A Reply to John Molyneux and Michael Lowy on Degrowth

Louis N. Proyect

Generally speaking, my defense of degrowth is mounted against the ecomodernists at Jacobin/Catalyst: Leigh Phillips and Matt Huber, who both stand on Marxist orthodoxy, at least in their view. Although I’ve never answered him specifically, Neo-Keynesian Robert Pollin has staked a position against degrowth in the July-August 2018 NLR. If you’re interested in this debate, I recommend tracking down the NLR and to look for articles by Phillips and Huber on Jacobin and Catalyst.

This is the first time I will be responding to people much closer to me ideologically, John Molyneux, an ex-member of the British SWP, and Michael Lowy, a longtime member of the Mandelista Fourth International. Molyneux’s article is titled “Growth and De-growth: What should ecosocialists say” and can be read on the Global Ecosocialist Network. Lowy’s article is titled “Ecosocialism: A Vital Synthesis” and appears on Ian Angus’s Climate and Capitalism website.

Let me turn to Molyneux first, if for no other reason that the title of his article indicates a willingness to take on his ideological adversaries head-on.

Unfortunately, Molyneux cherry-picks an intellectual exercise from leading degrowth theorist Giorgos Kallis and proceeds to trash what amounts to a straw-man. In an article that appeared in “The Internationalist”, Kallis wrote:

The Left has to liberate itself from the imaginary of growth. Perpetual growth is an absurd idea (consider the absurdity of this: if the Egyptians had started with one cubic metre of stuff and grew it by 4.5% per year, by the end of their 3,000-year civilization, they would have occupied 2.5 billion solar systems.). Even if we could substitute capitalist growth, with a nicer, angelic socialist growth, why would we want to occupy 2.5 billion solar systems with it?

This is what they call a hypothetical and it is foolish to use it to represent degrowth analysis, which is completely steeped in the actual ecological limits we are dealing with. Kallis is an ecological economist by profession and is involved in studies of water development and urbanization, so turning him into a promoter of specious theories based on Egypt’s alternative history does not do him justice.

The remainder of Molyneux’s article is a rehash of the arguments I’ve heard and made about the anarchy of capitalist production for the past 53 years. For example, “If the productive forces constitute society’s general capacity to produce then their development or advance need not necessarily result in more production of things at all but might equally result in producing the same amount in less time. Marx, himself, put a lot of emphasis on this economy of labour time as he saw it has having the potential to free human beings from necessary labour, reduce the working week and enhance human freedom.”

Well, who can argue with that? Unquestionably, socialism will be a more rational system. Commodity production based on profit is the number one cause of environmental despoliation. If the economy is based on the production of use-values, you can finally use science and humanism to create a livable world.

Molyneux proceeds to define some of the norms we can expect under world ecosocialism. This one stuck out for me: “The extensive retrofitting of homes”. I am not sure what this means exactly but it would point to the banning of any house or apartment over 3,000 square feet for a family of four. I’m definitely for that but within such an advanced new way of sheltering, how do we create the furniture that people need for a modicum of comfort? We certainly need chairs, tables, beds, desks, and bookshelves, don’t we? Can we have a socialist Ikea that supplies such basics?

Over the past four decades, China has tried to make sure that its citizenry can live a comfortable middle-class existence. That has meant becoming the world’s largest importer of wood. (The United States is second.) It is also the largest exporter — turning much of the wood it imports into products headed to Home Depots and Ikeas around the world.

The irony is that Ikea brags about its environmentalist values. Its website states: “We’re also working towards 100% renewable energy – producing as much as we consume in our operations – and sourcing all of our wood from more sustainable sources by 2020.” All that is well and good but the inexhaustible demand for cheap furniture will simply lead other corporations to rely on Chinese suppliers. That’s how capitalism works, after all—supply and demand. So efficient at reducing forests to toothpicks.

Now, under world ecosocialism, how could you continue to provide the wood needed for the average household without encroaching on the forests and hence the risk of a new pandemic? For pete’s sake, Marxism is a powerful tool but it cannot produce wood out of thin air. That’s the purview of the sorcerer’s apprentice and you saw how much trouble Mickey Mouse got into.

Degrowth is completely focused on the question of how humanity can not only survive into the 22nd century but how can civilization continue until the planet dies due to astrophysical realities. It poses solutions based on the needs of a modest life-style that while giving up on SUV’s and all the other crap can allow the full development of the human being, who might have to work 10 hours a week while painting landscapes or growing orchids the rest of the time. That means addressing the population question that people like Molyneux recoils from. There is scant attention to that in his article, with this being typical:

In particular we should also challenge the idea, implicit in the arguments of many ‘degrowthers’, especially those that favour population control , that all human activity, indeed all human existence, is inherently damaging to nature.

I don’t know about “many” degrowthers. I do want to know, however, whether Molyneux has engaged at all with the numbers that both Kallis and Jason Hickel have crunched. Let me direct him to something that Hickel wrote to get started. This is the heart and soul of degrowth scholarship, not Kallis’s intellectual exercise about Egypt:

Adopting a higher poverty line makes it more difficult to end poverty while remaining within planetary boundaries. At the US$7.40 line, Belarus is the most promising, with minimal social shortfall (a score of 0.98) excluding qualitative indicators, but its average biophysical score is 1.64. Of the nations that achieve all non-qualitative social thresholds, the most biophysically efficient is Oman, which has an average biophysical score of 2.66. In other words, given the existing best-case relationship between resource use and income, achieving a good life for all with an income threshold of US$7.40 per day would require that poor nations overshoot planetary boundaries by at least 64% to 166%.

Of course, Hickel could have just said that ecosocialism will solve these problems with scarcely a need to figure out the desperately important balance between humanity and nature under conditions of declining water, soil and climate. I hope he continues on his current trajectory.

Turning now to Lowy’s article, it is closely related to Molyneux’s with the idea of socialism replacing capitalism on a world-scale being the solution to our problems. He writes:

The issue of economic growth has divided socialists and environmentalists. Ecosocialism, however, rejects the dualistic frame of growth versus degrowth, development versus anti-development, because both positions share a purely quantitative conception of productive forces. A third position resonates more with the task ahead: the qualitative transformation of development.

A new development paradigm means putting an end to the egregious waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. The arms industry is, of course, a dramatic example, but, more generally, the primary purpose of many of the “goods” produced — with their planned obsolescence — is to generate profit for large corporations. The issue is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on massive waste and the conspicuous and compulsive pursuit of novelties promoted by “fashion.” A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.

So,  “A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.” Let’s start with water.

Okay, how is ecosocialism going to generate groundwater that is the key to sustainable agriculture? Will making the Ogallala Aquifer people’s property somehow overcome the ecological limits on a resource that took thousands of years to accrue? Natural forces produced it and it was used to grow the wheat that is a necessity for urban life. You can take the position that cattle and wheat have to go but any foodstuff is going to have to rely on water. Even under the best of conditions, water can become scarce because it is serving a population that far exceeded the numbers that lived in North America 30,000 years ago. Since 1950, agricultural irrigation has reduced the saturated volume of the aquifer by an estimated 9%. Once depleted, the aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall. (Wikipedia) Instead of bad-mouthing Giorgos Kallis’s speculation on Egypt, Molyneux and Lowy could both benefit from his work on water conservation.

I consider Molyneux and Lowy’s attempt to debunk degrowth feeble at best. I have been following debates within the left on ecology for the past 30 years and have been shocked by the way that long-time Marxists just skate over the surface of degrowth scholarship. My advice to them and others is to put the Marxist verities on the back burner, roll up their sleeves, and begin to delve into the details of how the human race can continue with the current set-up. Socialism can do many things but it cannot produce wood and water out of thin air.

DisclaimerOpinions expressed in articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Global Ecosocialist Network

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