Ecosocialist Degrowth against Infinite Accumulation: A comparative perspective. By: Tathagat SinghRead Now
“Capitalist production…disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it, therefore, violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology…only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”
Capitalism as a world system is wholly incompatible with preserving the environment sustainably and equitably for all. The system’s motive for existence, its engine of growth, is the ever-increasing need for surplus accumulation. By its very definition, a system seeking infinite profit on a finite planet is bound to collapse under its own weight. Riddled with this so-called external bound as well as its own internal contradictions and pushed forward by a falling tendency of the rate of profit, the system becomes more and more unsustainable with the present status of global climate emergency. In this essay, we will begin the analysis by talking about green growth and its more radical version Green New Deal, followed by a discussion on the essential tenets of Degrowth as a theory and a possibility. We would conclude by discussing the viability and potential of each of the strategies.
In a broad sense of the word, Green Growth means economic growth that encompasses decoupling with emissions. The decoupling can be relative or absolute. The inherent vagueness of the term ‘green growth’ has led it to be susceptible to varied interpretations. One kind of green growth can be the mere emphasis on more energy-efficient production, firmly entrenched within the status-quo of the socio-economic system of global capitalism. On the other extreme of the spectrum of meaning lies the domain of ecosocialist green growth. Slightly tilting towards this extreme is the idea of modern Green New Deal (or Green Keynesianism in its milder version). The Green New Deal premise begins with acknowledging that polluting emissions (primarily carbon emissions) need to be cut down drastically to even envision a possible stabilisation of the global environment in the foreseeable future. One of the most common tenets of the prominent Green Growth thinkers has been massive investment (sometimes solely public) around the scale of 2% of the global GDP in energy-efficient infrastructure along with a simultaneous reduction in fossil-fuel consumption to bring CO2 emissions close to zero in the next thirty to forty years.
Even if the ‘Green Growth-ers’ agree on principle with the ‘Degrowth-ers’, the main issue of contention remains the viability of the former strategy compared to the latter. Most of the Green Growth-ers believe that Degrowth does not offer a viable method of stabilising the climate, given that the world seems to be running out of time. Another criticism that the green growth advocates make about the degrowth theorists is that the latter have been much too involved in broad strokes and abstract arguments to be actually helpful in providing concrete and viable strategies for environmental preservation.
In its modern form, the Green New Deal (GND) gathered popular momentum within the moderate social-democratic wing of the Democratic party in the USA. The GND proposes not only a massive public investment for greener transitioning but a reformed restructuring of the global taxation system, taking into account intra-country as well as inter-country inequalities. The central argument hinges on the possibility of the Global South still continuing to grow- as an appeal to the attractiveness of the proposition along national lines, as long as said growth proceeds along the lines of systematic decoupling. The essential twin opportunities that Green Growth promises to offer to global citizens are a higher standard of living and expanded job opportunities across the globe. In a fundamental sense, as green energy becomes cheaper, it frees up resources’ availability to achieve higher living standards. In this possibility, one must also be aware of what Jevons termed as the rebound effect, which might lead to rising energy consumption due to the said cheapening. The other opportunity for expanded employment seems to follow from the sound premise that the physical shift from non-green, carbon-emitting, fossil-fuel dominant energy sources to green energy sources would entail intensive labour expenditure. If such a transition was to truly take place globally, this might indeed lead to increasing employment opportunities throughout the globe.
Moreover, suppose the significant part of this investment could be public investment. It might also provide a window to marginally subvert the neoliberal dynamics of profit-maximisation-based employment generation that has become a defining characteristic in the present times of environmental and economic crises. The Green New Deal places its faith solidly into the technological effectiveness of green energy transitions once the political opposition to such a restructuring of the political economy is surpassed. Robert Pollin claims that for 2016, the worldwide green-energy investments ranged between 0.4% of the global GDP. This means that the range of clean energy investments needs to increase by the range of 1-1.5%. The basic plan, so to say, is that the given pattern continues beyond the initial 20 years investment plan along with a reduction in the consumption of fossil-fuel-based energy use to reduce carbon emissions to an effective zero level in the next 50 years.
Moreover, according to Adnan Z Amin, the director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)- there has been an ongoing cheapening of renewable energy resources, so much so that the current renewable energy cost in the global north is at par (and in some cases even below) with the non-renewable energy throughput. A significant shortcoming of the green growth strategy by social democratic movements in the global north is how much of an actual challenge these strategies even pose to the global capitalist system, which is responsible for the primary unsustainability of the present situation. Even though it does seem reasonable that the nature of employment, for example, in publicly funded green transition jobs, would be more just and equitable than elsewhere under private enterprise, is this reorganisation enough to effectively subvert the growth paradigm of capitalism responsible for the imminent breakdown of the system?
At this point, Degrowth broadly differs from the green growth strategies. Classical economists from Smith, Ricardo and Mill to Marx have talked of stationary states. Mill has also argued that even in a stationary state of no growth, the ultimate welfare of the society as whole hinges on the distributional policies of the state. Degrowth openly and radically runs against the growth paradigm of both capitalism and the kind of productivist socialism practised in the USSR. The Degrowth theorists have advocated that pursuing a green growth strategy within a somewhat ‘benevolent’ capitalist system is insufficient to prevent the planet from breaking down. For them, the only viable option is a reduction in growth, leading to a reduction in carbon emissions, as they believe that absolute decoupling is a myth.
Degrowth advocates base their argument on the primary rationale that growth in itself is not necessary (and is indeed far from sufficient) for the improved well-being of the masses. Modern Degrowth theories draw extensively from anthropological studies of various tribes and societies that value abundance rather than scarcity and have been shown to derive their well-being from a shared sense of shared resource utilisation and non-growth. At the outset, it does seem clear that most of the degrowth activists and theorists have been people based in the global north. Furthermore, added to this, the green growth advocates have frequently labelled the degrowth theorists as utopians. Robert Pollin, for example, tries to disprove the degrowth objective through simple arithmetic. He argues that based on Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) estimates, we know that global CO2 emissions need to fall from the current level of 32 billion tons to 20 billion tons within the next 20 years. Moreover, if we assume that following the degrowth paradigm, global GDP plummets 10% within the next two decades, this would be a reduction four times larger than what was caused by the global financial recession. Moreover, the impact of this fall would be to push carbon emissions closer to 29 billion tons by 2040, which is still far from the desired outcome of 20 billion tonnes. Pollin also argues that Degrowth by itself is meaningless and harmful if the pie gets smaller than the current size and the rich and the powerful still maintain their position of expropriating most of the surplus from the global economy.
At this juncture that ecosocialist degrowth appears to be a possible response to Pollin’s criticism. Ecosocialist degrowth-ers argue that reducing the GDP is not an end in itself. A reasonable class-conscious advocacy might be that be it green growth or Degrowth, both of these strategies might prove to be ineffective, if not downright harmful to the vast masses of citizens of the globe, if the capitalist system is not primarily subverted. The engine of infinite accumulation is not brought to a halt. Moreover, when it comes in terms to thinking about which alternative might have the upper hand in halting this engine of exploitation, Degrowth does have a certain sense of appeal.
Green growth runs the risk of continuing economic growth as a political necessity to pacify social conflict and ascertain the socio-economic reproduction of the capitalist system as a whole, Kallis argues. A radical post-capitalist ecosocialist society has the scope of envisioning reduced working hours with greater well-being for the masses, indeed. Kallis uses the example of Cuba during the 1990s to argue that the change envisioned by the state of Cuba during the crisis was akin to degrowth theories, encompassing a shift towards more organic and less intensive input farming. According to Ellul, in modern societies, technology in itself possesses its own logic of reproduction and accumulation divorced from socio-economic reality.
Therefore, relying exclusively on a technocratic fix like the Green Growth poses risks of ineffective control of the direction in which such a technological shift would extract surplus. Advocating through broad-based workers’ and peasants’ movements for a world with no economic growth or even Degrowth opens up intellectual and practical avenues for envisioning a system beyond capitalism. However, of course, one cannot shy away from the radical, seeming impossibility of the project as a whole. In some senses, it might not be a stretch to conceptualise the debate between green growth and Degrowth in terms of the older debate of reform and revolution that raged during the Second International days.
Eduard Bernstein had argued that the increase in the social position and power of organised labour would gradually be enough to buy time to transform the socio-economic dynamics of capitalism and make possible the ushering in of socialism. However, on the other hand, the faction led by Lenin placed its faith in the growing misery of the proletariat in the global south to transform itself into the most revolutionary class in the economy, making possible a revolutionary overthrow of the system (Arrighi).
Akin to Bernstein’s position, the green growth-ers believe that the increased social position and power of environmentalism-oriented policy would gradually usher in a state of altered ecological dynamics. However, there is no such evidence of increasing social power or positioning in the global economy as a whole for green growth to become a dominant energy paradigm.
The Democratic Party in the United States of America recently approved increased Ethanol blended fuels in cars which are highly polluting in general. The social positioning of this strategy within the party of its genesis is on the wane itself, as evidenced by other recent developments. This ought to make one sceptical of the possibility of green growth being achievable soon. On the other hand, the growing misery of countries in the periphery which face the most severe brunt of the environmental collapse of the capitalist world-economy opens us to opportunities to advocate the most radical and revolutionary (akin to Lenin) of all solutions of ecosocialist degrowth attacking the twin pillars of the perverse system of capitalism and surplus-value-driven growth.
 https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-allow-higher-ethanol-fuel-sales-summer-check-gas-prices-2022-04-12/(Accessed on 1-05-2022)
Tathagat Singh is a master’s research scholar in the Faculty of Economics of South Asian University, Delhi, India.
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