Indigenous social movements
Indigenous social movements

Student blog: Degrowth or ecomodernism? A response to Rutger Bregman

This March, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, famous for berating billionaires at the World Economic Forum over tax avoidance, was once again caught up in controversy. Bregman tweeted he was “becoming increasingly convinced that degrowth is the worst thing to have happened to the left in years.” According to Bregman, “we need abundant clean energy, housing, healthcare, education,” elements which degrowth allegedly does not strive for. Instead, Bregman promotes Bastani’s book Full Automatic Luxury Communism, in which the author fantasizes about lab meat, space exploration for resource extraction and other technologies, in an effort to turn scarcity to abundance and render our economy sustainable. Meanwhile, earlier this March, degrowth scholar Jason Hickel addressed the Dutch parliament. In line with the €10 million grant his research team received from the European Research Council, Hickel also presented the anti-capitalist ideas of degrowth to the European Commission. In an expert analysis, I have outlined degrowth’s theoretical merit in connection with ecomodernist literature. Here, I will touch on the most important insights.

First and foremost, Bregman has completely misunderstood the essence of degrowth. Drawing on Hickel’s book on degrowth, degrowth is defined as a “planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just, and equitable way.” Degrowth involves making political choices about what kind of things we want to grow (sectors like clean energy, public healthcare, and essential services) and what sectors need to radically degrow (non-renewable energy production, arms, and chemical fertilizers). Contrary to what Bregman claims, degrowth actually calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary. 

Second, ecomodernism and degrowth evaluate growth very differently. Bastani’s manifesto comes down to the claim that rather than redistributing current wealth and thus making political choices about who gets what, we should grow recklessly and then redistribute that. This belief is most dramatically expressed in Bastani’s plea for asteroid extraction, which is, pretty unsurprisingly, not economically viable. Even though this fairy-tale solution is an extreme one, it does reflect the dogma of growth that characterizes ecomodernism – of which Bastani’s manifesto is a derivative covered in red paint. This dominant political ecology claims that a dematerialization of the global economy, efficiency improvements and recycling technologies will allow decoupling – meaning breaking off GDP growth from CO2 growth - and thus make growth ‘green.’ Empirical analysis, however, has shown that such green growth is not possible. Every single model for continued growth in addition to reductions in carbon emissions relies on technologies that do not yet exist. From this analysis, degrowth infers the need for sufficiency, for which systemic change to our political-economic system is needed.

Change in global material footprint compared to change in global GDP (constant 2010 US dollars),1990-2013.

Figure: Change in global material footprint compared to change in global GDP (constant 2010 US dollars), 1990-2013. We can see no evidence of absolute decoupling. Indeed, there are signs of re-materialization

Furthermore, contrary to ecomodernism, degrowth grasps the fact that technologies are not socially neutral. Generally, growth-oriented firms deploy new and more efficient technologies in order to facilitate growth, meaning that technologies are leveraged to expand extraction and production rather than ecological benefits. And technologies which are used for climate mitigation are still likely to entrench local and global inequalities and reproduce current patterns of uneven development. Technology-driven reforestation projects, for instance, often play out in the Global South where they restrict self-determination and thus development opportunities, while most of the economic gains from such projects are funneled back to the Global North via returns on investment for private investors. Likewise, the production of lab-meat – one of the proposals in Bastani’s manifesto – would require massive displacements of indigenous communities whose livelihood depends on sustainably grazed meat. 

It follows that technologies are inherently political, benefitting some people, while harming others. That is to say that the problem is not the knife, because we need technology. The problem is what the knife cuts. And in the case of specific technological solutions to climate change, capitalist technology hurts the Global South both disproportionally and systematically. 

Relatedly, ecomodernism does not acknowledge that the capitalist world economy is inherently polarizing and exclusionary. People in the Global South could manufacture the same device as someone in the Global North and be paid dramatically less for it, even when accounting for productivity differences. This relation of unequal exchange comprises not only exploited labor, as resource extraction and the concentration of environmental degradation in the Global South are needed for the consumption and capital accumulation of Global North’s economies. Empirical research shows that the Global South suffers the most ecological damage from climate change and the climate crisis, while North’s net appropriation from the South amounts to $2.2 trillion

Figure: Drain from the Global South

Figure: Drain from the Global South, constant 2011 dollars, billions (1960-2017).

The idea that the Global South is likely to bear the brunt of the burden of climate change without reaping the benefits – on top of barely being responsible for it, historically – is fundamental to degrowth’s analysis. So, degrowth is closely related to climate justice and its movements, struggling for changes that would ensure the Global South capture a fairer share of income from the global economy, and access the resources they need to live well. Tellingly, most ecomodernist theories are silent on the social and ecological demands of Global South movements, while ignoring the achievements of these movements to put climate debt and climate reparations on the world agenda.

Indigenous social movements

Photo: Indigenous social movements have repeatedly called for an end to eco-colonialism

Degrowth’s engagement with electoral and European politics demonstrates degrowth’s cautious entering into mainstream politics. This can be explained by degrowth’s appreciation of the dialectic interplay between the political economy and the planet’s ecology. On the one hand, the capitalist world economy is endangering the planet’s ecology. On the other, if there are no normative assessments made about what constitutes a desirable political economy, the planet’s ecology will endanger the world economy, with uneven consequences for people around the world. Degrowth, then, has not only broadened emancipatory horizons, it has actually put a holistic alternative on the map by successfully politicizing the hegemony of the growth dependency of capitalism. It is both likely and meaningful that the alleged worst thing that has happened to the left will continue to expand its relevance in the realm of climate policy.

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This student blog is written by Camiel Bus.

Organizational unit
Political Science