Theses on degrowth

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Without illusions about a “clean capitalism”, it is necessary to try to gain time, and impose, on the constituted powers, some elementary measures of degrowth

1.

The ecological crisis is already the most important social and political issue of the 21st century, and it will become even more important in the coming months and years. The future of the planet, and therefore of humanity, will be decided in the coming decades. As the IPCC explains, if the average temperature exceeds that of the pre-industrial period by 1,5°, there is a risk of triggering an irreversible and catastrophic climate change process. What would be the consequences of that?

Just a few examples: the multiplication of mega-fires that would destroy most of the forests; the disappearance of rivers and the depletion of underground water reserves; increased drought and land desertification; the melting and shifting of the polar plates and rising sea levels, which would lead to the flooding of the main cities of human civilization – Hong Kong, Calcutta, Venice, Amsterdam, Shanghai, London, New York, Rio.

Some of these events are already happening: drought threatens millions of people in Africa and Asia with hunger; the increase in temperature in summer reached unbearable levels in some areas of the planet; forests are burning everywhere to ever-increasing extents; we could multiply the examples.

In a sense, the catastrophe has already begun – but it will get much worse in a few decades, long before 2100. How high can the temperature rise? At what temperature will human life on this planet be threatened? No one has an answer to these questions. These are unprecedented dramatic risks in human history. It would be necessary to go back to the Pliocene, a few million years ago, to find climatic conditions similar to those that could become reality in the future, due to climate change.

2.

Who is responsible for this situation? It's human action, scientists answer. The answer is correct, but a little narrow: Humans have lived on Earth for thousands of years, but the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere it only began to accumulate after the Industrial Revolution, and only after 1945 did it begin to become dangerous to life.

As Marxists, our answer is: the capitalist system is to blame. Its absurd and irrational logic of endless expansion and accumulation, its productivism obsessed with the pursuit of profit at any price are responsible for bringing humanity to the edge of the abyss.

The responsibility of the capitalist system in the impending catastrophe is widely recognized. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, without mentioning the word “capitalism”, spoke out against a structurally perverse system of commercial and property relations based exclusively on the “principle of profit maximization” as responsible for both social injustice and the destruction of our common home, nature.

A slogan universally chanted throughout the world at ecological demonstrations is “Change the system, not the climate!”. The attitude of the main representatives of this system, defenders of business as usual – billionaires, bankers, “experts”, oligarchs, politicians – can be summarized by the phrase attributed to Louis XV: “After me, the flood”. The total failure of the dozens of UN COP Conferences on climate change to take the minimum measures necessary to stop the process illustrates the impossibility of a solution to the crisis within the limits of the current system.

3.

Can “green capitalism” be a solution? Capitalist companies and governments may be interested in the (profitable) development of “sustainable energies”, but the system has been dependent on fossil energies (coal, oil, gas) for the last three centuries, and shows no sign of interest in abandoning them. them. Capitalism cannot exist without growth, expansion, accumulation of capital, commodities and profits, and growth cannot continue without extended use of fossil fuels.

The pseudo-solutions of green capitalism, such as “carbon markets”, “compensation mechanisms” and other manipulations of the so-called “sustainable market economy” have turned out to be perfectly useless. While the “green makeup” doesn't stop, CO emissions2 fire and the catastrophe gets closer and closer. There is no solution to the ecological crisis within the framework of capitalism, a system entirely dedicated to productivism, consumerism and the fierce struggle for “market shares”. Its intrinsically perverse logic inevitably leads to the disruption of the ecological balance and the destruction of ecosystems. As Greta Thunberg says, “it is mathematically impossible to resolve the ecological crisis within the framework of the current economic system”.

The Soviet experiment, whatever its merits or limitations, was also based on the logic of growth, grounded in the same fossil resources as the West. And much of the left, during the last century, shared the ideology of growth, in the name of “the development of the productive forces”. A productivist socialism, which ignores the ecological crisis, is incapable of responding to the challenges of the XNUMXst century.

4.

Reflection on degrowth and the movement that has emerged in recent decades have made a great contribution to a radical ecology, opposing the myth of unlimited “growth” on a limited planet. But degrowth itself is not an alternative economic and social perspective: it does not define what kind of society will replace the current system. Some degrowth proponents would ignore the issue of capitalism, focusing only on productivism and consumerism, and defining the culprit as “The West”, “Enlightenment” or “Prometheism”. Others, who represent the left of the anti-growth movement, clearly designate the capitalist system as responsible for the crisis and recognize the impossibility of a “capitalist degrowth”.

In recent years, there has been a growing rapprochement between ecosocialism and degrowth: each side has appropriated the arguments of the other, and the proposal of “ecosocialist degrowth” has begun to be adopted as a common basis.

5.

Ecosocialists have learned a lot from the degrowth movement. Ecosocialism is therefore increasingly embracing the need for degrowth in the process of transition to a new ecological socialist society. One obvious reason for this is that most renewable energies, such as wind and solar, (a) need raw materials that do not exist on an unlimited scale and (b) are intermittent depending on weather conditions (wind, sun). .

Therefore, they cannot entirely replace fossil energies. Therefore, a substantial reduction in energy consumption is inevitable. But the issue has a more general character: the production of most goods is based on the extraction of raw materials, many of which (i) are becoming increasingly limited and/or (ii) create serious ecological problems in the process of production. extraction. All these elements point to the need for degrowth.

Ecosocialist degrowth includes the need for a substantial reduction in production and consumption, but it is not limited to this negative dimension. It includes the positive program of a socialist society based on democratic planning, self-management, the production of use values ​​instead of commodities, free basic services and free time for the development of human desires and capabilities. A society without exploitation, class domination, patriarchy and all forms of social exclusion.

6.

Ecosocialist degrowth does not have a purely quantitative conception of degrowth as a reduction in production and consumption. He proposes qualitative distinctions. Some productions – for example, fossil energies, pesticides, nuclear submarines, advertising – should not be reduced, but suppressed. Others, such as private cars, meat and planes, must be substantially reduced. And others, such as organic food, public transport and carbon-neutral housing, must be developed.

The issue is not “excessive consumption” in the abstract, but the predominant mode of consumption, based on conspicuous acquisition, mass waste, mercantile alienation, obsessive accumulation of goods and the compulsive purchase of pseudonovelties imposed by “fashion”. It is necessary to put an end to the monstrous waste of resources under capitalism, based on the large-scale production of useless and/or harmful products: the arms industry is a good example, but a large part of the “goods” produced under capitalism – with its built-in obsolescence – has no other use than to generate profit for large corporations.

A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, starting with those that could be described as “biblical” – water, food, clothing, housing – but also including basic services: health, education, transport, culture.

How to distinguish authentic from artificial, factious and provisional needs? The latter are induced by mental manipulation, that is, by advertising. Although advertising is an indispensable dimension of the capitalist market economy, it would have no place in a society transitioning to ecosocialism, where it would be replaced by information about goods and services provided by consumer associations.

The criterion for distinguishing an authentic need from an artificial one is its persistence after the suppression of advertising (Coca Cola!). Of course, for a few years, the old consumption habits would persist, and nobody has the right to tell people what their needs are. Changing consumption patterns is a historical process as well as an educational challenge.

7.

The main effort, in a process of planetary degrowth, must be made by the countries of the industrialized North – North America, Europe, Japan – responsible for the historical accumulation of CO2 since the Industrial Revolution. They are also the areas of the world where the level of consumption – especially among the privileged classes – is clearly unsustainable and wasteful. The “underdeveloped” countries of the South – Asia, Africa, Latin America – where basic needs are far from being met, will need a process of “development” – construction of railways, water and sewage systems, public transport and other infrastructures.

But there is no reason why this cannot be done with a productive system that does not harm the environment and is based on renewable energies. These countries will need to grow large amounts of food to feed their starving population, but this can be achieved in a better way – as peasant movements organized around the world in the La Via Campesina network have been arguing for years – through peasant organic agriculture. based on family units, cooperatives or collectivist farms, rather than the destructive and antisocial methods of industrialized agribusiness based on the intensive use of pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.

Currently, the capitalist economy of these countries is based on the production of goods for their privileged classes – cars, planes, luxury items – and commodities exported to the world market: soy, meat, oil. An ecological transition process in the South, as the ecosocialists of the Tricontinental argue, would reduce and/or suppress this type of production and, on the contrary, would aim at food sovereignty and the development of basic services, such as health and education, which need, above all, everything from human labor instead of more commodities.

8.

Who could be the subject in the fight for ecosocialist degrowth? The labor/industrialist dogmatism of the last century is no longer current. The forces that are now at the forefront of socio-ecological confrontations are young people, women, indigenous peoples and peasants. The resistance of indigenous communities in Canada, the US, Latin America, Nigeria and elsewhere to capitalist oil fields, pipelines or gold mines is well documented; it stems from their direct experience of the destructive dynamics of capitalist “progress” and the contradiction between their spirituality and culture and the “spirit of capitalism”.

Women are very present in the indigenous resistance, as well as in the formidable youth uprising launched by Greta Thunberg's call – one of the great sources of hope for the future. As ecofeminists explain, this mass participation of women in mobilizations is due to the fact that they are the first victims of the damage caused by the system to the environment.

Unions are beginning, here and there, to get involved too. This is important because, ultimately, we cannot overcome the system without the active participation of urban and rural workers, who make up the majority of the population. The first condition, in each movement, is to associate ecological goals (closure of coal mines or oil wells, or coal-fired power plants, etc.) with the guarantee of employment for the workers involved. Eco-minded trade unionists have argued that there are millions of “green jobs” that would be created in an ecological transition process.

9.

Ecosocialist degrowth is, at the same time, a project for the future and a strategy for the struggle here and now. It is not a question of waiting for “conditions to be ripe”. It is necessary to provoke convergence between social and ecological struggles and to combat the most destructive initiatives of the powers that be at the service of capitalist “growth”. Proposals like the Green New Deal are part of this struggle, in its radical forms, which effectively demand the renunciation of fossil energies, but not those limited to recycling the system.

With no illusions about “clean capitalism”, it is necessary to try to gain time, and impose, on the powers that be, some elementary measures of degrowth, starting with a drastic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. Stopping an XXL pipeline, a polluting gold mine, a coal-fired power plant, is part of a larger resistance movement called blockade by Naomi Klein. Equally significant are local experiences in organic agriculture, cooperative solar energy and community resource management.

These struggles around concrete “degrowth” issues are important, not only because partial victories are welcome in themselves, but also because they contribute to increasing ecological and socialist consciousness and because they promote activity and self-organization to from below: both are decisive and necessary preconditions for a radical transformation of the world, that is, for the Great Transition to a new society and a new way of life.

*Michae Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


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