Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution

The Americanism that people will never voluntarily give up the consumption that is killing the planet represents the triumph of a long con. The problem that consumed (apologies) economists in the early twentieth century was how to get people to want the stuff that capitalism produces. Past the point of meeting basic needs, people really didn’t want consumer goods. Early on, capitalism was a method of economic production in search of a constituency.

In the present, this most likely reads as being wildly counterintuitive. China and other recent entrants into mass consumer culture prove the universal character of the desire to consume, goes the argument. But the Chinese development of a consumer culture has been driven by top-down economic policies, not ‘demand’ from below. As a strategy for maintaining political control, it is easier to satiate manufactured wants than to cede power to truly democratic inclinations.

In 1958 economist and advisor to presidents John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Societyas an explanation of post-War political economy in the U.S. Prominent in his theory of ‘dependence’ are corporations that use commercial propaganda (advertising) to create demand for the products they produce. Mr. Galbraith, a committed capitalist, understood that Western consumption is a function of what is produced, not ‘consumer demand.’

Graph: Growth of inflation-adjusted average incomes in the U.S. has been wildly tilted in favor of the rich. The time-frame illustrated covers the growth of consumer culture from its approximate inception to the present. Making this lopsided economic distribution politically palatable is the role of commercial propaganda. Source: Emmanuel Saez.

Take a moment to think about this: capitalism doesn’t satisfy self-determined wants, it creates them. Advertising is part of the production process— it produces consumer ‘demand.’ The political argument is that people want capitalism. But this is circular logic. If people wanted consumer goods, corporations wouldn’t spend trillions of dollars to convince ‘consumers’ to buy them. History supports this interpretation: before commercial propaganda, there was no consumer culture. It was created using commercial propaganda.

This theory of dependence has important implications. First, deference to what people want and are willing to do with respect to unfolding environmental crises is a con. There is nothing natural about trained acquisitiveness. Second, commercial propaganda is political in the sense that it is used to create the social conditions that capitalists pretend to be responding to. Creating consumer culture and then insisting that coerced consumers and corporations are ‘partners’ in resolving its adverse consequences is a fraud.

Think about this: assurances are that ‘smart’ growth and green technologies will minimize interruption to economic relations that few ‘consumers,’ a/k/a citizens and human beings, asked for. This, in the face of potentially world-ending environmental crises that should motivate radical reconsideration of ‘our’ relationship with said world. A natural test would be to end advertising and see how long this manufactured center holds.

With income and wealth distribution serving as proxies for who benefits from this system of demand creation, ‘consumer culture’ is an instantiated ethos that primarily serves the rich. The paradox for ‘consumers’ is that, past the point of meeting basic needs, the benefit derived from consuming is externally determined. Consumers are the primary product of capitalism. It is capitalism that needs consumers, not consumers who need capitalism.

Given (1) how capitalist production is causally linked to wide-ranging environmental crises and (2) how broadly news of these crises is being disseminated, one might imagine that every possible effort is being made to end the manufacture of consumer culture. To Mr. Galbraith’s point: before resources were put into creating consumer ‘demand,’ people really didn’t want the stuff that capitalism creates. So why keep creating demand when it is killing the planet?

This history is relevant to the ‘Green New Deal’ being put forward by newly-elected Democrats in the House. By tying a broad environmental mandate to an institutional rationale for the Federal government to fund and manage the project, the Green New Deal is the last, best hope for environmental resolution within the frame of the American nation-state. Missing from it is the revolutionary impetus needed to keep opposing forces at bay.

Soon after Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society the world he described in it began to unravel.  The managed capitalism he heralded as liberal rejoinder to Marxism fell prey to radical capitalists who had long been looking for an opportune moment to jettison New Deal reforms. As tempting as it is to blame politicians for the capitalist renaissance that followed, they are but errand-persons for a well-seated oligarchy. If you want to kill capitalism, put capitalists in charge.

With respect to the Green New Deal, the question is how to get around this oligarchy? Taxing it, outlawing commercial propaganda, and making it criminally liable for the adverse consequences of its rule would require having already unseated it. This is the paradox of accumulated power. The more secure the oligarchy is in its hold on power, the more dangerous it is for the rest of us. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: the more threatened it is, the more dangerous it is for the rest of us.

The Green New Deal is worth supporting because again, it is the last, best hope for environmental and social resolution outside of rapid dissolution toward dystopian hell. However, the earnestness of its youthful proponents is outmatched by the aggressive dead-weight of the American political establishment that will surely counter it. Corporations and the rich spent the last four decades crafting the world in their image, and now they have it.

Here is Barack Obama just last week (10/27/2018) explaining how he turned the U.S. into the largest oil producer in the world. Here is Nancy Pelosi explaining how she intends to use procedural moves to preclude any new spending of the type that a Green New Deal would require. Without massive spending to both maintain basic economic stability and buy-off the oligarchy that feeds from environmental destruction, the oligarchy will nix the Green New Deal.

A question in need of asking is why the political leadership in the U.S. maintains the inconvenient fiction of a Federal budget constraint except when gratuitous wars or bailouts for the rich are ‘needed.’ The answer: control of the purse is control of the politics. National politicians have long claimed support for programs while working behind the scenes to assure that they never come to fruition.

Ultimately, political momentum may carry the day, but not in circumstances likely to be viewed constructively. Put differently, what would social circumstances look like were Green New Deal proponents to have the power to see the program through? The entire political establishment and the corporate and capitalist classes would have to be disempowered. You don’t get from here to there by proposing bills on the House floor.

Climate change and mass extinction arguably have different proximate causes. Industrial greenhouse gas emissions cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, thereby warming the planet. Mass extinction is a domino effect of population loss in interrelated ecosystems. However, mass extinction has basis in the practices of industrial agriculture, as does climate change. In fact, most environmental degradation can be tied to industrialization.

Siloed analyses produce siloed results. Because environmental problems are broadly categorical, science politicizes analysis in the sense of defining problems in reductive categories. Likewise, the contention that isolation and reduction resolve them assumes that proposed solutions are linearly additive outside of any evidence that this is the case. In fact, this premise of modular structure— that the world is the sum of separate and distinct pieces, is what ties science and technology to the environmental crises now unfolding.

Tobacco litigation is instructive here. As early as the 1930s cigarettes were known as ‘coffin nails’ for their tendency to kill people who smoked. The causal link required to make tobacco companies legally liable for the deaths caused by their products wasn’t established until the late 1990s. Following the (civil) settlement, tobacco companies marketed their products to 10-year-olds in Malaysia and China. Science— proving a causal link between smoking and cancer, won the battle but it barely impacted the war.

U.S. president Donald Trump recently clarified the position of his class regarding climate change. He believes it is real, but that its causes and consequences remain a mystery. This was the tobacco industry’s response to the relation of smoking to lung cancer for six decades. Sure, more smokers get lung cancer than non-smokers, but that doesn’t prove a causal link. Missing from the dueling scientists theory of resolving environmental crises is that litigation is about wealth and power, not ‘truth’ in its scientific sense.

One might think that the term ‘sixth mass extinction’ would garner attention. What clever parsing places climate change and oceanic dead zones on some other plane of comprehension? Mass extinction points to the reckless introduction of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) feed-crops that are indissociable from the late-cycle use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. How great is the leap from toxic pesticides to insect extinction?

Two recent reports have insect populations in areas as far flung as GermanyPuerto Rico and Mexico declining 65% – 80% over the last thirty years. Insects are a crucial link in the global food chain and they are essential for pollinating crops. The animals that feed on insects are in similar decline. In addition to these facts as they exist, the risk is of a complete collapse of the global food chain if mass extinction isn’t resolved.

As urgent as the recent IPCC and National Climate Assessment reports are, their narrow focus on climate change suggests that narrow resolution, as socially and logistically taxing as it might be, is too limited in scope. Assurances that renewable energy will cut greenhouse gas emissions ignores that manufacturing and disposal of these technologies is dirty and toxic. Additionally, it assumes that energy usage isn’t entropic in some greater environmental sense.

The argument over ‘smart’ or ‘green’ growth versus degrowth depends on how the realm of concern is defined. ‘Green growth’ always proceeds from limited definitions of the problem. If keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius is the criteria for success, then the sixth mass extinction, oceanic dead zones, catastrophically depleted fisheries, a growing vortex of garbage in the Pacific Ocean and toxic water and air will also define this success.

Again, the term ‘sixth mass extinction’ deserves a moment of reflection. There are plausible causal links between industrial agriculture, including deforestation and habitat loss, and the current mass extinction. The main causal link is between barely tested GMOs and fraudulently tested pesticides and herbicides. The science around these is contested because the corporations that manufacture them have the power to make it contested.

The value of the Green New Deal is that it takes one side of this power imbalance into account— most people. The side left out— the entrenched oligarchy that owes it fortune to gratuitous wars, impoverishment and the destruction of the environment, has the power to kill or corrupt the program into oblivion. Nancy Pelosi’s restatement of ‘paygo’ demonstrates clear understanding of where the Green New Deal is headed and how to kill it.

Environmental crises are systemic— they are linked by the sad and contorted relationship with the world that defines capitalism. Reforming capitalism isn’t going to change the nature of this relationship. Degrowth is the utter abandonment of capitalism. Other people can define it differently. It offers the possibility of creating a different relationship with this world. Either way, it seems that Mother Earth is going to force the issue. I vote that we get creative.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.