Degrowth Is Not the Answer to Climate Change

Leigh Phillips

Proponents of degrowth rightly argue that free market capitalism is threatening the planet. But pushing austerity on workers in either the Global South or the Global North is no way to achieve a just, sustainable future.

Electricity pylons in the Philippines. (FBenjr123 / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Jonas Elvander

In recent years, a divide has opened up on the Left over climate change and degrowth. In the “degrowth” camp, economic growth is seen as incompatible with a sustainable future on a planet with finite resources. Against this perspective, an increasing number of activists and intellectuals have united under the banner of “eco-modernism,” arguing that growth — powered by state-led economic planning — is indispensable to achieving a socially just transition.

One of the leading proponents of this view is the writer and journalist Leigh Phillips, whose book Austerity Ecology helped set the terms of the debate seven years ago. Jonas Elvander, an editor at the Swedish left-wing magazine Flamman, recently spoke to Phillips about why he opposes degrowth and how the Left should think about fighting climate change.

Jonas Elvander

What is your main critique of degrowth?

Leigh Phillips

First, growth, whether economic growth or population growth, is not the cause of climate change or other environmental challenges. We have had many other environmental challenges in the past that we have overcome, or largely overcome — such as the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, lead pollution, and a great deal of air and water pollution in the West — and the solution to all of these did not come from halting growth, but instead from new technologies and economic planning in the form of regulation and technology policy.

As recently as the 1980s, the ozone layer challenge was perhaps an even greater existential threat than climate change, for it threatened the very ability of macroscopic life on land to exist. We didn’t solve that problem by halting growth in fridges, cans of hair spray, and air conditioning units (and other machines and processes using the chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that contributed to ozone depletion), but by regulating a transition away from the use of CFCs. Today, there are far more fridges and cans of hair spray than ever before.

As a science journalist, I would also say that degrowth fundamentally misdiagnoses the cause of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental problems, and as a result has a poor theory of change (a strategy for how the problem can be solved).

Imagine a fully socialist twentieth century. Socialists would argue that health care, education, electricity, and industrialization would have been spread to the whole of the world, and not restricted to the West. Prior to the discovery of the full extent of the problem of global warming in the 1980s, socialist societies would have mainly used fossil fuels to power all of this, especially in those areas where the geography does not allow for hydroelectricity. Socialists want their public hospitals to be able to run 24/7 (and indeed many of their factories and other services essential to social well-being). We don’t want to wait for the sun to shine or the wind to blow for the ventilators and dialysis machines to be turned on.

Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions entered the atmosphere not since the Industrial Revolution, but since the 1950s, what geosphere-biosphere scientists call “The Great Acceleration.” This is coincident with the advent of the welfare state and the legalization and institutionalization of trade unions across much of the West.

Jonas Elvander

So is there a benefit of socialism at all with respect to climate change?

Leigh Phillips

Absolutely: socialism can in principle act much faster than markets. The reason for this is fourfold.

First, any market actor that produces a commodity that is profitable but harmful to ecosystem services (such as coal, oil, or gas) has an incentive to continue production. This in turn spurs attempts by such companies to try and capture democratic decision-making — lobbying, bribes, corruption, and, as seen with Volkswagen, outright criminal activity. Meanwhile, a publicly owned entity, so long as it is properly insulated from market activity, can in principle just carry out what the electorate demands.

Second, there may be a range of goods or services that are not profitable, but are beneficial to maintenance and optimization of ecosystem services, and market actors have no incentive to produce them. Examples here include clean energy infrastructure that has high up-front capital costs, such as conventional nuclear power, high-speed rail lines, or the substantial research, development, and deployment costs of carbon-neutral fuels for hard-to-electrify long-haul shipping and aviation. Again, a public actor is not restricted by the need for profitability, but instead only by economic capacity.

This relates to the third problem: we may have straightforward technological solutions to decarbonize many sectors already (e.g. nuclear power and renewables for electricity), but there are a lot of sectors that are socially beneficial yet really hard to decarbonize. A great example here is cement. For these sectors, we will need strong state-led innovation policy and industrial policy to de-risk taking potential technologies from lab bench or pilot project through to commercialization. And even for those sectors where we do have straightforward solutions, in many cases the clean alternative is currently still far too expensive, especially for developing countries, and there is still a great need for industrial and innovation policy to shepherd radical cost reductions in these technologies. Such policies are another form of economic planning, rather than leaving these questions to the market.

Finally, while some environmental problems are restricted to one or a few sectors — and thus the technology-switching doesn’t involve much coordination across different sectors (e.g. eliminating lead pollution primarily affected transport but few other sectors) — in the case of climate change, fossil fuels are the foundation of almost every sector, with a great many intertwined dependencies. This is called a “coordination problem,” and markets are very bad at solving them.

A great example here is petroleum production. We need to sunset petroleum production for combustion purposes sometime in the next twenty to thirty years or so, while maintaining it for non-combustion petrochemical purposes. But if we halted all production tomorrow, society would collapse. So we need to be able to coordinate sufficient production to maintain society even as we carefully wind down production for combustion and continue sufficient production for petrochemicals. All of this runs counter to how market actors operate, and so at a minimum, the state needs to step in to supervise this coordination, and at a maximum, the state may need to directly take over such sectors.

I also oppose degrowth because it demands a stagnation or even reduction in the incomes of the Western working class. Degrowthers assert that workers in the Global North consume too much. The reality is that most Western workers have suffered through more than four decades of real wage stagnation (or even decline in some sectors), deindustrialization, and growing inequality.

One of the world’s leading experts on inequality, Branko Milanovic, has done a rough calculation of what a radical redistribution of income — everyone in the world earning the same — would mean. Each person would earn just $5,500 per year. While this would be a big increase in the standard of living for many in the Global South, this would amount to a sharp reduction in the standard of living for almost all workers in the Global North. There simply isn’t enough wealth in the world yet for everyone to earn a decent income. We need so much more economic growth.

Marx saw the marvels of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution and wondered how much farther humanity could go if production were not restricted to the profit incentive. We would have so much more than capitalism can produce! This is what he called “unfettering the forces of production.”

Today, we can see what he meant concretely in many sectors, not least in pharmaceuticals. About four decades ago, large pharmaceutical companies largely got out of the business of research and development of new classes of antibiotics because they are insufficiently profitable compared to drugs for chronic conditions that have to be taken every day for the rest of someone’s life.

Here is a great example of how socialism would produce so much more. We wouldn’t need to make a profit in order to research and develop new antibiotics.

Jonas Elvander

Some critics argue that eco-modernism falls into the same trap as green capitalism, i.e. the belief that growth is possible in a world of finite resources. How would you respond?

Leigh Phillips

This assumes that there cannot be absolute decoupling, yet we already see decoupling in many sectors thanks to efficiency gains. A bit of clarification between relative and absolute decoupling is needed here: relative decoupling is where there is a reduction in the inputs per unit of production, but there is still overall growth in inputs, while absolute decoupling is where a sector has continued to grow without an increase in inputs.

We can see the latter — absolute decoupling — in US crop production, for example, which has increased even as agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, water, and crop acreage have declined or plateaued, with the decline in fertilizer use being particularly sharp. Corn acreage has been absolutely decoupled from corn production. American potato yields continue to increase, but the potato market is saturated, so potato production has plateaued, meaning that land is removed from production. US consumption of metals marched in lockstep with GDP until about the 1980s. Since then, consumption of important metals such as aluminum, nickel, copper, steel, and gold have plateaued or declined. (This takes into account imports and exports, so globalization and offshoring the problem to the developing world is not the reason for this.)

Many degrowthers simply reject that absolute degrowth has happened, but this is simply denial of the facts. Some degrowthers, to their credit, accept that absolute degrowth is real but is happening too slowly and in not enough sectors. To those degrowthers, I say: “I completely agree! That’s why we need to focus on more economic planning and the policies required to speed up absolute decoupling and forget about this degrowth distraction!”

If absolute decoupling is too slow to deal with climate change, what makes them think that convincing all the electorates and autocracies of the world that they need to abandon economic growth will be any faster?

Jonas Elvander

In what way does capitalist growth differ from non- or anti-capitalist growth?

Leigh Phillips

Capitalist growth is amoral and anarchic, largely outside of democratic control, and produces inequality and servitude to bosses. Socialist growth is democratically coordinated and by being so, delivers equality and liberation from servitude. Socialist growth allows humanity to “design history,” to consciously decide where we want to go next, to decide which new medicines and technologies will liberate us ever further from drudgery, danger, and disease, instead of being led by the nose by whatever happens to be profitable.

Let us remember that our degrees of freedom can be limited by other humans through oppression, exploitation, and inequality, but also by the rest of nature. Parkinson’s Disease, cripplingly delimiting of freedom, is not imposed upon its victims by other people, but by genetics. New medicines and technologies liberate us from such infringement of freedom. But if any of those medicines or technologies of liberation are not profitable, then they will not be produced, or at best be restricted to those consumers who allow it to be profitable. The problem with capitalism therefore is not that it produces too much, but that it irrationally limits production to what is profitable.

As the great socialist and suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst wrote in 1923:

Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance. Our desire is not to make poor those who to-day are rich, in order to put the poor in the place where the rich now are. Our desire is not to pull down the present rulers to put other rulers in their places.

We wish to abolish poverty and to provide abundance for all. We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift, and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume. Such a great production is already possible, with the knowledge already possessed by mankind.