books, Republished pieces

Utopian thinking in the ether: an interview with Boris Frankel

This interesting interview appeared in the Australian journal, Overland. It is relevant to many of the concerns discussed here. Frankel’s open access book, Fictions of Sustainability, is very good.

Thanks to Zacharias Szumer for this. Here is the beginning of the interview – follow the link at the end for the rest of it.

Is utopian thinking akin to casting a net into the ether – collecting the unimaginable and dragging it into the realm of the possible? Or, by neglecting to consider any parameters of the possible, is it a fanciful distraction from meaningful politics? Well, perhaps it depends on the type of utopian thinking. In Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-Capitalist Futures, social theorist Boris Frankel takes aim at certain types of utopian thinking: proposals that he argues are unrealisable or unsustainable regardless of whether political obstacles have been removed or transformed.  Throughout the book, which was released earlier this year, Professor Frankel seeks to ask the difficult questions surrounding concepts such as green growth, degrowth and post-scarcity, not with the aim of opposing radical solutions, but to facilitate the development of more plausible and effective policies. Political-economic dilettante Zacharias Szumer met with Frankel recently to try to get his head around this somewhat heavy going but important book.  

ZS: In the conclusion of Fictions of Sustainability, you write that one of your aims in writing the book was to “bridge the political and theoretical chasm or ‘analytical apartheid’ that characterizes so much socio-economic policy on the one side and environmental analyses on the other.” What do you mean by analytical apartheid? And how did you attempt to bridge this chasm?

BF: In the past, conservatives, liberal Keynesians, Marxists and anarchists were divided over how to analyse capitalism and debated its virtues and failings. Today, it is not enough to have a knowledge of political economy, whatever the political perspective, if it excludes crucial environmental issues. On the other hand, you’ve got many people who are active and concerned about environmental issues, but who neglect political economy. The ‘analytical apartheid’ I refer to is that environmental issues cannot be separated from political economy yet, political economists and environmentalists talk past one another and rarely consider one another’s issues and positions. Despite environmental crises being highlighted for over fifty years, traditional political economists and many on the left still treat environmental issues as marginal to the main issue of capital versus labour. This is now changing. But you’ll still find many leading political economists are completely silent on environmental issues. It’s important to bridge these two worlds. Similarly, many committed environmentalists have a detailed understanding of the damage being done to so many ecological habitats and the need to transform existing consumption and production. But apart from generalised ‘wish lists’ have a very limited understanding of how existing political institutions and the economy of capitalism works. So, in order to achieve their environmental goals, it’s critical that they become more familiar with the political economic debates that have been developed by non-environmentalists.
Click this link for the full interview on Overland.

Critique

Is the Degrowth Movement Delusional?

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.

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Is the Degrowth Movement Delusional?

by Steve Gwynne

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.
However, despite his technological utopianism, his most poignant omission is the fact that most developed countries in the world are in ecological debt.
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
Population,
Affluence,
Consumption and
Technology,
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.
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Do you have a response to Philips or other misconceptions and misrepresentations of degrowth / post growth thinking?  We’d be interested in covering them.
Critique

Green New Deals – the degrowth perspective

Cover from the NEF Green New Deal report, 2008.
Cover from the NEF Green New Deal report, 2008.

Most recent update: 18 May,, 2020

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.

What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flowsMark H Burton  at Steady State Manchester     alternative link

This piece covers much the same ground, delivered as a talk at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Future Economies launch, 12 September, 2019: Six problems for Green Deals, Mark H Burton.  Another short piece written for a permaculture audience: Should we be supporting a Green New Deal?

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.

Energy and the Green New Deal: The complex challenge of powering societies. by Tim Crownshaw at Uneven Earth.  A clearly written and well referenced reality check on the energy assumptions of the Green Deal narratives.

Green New Deals….yes….but what does that mean? Brian Davey at FEASTA

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant Stan Cox at Green Social Thought

Climate breakdown is coming. The UK needs a Greener New Deal  Jason Hickel at The Guardian

The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism  Asad Rehman at The Independent

And in similar vein,
As the left wakes up to climate injustice, we must not fall into ‘green colonialism’ by Dalia Gebrial at The Guardian

A Green New Deal beyond growth. A concise summary of the central dilemma, by Riccardo Mastini at degrowth.info (the English language section of the German degrowth network site).

A Green New Deal beyond growth (II) – Some steps forward, by Elena Hofferberth. Also at degrowth.info. Following Mastini’s piece, this helpfully identifies both commonalities between GNDs and degrowth and looks at their different emphases.

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.

The Green New Deal: What’s Really Green and What’s Really New?  by Brian Czech at CASSE blog: focussing on the question of the scale of the material economy in the USA political context.

Degrowth vs. the Green New Deal.  A very helpful “compare and contrast” piece by Aaron Vansintjan on Briar Patch magazine.

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 Green New Deal’s contradiction – new infrastructure and redistribution may boost carbon emissions.  A point made in more detail elsewhere but here succinctly and via historical comparison with the original New Deal’s boosting of emissions and urban sprawl.  By Matthew Paterson at The Conversation.  Michael Jacobs, who is not in general a supporter of degrowth, also makes this point, citing Paterson, in a helpful overview of the challenges facing a GND in the UK.

A Green No Deal? A Terrestrial examines a Modern document by Christine Dann on her website.  She also makes the point that the US Green New Deal proposals imply “green growth”.

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.

In some versions of the New Green Deal, the growing GDP is rather hidden but it is, nevertheless there (as Burton discusses).  However, one of the pioneers of the approach, Robert Pollin, celebrates the role of “green growth” contrasting it with the degrowth approach in a highly critical article in New Left Review.  Responses have been made to this piece by Giorgos Kallis at TruthOut and by  Mark Burton and Peter Somerville in New Left Review (2) {Version in Spanish, Aqui}.

Also see this by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis: “Is Green Growth Possible?” In the journal New Political Economy.

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

Notes

  1.  The quotation is from Brian Davey’s piece, quoted above.
  2.  The NLR articles are behind a paywall.  If you can’t access them, then contact us and we can help.
  3. Thanks to Riccardo Mastini for spotting some of these and sharing them on twitter.