DeGrowth, the Green New Deal and This Island Earth

Back in the early 1970s, the Socialist Workers Party was well on its way to becoming the largest group on the left in the USA. To a large part, Peter Camejo’s speeches were responsible for this. He was not only good at explaining why you should become a socialist but doing so in an entertaining manner. One of the jokes that never failed to get a laugh was his description of an abundant life under socialism. Money wouldn’t be necessary. You’d go to a state-owned grocery store and be able to walk out with a shopping cart overflowing with filet mignons. This would not prompt an arrest but a referral to a psychiatrist because who in the world would do such a thing.

Although Peter would eventually adopt an ecosocialist outlook that would have made such a joke obsolete, he was reflecting a certain kind of techno-optimism that characterized our movement. Its prophet Leon Trotsky wrote an article in 1926 titled “Radio, Science, Technique and Society” that exclaimed: “The atom contains within itself a mighty hidden energy, and the greatest task of physics consists in pumping out this energy, pulling out the cork so that this hidden energy may burst forth in a fountain. Then the possibility will be opened up of replacing coal and oil by atomic energy, which will also become the basic motive power.”

Eight years later, he wrote “If America Should Go Communist”, once again with a technocratic bugle call:

Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. “Technocracy” can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism.

In essence, this was the viewpoint of all Trotskyist groups until the Green movement took hold. Capitalism was a brake on production; the profit motive led to waste; private ownership was not capable of unleashing the full potential of labor and machinery; etc. It all goes back to Karl Marx who wrote in the preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”: “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

As I began to read environmental literature, especially that written by ecosocialists, I began to rethink these precepts, especially when it came to the exploitation of natural resources. As someone who grew up in a small village in upstate N.Y. close to pristine lakes and rivers teeming with fish, I was particularly concerned about industrial fishing depleting fish at the top of the food chain such as bluefin tuna, ocean dead zones, and the like. Whenever I brought up such concerns among Marxists who had never veered from the “fetters” narrative, I was told that I was a neo-Malthusian even if it was obvious that bluefin tuna were on the brink of extinction. When the profit motive was eliminated, they argued, there would be enough fish, fowl, and furniture to go around. Like the big rock candy mountain under a hammer and sickle, in other words. I found this argument unsatisfying since even though socialism was capable of providing health care for all, it could not provide bluefin tuna for all. The Japanese appetite for sushi was bearing that out.

As for furniture, an article titled “China’s Voracious Appetite for Timber Stokes Fury in Russia and Beyond” that appeared in the April 9th New York Times confirmed my suspicions that trees were just as endangered as bluefin tuna in the long run. It turns out that China has adopted a “Green” policy of protecting its own forests but compensates for a decreased domestic supply of timber by gobbling it up elsewhere, including its BRICS partner Russia.

Since China began restricting commercial logging in its own natural forests two decades ago, it has increasingly turned to Russia, importing huge amounts of wood in 2017 to satisfy the voracious appetite of its construction companies and furniture manufacturers.

“In Siberia, people understand they need the forests to survive,” said Eugene Simonov, an environmentalist who has studied the impact of commercial logging in Russia’s Far East. “And they know their forests are now being stolen.”

While the chances of a major economic power like Russia to eventually stave off this kind of thievery are good, weaker countries are at China’s mercy: “In the Solomon Islands, the current pace of logging by Chinese companies could exhaust the country’s once pristine rain forests by 2036, according to Global Witness, an environmental group. In Indonesia, activists warn that illegal logging linked to a company with Chinese partners threatens one of the last strongholds for orangutans on the island of Borneo.”

What is all this deforestation good for? The answer is to swell the profits of Ikea and its suppliers in China who furnish it the wood it needs for its budget furniture. “China’s stunning economic transformation over the last four decades has driven its demand. It is now 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.

When an old friend forwarded a link to the article to some of his friends, he was told that the New York Times was printing lies. This couldn’t be possible especially with Xi Jinping’s reputation of being in favor of an “Ecological Civilization”. In practice, this means that China has moved rapidly to alternative energy sources, thus earning the accolades of Dean Baker as proof that “The Green New Deal Is Happening in China”. Of course, to one degree or another, it is also happening in Western Europe as enlightened social democracies move toward renewable fuels. Sweden now draws most of its energy from renewables even if has been helping to render orangutans extinct. Given a choice, I’d rather sit on the floor than see orangutans go extinct.

The New Left Review has been hosting a series of articles revolving around the Green New Deal and “de-growth” policies touched off by Benjamin Kunkel’s Jan/Feb 2018 interview with Herman Daly who is known for his “steady-state” economics:

Purists would force me to say quasi-steady, because there is of course development, continuous evolution and qualitative change. But the Earth itself is not getting quantitatively any bigger, and there comes a point in the expansion of a subsystem where it encroaches too much on the operation of the system as a whole. We convert too much of nature into ourselves and our stuff, and there’s not enough left to provide the biophysical life-support services that we need.

Needless to say, this collides with the Marxist techno-optimism of Leon Trotsky and his unreconstructed followers.

Coming at Daly from a Keynesian rather than an old-school, Marxist/productivist framework, Robert Pollin embraced technocratic solutions in a July/August 2018 article titled “Against Degrowth”. Like most of the Green New Deal advocates aligned with the Democratic Party, Pollin is narrowly focused on renewable energy sources. There is hardly a word about the broad range of resource exploitation and industrial farming techniques that will continue unabated even if the world outlawed all energy sources except for solar panels, windmills and the like.

In a reply to Pollin in the latest NLR titled “Degrowth: a Defense”, Mark Burton and Peter Somerville note, as I do, that except for climate change, Pollin has little to say about other menaces to our survival: “Other environmental issues—biodiversity, clean air and water, liveable cities—as well as political questions—social and international equality, for example—are subordinated to the imperative of moderating climate change.” What struck my eye, above all, in Burton and Somerville’s article is this, however:

The scale of the world economy exceeds the Earth’s biological and physical capacity to absorb the impacts and restore the resources used. The Global Footprint Network currently estimates humankind’s collective material footprint at 1.7 times the available biocapacity. Daly is correct to argue that population size is an important part of environmental impact.

Is it neo-Malthusian to point out something that should be obvious? Extinctions have taken place eons ago on a fairly regular basis in hunting-and-gathering societies as pointed out repeatedly by scientists who warn against “noble savage” romanticizing. Even if armed with a spear rather than a whaling trawler, our ancestors were fully capable of wiping out a species. Of course, the evidence reveals a certain pattern. Extinctions generally take place on islands rather than the open ranges of North America or Eurasia.

Is the earth an island? In a sense, it is if you consider the scale of late capitalism with its behemoth-like technologies that can remove mountaintops in search of coal in the blink of an eye or the ability of modern transportation systems to deploy timber-cutting brigades to every corner of the earth at the speed of sound. Perhaps it is the recognition of such ineluctable realities that inspire the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to consider the possibility of creating mega-satellites and colonizing Mars.

In his provocatively titled “Is it Possible to Achieve a Good Life For All Within Planetary Boundaries?”, Jason Hickel offers a tentative yes. He begins by defining a number of critical boundaries that are essential for the survival of life on earth: climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, land-system change, nitrogen loading, phosphorous loading, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosol loading, chemical pollution and stratospheric ozone depletion. Experts have concluded that five of these boundaries have been exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen loading, phosphorous loading and land-system change. For ocean acidification and freshwater use, the process of degradation is two-thirds there. It is only ozone depletion that is under control because of a successful campaign in the 1980s.

For life to continue on the basis of a modest lifestyle that does not stretch ecological limits to the breaking point, Hickel describes a delicate balancing act:

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%. (emphasis added)

With capitalism driving the masses throughout the Third World to emulate the lifestyle of a comfortable G8 country like Sweden, as recommended by Robert Pollin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, something has to give.

It is difficult not to feel pessimistic. As I slouch toward Bethlehem, my only hope is that a revolutionary movement can be constructed globally in time enough to at least adopt the kind of scientific planning that so excited Leon Trotsky in the 20s and 30s. I would warn against illusions that this means creating suburban New Jersey across the planet but who would want that anyway?

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.