It is very important for the left to reject Ecomodernism. The extreme technical implausibility of this faith will be outlined below but it is also theoretically and strategically wrong-headed. It not only offers no guidance for revolutionary action, it advocates the capital-intensive tech-fixes such as nuclear energy and carbon capture that the corporations would be delighted to have us spend trillions on. Unfortunately however there has recently been a surge in interest in this topic among advocates of socialism, most notably Phillips (2014, 2019), Scharzer (2012), Perenti (2019) and Bastini (2019).
The Ecomodernists recognise the seriousness of the global ecological situation, but they argue that the way to solve it is to crank up technical advance and economic growth to enable the building of a vast quantity of resource-intensive devices that will deal with the problems. These are to include nuclear energy, high rise greenhouses, water desalination. Humans will all move into cities allowing nature to regenerate, agriculture will go into those greenhouses, and the Third World will be liberated from poverty. Thus they scorn the De growth movement seeing it as unnecessary, guaranteeing misery for all, and indeed actually ensuring the end of human progress. Following is a brief outline of the reasons why all these claims are somewhere between wrong and ridiculous.
I will deal here only with the vision Phillips argues. (2014 and 2019.) He begins by discussing some of the huge and alarming problems the planet is running into. His basic argument is that these are due to capitalism and can’t be solved unless there is transition to socialism. On both claims I would strongly agree (…although my preferred version of socialism is not the usual one.) But he then takes the traditional red-left “productivist” view that when capitalism’s contradictions have been eliminated we can accelerate economic growth and thereby raise “living standards” and improve everything for everyone.
By contrast, the recently-emerged De growth movement advances the basic, fifty year old, ”limits to growth” case which has now accumulated a huge supporting literature. Its core point is that there is too much production and consumption going on, that this is the main cause of global problems, that eventually we must have stable or zero-growth economies, and that GDP must be reduced. For many years there has been debate between these two general world-views, that is, between those arguing that there are bio-physical-social limits to growth and those who believe that technical advance can solve any problems growth causes. This is a debate between those who believe that “tech-fixes” can solve the problems without radical change from a system committed to affluence and growth, and those who argue that only radical change to a very different, post consumer-capitalist society can solve the big problems. The most gung-ho assertion of the former position has been given by the Breakthrough Institute under the label of Ecomodernism. (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015.)
The core issue here is whether economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource and ecological costs and impacts. That is, can the amount of production, sales and GDP go on increasing while resources availability and ecological damage are kept below unsustainable levels. Phillips et al. along with the non-socialist Ecomodernists claim it can. But virtually all of a now huge literature says it can’t.
For several years a great deal of unambiguous evidence against the faith has been accumulating, reported in a number of reviews. (For instance, Alexander, Rutherford and Floyd, 2018, Krausmann, et al. 2009, Schandl, et al., 2016, Ward et al., 2016, Giljum et al., 2014, Dittrich, et al., 2011 and Trainer 2016.) The most detailed and impressive have been from Hickel and Kallis (2019), and especially from the European Environmental Bureau (Parrique, et al., (2019.) The second of these lists over 300 studies. It notes that in some instances “relative” decoupling of resource use from GDP growth has been achieved, for instance where GDP rises and use of energy also rises but not as fast. Yet the goal has to be reduction of impacts, that is, “absolute” decoupling, and on a very large scale. Reference is made to a few cases where an absolute decoupling has been achieved but there are usually reasons why this is misleading and not generalizable, for instance where it is due to action which shifts impacts to some other domain (e.g., reducing water withdrawals by implementing energy-intensive desalination.) The conclusion stresses that in general absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring, and that greater recycling and efficiency effort and transition to “service and information economies” are not going achieve it. That is, in general if production, sales and GDP increase, then resource use and ecological impact increase. They emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect this to change or absolute decoupling to be achieved in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. This aligns with the fact that there has been a long term decline in productivity growth rates.
Phillips’ case can appear to be impressive because he picks out some instances where significant decoupling has been achieved. These include CFC gases, energy use in US agriculture, European forests areas, and cases where carbon emissions have been reduced. But the overriding problem with any tech-fix faith is to do with the magnitude of the decoupling required. Phillips et al. show no understanding of this. Consider the following simple arithmetic.
The commonly cited “Ecological Footprint” index shows that to provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7 ha of productive land (World Wildlife Fund, 2018). If by 2050 the 9.8 billion people expected on earth were to have risen to the present “living standard” in Australia, and the planet’s amount of productive land remains the same as it is today, then the per capita amount for humans to use would be 0.8 ha. In other words Australians today are using about ten times the amount per capita that would be possible for all to use. (And this assumes that it is OK to leave only one-quarter of all productive land for all other species.)
Hickel (2018) says that for materials consumption the ratio is 2.5 times as bad as this. Wiedmann et al. (2014) state a similar conclusion; the per capita consumption of the ten main iron ore and aluminium consuming nations is around 80 times that of all the rest.
However this has only been an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. We must add the fierce universal commitment to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, trade, investment, “living standards”, wealth and GDP. The impossible implications are easily demonstrated. If 9.8 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. But the present amount is grossly unsustainable: the WWF estimates that right now we’d need 1.7 planet Earths to meet current resource demand sustainably. That means that by 2050 total world use of productive land would have to be around 30 times the amount which the Word Wildlife Fund estimates is available (For the detailed case see TSW: The Limits to Growth.)
Obviously to deal with this the decoupling would have massive; the Ecomodernists would have to show that by 2050 the resource and environmental impact from the generation of $1 of GDP could be reduced to one-thirtieth of what it is today, even though over past decades no reduction has been achieved. They make no attempt to show that this is possible; their case consists of faith claims about what future technology could do, supported only by pointing to some cases where mostly very small absolute reductions have been achieved.
The above arithmetic yields the basic claim underlying the Simpler Way perspective; i.e., that the major global problems now threatening our existence cannot be solved unless we undertake enormous reductions in production, resource use and consumption. This can only be done by transition to mostly local communities which are small, cooperative, highly self-sufficient, driven by needs not market forces …. and by willing acceptance of very frugal lifestyles and systems. This involves scrapping the present taken-for-granted conception of “development” defined in terms of ever-increasing globalisation, complexity, capital-dependence, technical sophistication, and monetary “wealth”. Above all it involves happy acceptance of materially simple lifestyles and systems. This alternative vision does not involve hardship or deprivation; in fact it would be a liberation to a much higher quality of life for all. And it does not threaten universities, modern hospitals, high tech R and D or “progress”. It is about ways which provide all that is needed for delightful relaxed, secure, creative, cooperative, peaceful lives via very low resource and environmental costs. (For the detail see TSW: The Alternative Society.)
The key to these achievements lies in the small scale, proximity and integration of the new economies. A recent study of egg supply illustrates this powerfully. The industrial supermarket supply chain involves vast amounts of transport, agribusiness, chemicals, soil damage, steel, computers, petroleum, electricity , packaging, advertising, and waste, especially wasted nutrients. The village cooperative supply path eliminates almost all of these, e.g., because “wastes” can go straight to gardens, methane digesters and fish ponds. The study found that the dollar and energy costs of an egg delivered by the former path is around 50 to 200 times that by the second path.
Our limits to growth predicament show that the main goal is not getting rid of capitalism, essential though that is. The goal must be to get those resource and ecological impacts right down. If the eco-socialists only got rid of capitalism but continued to pursue affluence and growth, we would have a more just society…still heading for ecological collapse.
Another major deficiency in Ecomodernism confronting lefties like Phillips et al. is that it has no implications for strategy; what are we activists supposed to do? Badger the government to award lucrative contracts to carbon sequestering corporations? Avoid revolutionary action because it would disrupt the economy and hinder the capacity of the corporations to thrive and develop the smart technologies? By contrast the general De growth perspective has abundant implications for attempting to bring about system change.
But I have yet to mention Phillip’s most weird notion. By some incomprehensible and absurd logic he concludes adamantly that De growth would actually bring human progress to an end! He says, “Thus an end to growth declares an end to technological development, an end to science, an end to progress, an end to the open-ended search for freedom—an end to history.” But De growth is precisely the one thing that will halt the collapse of civilization now underway and enable progress! It will free us from the contradictions within capitalism now preventing needs from being dealt with, it will liberate billions from the poverty imposed by the trickle down development model, and it will free rich world people from having to work far too hard to pay for their too-big houses and resource-squandering lifestyles. Take a look at how people live in Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage; on around 5-10% of US average resource use while reporting a far higher quality of life than most Americans. (Lockyer, 2017.)
Phillips et al. are like many in the socialist camp who make the inexcusable mistake of identifying welfare with wealth, which is precisely what the capitalist class wants us to do. They assume that welfare can’t be increased unless there is increase in production of stuff being bought, thus unless there is increase in GDP. (This is the fundamental vicious error built into conventional development theory and practice; poor countries cannot “develop” unless they enable investors to take out their resources cheaply and thus grow the GDP. See TSW: Third World Development.) This is patently ridiculous. Apart from the medical domain, the factors that would most enable a higher quality of life for most rich world people have nothing to do with monetary wealth or property; they are things like having good family and friends, supportive community, security from unemployment, closeness to nature, socially valued work, and peace of mind. These are easily and automatically provided in a poor Third World village or in an Eco-village, as are the basic simple food producing, housing, water, and energy etc. systems enabling very frugal but perfectly sufficient material living standards. (I could build you a beautiful, small and perfectly sufficient mud brick house for well under $10,000.). These kinds of systems and technologies could be quickly enabled in very poor Third World regions if the creation of cooperative village self-sufficiency was the development goal. (See Leahy, 2014, 2018.) Senegal is working to establish 1,400 Ecovillages. (St Onge, 2015.)
It is especially ironic that Left Ecomodernists like Phillips are shooting themselves in the foot. They are cheering for the very thing that is most crucial for capitalism; i.e., growth. They criticise De growth for failing to target capitalism for our global ills. What they do not seem to grasp is that De growth is the greatest mortal threat to capitalism. The left urgently needs to get over its long-term fascination with “productivism”, to realise that the best line of attack against capitalism is to focus on limits and sustainability, and to plunge into Transition Towns and related initiatives. The task there is to help people see that we can start here and now building the alternatives that are the only path to a sustainable future. Simpler Way transition theory (TSW: Transition) argues that we will be forced in this direction by the coming breakdown, whether we like it or not, and that focusing on local, cooperative, self-sufficiency is the best strategy for eventually getting rid of capitalism.
Alexander, S., J. Rutherford and J. Floyd. (2018), “A Critique of the Australian National Outlook Decoupling Strategy: A ‘Limits to Growth’ Perspective”. Ecological Economics, 145, 10-17. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.08.014.
Bastini, A., (2019), Fully Automated Luxury Communism; A Manifesto, New York, Verso.
Dittrich, M., S. Giljum, S. Bringezu, C. Polzin, S. Lutter, (2011), Resource Use and Resource Productivity in Emerging Economies: Trends over the Past 20 Years, SERI Report No. 12, Sustainable Europe Research Institute (SERI), Vienna, Austria.
Giljum, S., M. Dittrich, M. Lieber, S. Lutter, (2014), “Global Patterns of Material Flows and their Socio-Economic and Environmental Implications: A MFA Study on All Countries World-Wide from 1980 to 2009”, Resources, 3, 319-339.
Hickle, J., (2018), “The great challenge of the 21st century is learning to consume less. This is how we can do it.” The European Sting. 15 May. https://europeansting.com/2018/05/16/the-great-challenge-of-the-21st-century-is-learning-to-consume-less-this-is-how-we-can-do-it/
Hickel J., and G. Kallis, (2019), “Is Green Growth Possible?”, New Political Economy, DOI: 10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964, https://doi.org/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964
Krausmann, F., S. Gingrich, N. Eisenmenger, K. Erb, Haberl, H., and M. Fischer-Kowalski, “ Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century”, Ecological Economics, 68 (2009) 2696–2705.
Leahy, T., (2018), Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First, Routledge.
Lockyer, J., (2017), “Community, commons, and De-growth at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage”, Political Ecology, 24, 519-542.
Parrique, T., et al., (2019), Decoupling Debunked. European Environmental Bureau. July. eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked
Phillips, L., (2014), Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Zero Books, Winchester UK.
Phillips, L., (2019), The De growth delusion, Opendemocacy, 30th Aug. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/degrowth-delusion/
Schandl, H., et al., (2016). Global Material Flows and Resource Productivity. An Assessment Study of the UNEP International Resource Panel. United Nations Environment Programme. Paris.
Sharzer, G., (2012), No Local, New York, Zero Books
St-Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal Transforming 14,000 Villages Into Eco-villages!”, Collective Evolution, June 17. https://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/06/17/senegal-transforming-14000-villages-into-ecovillages/
Trainer, T., (2016), “Another reason why a steady-state economy will not be a capitalist economy”, Real World Economic Review, 76, 55-65.
Wiedmann, T., H. Schandl, and D. Moran, (2014), ‘The footprint of using metals: New metrics of consumption and productivity,” Environmental Economics Policy Studies, Online, 26th June.
World Wildlife Fund, (2018), The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society, http://assets.panda.org/downloads/living_planet_report_2018.pdf
Teaser photo credit: Moss Graffiti, Image: Kulturlabor Trial&Error, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0