to ask of any planet, however we don’t appear to be running out of resources in the near future. According to simulations published in Limits to Growth, even under the most optimistic scenarios, known global reserves of gold would be used up within 29 years of 1972; silver within 42; copper and petroleum 50; and aluminum 55. It is an understatement to say these predictions were inaccurate. Despite a half century of additional consumption, known global reserves of gold are almost 400 percent larger today than in 1972, and silver reserves are more than 200 percent larger. And we haven’t come close to running out of energy or copper. As for aluminum, the most plentiful metal on Earth, it need not be a concern: known reserves are almost 25 times what they were in the early 1970s.

Secondly, and more importantly, degrowth mistakes growth itself with markets, ironically echoing libertarians. One of the major contradictions within capitalism is that the system can’t help but reproduce social harms if such harms are profitable and can’t produce necessary social goods if such goods aren’t profitable. There are times when social good coincides with profitability, yet not nearly enough.

Degrowth obviously has sprouted in a time of increased anxiety about global warming and other potential environmental catastrophes. Fossil fuels are a perfect example of capitalism’s warped incentives. Fossil fuels, with their energy density, fueled the industrial revolution and helped energetically free us from nature’s dictates. However their continued high use threatens to shift the earth’s temperature from the range that has enabled human flourishing since the last ice age. Market based solutions to carbon emissions such as carbon trading, carbon pricing and offsets, and so-called ESG (environment, social, and governance) investing move far too slowly while depending on the very market incentives that produced the problem in the first place. Carbon pricing, essentially raising the price of energy, also generates resentment from the working class, as the French Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement showed.

Norway is the world leader in electric vehicles, reaching around 80 percent of new car sales this year. Norway is blessed with abundant hydroelectric power, which provides 96 percent of the country’s electricity (electricity prices in Norway are among the cheapest in the world), yet it was the government’s buildout of a wide network of charging stations throughout the country, not just in places where stations are most profitable, along with other steps such as free parking, that accomplished the transition. The largest historical drop in carbon intensity of energy of any economy was France’s nuclear energy program of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a centralized, government led effort. It was the 1972 Clean Water Act that dramatically cut pollution in U.S. waterways. The Clean Air Act did the same for U.S. air pollution. The 1987 Montreal Protocol phasing out of Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (then used in refrigerators and aerosol cans), to this day the only UN treaty ratified by every member state, reversed ozone layer depletion, once the top environmental concern. The reversal began in the early 2000s and is on pace to be completed for most of the planet by 2040. These were neither market nor degrowth solutions. Yet economic growth continued.

Around 3.3. billion people on the planet still live without a consistent source of electricity- in places where per-capita electricity consumption is less than 1,000 kilowatt-hours per year, or less than the amount used by a decent refrigerator. That includes about a billion people with no access to electricity at all. Average consumption per person in sub-Saharan Africa is only 185 kilowatt-hours (KWh) a year, compared with 12,000kWh in the U.S. and 6500kWh in Europe. According to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, of the 2.8 billion people living in the hottest parts of the world, only 8 percent had air-conditioners. Earlier this year, the WHO reported that around 2.4 billion people still cooked using open fires or with inefficient stoves powered by wood or charcoal. Such a method is more carbon intensive than burning coal and the resulting household air pollution causes an estimated 3.2 million deaths a year.

Global electricity demand figures to double in the next 15-20 years if not sooner. The bulk of carbon missions now are emitted by developing countries. By any estimate global mining will have to greatly increase to produce the lithium, cobalt, vanadium, and other materials needed to achieve an energy transition and decarbonize the economy. These minerals have to be sourced globally, which puts a dent into the degrowth vision of locality. This will take growth. In other words, what we need is not degrowth, but planned socialist growth. Mines can be worker controlled. Public banking can make investments for social goods. Socialist designed cities can return more land to forests.

Degrowth proponents claim that they will allow growth in the Global South but reverse it in the Global North. It is not at all clear how this miracle can be accomplished. Hard to imagine developing countries will be willing to suddenly cease economic growth at the point degrowth advocates target. Somehow balancing growth in the Global South with degrowth in the Global North would seem an impossible task. As for the Global North, The Future is Degrowth claims “degrowth is about strengthening more meaningful and less destructive forms of happiness.” Certainly, there is plenty of happiness that can be considered “less destructive,” yet many more forms require consumption. Airplanes and trains gave us the power of long distance travel to see the world. These have to be made, as do, bicycles, musical instruments, and flat screen TVs. Despite what it claims for itself, conservatism is actually never a static force. It grows ever more reactionary. Let it be left to conservatives. As Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution regarding the future of human innovation:

He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of rivers and he will lay down rules for oceans. The idealist simpletons may say this is a bore, but that is why they are simpletons…. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times.

Contrary to the tedious stream of propaganda, the point of socialism is abundance and prosperity for all. It is a time for thinking big, not growing small.

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