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Degrowing Pains

The end of mass consumerism is inevitable—but what comes next?
Two smoke stacks belch smoke into the sky.

When economic activity plummeted across the globe in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic presaged how the world might experience climate-induced shocks to economic life. For proponents of degrowth, a theory of change once confined to the margins of the climate left but recently growing in popularity, this was both an opportunity and a warning: to avoid a spiral of climate chaos, degrowthers argue, plans are needed to radically scale down economic activity, particularly in the overconsuming core countries of the OECD. This will necessarily shrink and even eliminate many subsectors of the global economy, entirely removing the normative imperative to measure and stimulate growth.

Compared to “green” growth, degrowth offers to some activists and theorists a more radically egalitarian path to prevent the ecological tipping points that will lead to displaced populations, systemic upheaval, and mass death. As Jason Hickel, a leading proponent of degrowth, argues, “High taxes and technological innovation will help, but they’re not going to be enough. The only realistic shot humanity has at averting ecological collapse is to impose hard caps on resource use.” For Hickel and other prominent advocates of degrowth, it is a delusion that green growth will deliver us from permanent climate crisis—whatever the present political and technocratic obstacles, degrowth is the only viable emergency brake to keep global warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Disclosure: I wrote a positive review of Hickel’s book Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World in 2020.)

There are attractive elements of the degrowth paradigm that reflect not just the goals of climate activists but those of the traditional left: more public ownership, socialized housing, mass transit, and other forms of progressive redistribution. In addition to the obvious need to cease fossil fuel production, degrowthers and other progressive forces can agree that a green economy should regulate out of existence fast fashion, the planned obsolescence of consumer electronics and household appliances, commercial food waste, and most forms of industrial animal husbandry. On these questions of ecological stewardship, degrowth is essentially right; whether or not we choose to plan its phase-out, the end of mass consumerism is inevitable. As Geoff Mann has written, the main task set by degrowth “is to pull back from the precipices that growth-oriented production ignores or does not understand, to do what we can to undo the damage already done, and to reconstruct our economic relations with one another and with the non-human world.”

Degrowthers and left developmentalists diverge over the means of obtaining and spreading public abundance.

Comparable to the pioneering work of ecological economist Herman Daly, “doughnut economics,” and the most ecologically-centered proposals for a Green New Deal, degrowth envisages a “steady state” economic system that prioritizes thrift by contracting all spheres of human activity in which renewables-based or carbon-neutral production and consumption cannot be substituted. Goods and services whose present energy use cannot be converted or made more-labor intensive—e.g. turned into craft-based repair work that recycles existing materials—would have to be severely curtailed, if not ended entirely. (The corollary expectation is that a holistic approach to care work, environmentally sustainable recreation, and the pursuit of intellectual and creative endeavors would revolutionize humanity’s understanding of what the economy should do.) But both the vague composition of this system and the means of creating it have sparked debates within progressive and Marxist circles. As a project overwhelmingly focused on arresting extraction from the Global South and curbing humanity’s overall encroachment upon the biosphere, degrowth effectively means compressing global living standards as fast as possible to meet net zero emissions by 2050.

So far, exactly what that looks like under degrowth is unclear. Given degrowth’s strict parameters, though, it is difficult to imagine compression would be analogous to past attempts to radically compress incomes and raise living standards, such as in Sweden during the 1970s. More concerning for a number of degrowth’s potential allies is that it’s hard to believe the convergence would be roughly equal to the level of development in middle-income countries, a feat in itself that would require an extraordinary, coordinated scale-down in high-emissions countries and a last-ditch lift-off in the underdeveloped world. Rather, it seems likely the result would resemble a leveling of incomes and a reversion to subsistence living, augmented, presumably, by some residual economies of scale to prevent social disorder and starvation. In other words, degrowth is not oriented to developing poor countries until they reach the living standards of, say, Uruguay or even Costa Rica—relatively low-emissions countries which in the last decade have scored highly on the United Nations’ Human Development Index in spite of slowing growth. Instead, it is focused on achieving humanity’s equilibrium with nature primarily via unprecedented contractionary mechanisms and the assumption of “ecological debt” in the Global North. Thus, while degrowth’s support for equality and planning resonates with democratic socialism, its conception of global justice is predicated on stringent thrift and the minimization of production.

What might be termed the neo-developmentalist left has, by contrast, hitched itself to a growth program to spur decarbonization. Although critical of gross domestic product as the main measure of positive economic activity, this generally pro-growth faction—also referred to as the “paleo” left by economist Branko Milanovic—views the social democratic model for a Green New Deal as the most plausible bridge to an epoch in which public prosperity can at once be renewed and reconciled to planetary boundaries. As Thomas Meaney summarizes in a recent essay for the New Left Review, the neo-developmentalists hope that a final round of Keynesian stimuli will propel humanity toward a new international political economy, one which at last unyokes human development from capitalist growth. Whereas degrowth presents a managed but rapid contraction in material use—including a great foregoing of modern comforts—the neo-developmentalist left maintains there is a summit of modernity to be reached before we abandon growth altogether.

The start of the green energy transition has only amplified the debate. Reliant though it is on incentives to capital and consumer initiative among affluent Americans, the introduction of green industrial policy by the Biden administration has energized parts of the neo-developmentalist left, who see even partial departures from neoliberal dogma by Western political elites as creating new political and economic possibilities. Alongside a tactical alliance with green capital to scale up climate change adaptation, the neo-developmentalist left argues that qualitative shifts in how the “good life” is defined can still accord with traditional left-wing goals. If the window to fight climate change cannot also be a fight to raise overall living standards for the vast majority of people, their thinking goes, then progressive forces will have capitulated to the elites who so far control the fate of civilization.

While degrowth similarly promises to fight for a universal welfare state and economic democracy, Keynesian progressives and some socialists diverge from degrowthers in fundamental ways. Their objections to degrowth can be delineated geographically, with respect to the needs of workers and poorer regions in the Global North, as well as to the infrastructural imperatives of developing countries that are determined to achieve climate resilience. In both cases, degrowth’s innate hostility to manufacturing—the historical fulcrum of development—reveals thorny questions about how to secure provision and basic economic security in the absence of the technological breakthroughs and attendant job programs that are envisioned by the neo-developmentalist left.

Though it faces its own challenges in forging a robust coalition, the neo-developmentalist left has pointed to features of degrowth that are unpalatable, if not incomprehensible, to most working and middle-class constituencies in the Global North. Employing the right mix of carrots and sticks to shift consumer and corporate behavior under present political conditions is difficult enough. Discerning which products and services in an advanced economy ought to be reconfigured for sustainable use and those which should be discontinued becomes all the more fraught once we get past the stage of abolishing fossil fuels. Austerity and marginal growth, moreover, have worsened poverty and precariousness in the United States and several European countries to the point where key measures of development, such as increases in life expectancy, have begun to reverse. The idea of imposing drastic material constraints that target goods beyond luxuries contradicts many of the arguments that invigorated left populists after the Great Recession. In fact, members of the neo-developmentalist left have been alarmed by the prospect that degrowth could unintentionally extend moral and ideological cover to further deprivation.

While degrowthers protest that accusations of austerity or “neo-luddism” misinterpret their program, which promises “public abundance” through more collective, low-cost or in-kind services, their agenda nevertheless presupposes a rejection of many facets of industrial modernity. Consider the issue of renewable energy, which would be the basis of “decoupling” development from fossil fuels. Economist Robert Pollin argues that “any minimally decent global egalitarian program will entail a significant increase in energy consumption for lower-income people throughout the world.” A comprehensive energy transition would therefore require rapid growth and diversification within the renewables sector. In the medium-term, this means modifying rather than winding down certain extractive industries like mining, as well as launching exceptionally capital-intensive projects, such as the building of compact nuclear reactors. Given that degrowth grants only limited support for technological solutions to the climate crisis, it is difficult to conclude it can accommodate Pollin’s increase. Indeed, despite sharing the end goal of a socialized economy, degrowthers and left developmentalists diverge over the means of obtaining and spreading public abundance.

Through its rejection of modernity, degrowth underestimates how development leads to complex interdependencies that underpin the sectors that do improve life chances and greatly enhance living standards—not least education, health care, utilities, the arts, and the public sector itself. The resources which cultivate the intellect and aesthetic improvement are inseparable from some form of manufacture, like most things that provide meaning in life: a fact that would be no less true in a post-capitalist economy.

A related challenge involves creating a just transition for workers. Most literature on this topic focuses on industrial labor directly employed in extractive industries, but degrowth has implications for many kinds of employment. The root of the challenge is the unique contribution of manufacturing to local and regional economies as well as dynamic postindustrial cities, where the majority of services depend on an enormous volume of production situated elsewhere in the national or global economy. Consider the food service industry: while ecological economics is right to argue we must radically alter many patterns of consumption, millions of urban service workers presently depend on agriculture and quotidian goods sourced from across the country and the world for their wages and sustenance. To heavily prioritize a contraction in manufacturing over green innovation, then, threatens to collapse demand across firms, individuals, and municipal governments for a multitude of livelihoods. As the most severe instances of deindustrialization in the United States illustrate, there is not much left to “degrow” once the primary generators of small businesses and public revenue cease to operate.

Degrowthers answer that an expanded welfare state and a universal basic income would ensure economic security, but it is unclear where such fiscal assistance would ultimately go, especially in regions that are already very poor. Fiscal transfers at minimum need to be absorbed by care work and other essential services, which in a climate-sensitive economy would necessitate state of the art, energy-efficient facilities, ergo industry. Since degrowth militates against evolving the latter, the inexorable pressure to make do with less would likely prevail. This could portend hyperinflation—i.e. basic income chasing rationed production—or, alternatively, radically deflationary conditions in which permanent unemployment and the vast informalization of marginal economic activity spread. Even if degrowth were to guarantee a baseline of universal welfare, it would likely be parsimonious and probably coercive, with healthy people overwhelmingly occupied with aiding the ill.

Proposed near-term carbon transfers from the Global North to the Global South for the sake of developmental equity would similarly become illogical. By most measures, neoliberal globalization has been a raw deal for the global poor outside of China and an accelerant of climate change. Nevertheless, the upward trajectories of China and other countries have sprung from a residual form of demand management in the Global North, in which cheap imports have partially compensated for falling wages. Depress that demand to the point of no return instead of creating a paradigm for sustainable and equitable trade, and the impetus to develop further will probably wither in most cases. Although it has moral valence, the practical purpose of a North to South carbon transfer within the degrowth paradigm needs to be fleshed out.

Degrowth obfuscates the fact that normative development, however imperfect, has typically correlated with the strength of state capacity and civil society.

Two final concerns are worth raising. First, the steady-state economy as anticipated by degrowth is unlikely to be one filled with humble leisure; while any green economy will be more labor-intensive in certain respects—growth in the care, “repair,” and “climate corps” sectors would require as much—it is ambiguous whether degrowth can maximize the social utility of such labor without the renewable technologies that preserve and deepen past gains in labor productivity. More physical exertion, meanwhile, could quickly run up against the challenge of keeping production within strict ecological limits. As Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese, advocates of “half-earth socialism,” have argued, quotas for energy use could potentially extend to diet and daily calories. It is not an idle concern, then, to weigh whether such quotas would allow any flexibility for different metabolic needs; indeed, this kind of absolutism raises profound questions about degrowth’s compatibility with democracy, despite insistence that degrowth embraces democratic planning.

Second, there is profound disagreement over the ability of the degrowth model to reduce emissions fast enough. According to Pollin, the assumption that degrowth facilitates a fast-track to zero emissions appears to be fallacious. “If the pandemic recession only yields a 6.4 percent emissions reduction despite the enormous levels of economic pain inflicted,” he reasons, “clearly degrowth cannot come close, on its own, to delivering a 45 percent emissions cut by 2030, much less a zero emissions global economy by 2050.” Such predictions exacerbate the fear that degrowth might catalyze forms of underdevelopment for those who otherwise support the integration of redistributive politics and ecological economics.

At root, the fundamental divergence between degrowth and the neo-developmentalist left concerns how and whether the lessons of past developmental leaps can be applied to the future. By conflating the anemic growth of neoliberal austerity—which favors asset inflation at the top end and hyper-extractive, disposable consumption for the rest—with all other forms and past instances of growth, degrowth discounts objective improvements in living standards since the rise of manufacturing societies. As past progressives and socialists understood it, the widespread injustices of industrialization did not invalidate the gains that could be properly seized with a different approach to political economy. Simply put, much of the public abundance that degrowth seeks would not be possible without the modernization for which many degrowthers barely conceal their contempt.

That contradiction only heightens degrowth’s weaknesses. While it spiritedly reclaims the principle of decommodification, pointing to a plethora of services and practices that would a constitute a post-capitalist utopia, degrowth obfuscates the fact that normative development, however imperfect, has typically correlated with the strength of state capacity and civil society. A program that mandates sweeping, rigid controls which inhibit many forms of research and innovation could prove extremely disruptive to both the former and latter, stunting the very public wealth that degrowth promises to build. That is perhaps why, in spite of its compelling critique of economic growth over the last two centuries, degrowth does not have a coherent, programmatic answer for the future of human development.

None of this is to obscure that the neo-developmentalist left has its own difficult questions to contend with. The logic of “supply-side progressivism” that has shaped the climate policies of the Inflation Reduction Act, for one thing, reinforces a market-oriented, technocratic preference for regulatory carrots and sticks over mass mobilization, a larger public sector, and worker empowerment in burgeoning “green” industries. There is also a profound cleavage within the developmentalist camp over how necessary protectionism is to catalyze green investments and dramatically reduce the United States’ disproportionate share of global greenhouse gas emissions. These and other dilemmas reflect the concern that the ascent of green capital—which is not isolated from the nexus of global finance and fossil capital—could end up preserving the fundamentally inegalitarian distribution of economic and political power that has prevailed since the 1980s. Nonetheless, the neo-developmentalist left’s vision of global solidarity maintains that certain forms of growth are indisputable tools to emancipate civilization from absolute toil. In a world where billionaires inch closer to controlling the planet, green technology is no panacea, but it is critical to the arsenal of socialists and progressives who dream not of climate eschatology, but revolutionary development.