Politicians and journalists habitually say, condescendingly, that environmental campaigners are unrealistic in our demands. The problem is not that we are unrealistic. The problem is that we have read the science and are operating with a different understanding of what is realistic.
The response to covid has demonstrated that what is politically and economically unrealistic can change in a few weeks. Two years ago a demand for everyone to stay in their own homes for 23 hours a day was politically unthinkable; 18 months ago nearly everyone complied. In 2007 it was unthinkable that the government would give private banks support worth £1.162 trillion (£1,162,000,000,000, i.e. more than one million million); it was done by 2009. During the second world war businesses were left in private hands but subject to a degree of state direction that would have been unthinkable in 1938.
Scientific realism is not open to such adaptation. Change is happening on a geological scale, a scale that is difficult for us to comprehend. Geological speed is too slow for the human eye to detect the change so we look to the people with the tools to detect the change, the scientists. In geological time, the fifth major extinction was 66 million years ago when three quarters of plants and animals, including the dinosaurs, were driven to extinction by climate change. Then climate change was caused by an asteroid. Today we are living through the sixth major extinction, an outcome of climate change caused by us. The faster the climate changes the more difficult it is for plants, animals and ourselves to adapt.
If we want to limit and slow climate change we have to cut our green house gas emissions fast. Scientists inform us that carbon emissions need to be cut 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to give us a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. If all the pledges made at COP26 are met, global emissions in 2030 will be 14% higher than those in 2010. Politicians and journalists tell us that, in terms of political realism, this was a success. To be realistic in scientific terms, it was a failure.
When political and economic realism collides with scientific realism there can be only one winner. Slowly but inexorably scientific realism will grind political realism to dust. Slowly but inexorably more species die. Stewardship of the natural world is not only a moral responsibility, it is in the interest of the vast majority of people. Responsible stewardship requires substantial and rapid action. It is the only realistic response if we want to protect our beautiful world.
Open letter by Marga Mediavilla to Fridays For A Future. reposted from 15/15\15.
“There is one thing that worries me. In your speeches on climate change you can find demands for very ambitious decarbonization objectives…..
According to my knowledge and according to the studies we are making in our group, such ambitious goals as these would require very drastic measures which go far beyond the usual proposals such as investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles or energy saving and efficiency.
Therefore, I think we have to be very realistic about the decarbonization objectives and the measures we demand in order to achieve them. If we do not, our leaders can happily silence the protests, by using exclusively technological cosmetic measures that do not solve anything, and the hopes of many young people with good intentions may be frustrated.”
Mediavilla goes on to explore decarbonisation scenarios using the MEDEAS simulation model. The findings indicate the relevance of the degrowth perspective rather than technological optimism.
See also this article by list member Andrea Grainger: In defence of degrowth: The climate movement and socialist movements must come together to build a new progressive movement. Open Democracy, 5 September, 2019.
In his latest article, Leigh Phillips, a strong advocate of ‘Socialist Growth’ and ‘Luxury Communism’ condemns the Degrowth Movement as delusional with an array of arguments that suggest unlimited growth is technologically feasible.
As a result, ecological debtor nations are highly dependent on less developed ecological creditor regions for materials and resources in order to sustain and maintain their unsustainable economies. In turn, these import dependancies and the vulnerabilities that they create gives rise to Western foreign interference, whether through the market or through military or diplomatic intervention, in order to appropriate, protect and distribute raw materials into ecological debtor nations.
Unambiguously, the Degrowth Movement recognises this vicious circle which emerges from ecological debt, a vicious circle which not only seeks to sustain the unsustainable through the appropriation and exploitation of foreign resources but also seeks to limit the ability of weaker nations and their impoverished populations to sustainably develop adequate infrastructure that enables them a dignified and secure way of life.
By ignoring the ramifications of ecological debt, Leigh unwittingly justifies the market and military interventions that keep millions of people impoverished whilst rich nations copiously consume.
Since non renewable resources are by definition not renewable and therefore finite in quantity and quality, the international Degrowth Movement advocates a just and equitable contraction and convergence of
in order to help bring ecological debtor nations back into ecological credit. Through the communicative tool of IM=PACT, the main intention is to allow less developed ecological creditor nations to use their resources for their own development rather than them being used for the continued growth of unsustainable ecological debtor nations such as the UK, the US and other major European nations. As such, in opposition to Leigh’s assertions, the Degrowth Movement advocates human impact contraction because it recognises that the planet is home to a diverse array of limitations which cannot be transcended by technology.
Leigh’s article argues the opposite. It proposes that the limitations posed by the availability of non renewable resources can be overcome by technology without specifying how except through human ingenuity. In essence, the author is claiming that technology will avail us of our natural, societal and human limitations by being able to produce a diverse array of unlimited materials from the atmosphere we breathe.
This of course is an intriguing science fiction idea and would no doubt if realised bring some relief to growing global resource scarcity and a growing global ecological debt but unfortunately he does not explain how the impacts of an atmosphere that is transformed into tangible substances will affect ecospheric processes so perhaps should be viewed with extreme caution.
Meanwhile, whilst waiting for this ground breaking technology, humanity is faced with the hard realities of limitations and the fact that global ecological debt needs to be reversed if human flourishing on a global scale is to be sustained. This means focusing our attention and our national policies towards ways of life that are materially sufficient for our needs and our development rather than orientated towards unlimited growth. See https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk/
It is clearly unjust for countries which are in ecological debt to appropriate resources from nations in ecological credit when their basic infrastructures, infrastructures which we take for granted, are hardly in place whilst in comparison, we enjoy unimaginable luxury. This therefore means a strategy of contraction and convergence so that limited global resources are equitably shared for the utilitarian benefit of all.
Ultimately, PACT contraction is unavoidable even if we choose to continue using economic and military power to appropriate ecological credit solely for ourselves since eventually these resources will too run out. In other words, unlimited growth can only ever lead to collapse.
The only logical alternative to growth is sufficiency, however much it might pain us to let go and sacrifice our unsustainable ways of life for the global common good. So the Degrowth advocate Jason Hickel, is correct, we must rid ourselves of the unnecessary and build our systems around what is necessary for a dignified life for all.
In this regard, Degrowth literature is rich in diverse ideas by which to navigate the difficult and sacrificial path towards sufficiency which Leigh has conveniently referenced in his techno-utopianism piece. So for all those willing to take the sacrificial degrowth path, we need all hands and heads on task if we are to avert a climatic, environmental and ecological disaster of our own unintentional making.
Do you have a response to Philips or other misconceptions and misrepresentations of degrowth / post growth thinking? We’d be interested in covering them.
The idea of a Green New Deal (or New Green Deal), despite first appearing more than 10 years ago, has become very popular in recent months. These Green New Deals “make an analogy to the response to the Depression of the 1930s with an idea today that with greater state expenditure a huge effort can be put into developing the infrastructure of an economy based on renewables and a decarbonised energy system. This would simultaneously create jobs...”(1). There is a lot to agree with, given that a massive transformation is needed towards a clean economy. However, these proposals all assume continued economic growth, albeit “green growth”, and as we know, this is problematic since the material and energy flows entailed are what got us into ecological overshoot in the first place. A number of pieces from across the degrowth community have raised various questions about these Green Deals and we thought it would be worth putting together a collection of links (3). If you spot others, do let us know and we’ll add them.
A Green New Deal for an ecological economy.Leah Temper and Sam Bliss at degrowth.info Explores what the discipline of ecological economics (degrowth’s academic cousin) can bring to the formulation and implementation of Green New Deals.
A Green New Deal Between Whom and For What? by Nicholas Beuret at Viewpoint Magazine. More recent than most of these cited here, so it includes many of the points made in others while offering a very good overview of the concept and its problems.
Between the Devil and the Green New Deal– by Jasper Bernes. From Commune magazine. A forceful critique that pulls together a number of themes including the reliance of the GND on unprecedented and carbon-intensive mineral extraction and manufacture and its political and economic implausibility under capitalism. This version lacks references unfortunately.
Degrowth and the Green New Deal. Another article comparing and contrasting the two and distinguishing among variants of the Green New Deal, by Gareth Dale in The Ecologist.
John Bellamy Foster, while not specifically allying himself with the degrowth movement, makes a number of similar points to those in the more explicit degrowth pieces collected here. In his Monthly Review piece, On Fire This Time, focussing on GND proposals in the USA, he distinguishes between the original Keynesian New Green Deal, and the more radical variants emerging from a variety of social movements. It is capitalism itself that imposes the limits of possibility for the GND.
False hopes for a Green New Deal. by Rufus Jordana on Open Democracy. “If the ‘Green New Deal’ is our best answer to the climate crisis, then we have no answer to the climate crisis.”
The problems of eco-capitalism. By Calvin Jones at Undod: Radical Independence for Wales. Calvin problematises the GND a modified form of capitalism which is supposed to rescue us from the destruction brought by capitalism’s endless accumulation. He also brings in a radical localist, Welsh, dimension.
For a collection of well argued critical material on Green Growth, there is this excellent book:
Dale, G., Mathai, M. V., & Puppim de Oliveira, J. A. (Eds.). (2016). Green growth: Ideology, political economy and the alternatives. London: Zed Books.
None of us are saying that the degrowth alternative is an easy option. It is just that the biophysical realities mean that the New Green Deal could inadvertently make the situation worse by continuing to destroy the physical and biological systems on which life depends.
What we need to work on is an ecologically and economically literate Green Deal. The expertise is there in the degrowth movement, so what’s stopping us? Perhaps the arguments are getting through: the Green Deal for Europe consultation paper, released September, 2019, includes this intriguing passage.
“In addition to phasing out Europe’s existing carbon-intensive energy systems and infrastructure, aggregate energy demand must also be reduced by scaling down material production and throughput. The [Green Public Works] supports this transition by shifting income and welfare creation from industrial production to social and environmental reproduction: maintenance, recycling, repair, and restoration of environmental and infrastructural resources, as well as education, culture and care — for both people and planet.”
post updated 18 May, 2020
The quotation is from Brian Davey’s piece, quoted above.
The NLR articles are behind a paywall. If you can’t access them, then contact us and we can help.
Thanks to Riccardo Mastini for spotting some of these and sharing them on twitter.