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Degrowth: Desirable but Improbable

Degrowth is a growing intellectual movement among those alarmed by the climate crisis. Its proponents envision a desirable world which has not only come to terms with the ecological crisis, but also is more egalitarian and convivial than our current societies, both in the global North and South. Advocates also provide a cogent critique of economic growth. They contend, perhaps less cogently, that capitalism is the problem because it is inherently growth oriented. One finds, in addition, the analysis of many relevant policies, at both the national and global level, for overcoming the climate/ecological crisis and building an egalitarian society. However, the political strategy for moving from our current situation to the desirable world is underdeveloped. It seems highly improbable that we will witness a transformation of capitalism in the next decade or two, let alone a nonviolent transformation.

Some of the terms are confusing. All eco-socialists are degrowthers, but not all degrowthers are eco-socialists (though most are). The degrowth movement is diverse; yet many (probably most) degrowth proponents, together with eco-socialists, believe that system change is needed to safeguard the environment and build an equitable society. Radical degrowth advocates prefer to refer to the future they want as “post-capitalism” rather than post-growth or socialism. “Post-growth” is a suspect term, from their viewpoint. That is because those who believe that capitalism is compatible with ecological sustainability prefer the term “post-growth.” “Post-capitalism,” on the other hand, declares that capitalism is the problem, but avoids the ideological baggage of socialism while implying an anti-capitalist orientation.

Degrowth as a theory and program emerged in France in the 2000s, later spreading to the rest of Europe, and then to North America and the world. Degrowth has long intellectual roots. The movement sides with the famous Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome in 1972. André Gorz, a French eco-Marxist who wrote presciently about ecological destruction and capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, is another important influence.

 That the origins of degrowth lie in the universities, and it remains largely an intellectual movement, is not incidental Many books and articles in the degrowth tradition are demanding to read for those who lack training in the social sciences. One wonders who the audience is for many of the books and articles: mainly activist-scholars, it appears. The academic exigency of publish (in specific refereed journals) or perish seems to have molded the expression of degrowth. Yet there is an effort to popularize the approach, such as in the perplexing slogan found on climate marches – “System Change, Not Climate Change.”           

What, in essence, is degrowth all about? I think nearly all advocates would agree the degrowth concerns an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the national and global levels “- with degrowth starting in the rich countries, but soon including, with technological and monetary assistance, the countries of the global South. Proponents promise a good life for all within the planet’s ecological boundaries.

One problem with this approach, and the criticism that sparks anger in its adherents, is the improbability of achieving this transformative program within a couple of decades (which is the time we have available). The quandary of degrowth is captured by the ironic slogan that was scrawled on the walls of Paris in 1968: “Be realistic. Demand the Impossible.”

  • “Be realistic”: Degrowth’s central idea is realistic. The idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is absurd.

There is, in short, a major political problem with degrowth.

Consider the dimensions of this problem.

  • Who will vote for degrowth (besides you and me)? Degrowth has a negative connotation. “Post-growth” is more positive, if vague. “Post-capitalism” would scare many people – what actually is proposed? Right-wing populists would feast on the doctrine, were it to be a contender for power. They would swiftly discredit the program as the product of “woke” socialists whose real goal is to abolish private property and impose new taxes and restrictions on liberty. (Trump’s White House condemned even a rather tame version of the Green New Deal in 2019 “as seeking to achieve what Stalin tried, and failed, to achieve.”)
  • Where is the mass movement? Degrowth constitutes an intellectual movement, mainly of those associated with universities throughout the world. The doctrine is complex, assuming prior knowledge of economic history, ecology, and social theory. Many of the major works on the topic are unlikely to engage a mass audience.
  • Degrowth in one country will not work.   It is predictable what will happen if a degrowth-influenced government assumes power. Capital flight and capital strike will lead to a decline in the value of the national or regional currency; the resulting inflation of prices and growing unemployment and shortages will produce an economic crisis; and this economic crisis will precipitate a political crisis in which the government backs down or collapses. What is needed is a globally coordinated movement in several countries at once; but such coordination is hard to achieve and is nowhere in sight.
  • Will an ecological crisis galvanize support for a radical degrowth program? It might. However, we encountered such a crisis in 2023 in the form of extreme weather throughout the world, along with the warmest year on record, and it did not lead to a shift to the left. Indeed, a widespread ecological crisis, owing to the insecurity and fear it would unleash, might bolster the far right. Fascist themes of blood and earth and of imposed order might prevail, together with the scapegoating of migrants fleeing ecological and political disasters in their homelands.

In sum, degrowth is acute in identifying continuous economic growth as a problem, though its further argument that capitalism is inherently growth oriented is problematical. Its vision of a future society governed by the equitable and democratic downscaling of production and consumption is highly attractive. Degrowth advocates have also developed an array of worthy policies. But the political strategy is lacking, even though degrowthers recognize the political challenges.

If green growth (as previously argued) is inadequate to the climate challenge, degrowth is impracticable. We arrive at an impasse. But this reform-versus-revolution dichotomy is too crude: there is a third alternative (leaving fascist denialism and eco-anarchism aside): a radical-reformist Green New Deal. A later post will develop this idea.

World Bank suppprts the nmotion of inclusive green growth

Why “Green Growth” Is Not the Answer to the Climate Crisis

Green growth is the dominant perspective, adhered to by governments, international organizations such as the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, corporations, and most people in their role as consumers.

The bold claim of this perspective is that countries can combine perpetual growth and prosperity with safeguarding ecological conditions for later generations. Such a positive outcome depends on following the right policies and maintaining support for technological development. The right policies include market-corrective and price-based policies, together with occasional green stimulus programs, such as the Inflation Control Act under President Joe Biden in the USA. Regulation, such as fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, are also part of this approach. Technological optimism pervades this viewpoint. Green growth thus focuses on making growth resource-efficient and cleaner, not reducing it.

Green growth entails a struggle without an enemy. Or rather, as Pogo observes in the famous cartoon, “I have seen the enemy, and he is us.” Greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of global warming, and we are all responsible, via our consumption, for these emissions. Neither neoliberalism nor capitalism is identified as problematical from an environmental perspective. To the contrary, the academic school of “ecological modernization” holds that continuing economic growth yields the resources and the middle-class demand for green capitalism.

I’m contending that green growth, though politically possible, is inadequate to the challenge of climate change. Three reasons lead me to conclude that green growth is a risky gamble.

First, we need global CO2 emissions to peak and substantially decline in this decade to have a chance to keep average temperatures below 2̊C. Yet this is not the trend. Global emissions grew by 56 percent between 1990 and 2019. (They dipped in 2020, during the depths of the pandemic, but have risen continuously since 2021). To achieve a prosperous world with net zero emissions, green growth must attain the absolute decoupling of growth from CO2 emissions. Decoupling has spawned a lively, even acrimonious, academic debate. I have space only to touch on that debate.

Although the relative decoupling of economic from emission levels (and other ecological harms) is common, absolute decoupling is rarer and appears insufficient to hold global warming below 2̊ C. Relative decoupling means that economic growth continues, but emissions remain constant or increase less than the rate of growth. Many countries have achieved this goal. Thirty-two countries have also achieved absolute decoupling over a period of 14 years, whereby growth continues while total emissions decline in absolute terms. It should be noted that this decoupling reportedly includes “consumption emissions” – emissions embedded in the goods consumed in a country, though produced abroad. The 32 cases include mainly rich countries that depend on a low-emissions service sector for their well-being. However, how one tallies “consumption emissions,” where polluting manufacturing industries are located offshore and export their goods, is subject to controversy. Also, some countries achieving absolute decoupling are major oil exporters, especially the United States, and the emissions resulting from these exports are not part of that exporter’s carbon tally. And the absolute decline in emissions is only gradual. In any event, heavy emitters such as China and India have not attained absolute decoupling. Unless their emissions peak and then decline in the next few years, we are unlikely to limit global; warming to 2°C – the upper limit proposed in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Secondly, converting the energy system from fossil fuels to green sources (solar, wind, hydro and perhaps nuclear), at the current level of consumption, will cause widespread eco-system damage, especially in the Global South. This damage will arise from the exponential growth of mining for critical minerals. To build the batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, electrical infrastructure, electric vehicles and so on will require a massive increase in the production of lithium, graphite, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earths. Global demand for critical minerals doubled between 2017 and 2022, and demand is still on a sharply upward trend. A World Bank study forecasts that, to limit global temperature rise to 2̊ C by 2100, demand for critical minerals – lithium, cobalt and graphite, for instance – would need to increase by 500 percent between 2020 and 2050. Whether sufficient supplies of copper and lithium can be rung from the earth is in contention.

Mining of these minerals exacts high environmental costs. More than half of the reserves of lithium, cobalt and nickel are currently located in the global South. This fact raises the question of whether energy transitions in the global North will occur at the expense of the people in areas of the global South. One of the most dire examples is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country rich in mineral resources. Vast reserves of coltan, copper, and cobalt feed the electronic revolution. “As global finance gears up for ‘green growth’, the DRC’s resource wealth has again brought violence, robbery and ecological destruction.” A local mining activist trenchantly observed that “inside every phone is the blood of a Congolese person.” World-wide, as demand (for lithium, for example) exceeds supply, new mines are opened in ecologically sensitive areas such as rainforests, tundra, deserts, and, before long, the seabed. Ecological damage arises from some combination of violent gangs, open-pit mining, chemicals that pollute groundwater, tailings that remain contaminated, and dependence on copious supplies of water. Cleanup and maintenance costs are already astronomical. Many abandoned mines require continuing maintenance and even indefinite water treatment to prevent the pollution of waterways. Taxpayers are often left paying the bill. For example, the Faro Mine in the Yukon, abandoned in 1998, may end up costing the government $C2 billion for cleanup and continuous maintenance Such costs may be affordable in a rich country like Canada, but are not so in less developed countries.

This destructiveness, not surprisingly, has instigated local opposition movements, especially when indigenous land rights are also at issue. For example, where lithium mining moves globally, protest follows – whether the mine is located or proposed in Chile, Bolivia, Serbia or Portugal, protests delay or block lithium mines. Environmental damage, actual or predicted, will inspire widespread protests and delay the massive expansion of mining entailed in the energy transition.

The conclusion is obvious: we can’t make a global transition from fossil fuels to green energy at the current level of consumption. Hydro-electricity cannot fill the gap owing to the falling water levels of rivers world-wide as temperatures climb. Nuclear energy takes a long time to build, is very expensive, and has a reputation for danger. There is thus no alternative to reducing demand; for example, instead of thinking we can just shift to electrical vehicles of the same size as we now drive, we will need smaller and fewer vehicles on the road.

Pushing also in the direction of reducing consumption is the issue of land. It appears that we will depend heavily on solar and wind power. If that is the case, we will need to set aside thousands of square kilometers of land and sea for solar and wind farms. Such massive installations will have undesirable social and ecological effects. These include the displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples and rural communities, together with the potential loss of agricultural land and bio-diversity. In the energy transition, it is not only displaced workers in the fossil fuel industry that deserve justice; so too do rural communities whose land is sacrificed for clear power.

We must guard against saving the earth in one way by destroying or despoiling it in another.

The third reason for skepticism about green growth is its technological optimism. It is certainly important to continue to invest heavily in promising technologies to reduce emissions. A technological breakthrough may happen. But can we count on it? Many highly touted green technologies are either ineffective, or too expensive, or too dangerous:

  • Carbon Capture and Storage: requires an expensive and carbon-intensive infrastructure and confronts the dangers of leakage from underground CO2 storage and the contamination of groundwater.
  • Direct Air Capture: exorbitantly expensive to capture carbon from the atmosphere, though some project costs will fall to $US100/tCO2.
  • Nuclear Fusion: has been touted for decades as a carbon-free energy source but it has never proven viable; it uses more energy to create fusion than it produces.
  • Small Modular Reactors: their design, financial viability and dangers are in question.
  • Nuclear Energy: Can new designs overcome the problems: it is expensive and carbon-intensive to build reactors, takes years to construct, and carries dangers in the proliferation of nuclear wastes and nuclear weapons.
  • Green Hydrogen: Perhaps the best bet, but it will take immense hydro, wind or solar energy to produce green hydrogen on a large scale.

Betting on a technological fix to arrive in time is risky. And geoengineering will not ride to the rescue. Even if it works,  it is not a cure for global warming, but rather a stop-gap measure. There is no alternative to reducing emissions and drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

In sum, green growth is not the answer to the challenge of climate heating. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

Climate and Capitalism: Is System Change the Answer?

This 55-minute lecture assesses approaches for surmounting the accelerating climate crisis. i focus on the desirability, viability, and potential feasibility of these approaches.

The argument is simple.

What is possible (Green Growth) is inadequate to the challenge of climate change, whereas what is necessary and desirable (Degrowth) is impossible in the short time available to us. To escape this impasse, we need to forego reformism and radicalism in favour of radical reformism – a supplemented Green New Deal.

Making the Impossible Possible: Coalitional Movement Politics in the Decisive Decade

This is the decisive decade for humankind and other species. We tackle dire trends now.  Or we face a bleak future in which our constricted pandemic life now becomes the norm for all but the wealthiest. Our rational and technological prowess, in combination with market-based power structures, has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Can movement politics be part of a solution?

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