The case for growth
The left’s embrace of eco-austerity is a recipe for impoverishment.
Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.
Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.
To be clear, many of those on the green left who are concerned about the alleged problems of economic growth mean well. It’s an absence of understanding of political economy that is at fault rather than conscious malevolence. Or at least that’s what the po-faced and sensible little angel on my right shoulder tells me. The little devil on my left, a far more charismatic fellow at times, whispers instead: ‘Grant these hair-shirted GMO-free granola-druids no quarter. Remember that poster advertising a woodland gathering reading poetry “to our brothers and sisters the trees”? I rest my case.’
Naomi Klein distills much of this anti-humanist line of thinking into her 2014 bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, as well as in a handful of very widely shared essays in the Nation, the Guardian and the New Statesman. Let me note briefly that there is much that she says that I agree with. Above all, I doff my cap to her regular, robust promotion of trade unions and the rights of workers, something that too many other green-minded folks forget (most egregiously the world’s most successful Green Party, Germany’s Die Grünen, which, in government with the Social Democrats at the turn of the millennium, broke the back of Germany’s union movement, laying the neo-mercantilist foundations of the current ongoing Eurozone crisis, a crisis in which the sizeable Die Grünen faction in the European Parliament has regularly backed EU policies that favour central European financial interests over those of the ordinary people of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland). Nonetheless, due to Klein’s prominence as a degrowthist thinker, and how representative she is of a much wider current, her arguments need criticism. Further, as we’ll see, her degrowth arguments stand opposed to the interests of working people, and are a barrier to labour’s advance.
Klein puts forward the idea that climate change is actually something of a gift, a way for progressives to push through everything we’ve ever wanted but have never achieved. We can do this now because science tells us it’s the only way to save the planet.
In her Nation essay, ‘Capitalism vs the climate’, she appears to make a revolutionary case against the market system after visiting a climate-sceptic conference hosted by the hard-right Heartland Institute:
‘If you ask the Heartlanders, climate change makes some kind of left-wing revolution virtually inevitable, which is precisely why they are so determined to deny its reality. Perhaps we should listen to their theories more closely – they might just understand something the left still doesn’t get … [C]limate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.’
She makes a similar argument in her New Statesman piece, ‘How science is telling us all to revolt’. Here, she alights on the work of a pair of scientists with the Tyndall Centre – Britain’s premier climate-research body – Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, who have concluded: ‘We are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.’ Klein says that this means that:
‘[F]or any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.’
A shortcut! All these past 200-plus years of systemic critique and political struggle from what we call the ‘left’, of campaigning, debating, voting, marching, picketing and on occasion revolting – in other words, the grand effort involved in putting forth our ‘mere ideological preference’ – was insufficient because this was political rather than scientific. Now, however, the men and women in lab coats have a secret weapon more effective than any boycotts, sit-ins, leafleting or electioneering; more certain to be victorious than any blockades, occupations or general strikes. All we have to do is present these facts and our ancient enemies will concede. Because all along, the problem in overcoming injustice has been that elites just didn’t know the facts.
Okay, you say. So Klein is being a bit glib here about the magical power of The Science – so what? And she’s not saying don’t engage in these other tactics of social change. Climate change is just an additional political opportunity. More importantly, isn’t the substance of her argument the assertion that economic growth and overconsumption are behind what is causing climate change, indeed causing the wider biocrisis? Isn’t she right that the Heartlanders are right?
Let’s have a deeper look. Klein’s argument involves two premises. The first is that to maintain ourselves within the range of average global temperatures that have been optimum for human flourishing throughout the Holocene geological epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, society must make radical and rapid cuts in carbon emissions, and ultimately move toward a carbon-neutral economy. Bows and Anderson put the scale of global cuts in CO2 emissions needed after a peak in emissions in 2015 at a rate of 10 per cent per year thereafter if we are to have an even chance of meeting the internationally agreed goal of a maximum two-degree temperature increase. Elsewhere, researchers with the Global Carbon Project put the figure at 5.5 per cent per year over the next 45 years. For comparison, the fastest decarbonisation programmes in history – the transition to nuclear power by France, Sweden and Belgium in the 1970s and 1980s, with France now producing three quarters of its electricity from this low-carbon source – enjoyed reductions in emissions of just four per cent a year over the course of roughly a decade. Regardless of who is correct here, this is a staggering rate of carbon-emissions mitigation. Klein is not wrong about the magnitude of the challenge.
Klein’s second premise is that the main strategies favoured by policymakers up to now are at best inadequate and at worst counterproductive. She highlights in particular the failed strategies of green consumption, biofuels and carbon trading.
Again, so far, Klein is so lamentably accurate: whatever the benefits of driving a Toyota Prius and recycling your lentil tins, household consumption represents a much smaller per cent of global CO2 emissions than industrial emissions servicing business-to-business transactions. (To be fair, it is difficult to disaggregate these two parts of the economy. But to give a rough idea of the sort of ratio involved, Emilia Romagna in Italy, one of the wealthiest and most developed regions in Europe, assesses its ratio of household consumption to broader economic activities in terms of greenhouse gas emissions to be 27 per cent to 73 per cent.)
Meanwhile, first-generation biofuels have long been recognised as worse than fossil fuels once the emissions from indirect land-use change are taken into account. The sole biofuels that seem to be better than traditional fossil fuels when a full life-cycle analysis is performed are waste chip-fat biodiesel and algae-based fuels. Unfortunately repurposing used chip fat is, to put it mildly, not very scalable, unless humanity starts consuming bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, corn dogs and other deep-fried comestibles on a volume-per-capita basis in excess of that of a muumuu-wearing Homer Simpson. In the UK, for example, current waste cooking oil supplies could power no more than one 350th of Britain’s cars, according to the government’s now-defunct Better Regulation Commission. And algae fuels at the moment would only be competitive with petrol if oil cost $800 a barrel.
And finally, the EU’s flagship carbon-reduction strategy, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), is a cringeworthy disaster, with carbon credits dropping from around €30 ($41.50) a tonne in 2008 to under €3 a tonne by early 2013 (they’re now about €4 a tonne), with the European law-enforcement agency Europol describing the system as an ‘open door’ for organised crime. Europe’s slow but steady decline in carbon emissions since the advent of the ETS has been almost entirely a result of offshoring of production and drops in industrial output due to the economic crisis and nothing to do with carbon trading.
Klein concludes then on the basis of these two premises – that the required emissions reductions are colossal and the existing strategies for reductions aren’t working – that the only remaining option with proven effectiveness is steep economic contraction, ‘what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”‘.
‘Which is fine’, Klein continues, ‘except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else … The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies but by reducing the amount of material stuff we produce and consume.’
De-growth and an end to overconsumption cannot be achieved without combatting capitalism, because capitalism is built upon these pillars – hence Klein’s phrase, ‘capitalism vs the climate’. It does look at first glance as though revolution becomes, as she puts it, a species-wide existential necessity.
Anti-growth equals pro-austerity
The first point I really want to underscore here is that one cannot rage against the imposition of economic austerity – the series of radical cuts to social programmes and depression of wages imposed by most Western governments in the wake of the global economic crisis – while arguing against economic growth. Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing. What green degrowth partisans are actually calling for is eco-austerity.
This is because if your starting point is that humans are consuming too much, then any cuts to social programmes and wages will result in less money in these same humans’ pockets, and hence less consumption. So however cruel austerity may appear, you really should be cheering this on. And yet Klein elsewhere sharply and correctly criticises the injustice of austerity. Likewise, we frequently see the same people marching against cuts to social programmes and for an increase in wages – whether as part of Occupy Wall Street-type action in New York, or the Fight-for-15 campaign of fast-food workers for a living wage in Chicago and 150 other cities across the US, or in more street-fighting fashion against the fiats of the Eurozone on the streets of Athens or Barcelona – who, come Earth Day or some climate-change protest, will raise different placards, this time damning economic growth. But the two positions are irreconcilable.
Unlike some anti-growth proponents, Klein does at least concede that the only historic comparison we have to a 10 per cent drop in emissions year after year is that of the economic contraction during the Great Depression. Emissions reductions after the 2008 crash averaged only seven per cent across the OECD, and only for one year before rebounding, and the Soviet Union saw reductions of five per cent over 10 years. To avoid such social catastrophe, Klein says that the economic contraction must be carefully managed. Nevertheless, she repeatedly argues that ‘we all’ need to consume less, just like the Buy Nothing Day activists and thousands of other green campaigners. What is the most famous green slogan, but ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’? Klein and others – regardless of how they couch their calls to degrowth, no matter if the emphasis for now is on reducing the consumption of the wealthiest first, and only later restricting the consumption of the rest of us – are still saying that even the most equitably managed contraction would involve a reduction in every Westerner’s standard of living.
At this point, it is worthwhile revisiting Klein’s choice of the 1970s as one of her favoured eras of eco-arcadia, after which, as she told British journalist Owen Jones in a public talk in London, ‘we’ (everywhere this blasted undifferentiating first-person plural pronoun) ‘turbo-charged the American Dream in the 1980s’ and then proceeded to ‘take it global’. From such phrases, one could be forgiven for thinking that the high rate of expansion of the standard of living of ordinary people that occurred from the late 1940s through to the mid-1970s in most Western countries continued apace into the 1980s and up to today. But this is false. In fact, the opposite is the case. There is a reason the French call this postwar epoch Les Trente Glorieuses – ‘the 30 glorious years’ of high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits, powerful trade unions and increasing consumption – and not Les Soixante-dix Glorieuses, as it surely would be if Klein’s periodisation obtained. By almost every measure you could come up with, the economic standing of ordinary people has stagnated or declined since the late 1970s.
In the late 1960s, the Keynesian mixed economy began to sputter amid rising inflation, diminished profits and a crisis of rising expectations on the part of workers – in other words, an increasing trade-union militancy that was the natural result of policies of full employment, predicted in Polish economist Michal Kalecki’s famous 1943 essay, ‘The political aspects of full employment’:
‘Under a regime of permanent full employment, the “sack” would cease to play its role as a “disciplinary measure”. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow. Strikes for wage increases and improvements in conditions of work would create political tension.’
(Put very simply: if you can get a job tomorrow somewhere else, why put up with low wages or a domineering boss?)
As a result, the Keynesian consensus broke down, to be replaced with a basket of inegalitarian policies building on neoclassical economics that today are described as ‘neoliberalism’. This austerity was initially sharply resisted by working people and the trade unions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but by the end of that decade, the union militancy of the 1970s had largely been smashed and full employment was a distant memory. Although most associated with right-wingers such as Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan in the US and the Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, neoliberalism has been imposed with similar élan by social-democratic governments, trapped as they are by an ideology that has no systemic critique and so restricts the horizon of the possible to more fairly sharing out the spoils of capitalism amid periods of growth, and more fairly sharing out the pain amid periods of stagnation or crisis.
Then, to continue with our potted, far-too-brief economic history of the past few decades, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The USSR was a savage, peasant-consuming Polyphemus of a regime whose demise is to be celebrated. Nevertheless, we must be frank and recognise at the same time that until its demise, the USSR served as an outsized, bowel-loosening foghorn of a warning to Western elites that immiseration of ordinary people would likely result in their own overthrow, and a subtle reminder to those very ordinary people that while Stalinism may not be the preferred alternative to capitalism, alternatives to capitalism at least existed. So with the Soviet Union gone, both the masters of the universe and their subjects were now convinced that there is no alternative. It was the end of history.
While productivity in the US grew 80.4 per cent between 1973 and 2011, according to the centre-left Economic Policy Institute, median worker pay grew just 10.7 per cent. Where during Les Trente Glorieuses, workers’ pay rose in tandem with productivity, since the 1970s there have been only stagnant or declining wages and benefits. Whichever metrics we use, we arrive at the same result: working families in America make less than they did 15 years ago – a phenomenon that has not occurred since the Great Depresssion. Since 2000, weekly earnings for low- and middle-income workers have remained essentially unchanged, after adjustment for inflation. If the median US household income had kept pace with the broader economy since 1970, it would now be $92,000 instead of $50,000. And of course, similar numbers can be found for other jurisdictions. From 1990 to 2009, labour’s share of national income declined in 26 out of 30 developed economies for which this data is available, according to the OECD. Overall across the advanced economies, labour’s share dropped from 66.1 percent to 61.7 percent. Meanwhile the depth of this decline in developing countries is even more pronounced, according to the ILO, with steep falls in Asia and North Africa and stable but still declining shares in Latin America. It’s even happening in China.
So Klein’s call to roll back ‘our’ standard of living to the 1970s is simply, egregiously, ahistorical. The truth is that for most people, we never really left the 1970s.
It should be noted here that some radical green activists, such as Derrick Jensen, do recognise this dissonance between calling for decreased consumption and opposing austerity. Going further than Klein is willing to, they do not shy away from actually embracing economic crisis and its accompanying social fallout, or they complain that any time union members fight for higher wages, they are mounting a defence of their ‘privilege’, as the late Canadian deep ecologist David Orton put it, and waging war against the planet because they will now be able to consume more.
Such ‘checking the privilege’ of workers and trade unions must be music to the ears of employers.
This new paradigm of rejecting growth and embracing limits is also by definition a rejection of progress. It is to say: this much and no more. Or, more precisely, that we can expand but only in non-material forms. Klein, for example, emphasises that her prescription is ‘selective degrowth’, which she clarifies in a 2014 interview with the New York-based Indypendent newspaper: ‘There are parts of our economy that we want to expand that have a minimal environmental impact, such as the care-giving professions, education, the arts. Expanding those sectors creates jobs, wellbeing and more equal societies.’ But the material side of the economy – the ‘extractivist’ side, in Klein’s words – has to shrink.
All this voluntary-simplicity, simple-living rhetoric sounds lovely, warm and fuzzy. I’m certainly feeling the feels when I read plaintive yearnings in popular environmentalist magazines like Orion or Grist about building community, or overhear the kale-wranglers and turnip-whisperers at my local farmers’ market pining for a society where we are more neighbourly and devote more time to friends and family, art, poetry and music. But all this sort of ’embracing other, less material ways of wellbeing’ ignores the fact that you can’t make music without instruments or write poetry without ink and paper, and instruments and paper can’t be made without raw materials that need to be chopped down or mined. A whistle is made of tin and a trumpet made of brass.
This argument (or mood, really; it’s less an argument than a sentiment) also forgets that it is increased productivity through technological advance (combined with trade-union organising) that gives us more free time, which would allow us to be more neighbourly and community-oriented. So the immateriality of ‘other kinds of growth’, of ‘selective degrowth’, is a fantasy. While we can steadily dematerialise production via technological innovation, and though knowledge itself is certainly immaterial, knowledge will always be linked to the material, both in its origins and its products. New knowledge depends on old technologies, old stuff, and gives rise to new technologies, to new stuff.
Think about it this way: if we have retreated to the optimum economic stasis-point of the Kleinian imaginary, where we are no longer supposed to be overshooting our carrying capacity, then each one of us has all the right amount of ‘stuff’ – no more and no less. But now, if through the expansion of our knowledge, we develop a new technology that does not replace – or only partly replaces – a previous technology, and yet we want to put it into production because of its manifest benefits to society, then we will have to give up production of some other technology to make room for it. But hold on – we’ve already decided that we have all the stuff that we need, no more and no less. That means that we cannot give up that old technology. Thus we either invent nothing new (or at least only those new technologies that perfectly replace old technologies without any overall expansion of production), or we have to grow.
Therefore, the steady-state economy must by definition refuse most technological advance, and even most new knowledge as well. The steady-state economy is a steady-technology economy, a steady-science economy, a static society. It is the very definition of conservatism.
Leigh Phillips is a journalist and author.
This essay is an edited excerpt from Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, published by Zero Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: David B Young, published under a creative commons licence.