The degrowth delusion

To abandon growth is to declare an end to progress. Socialists must reject the politics of eco-Thatcherism.

Leigh Phillips
30 August 2019

We are standing still. That was the conclusion of BP's chief economist upon the release of its latest statistical review of energy—the annual report that all global warming specialists hold as the gold standard of climate and energy data. He was referring to a chart that stopped him cold. It showed how in 2018, the non-fossil share of the global energy mix was the same as it was in 1998, the year the UN Kyoto Protocol was agreed.

More than two decades of climate diplomacy, carbon pricing, and, in recent years, a record build-out of variable renewable energy such as wind and solar, with very little so far to show for it all. We have barely moved.

The democratic socialist explanation for this state of affairs should be fairly straightforward. If the market is left to its own devices, there will continue to be an incentive to produce any commodity so long as it is profitable, regardless of what we know of the harm that good or service may inflict. Fossil fuels are perhaps the contemporary example ne plus ultra of such irrational production.

Meanwhile, if we know something to be beneficial, so long as that good or service is not profitable, or even insufficiently profitable, there is no incentive for it to be produced, again outside of some non-market intervention. Here, the most acute example of this form of irrational production lies in the realm of public health, where the retreat by large pharmaceutical firms some three decades ago from research, development and production of new classes of antibiotic due to their poor return on investment has threatened humanity with the rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria. Researchers and public health officials warn that we may be entering a 'post-antibiotic era' of medicine, in which even minor surgery becomes impossible, and infection-related mortality rates return to those of Victorian times.

With respect to climate change, we see, for example, market actors cherry pick the most profitable locations for charging stations instead of the nationwide network needed to overcome the range anxiety of motorists. The Norwegian government, unwilling to wait an eternity for Elon Musk to do the job, simply built such a network themselves. Together with a raft of smart incentives and perks for electric vehicle drivers like free parking, such regulatory and public infrastructural intervention in the country have achieved as of this year a market penetration rate for clean cars of 60 percent of all new vehicles sold. They expect to have completely decarbonized passenger vehicles by the middle of the next decade, years ahead of schedule.

Similarly, nuclear power has an emissions intensity as low as that of onshore wind (global mean of 12g CO2eq/kWh vs 11g CO2eq/kWh, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) but unlike wind can power hospitals 24/7. It should be the backbone of any clean transition, and indeed three of the four possible Illustrative Pathways that the IPCC's latest report uses to illustrate possible strategies to avoid more than 1.5°C of warming assume between a 150% and a 500% increase in the share of primary energy from nuclear by mid-century (one keeps nuclear at about the same). However, the up-front capital costs of conventional nuclear make it unattractive to risk-averse market actors without eye-watering public subsidies, underwriting and price guarantees, as with the private finance boondoggle of Hinkley C. Advanced nuclear, with its ability to use nuclear waste as fuel and meltdown-proof passive safety designs, suffers from a related market challenge. To take next-generation reactors from concept through to commercialization needs an industrial policy to support research, development and demonstration and to shape and create markets for them.

The fastest historical declines in the carbon intensity of energy of any economy was France's nuclearization of its electric grid—a 4.5% annual reduction rate. This is not far from the Stockholm Resilience Centre's 'carbon law' of a 5% annual mitigation rate up to 2050 needed to avoid dangerous global warming. But the French effort was a centralized, public-sector 'grand projet d'état' performed in the dying days of the post-war Keynesian consensus in the late 70s and early 80s prior to the imposition of European energy-sector liberalization.

Thus if the source of all environmental challenges is the result of the market's irrational production incentives or lack of incentives, then to exit from the current impasse with respect to climate change and other environmental challenges—from nitrogen pollution to biodiversity loss—we must also exit from a laissez-faire approach.

Market-based solutions, such as carbon taxes, emissions trading, feed-in tariffs and carbon offsets have had minimal impact compared to fiat regulation, work too slowly, do not work, or have counterproductive and frequently socially unjust outcomes. These may be a species of regulatory intervention in the market, but of the most attenuated sort, originally crafted by market advocates precisely to avoid public spending and the state 'picking winners' as much as possible.

It is often assumed that opposition to carbon pricing comes from the 'anti-tax' right. But working class opposition is no case of 'false consciousness' whipped up by climate-sceptic conservatives. Carbon pricing immediately alienates working families who have suffered from four decades of stagnating incomes and the ambient terror of deindustrialisation. It is true that fee-and-dividend versions of carbon taxation (in which rebates are sent to low-income households) ameliorates the problem, but they do not eliminate it. Any social justice perspective should start from a foundational understanding that households need clean energy options to be cheaper than fossil fuels currently are, not for fossil fuels to be more expensive than clean energy options currently are. Carbon pricing is also indifferent to and has no strategy for how deal with the potential job losses in the fossil-fuel sector and those many sectors that would be negatively impacted by higher prices for fossil energy, from fertilizer, steel and cement production to aviation and shipping.

No, rather than expecting the market to solve a problem the market created, the solution is a return to economic planning.

A Green New Deal is, in principle, precisely that. It is an industrial policy on a grand scale in service of full employment and raising living standards. It just happens to achieve this via the technology-switching and infrastructure buildout needed to decarbonize the economy.

Yet at the very moment that the socialist case for planning should be at its most obvious, sections of the environmental community have embraced a revival of 'limits to growth' philosophy, or Malthusianism—an ideology the left battled against dating back to Friedrich Engels' arguments against its eponymous founder, Thomas Malthus—this time going by the name of 'degrowth'.

Rallying under the slogan that you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet, the philosophy has been articulated in slightly varying forms by academics such as Jason Hickel, Giorgos Kallis, Kate Raworth and Tim Jackson, and builds on the work of earlier thinkers such as Serge Latouche, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, E.F. Schumacher and the Club of Rome's 1972 Limits to Growth report. But it has also been embraced by green NGOs such as Greenpeace, and America's leading climate campaign group 350.org.

Rather than viewing the market's irrational production as the source of environmental challenges, the degrowth position views the source to be economic growth.

Even some Green New Deal advocates get a little confused when they call for an end to growth as well. (This is an odd position, as it is quite difficult to imagine how trillions in infrastructure spending that created sufficient additional jobs to soak up all unemployment and significantly push up wages would not result in economic growth).

The degrowth argument says that growth drives energy demand up, thus making it harder and perhaps even impossible to decarbonize the economy. But a reduction in material throughput would reduce energy demand, thus making the clean transition more achievable. And to reduce material throughput, we have to reduce aggregate economic activity.

However, what is foreclosed by the notion of degrowth is the possibility of socialist growth: a boundless—if carefully planned—increase in the creation of new value that does not undermine the ecosystem services upon which human flourishing depends.

And because degrowth rejects the notion of socialist economic growth, it commits three grave errors.

First, degrowth lets off the hook the real source of the problem, thus condemning civilisation to dangerous climate change and parallel ecological threats.

Second, degrowth unwittingly endorses what would be an imposition of austerity on the Western working class far beyond anything a Thatcher, Cameron or May could imagine, this time in the name of the planet.

And, worst of all, degrowth would bring an end to progress itself—the steady expansion of freedom for all humanity.

1. The Curious Case of the On-the-Mend Ozone Layer

We can see the first major error of the degrowth concept if we turn our attention to past environmental challenges that we have actually overcome. The evidence is clear that it is planning—typically regulation, but also via public-sector infrastructure spending and industrial policy—not reduction in economic growth, that was responsible for these victories.

It is worth remembering that we have solved a fair few ecological problems, from acid rain over the Great Lakes to air and water quality in many Western nations. Until the 1980s, sulphur dioxide pollution was tied tightly to economic growth in the OECD club of wealthier nations, but it is no longer. Not enough ecological problems have been solved to be sure, but we need to investigate where there has been success—largely thanks to the struggles of trade unions, impacted communities, and environmental groups—in order to learn the lessons of what works.

Where there has been subsequent deterioration after achieving such successes—such as the scandalously still-unresolved lead contamination of water in Flint, Michigan—this has been the result of neoliberal retreat from non-market intervention: privatisation, deregulation, regulatory capture, and underfunding or outsourcing of inspection. In the case of Flint, we can add to this list the neoliberal era's neglect of water infrastructure, particularly with respect to that servicing less-profitable minority and poor communities. Likewise, neoliberal racism that resulted in infrastructural breakdown and underconsumption of water resources by poor and racialised neighbourhoods was responsible for the water crisis in Cape Town, not overconsumption.

But perhaps the greatest environmental victory yet has been the healing of the ozone layer. In the 1980s, depletion of atmospheric ozone, particularly around the poles, was that era's version of existential ecological crisis. It was also no less threatening to humanity over the near term than climate change via an increase in skin cancer and immune deficiency disorders as well as negative impacts on terrestrial and near-surface aquatic food webs and biochemical cycles, and reduction in agricultural yields. And the cause was also anthropgenic emissions: this time primarily chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were popularly understood, roughly correctly, as being used in refrigerators and aerosol sprays.

Since the 1987 Montreal Protocol ban on ozone-depleting substances, including CFCs, such emissions have declined by 98 percent (there has however been an uptick in unreported emissions since early this decade from east Asia, suggesting someone in the region is cheating). Ozone depletion reversed by the 2000s and full recovery is expected by 2075.

Having grown up in the 80s, I remember at the time bugging my mum to stop buying cans of hair spray. She did not follow my advice.

Thankfully my advice was not taken by policymakers either. Instead, the Montreal Protocol regulatorily intervened in the market against and over the wails and lobbying efforts of the industries affected.

Had we embraced degrowth with respect to ozone depletion by attempting to arrest growth in, say, the number of fridges in the world—or even reduce the total number—instead of regulation to enforce technology-switching, disaster would have befallen us. Saying "this many fridges and no more" would only have arrested the growth in emissions, not emissions tout court. (For the same reason today, it is not enough to keep greenhouse gas emissions steady, but eliminate them)

It simply would not have worked in any case, as by what right can developed nations tell the global south that they cannot keep their food fresh while they continue to do so? (Indeed, one might say that the socialist argument is instead: There still are not enough fridges in the world.)

Today there are more cans of hair spray and more fridges than ever before. The latter not least in the developing world, where refrigeration enhances quality of life through expansion of the range of food available, reducing food contamination, and improving nutrition. It also reduces food waste and therefore greenhouse gas emissions.

There has been an absolute decoupling of growth in the technologies that historically used ozone-depleting substances from growth in ozone depletion. The degrowth position maintains that absolute decoupling of growth from negative environmental impact is impossible, and that only relative decoupling—or reduced resource use per unit of production but increased production overall—is possible, but the story of ozone depletion shows this belief to be false. Economic growth has been absolutely, not relatively, decoupled from ozone depletion.

There are many, many other examples. Europe’s forests have grown by a third over the last century. Timber was used in almost every economic sector around 1900—for fuel, for furniture, house construction, even metal production—meaning that there was little forested areas left on the continent. But technological innovation in agriculture such as motorization, better drainage and irrigation reduced cropland as less area was needed to produce the same volume of food. In addition, there was a mass migration away from rural areas to the cities and, crucially, states after World War Two invested heavily in reforestation. Indeed, once a nation reaches a certain per capital income threshold, net deforestation ceases. Globally, tree cover has increased over the last 35 years.

Across the Atlantic, there were more dairy cows in the United States in 1870 than today, when the country has roughly ten times the population, according to the US Department of Agriculture. US crop production has increased even as agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, water and crop acreage have declined or plateaued, with the decline in fertilizer use being particularly sharp. Corn acreage has been absolutely decoupled from corn production. American potato yields continue to increase but the potato market is saturated, so potato production has plateaued, meaning that land is removed from production. Across the agricultural sector, this has meant an area of farmland the size of Washington State has been returned to nature, according to a forthcoming analysis by MIT business scholar Andrew McAfee.

McAfee also notes how US consumption of metals marched in lock-step with GDP until about the 1980s. Since then, consumption of important metals such as aluminium, nickel, copper, steel and gold have plateaued or declined. This takes into account imports and exports, so globalization is not the reason for this.

One important paper from degrowth advocates argues that this is simply because traded goods have a greater material impact than merely what is incorporated into them (think of the difference between an ingot of steel versus raw iron ore). Once this is taken into account, suggests another paper by a leading degrowth advocate, OECD absolute decoupling reveals itself to be a mirage, and globally economic growth remains as coupled to use of materials as ever—although, interestingly, that same paper notes this is primarily a result of offshoring of just construction materials.

But this is a global consideration of material inputs, so a range of sectoral absolute decouplings goes unnoticed, and global ones that are immaterial are likewise ignored. CFC absolute decoupling is global but unrecognized because measurement of material inputs doesn’t capture this. The sharp reduction in emissions of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, lead and particulate in Europe and America has come from regulation; they have not shifted overseas. US agricultural absolute decoupling has likewise not been a product of offshoring, as inputs here are primarily domestically sourced. A global decoupling of greenhouse gas emissions from growth (in principle feasible, but very far from being implemented) likewise would be missed by such an analysis.

And even more importantly, the very fact that there has already been a great many demonstrable examples of regional and global absolute decoupling in different sectors disproves the claim of the impossibility of absolute decoupling. The only question that remains is whether absolute decoupling can be extended across all sectors, or sufficient sectors as to eliminate undermining of ecosystem services.

Where free-market champions of absolute decoupling like McAfee are wrong however is their explanation for why it happens. McAfee believes it is vicious capitalist competition that drives technological innovation to reduce the costs of inputs. He concedes that some regulation is necessary, but fundamentally it’s market pressures that produce this of their own accord.

It is of course great when there is a happy coincidence of profitability and reduction of ecological harm, but if ever there is a conflict between these two, it’s profitability that wins out. And the reality is that America’s Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and similar regulations across industry—in the face of furious opposition from private companies—have been responsible for most of the major environmental advances in the US. And the story is similar elsewhere. Since 2005, emissions had absolutely decoupled from global beef production, primarily as a result of the Brazilian Workers’ Party’s crackdown on the razing of forest for agricultural production—a magnificent success story currently being disastrously undone by that country’s hard-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. Denmark, a world leader in nitrogen pollution management, has achieved a reduction in fertilizer use even as agricultural output has increased through a muscular state-led nitrogen strategy across the agricultural sector that involves stringent regulation, RD&D funding and infrastructural build-out.

One might also respond that technology-switching away from fossil fuels is a much more difficult task than switching away from CFCs or nitrogen recycling. And the response must be that this is certainly true, as this shift affects almost every sector of the economy. But difficult is not the same thing as impossible. Eight major economies—France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Paraguay—have already either largely or all-but completely decarbonized their electricity grids even as they enjoy economic growth (all by depending primarily on nuclear and/or hydroelectricity). These are models for the world. Cleaning up transport, industry and the built environment will likewise need a muscular public-sector interventionist approach.

And this uniquely human ability to transform our way of being is the key to understanding why both the economist and cleric Thomas Malthus and his latter-day epigones—from the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report in the 1970s and Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb bestseller (which predicted billions would be dying of starvation by the 1980s) to contemporary degrowth theorists and activists—have persistently been demonstrated to be wrong.

The average human does not consume resources at a fixed rate, unlike the average specimen of other species. We are not like bacteria in a petrie dish. Through technological innovation and political change, we can, if we choose, produce the same value with fewer resources, both relatively and absolutely. And when we come up against natural limits, we can also innovate to overcome them. The entire history of our species is in essence a story of overcoming natural limits. The only truly insurmountable boundaries to what we can do are the laws of physics and logic (one day there may be teleportation, because it does not violate physical laws, but there can never be a perpetual motion machine, because it does).

In his famous critique of Malthus's belief that population would eventually outstrip agricultural production, Friedrich Engels alighted upon the unique ingenuity of humanity:

"[T]here 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. ... [S]cience 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?"

There is certainly a difference between the blithe free marketeer who declares that because innovation has always come along just in time to save us, and the socialist who says that in principle innovation can do this but there is no guarantee that it will. It may indeed be the case that the Malthusian doom-mongers have repeatedly been proven wrong, from the agricultural revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries to the Green Revolution of the 1940s and the demographic and public-health revolutions of the 1960s, but it does not follow therefore that this will always be the case.

This is why socialists must take very seriously notions such as Planetary Boundaries developed by Johan Rockstrom, Will Steffen and their colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, so long as we view them as useful warnings of potential danger rather than permanent hard limits.

For example, alongside maximum atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and minimum concentration of ozone, the Planetary Boundaries include the maximum use of freshwater. It is true that if exploitation of aquifers continues to increase at the current rate, all other things being equal, then we very much are at risk of water shortages. Free marketeers respond by saying that breakthroughs in desalination would eliminate this problem. And they are not wrong. But only if such technology is profitably brought to market. If desalination isn't profitable, or the pathway to commercialisation is too risky for investors, the problem won't be solved. The market is amoral and thus indifferent to the problem. To ensure that innovation does indeed resolve such challenges, there has to be a conscious, moral, non-market hand at the tiller: democratic economic planning at the global level.

A democratically planned economy can continue to grow, but in a fundamentally different way to that of capitalist growth under which capitalists produce commodities willy-nilly with regulators later running to play catch-up when ecologically ruinous overproduction occurs. Long ahead of the problem appearing, we can slow down or hold tight or rearrange production until new efficiencies from technological innovation arrive that allow us to return to growth if it is necessary.

Advocates for degrowth immediately bristle at being described as neo-malthusians. Most come to a degrowth perspective out of a deep horror at the social injustice that results from environmental problems (although it is also true that not a few actively hate humans, describing us as a 'virus on the planet'). The Reverend Malthus for his part argued against relief for the poor because he believed that the only check on the numbers of the poor in order to prevent overpopulation is either moral restraint (not so much of the sexy time) or poverty. In general, degrowth advocates complain against their critics that they never speak about overpopulation. They say that it is restraint on economic growth that they want, not restraint on the number of humans.

But Mathus's agricultural production was simply a stand-in for resource use, and concerns about overpopulation is merely a species of the wider concept of limits to growth. We can see this via a thought experiment about what would happen if the degrowth vision came to pass, of limits to growth but no limits to population growth.

Let us assume we have identified a maximum production of 'stuff' beyond which there is ecological calamity. The global economy now only produces that amount of stuff and no more. Let us also assume a perfectly egalitarian distribution of that stuff amongst the world population. But there is no restraint on population growth.

What happens the next day? Some babies are born and all the 'stuff' again equally distributed, but this time each person must have less 'stuff' that the previous day because the amount of stuff does not grow but the number of people does.

As the population steadily increases, the amount of stuff each person has will decline, eventually to zero, unless at some point before then, a limit on the number of people is imposed. So whether we talk about too many people or too much stuff, we are actually talking about the same thing.

To recapitulate, as I put it in my book, Austerity Ecology (2015):

The caplitalist says: There may or may not be resource limits, but don't worry about them! Innovation will come along in time! Full steam ahead!

The degrowther says: Innovation can't save us! There's an upper limit to what humans can have and/or an upper limit on the number of humans. Slam on the breaks!

The socialist says: Through rational, democratic planning, let's make sure that the innovation arrives so that we can move forward without inadvertently overproducing. And move forward we must, in order to continue to expand human flourishing. So long as we do that, there in principle no limits. Let's take over the machine, not turn it off!

2. Thatcherism doesn't feel any better just because it's green

When I am on a picket line, I want my fellow workers to win not just improved conditions, but higher wages. If we win those higher wages, we will perforce be able to consume more than we currently do.

Yet the degrowth position wants to see a reduction in consumption by these same workers, decrying how "we all" in the West consume too much. So there is an immediate and insurmountable contradiction between degrowth and trade unionism. Compounding this contradiction is the real wage stagnation workers across the West have suffered for some 40 years.

Let us remember that Thatcher and Reagan's immediate solution to the profit squeeze that had emerged by the 70s that was the consequence of postwar full employment was wage restraint. Likewise, the European Central Bank's solution to the eurozone crisis was primarily an effort to make wages in Greece and other peripheral EU member states 'competitive'. They were successful. Greek wages fell 20 percent from 2010-2014, which, together with a slashing of the social wage and a raft of privatisations, prompted mass demonstrations, strikes, riots and rapid growth of the far right.

Some degrowth advocates such as Troy Vettese concede that yes, such 'eco-austerity' for even the working class of developed nations will be necessary. In a curious echo of the Mao-inspired Third-Worldist ideology of the 1960s that wrote off the entirety of the Western working class as "overdeveloped", Vettese writes: "A solution to global environmental crises requires the humbling of the global bourgeoisie, the richest several hundred million." He does not specify where these several hundred million workers live who suddenly have been transformed into the owners of the means of production, but given that Western Europe, the United States and the Antipodes collectively are home to perhaps 850 million people, we know who he means needs to be "humbled".

However, some degrowth advocates, notably anthropologist Jason Hickel, counters that degrowth is not a politics of austerity or scarcity but one of abundance. A planned reduction of the throughput of high-income nations can occur while standards of living are maintained or even improved. This can be achieved, he says, by a redistribution of existing income, a shortening of the working week, the introduction of a job guarantee and living wage and, crucially, an expansion of access to public goods.

Most of these are excellent ideas, but in the absence of economic growth, still result in an equality of scarcity, not of abundance.

Hickel and his co-thinkers argue that a radical redistribution of income would raise the standard of living of the poorest and reducing that of the rich until everyone was equal while fixing global GDP at its current amount.

This seems on its face to be a salutary goal. The image in one's heads is likely to be one of everybody in the world living a decent, but not luxurious life, and there being no poor or rich. But let's consider what it would mean with numbers attached. Thankfully, former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic, also one of the world's leading experts on inequality, has already done the work for us.

Concretely, this would be a reduction down to the global mean income for everyone above that mean, and a boost up to that mean for everyone below it. The global annual mean income in 2018 when Milanovic performed his back-of-the-envelope calculation was $5,500.

Almost everyone in the West lives above this level, and substantially above it. So let me repeat this for the cheap seats: an egalitarian world without any further economic growth would mean an income for everyone of $5,500. What would your life be like on $5,500?

The reduction in the standard of living, the scale of the cut in wages, for Western workers would far, far more drastic than anything experienced during the neoliberal revolution of the 80s or in the wake of the Eurozone crisis. To be clear, this estimate is, as Milanovic himself says, just to give us a rough, ballpark understanding of what global equality today without any additional economic growth would mean. But we need to have such ballpark understandings so that we know the magnitude of what we are actually talking about.

But it gets worse.

The 27 percent of the global population that exists above the mean would see their aggregate income reduced by two thirds, according to Milanovic. Most degrowth advocates do not suggest that this reduction would happen via fiscal transfers from the global north to the global south. Instead, equalization would occur via allowing the global south to expand production while the global north would steadily contract its own production. So this means a reduction in production of two thirds in developed countries.

"Factories, trains, airports, schools would work one-third of their normal time; electricity, heating and hot water would be available for 8 hours a day; cars may be driven one day out of three; we would work only 13 hours per week," Milanovic concludes, "all in order to produce only a third as many goods and services that the West is producing now."

The degrowthers respond that the reduction in productive activity in the West would not be across the board as in Milanovic's thought experiment. Instead, socially useful production would continue as normal while socially unnecessary production would cease. Hickel lists as examples of those sectors that are "ecologically destructive and offer little if any social benefit" as: marketing, McMansions, SUVs, beef, single-use plastics and fossil fuels.

We might well contest whether all of these truly offer no social benefit. Single-use plastics such as condoms, syringes and catheters have delivered public health revolutions. Marketing is not only the preserve of breakfast cereals and running shoes; a great many enterprises that are not profit-driven, from epidemiologists to community theatre troupes, still need to communicate information in a compelling way. I may find McMansions and SUVs to be unnecessary but the problem they pose is their combustion of fossil fuels, a problem shared by the very socially necessary heating of much smaller houses and transportation of people and goods in buses, trains, ships and yes also cars and planes. Beef is indeed pretty much inarguably carbon-intensive, but it certainly isn't socially unnecessary. Humans in general find meat and dairy particularly tasty because the density, quality and absorbability of essential nutrients is greater in animal products. There are far more nutrients in a kilo of chicken than in a kilo of celery. Without the nutrient concentration of meat, we might never have become the creatures we are.

The problem with fossil fuels is not that they do not provide social benefit. Their energy density and portability freed humanity from the whims of mother nature, providing the foundation of the modern world. They are utter marvels. The primary ecological challenge posed by fossil fuels is that the immediate social benefit, however profound, is outweighed over the long term by how they are pushing the planet out of the Goldilocks planetary conditions that have existed for the last dozen millennia or so but which on a geological scale are rare, and that technology-switching to clean alternatives is being undermined by market imperatives.

But such woolly thinking over what counts as socially necessary is not our main concern here. Instead, the salient point is that even if we agreed that these sectors were socially unnecessary, combined they clearly do not amount to two thirds of Western production.

"But these are just examples of socially unnecessary production! There are many others," Hickel and others might respond.

Perhaps. But could we really say, even if we conceded that production of a great many items is irrational, that a full two thirds of production in the West is superfluous, manufacturing trifles that we don't really need?

What about the other mechanisms Hickel says could maintain or even improve standards of living while global GDP does not expand, such as shortening the working week and thus expanding leisure time, and a generous expansion of social services?

While any socialist worth her salt should be supporting such ideas for their own sake, it isn't clear that they would make up for the decline in income to $5,500, or for that matter that these would reduce material throughput.

First, lots of free time does not make up for being extremely poor. Indeed, you can already make that swap right now if you want. But nobody does, as explained by the old Marxist joke: In capitalist society, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.

Second, the idea that leisure time and social services are less emissions-intensive comes from the belief that they don't involve 'stuff' and therefore there is no 'extraction' for raw materials or energy. The grain of truth in this argument is that services in general, not just social ones, are indeed less materially intensive than goods production. This is the primary cause of the 'S-shaped' environmental Kuznets Curve: the finding that while it is true that as an economy industrialises, it has ever greater negative impact on ecosystem services, at a certain level of wealth, this impact begins to moderate as mature economies shift to more services and light industry.

But while less materially intensive than heavy industry, services and leisure time are still very much 'stuff-embedded'. Musical instruments are made of metal, wood, and plastic. Hospitals are full of equipment made of pretty much every mineral you can dig out of the Earth, including, again, the petroleum used to make plastics. Climbing equipment, kayaks and bicycles all ultimately come from deep underground.

While it is vital that we restore and expand public services, particularly to tackle the housing crisis that afflicts so much of the West, the welfare state is not the only thing that gives us rich lives. So do sneakers, Lego sets, waffle-irons, and yes flat-screen TVs and X-boxes. Remember that the contemporary middle-class belief that the absence of consumer goods—the 'simple life'—is more fulfilling, is not the first time this argument has been mounted. One of the most persistent internal critiques of the Soviet Union was how grey life was due to the lack of jeans, Elvis records, pineapples.

We want bread yes, but we want roses too.

The degrowth promise of "radical abundance" is ultimately no material abundance at all, but simply a secular repetition of the Christian encouragement of James 2:5 that however poor in the world we may be, we are nevertheless rich in spirit.

The socialist today counters the degrowth promise of austerity the same way the legendary union organiser with the Industrial Workers of the World, Joe Hill, did in the 1920s in his song mocking the officer-ministers of the Salvation Army, who promised there would be pie in the sky when we die. No, preacherman, poor in the world is just plain poor. Or we might repeat the words of suffragette and marxist Sylvia Pankhurst:

"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."

3. The end of progress

The socialist argument has ever been that capitalism irrationally constrains what we have. It limits production to the set of things that are profitable, while the set of things that are useful is much larger. Therefore Pankhurst was right to define socialism in this way: We could have so much more!

The history of progress, which is to say the history of humanity's endless search for an expansion of freedom, is as Leon Trotsky put it: the steady increase of the power of man over nature and the abolition of the power of man over man. "The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarised as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces – in nature, in society, in man himself."

The blindness in nature refers to how she has no objective function, how evolution has no purpose, how physical laws and the universe itself are not subject to some intelligent design. While there is much of nature that delivers benefit to humans, both external and internal nature constrains us, over time enfeebles and sickens us, and ultimately kills us, every last one. She is, per Tennyson, red in tooth and claw.

The second blind force, in society, is that of how the pharaoh, the slaveowner, the king, the bishop constrained other humans; these humans had to blindly accept their bidding. There was no conscious direction by humanity over society. With the advent of capitalism, the market produces blindly: as with blind nature, there is much that is produced that is beneficial, but much that isn't. To this day, there is no human hand at the tiller of the ship of capitalism.

And the third blind force, in man himself, is of course our unceasing battle, each one of us, to become the master of our fate. Through the abolition of the power of man over man in society through the democratic economy, and through the steady expansion of the power of man over nature through technological advance, the individual is equipped with ever more means to master her fate.

Lesek Kolakowski explains the materialist theory of history, also known as historical materialism—the very foundation of the socialist worldview—in this way: "The starting point of history, from the materialist point of view, is the struggle with nature, the sum total of the means employed by man to compel nature to serve his needs, which grow as they are satisfied."

The plough, the wheel, the pulley, the screw, domestication of animals, the cultivation of crops, were all efforts to resist what would otherwise be, to command nature rather than be commanded by nature. As were the earliest herbalism, amputations and dentistry, through ancient medical concepts of diagnosis, prognosis, through the modern concepts and interventions as the germ theory of disease, surgery, transplants and immunotherapy. Infectious disease was how nature killed almost all of us until our victory over so much of this scourge via antibiotics and vaccines (a victory now challenged by market relations). Spectacles were a triumph over the poor eyesight nature gives some humans. Wheelchairs, canes and hip replacements deliver some level of mobility to those away from whom nature has taken it, and one day other technologies will reverse such theft entirely. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television and now the internet have allowed us to converse across the barriers set in place by nature's mountains and oceans. Our invention of the aeroplane gave us the wings that nature had previously only reserved for birds and a handful of other animals. The gravity well that since our origins kept us bound to the Earth by one of nature's four fundamental forces was breached in the middle of the last century.

Over time however, technological development runs up against the strictures of social relations (to deploy more antiquated jargon: the forces of production are fettered by the relations of production); the latter constrains what could otherwise be produced. In a banal example of how this works, we can see how today, the ability to digitally reproduce music, software, journalism, scientific articles and a raft of other products essentially at zero cost should be able to offer de facto infinite replication of these products, delivering all of them to anyone who wants them for free, in turn substantially enhancing the quantity and quality of production of these items (a musician could mix and match from any source without a care about legal battles; a scientist could draw on the entire corpus of scientific knowledge without having to pay for access to journals; generic versions of drugs could be distributed immediately, not having to wait till years after discovery). But instead, patents, copyright, closed access, and trade secrets—aspects of social relations whose sole aim is protection of property rights—inhibit what these technologies could otherwise produce and how they could otherwise develop. To free technology and discovery from such fetters, so the conventional socialist argument went, the old social relations must be transcended.

In contrast to this unbounded expansion of freedom, degrowth imposes bounds, denounces this unceasing human striving as "productivism". It says: "This much and no more. This far and no farther." Degrowth asserts we have enough, indeed already too much. Yet to perform more scientific research or engineer further technological development presumes a lack, an insufficiency, a desire to know more and to do more. So if we already have enough, then there can be no more development, no further scientific discovery, no additional technological invention. It is the Amish-ification of the world.

This is no philosophical sophistry. Imagine again a perfectly equal and static economy as the degrowth advocates demand. In this society, if a researcher invents a new technology, a widget that can solve a problem, then that widget would have to be produced in addition to all the widgets already produced. It would therefore be an expansion of economic growth, and we have forbidden that. "Aha!" a degrowth advocate might respond, "but what if that new widget replaces an old widget, and performs its function more efficiently, allowing production of the old widget to be retired and replaced by the new widget? Surely that actually reduces overall production and allows some additional room to grow within the overall hard limit?" This is indeed true. But this is basically all that decoupling is. So such a response is just another form of argument for the feasibility of decoupling.

Thus 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.

So for these three reasons—that degrowth is not necessary to solve ecological challenges and is a distraction from them, that degrowth is unjust, impoverishing and austerian, and that degrowth would bring progress to an end—the concept must be rejected.

Ultimately, climate change and the wider biocrisis are problems because they have the potential to inhibit human flourishing; that is, the specific danger they pose is a retarding of the expansion of freedom.

So why would we impose an end to expansion of freedom in order to preserve the expansion of freedom?

Will COVID break up the UK?

Support for Scottish independence is at record levels. Support for a united Ireland is at record levels. Support for Welsh independence is at record levels.

The British state's management of the COVID crisis has widely been seen as disastrous. Will the pandemic accelerate the break-up of the United Kingdom?

Join us on Thursday 6 August at 5pm UK time/6pm CET for a live discussion.

Hear from:

Anthony Barnett Founder of openDemocracy, he has often written about the need for a progressive England to emerge from the shadow of Britain.

Allison Morris Security correspondent and columnist with the Irish News, and an analyst of politics in Northern Ireland.

Harriet Protheroe-Soltani Trade union organiser for Wales and the south-west, vice chair of the campaign group Momentum, and has written about rising support for Welsh independence on the Left.

Chair: Adam Ramsay Editor at openDemocracy and frequent writer about Scottish independence, most recently in The Guardian.

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