In defence of degrowth

The climate movement and socialist movements must come together to build a new progressive movement.

Andrea Grainger
5 September 2019, 10.51am
Picture by: Erik McGregor/SIPA USA/PA Images

A recent article by Leigh Phillips, ‘The degrowth delusion’, comes at a crucial time in our political history. We stand at the precipice of ecological collapse. In an increasingly polarised political environment, nationalist movements, socialism and climate activism are rapidly growing in power.

The climate movement and socialist movements must come together to build a new progressive movement, defeat the rising nationalist tide, and save ourselves from disaster.

Leigh’s article attacks some of the bad forms of the ‘degrowth ideology’, but misses much of the positive parts of the movement. Rather than presenting degrowth and socialism as rivals, I believe a better approach is to try to synthesise socialist and degrowth ideas, and bring these communities together.

Leigh’s article contains a number of errors: he mistakes the fundamental relationship between degrowth and capitalism, he misunderstands what form of decoupling is required to ensure sustainability, and he misses some modern insights from happiness economics which make degrowth less burdensome.

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1. Capitalism and degrowth

In his article Leigh contents that 'Degrowth lets off the hook the real source of the problem', which he contends to be 'the market's irrational production'. He says that limits-to-growth 'is an ideology the left [has] battled against for hundreds of years, starting the first disputes between Engels an Thomas malthus'.

The problem with this framing is that degrowth is fundamentally incompatible with modern capitalism. What is meant by modern capitalism? Specifically the system of private shareholders owning businesses and investing for the purpose of generating a return on investment.

Without economic growth, businesses do not grow. So they cannot promise a return on investment to shareholders, and there is no incentive for shareholders to invest. If we transitioned to a steady-state or degrowth economy, the stock market would collapse overnight, and capitalism as we know it would die.

At the 2018 EU Post-Growth Conference; Karl Pichelmann, Senior Adviser to the European Commission, was asked why the Commission hasn’t stop pursuing economic growth. His response, tellingly was 'because we don't know how. [...] The end of growth means the end of capital accumulation, and therefore of capitalism.'

For this reason vocal anti-capitalism is common in the degrowth movement. Leigh refers to a handful of academics as figureheads of the modern degrowth movement including Jason Hickel, Giorgos Kallis and E.F. Schumacher, each of whom identify capitalism and sustainability as being incompatible, and who call for an end to capitalism.

They are joined in this regard by degrowth activists like John Bellamy Foster, Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy, the Post-Growth Institute, and the GreenHouse think-tank.

Generally debating the end of capitalism is widely accepted within the movement. The next international degrowth conference, to be held in Manchester in 2020, covers the debate in three of its sub-themes for the conference; ‘the democratisation of the economy and alternative models and forms of organisation’, ‘forms of decommodification and non-capitalist modes of resource allocation’ and ‘the economy beyond states and markets’.

It is worth nothing that Leigh Phillips advocates a particular vision of socialism, based on democratic planning, which he expands on his book ‘The People's Republic of Walmart’.

This vision of socialism is not shared by all socialist degrowthers. The earlier mentioned Post-Growth Institute believes in a form of market socialism, making use of non-profit businesses. Many visions of socialism abound in the socialist movement. But the important point here is that all of the different socialist visions involve stripping away the power of the main enemy of socialism; the capitalist business-owning class.

Leigh is right to contend that some degrowth activists are capitalists. One of the famous fathers of the modern movement is Herman Daly, who is famous for calling on his followers to look for a supposed ‘middle-ground’ between socialism and capitalism, that can combine the best of both and facilitate degrowth.

The modern degrowth movement is not an enemy of the left, but rather a fertile breeding ground for anti-capitalist activists. The inability of capitalism to function without growth means degrowthers are only one step away from becoming anti-capitalists.

2. Sufficient absolute decoupling

In his article Leigh talks about the potential to achieve ‘absolute decoupling’ of growth and environmental damage by utilising the efficiencies of socialist planning.

This may be true, but absolute decoupling is not enough on its own to prevent ecological collapse. The decoupling must also take place at a sufficiently fast rate – absolute decoupling that is too slow will not save us. To demonstrate what I mean, let us imagine a simple simulation.

Imagine a world where everyone relies on the oceans to supply their food. Each year they collect and eat fish. They also dig up oil, convert it into plastics, and dump some in the sea.

The oceans are rather resilient, and can survive having 100 tonnes of plastic dumped in them before they die. When they do the fish stock will run out, and civilization on this world will collapse.

In the first year of this simulation, the people dump 1 tonne of plastic into the ocean. In the second year, their civilization has grown – they produce 20% more plastic goods, and dump 20% more plastic into the ocean (1.2 tonnes). In the third year they dump another 20% more, 1.4 tonnes. In the fourth year it is 1.7 tonnes. And so on.

In the first year they are rather confident. Dumping only one tonne of plastic a year, they think they can leave the problem for their great-grandchildren to solve. But by year 5 they are dumping 2 tonnes a year, by year 9 they are dumping 4 tonnes a year. By year 13 the ocean is half-full of plastic, and by year 17 their civilization collapses.

No tech.png

Now, reset the simulation, and imagine the civilization puts in place a capitalist system of market incentives to encourage people to be more sustainable. In this system, the civilization finds they are able to produce 20% more plastic goods each year, but their dumping only goes up by 10% each year.

They have achieved ‘relative decoupling’. But their dumping is still going up every year. This civilization lasts a bit longer. They collapse in year 25.

Capitalist tech.png

Now, reset the simulation again. Imagine our civilization is capitalist from the first year, but in year 21, the populace organise a socialist revolution. They implement a form of socialist planning, which they discover allows them to keep increasing the production of plastic goods, while decreasing their dumping by 10% each year.

They have achieved ‘absolute decoupling’ thanks to socialist planning.

So what happens to this civilization now? In year 21 they are dumping 6 tonnes of plastic per year. By year 24 this is down to 5 tonnes. And by year 30, the oceans are entirely full of plastic, and their civilization collapses.

Socialist planning.png

They survive five years longer than the capitalist society, but they still fail, because they did not implement socialist planning soon enough.

In this simulation socialist planning must be implemented by year 18 at the latest, in order to save the oceans and prevent civilization collapse. Any later and the rate of decoupling is not fast enough, and they cannot save their civilization without degrowth.

Returning to our world, we do not know how long it will be until socialist planning is adopted across the world, and we do not know the rate of decoupling that it will make possible.

It may already be too late to avoid degrowth. We may already require drastic degrowth. Or we may require minimal degrowth. Or we may be able to prevent the need entirely, if we push hard for socialism, and see it realised in the next few years.

There are many unknowns, but it is certain that delaying too long will make degrowth a necessity for our survival.

3. What makes life worth living

In his article Leigh contends that 'Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance. Our desire is not to make poor those who to-day are rich, in order to put the poor in the place where the rich now are. Our desire is not to pull down the present rulers to put other rulers in their places. We wish to abolish poverty and to provide abundance for all. We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.'

Leigh contrasts this with some of the more radical degrowth and steady-state proposals, including a proposal to pause the global economy at its current level of development, and distribute wealth evenly, so all rich nations decline to the global average GDP per capita of $5,500.

It is unlikely that $5,500 would be enough to provide most people with a good standard of living. A reduction to this level would be very painful, and should be avoided if possible. Of course, degrowth advocates do not desire unnecessary suffering. Our contention is that planned degrowth is better than the alternative of unplanned ecological collapse.

Once we have shifted to a socialist planned economy we can assess where we are, and see whether any degrowth is necessary. If it is necessary, then ultimately we cannot ignore reality simply because it doesn’t conform with our vision of how we want the world to be.

A huge amount of degrowth would of course be very painful, but a small amount of degrowth in the richest nations could be relatively harmless.

Today Qatar has a GDP of $130,000 per capita, and Luxembourg and Singapore enjoy $100,000 per capita. Brunei is around $79,000, Ireland $78,000, Norway $74,000, UAE $69,000, Kuwait $67,000, Switzerland $64,000 and the USA $62,000.

Happiness economists are increasingly finding evidence of a mismatch between levels of national GDP and national happiness. For poorer nations GDP growth is essential for happiness, but as nations become richer the benefits of GDP growth slow-down dramatically.

For richer nations GDP growth should no longer be a priority, and the focus should instead be reduced inequality, more leisure time, stronger community bonds, and workplace democracy. Many richer countries today are doing poorly in these areas. Fixing them could significantly increase happiness, and could offset the losses from some necessary degrowth.

At the end of his article Leigh contents that ‘an end to growth declares an end to technological development, an end to science, an end to progress, an end to the open-ended search for freedom—an end to history.’

Leigh is certainly right that material development has in the past brought significant cultural and political development. But the end of growth is itself a major material development that would bring about major political changes. Without economic growth, the established powers within capitalist nations, and within bodies like the IMF, would lose one of the major pieces of rhetoric used to suppress dissent. Without economic growth, the promise that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ would vanish.

It is likely that international politics would shift, as poorer nations recognise that they will never catch up with the imperial powers without taking their wealth from them. Politics within nations would also shift, as the idea that children will automatically be richer than their parents vanishes. A greater focus will emerge on reducing inequality and increasing social mobility.

Likewise, the end of economic growth would see a shift in economic focus, away from increasing consumption, to increasing happiness. Some of the ways to increase the happiness of nations has been highlighted above, but much remains unexplored. Innovations in happiness economics could keep us busy for years or even decades, constantly improving society while keeping consumption the same.

Ultimately Leigh is right that a steady-state economy should not last forever. So long as we keep developing technologies to decouple growth and environmental damage, we will eventually be able to resume economic growth. But a period of no-growth should not be seen as the end of history. Rather, it should be seen as an important phase in our development – a time to reflect on our consumerist culture, to perfect everything beyond growth that makes life worth living, and to ensure the security and protection of our planet for future generations.

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