A Critique of Degrowth


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Source: Climate & Capitalism

The positive contributions of the degrowth proponents should be recognized, in particular, their rethinking of economic growth under capitalism, critiquing its measure, the GNP/GDP, as well as pointing to capitalism’s unsustainable use of natural resources, in particular fossil fuels in its production of commodities for profit generation regardless of their impact on the health of people and the environment. Further, they wisely critique eco-modernists who claim that simply substituting the right technology into the present political economy of capitalism will be sufficient to meet human and nature’s needs.

But the degrowth solutions offered are highly flawed and their brand is not likely to be welcomed by the global working class, even as it attracts sections of the professional class.[1] Degrowth proponents commonly fail to unpack the qualitative aspects of economic growth, lumping all in one basket; i.e., sustainable/addressing essential needs of humans and nature versus unsustainable, leaving the majority of humanity in poverty or worse. Degrowthers point to the relatively privileged status of workers in the global North compared to those in the global South as a big part of the problem, instead of recognizing that the transnational working class will not only benefit from growth of sectors that meet its needs in both the global North and South but must be the leading force to defeat fossil capital.[1, 2, 3]

A common claim in the degrowth discourse is that “perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.”[4] This assertion fails to deconstruct the qualitative aspects of growth, what is growing, what should degrow, under what energy regime? While of course there are obvious limits to the growth of the global physical infrastructure, why can’t knowledge and culture continue to grow for a long time into the future in a globally sustainable and just physical and political economy?

In addition, leading degrowthers say ’The global material and energy “throughput” has to degrow, starting with those nations that are ecologically indebted to the rest. Energy and material throughput have to degrow because the materials extracted from the earth cause huge damage to ecosystems and to the people that depend on them.’ [5]. In contrast: With respect to material throughput, we argue that it should increase globally in an ecosocialist transition as a culmination of a Green New Deal:

“In an ecosocialist transition, as at least we envision it, the plan would not be simply for degrowth, but for a complete phasing out of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). The disappearance of MIC would liberate vast quantities of materials, especially metals, for the creation of a global wind and solar power infrastructure.”[6]

Leading degrowthers advocate a global reduction in energy consumption,[5, 7, 8] which is a prescription for mass death for most of humanity, because it will condemn them to a state of energy poverty even worse than present, as well as prevent the creation of the wind/solar power capacity necessary for climate adaptation and mitigation. This scenario would make it virtually impossible to meet the 1.5 deg C global warming target, hence increasing the potential for climate catastrophe with horrors much worse than we now witness.

And finally they advocate for the goal of a “satisfactory” quality of life for most of humanity living in the global South, in contrast to a higher standard for many in the global North, instead of demanding and mapping out a path to the highest state-of-the-science life expectancy/quality of life achievable for all children in their lifetime.[9, 10]

This critique of degrowth has important implications to the agenda and strategy of a Global Green New Deal (GGND). In this context, while degrowthers wisely argue for reducing energy consumption in energy wasteful U.S., in a transition to renewable energy, they once again claim that globally energy use should go down by a significant level over the coming decades.[8, 11, 12] If increasingly informed by an ecosocialist agenda, a GGND will entail sustainable economic growth, the creation of a wind/solar energy infrastructure replacing fossil fuels, restoration of natural ecosystems, agro-ecologies, green infrastructure etc.

Degrowthers fail to recognize the critical difference between the high efficiency capture of the solar flux generating wind/solar power and the fossil fuel energy supply because of their lack of understanding of thermodynamics, in particular the entropy concept in their appropriation of Georgescu-Roegen’s (G-R) fallacious so-called 4th law, which conflates open and closed systems with respect to energy and mass transfers; the Earth’s surface is not closed but rather open to energy going in and out. It should be noted that G-R’s 4th law was rejected over thirty years ago even by leading ecological economics scholars who recognized that incoming solar radiation could be the energy supply of global civilization.[13] A sufficient global solar/wind energy supply, greater than the present global consumption level, can eliminate energy poverty raising the global life expectancy to the world’s highest level, while creating the capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation. Further, this renewable energy supply can facilitate the virtual end of extractive mining by recycling and industrial ecologies.[14]

Real zero, not “net zero,” is the only potential path to meeting the 1.5 deg C warming target set by the IPCC, in a progressively unfolding ecosocialist GND by building capacity of the transnational working class and its allies (indigenous communities, ecofeminist women’s movements and all oppressed people around the world) to undermine the imperial agenda of the MIC and defeat militarized fossil capital and its political instruments in governments. At the same time “green” capital must be challenged by building a global regulatory regime necessary for environmental, worker and community protection.

Extractivism is a very real challenge that must be confronted in a wind/solar transition terminating fossil fuels, to create a truly just process which protects the rights and health of indigenous people around the world, along with the workforce and communities affected. There are significant future opportunities to limit mining in this transition, namely recycling the huge supplies of metals now embedded in the fossil fuel and military infrastructures, substituting common elements for rare ones (e.g., batteries using NaS, Fe/air etc.), enhancing public transit instead of relying on manufacturing hundreds of millions of electric cars. There are now significant energy savings in recycling metals instead of mining their ores:

 “recycled aluminum metal (e.g., in the form of cans), which can be simply cleaned and re-melted, saving 94% of the energy that would be required to produce the aluminum from ore…The largest energy savings achieved by recycling are generally for metals, which are often easy to recycle and otherwise typically need to be produced by energy-intensive mining and processing of ore. For example, energy savings from beryllium recycling are 80%, lead 75%, iron and steel 72%, and cadmium 50%.”[15]

As the renewable energy supplies grow globally using this energy to recycle would sharply reduce greenhouse emissions as well as mining. These opportunities reinforce the need for a renewable energy transition increasingly informed by an ecosocialist agenda, especially global demilitarization and social governance of production and consumption.

In our recently published paper modeling a real zero transition, we conclude that with the complete termination of coal/natural gas consumption in 10 years, and conventional oil in 20 years, a global wind/solar energy capacity using present technologies can be generated that is sufficient to end energy poverty in the global South, and provide for effective climate mitigation and adaptation.[14]  Rapid restoration of natural ecosystems and shift to agroecologies/regenerative agriculture are imperative and will contribute to climate mitigation but will be limited by future warming up to the 1.5 deg C target because of reduction in the capacity and saturation of the soil carbon pool. Hence, Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide and permanent storage in the crust will be likely needed to meet this warming goal.

In a provocative dialogue confronting the existential challenges that humanity now faces, John Bellamy Foster says. “that we need a socialist democratically planned economy that emphasizes low-energy solutions and decreases waste and destruction; that the world has to move toward equal per capita levels of energy use, somewhere around the level of Italy today (allowing poor countries to catch up.)”[16]

I agree with this advice, if “low-energy solutions” means meeting human and nature’s real needs with the minimum energy necessary. Further, our own estimate of the necessary per capita energy use for terminating global energy poverty is very close to Italy’s present primary energy consumption per capita level, approximately 3 to 3.4 kW per capita, with the latter level computed from the pre-pandemic energy data of 2019, noting the 10 percent decline in 2020.[3, 14, 17] Note that Italy is ranked 6 for life expectancy of countries of the world.[18] Assuming a population level of 9 billion and an increase in the energy efficiency factor of 30%, we project a global primary energy consumption level goal for 2050 corresponding to a power level of 19 TW, the same as present. However, incremental energy supplies will be required for climate mitigation and adaptation as well as meeting other challenges that will increase this goal to no more than 1.5 times the present level, i.e., 29 TW. [14]

Foster goes on:

“Thus, Hickel’s work (along with that of Andreas Malm and others) is referred to in the leaked Part 3 of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment as pointing to the possibility for low-energy strategies, seen as the main hope now of staying below a 1.5°C increase in global average temperature, and as providing arguments with respect to the unsustainability of capitalism.”[19]

and,

“The only real hope in the years immediately ahead, the leaked ‘Mitigation Report’ suggests, is low- energy strategies, which can reduce energy use by 40 percent, while at the same time improving the human condition.”[20]

However, rather than a 40 percent reduction, achieving global equity at Italy’s present primary energy consumption level as Foster advocates will result in “improving the human condition” by eliminating global energy poverty in the next few decades of this century, while meeting the 1.5 deg C warming target will require more energy capacity than present as discussed previously.

Since GDP has been effectively critiqued by degrowthers as a measure of a sustainable economy, while recognizing the great negative impacts of high GDP economies dominated by fossil capital, the GDP level by itself is not necessarily an indicator of unwelcome economic growth. Qualitative analysis is needed. Are the components of the economy responsible for the GDP contributing to economic growth that is needed for addressing human and nature’s needs or are they promoting the increasing threat of climate catastrophe and ecosystem collapse? Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize that decoupling economic growth from bad outcomes under capital reproduction in GGND will only be partially realized unless a robust ecosocialist transition is achieved. Hence it is no surprise that decoupling in capitalist economies has been so far at best very modest.[21]

There are several examples of degrowth low-energy mitigation scenarios.[22] They are characterized by low GDP, no negative emissions technologies other than enhancing soil carbon stores, and global reduction in energy consumption. We argue that if implemented they would leave the global South with energy poverty, and the world with an insufficient global energy capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation, risking breaching the 1.5 deg C warming target. In contrast, our scenario would entail a moderate to high GDP, creating high global wind/solar power capacity, and once sufficient wind/solar power is in place the likely implementation of direct air capture of carbon dioxide/permanent storage in the crust. [14]

Foster clearly identifies responsibility for the ecological debt.

“Moreover, the burden in our time has to be put primarily on the rich countries, since they are the ones that have used up most of the global carbon budget, have higher per capita wealth, the highest per capita energy consumption, the highest carbon footprints per capita, and also monopolize much of the technology. The core capitalist system in the Global North is primarily responsible for most of the increases in carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Today, the bulk of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions are concentrated in a few hundred global corporations and military spending. All of this underscores that the rich capitalist countries at the center of the world system owe an ecological debt to the rest of the world.”[23]

An ecosocialist GGND has the potential of facilitating a path to electrified solar communism in the 21st century,[24, 6, 25] the Solarcommunicene. [26] Foster and Clark have named the post-Capitalinian (world dominated by capital reproduction) age the Communian.[27]


Notes

[1] Matt Huber 2021, Lifestyle Environmentalism Will Never Win Over Workers, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/08/lifestyle-environmentalism-will-neve….

[2] Matt Huber 2021, Climate Doom Won’t Save the Planet, https://www.jacobinmag.com/ 2021/07/working-class-vision-climate-change-green-new-deal.

[3] Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman 2019, The Earth is Not for Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible. Singapore: World Scientific.

[4] George Monbiot 2019, The Problem Is Capitalism, https://www.monbiot.com /2019/04/30/ the-problem-is-capitalism.

[5] Giorgos Kallis 2019, Socialism Without Growth. Capitalism Nature Socialism 30 (3): p.192.

[6] p.42, David Schwartzman and Salvatore Engel Di Mauro 2019, A Response to Giorgios Kallis’ Notions of Socialism and Growth, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30 (3): 40-51.

[7] Giorgos Kallis 2019, Capitalism, Socialism, Degrowth: A Rejoinder. Capitalism Nature Socialism 30 (3): 266–272.

[8] Jason Hickel 2020, A response to Pollin and Chomsky: We need a Green New Deal without growth, https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2020/10/19/we-need-a-green-new-deal-wi….

[9] David Schwartzman 2020, A Critique of Degrowth: an Ecosocialist Alternative, http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2020/12/17/a-critique-of-degro….

[10] David Schwartzman 2021, Cuba and Degrowth?, http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2021/07/13/cuba-and-degrowth/.

[11] Riccardo Mastini et al. 2020, For the Green New Deal to Work, It Has to Reject “Growth”, https://inthesetimes.com/article/green-new-deal-decarbonization-economi….

[12] Juan Bordera and Fernando Prieto 2021, The IPCC considers degrowth to be key to mitigating climate change (Google Translation from Spanish), https://ctxt.es/es/20210801/Politica/36900 /IPCC-cambio-climatico-colapso-medioambiental-decrecimiento.htm.

[13] E.g., Robert Ayres 1998, Eco-thermodynamics: economics and the second law. Ecological Economics 26: 189–209.

[14] Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman 2021, Can the 1.5 ℃ warming target be met in a global transition to 100% renewable energy? AIMS Energy 9 (6): 1170-1191, doi:10.3934/energy.2021054.

15] AGI nd, American Geosciences Institute. How does recycling save energy? https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-does-recycl…, most recent reference: 2019.

[16] John Bellamy Foster et al. 2021, Against Doomsday Scenarios: What Is to Be Done Now? Monthly Review 73 (7): p. 10.

[17] Data sources for Italy: BP 2021, p.10; https://worldpopulationreview.com.

[18] UNDP for 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy.

[19]  John Bellamy Foster et al. 2021. p.12.

[20] John Bellamy Foster et al. 2021. p.14.

[21] Jason Hickel 2018, Why growth can’t be green, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/12/why-growth-cant-be-green/.

[22] E.g., Arnulf Grubler et al. 2018, A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy 3: 515-527; Lorenz T. Keyßer and Manfred Lenzen 2021, 1.5 °C degrowth scenarios suggest the need for new mitigation pathways. Nature Comm. 12: 2676, doi.:10.1038/s41467-021-22884-9.

[23]  John Bellamy Foster et al. 2021. p.14-15.

[24] David Schwartzman 1996, Solar Communism. Science & Society 60 (3): 307–331.

[25}Matt Huber 2020, Electric Communism: The Continued Importance of Energy to Revolution. In: Lenin150 (Samizdat), Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn (ed.) Hamburg, Germany: KickAss Books, pp.187-199.

[26] David Schwartzman 2020, An Ecosocialist Perspective on Gaia 2.0: The Other World That is Still Possible. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 31(2): 40–49.

[27] John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark 2021, The Capitalinian. Monthly Review 73 (4): 1-16.

David W. Schwartzman writes on solar energy. He is Professor Emeritus, Howard University (USA), and a member of the Green Party of the USA and other community organisations. His writing is available on the Solar Utopia and The Earth is Not for Sale web sites.

1 comment

  1. Matic Primc January 24, 2022 7:42 am 

    I am unconvinced by this article, especially as it includes ridiculous claims like reducing energy usage would lead to mass death.
    Obviously, 25 years ago when we were using less than half of the energy we are using today, everyone did not end up dead and there is no reason everyone would die if we reorganized our society in a way that eliminated the most idiotic forms of energy consumption. Also recycling helps in quite limited way when you are operating in a growth scenario where every 23 years we use more materials than in entire human history combined so even if we recycled absolutely everything we would still double the extraction of materials every 23 years and the extraction going on currently is already blowing through all sustainable levels.

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