On the 8th January 2023, Jacobin magazine published an interview with Leigh Phillips titled ‘Degrowth Is Not the Answer to Climate Change’. The interview promotes socialist ecomodernism as a solution to climate change and our contemporary social crises. Conversely, it also contends that degrowth as an economic and political program is, at best, a dead end. At worst, Philips accuses degrowth of being an active hindrance to climate change mitigation.
Philips is a long-time opponent of degrowth, and his critiques shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with his work. He deploys a number of arguments against degrowth in the interview. Claiming it is morally unjustifiable, historically illiterate, politically unworkable, and scientifically untenable.
The article has not been well received by degrowth advocates, as one might expect. But a cohort of eco-socialists — ostensibly the group Phillips represents — were likewise unimpressed. The problem is not that the article is critical of degrowth, but that it doesn’t really engage with it. It is a polemic without particular regard to the theories or science behind degrowth. It goes beyond an uncharitable critique because it’s not really talking about degrowth, but rather using Philips’s caricature of ‘austerity ecology’ as the target of its ire.
This article is not intended to be a direct response, nor a critique, of Phillips and his attacks on degrowth. It is not meant to correct misconceptions or disprove assertations, but to more deeply understand where he is coming from. This article is an attempt to seriously engage with socialist ecomodernism in a way the interview failed to do with degrowth: on its own terms. In the broadest strokes, both camps, eco-modernism, degrowth, and everything in between are looking for the same thing. Both are theories searching for ways to collectively live a good, just life that doesn’t cost the earth. Therefore, this article is meant to be an exploration of socialist eco-modernism, its theories of change, views of the world, and its contemporary prospects. This is undeniably an outsider’s perspective, as I am no eco-modernist, but the article is designed as an assessment of ecomodernism, rather than to discredit it out of hand.
On Its Own Terms
In this discussion of Phillips’s ecomodernism, there is one major issue that first needs to be contended with. Almost all the literature on ecomodernism conceives it as a capitalist enterprise. Albeit one subtly guided by forward-thinking policymakers and institutions. This is not the ecomodernism promoted in Jacobin, but it does bear certain crossovers with capitalist thinkers like Jänicke. What Phillips is proposing is a socialist ecomodernism. In his view, capitalism “irrationally limits production to what is profitable”. Ergo, His Socialist-eco-modernism (SEM) not only prefigures a far stronger role of the state but a differing pathway through which It achieves its goal. Both Capitalist-eco-modernism (CEM) and its socialist alternative seek an ecologically viable world of greater techno-social utility. But the former sees profit as the animating force of this movement, and the latter through needs-oriented social planning.
The traditional equation of CEM is a market regulation and technological change push, with a market demand pull that drives ecological innovation. This is a slightly rosier image than is actually the case. When one surveys the data, industries undergoing what could be termed eco-modernism (for now let’s shorthand that to industries undergoing relative decoupling) follow a slightly different path. Take for example construction, which has certainly undergone a relative decoupling of its economic growth and material impact. This innovation in its methods is not responding to legislation, but shielding from it. Industry documents, seminars, shareholder reports, and strategies are replete with anxieties about the effects of new, or potential, regulations. Rather than finding ways to mitigate their massive material footprint, most ecomodern developments within the construction industry focus on areas around the margins of production: Digitizing processes, streamlining resource acquisition, and so forth. In aggregate, this does eventually lessen impacts, but marginally so. Though per unit of growth, there is a correspondingly smaller unit of environmental degradation involved. The overwhelming material footprint at the core operations of construction is not mitigated, but its worst excesses are curbed to deliver an in-aggregate less damaging outcome. This slightly antagonistic relationship between regulators and companies, torn between compliance and the need to grow, is what characterizes ecomodernism. It isn’t particularly rational, as Philips points out in his interview, but helps drive moderate improvements within the constraints of the current global economy.
Of course, Phillips would replace market pull with socialized human needs, and overcharge the regulatory component. Ecomodern development would be more focused on specific positive outcomes regardless of profitability. The improvements would often remain marginal, but that isn’t an inherently negative word. It merely means they don’t interfere with the core production outcomes, which is much more common in the Degrowth camp. Take, for example, CO2 injection into cement. This is an undeniably ‘marginal’ improvement, in that it doesn’t alter the core process, but can nevertheless produce very-low carbon concrete, mitigating much of the climate impact of concrete construction. Rationalizing the process of marginal improvement, rather than leaving it to skittish market-regulatory cat-and-mouse, would certainly improve ecological outcomes. other endeavors, such as nuclear, could also be more easily pursued if one did not consider profitability.
This leads to the second point, how ecomodernism views its ‘eco’ component. It is important to point out that ecomodernism, SEM and CEM, are very specific approaches to innovation and technology. All too often the term is just used as a synonym for ‘what is good’ (or bad, depending on perspective). However, it is a more specific theory of change. It emphasizes the technocratic method, of experts delivering the needs of the people through increasingly sophisticated technology and planning. The perspective of ecomodernism relies more heavily on the modernism than it does the eco. To put it another way, ecomodernism in the age of climate change assumes that any proper modernization is inherently ecological. But this is a specific ecology. One of, if not domination or control, then mastery of nature. As Philips said in his previous work ‘Austerity Ecology’:
“There will need to be more growth, more progress, more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis”
Modernity, the forward march of technology, and the rationalisation of the economic process: these are the focuses of Ecomodernism. The expansion of technological complexity to the greatest possible degree, to the widest berth of society, is what Socialist Ecomodernism refers to as growth. This is opposed to the capitalist conception, where growth is purely an economically determined category. In this light, the focus on growth in SEM –which degrowthers find so disagreeable — is far more justifiable than the traditional profit-based growth perspective. As Phillips puts it:
Socialist growth allows humanity to “design history,” to consciously decide where we want to go next, to decide which new medicines and technologies will liberate us ever further from drudgery, danger, and disease, instead of being led by the nose by whatever happens to be profitable.
Climate change is undeniably a limiting factor on this SEM growth. Ergo, it must be combated to allow the forward march of progress to continue. However, it is integral to remember this forward march is responding to something that affects it, rather than tackling the problem as a negative outcome of its actions. This may sound like a semantic distinction, but it has a real-world impact. If the negative environmental impact does not affect the core mechanisms of SEM growth, then it is not necessarily included as ‘something to be fixed’. Protecting pollinators for their role in agriculture can justify significant efforts of the state. But for the myriad species of the deep ocean that humans barely interact with, let alone are even aware of? This is an issue acknowledged by prominent ecomodernist proponents, such as Sam Fankhauser, who conceded that there has as of yet been no relative decoupling between GDP growth and environmental destruction. Forms of relative decoupling between energy use, emissions, and GDP certainly exists, but that is not the only impact modernity imposes. This is of course not to say environmentalism will not exist in an SEM world, but the plight of ecosystems that do not directly affect growth is excluded from the material analysis. It is instead left to the purely moral category — and one of secondary importance at that. Even Philips admits in his interview that the ‘Great Acceleration’ of energy and material consumption since the ’50s is largely justified for its unprecedented development and high social outcomes:
“Indeed, the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions entered the atmosphere not since the Industrial Revolution, but since the 1950s, what geosphere-biosphere scientists call “The Great Acceleration.” This is coincident with the advent of the welfare state and the legalization and institutionalization of trade unions across much of the West.”
These gains are worthwhile in the SEM schema, despite the catastrophic damage to climate, ecology, and future social outcomes that this period has caused. These will, after all, be solved by any sufficiently advanced socialist ecomodernism; if they come to affect its core goals. But how does this future come about?
The Ecomodernist Theory of Change
The benefit of the socialist ecomodernist program is that it in many ways uses existing systems to fulfill its goals. Marginal but guided improvements in the material economy could be mirrored in its political evolution. Many of the socialist institutions of this SEM future are just existing capitalist institutions taken under state control. Philips himself grew to prominence for arguing the biggest capitalist firms of today (such as Walmart) are, inadvertently, laying the groundwork for a socialist future. The SEM theory of change, whether it emphasizes a dramatic revolution, victory through the ballot box, or some combination of them, builds upon the existing techno-economic infrastructure of contemporary capitalism. Again we see a focus on what could be termed marginal improvement, solving modernity’s problems by improving its methods and goals, rather than questioning its underlying assumptions. But there is also a valorisation of the consumerist heights of individual capitalism, reoriented to socialist needs, perhaps best illustrated by Phillips’s dedication to everyone having a personal clothes washer and dishwasher. Yes, their environmental, climate, and material footprints are problems, but this is an exogenous outcome of the solution, which is to grow the material and energetic consumption of a — preferably — socialist society. Communalizing certain human needs to lower their environmental impact is, in SEM, restricted to the macroeconomy. The microeconomics of washing machines and dishwashers is excluded from this efficiency-based communalizing. In fact, Phillips considers locally focused communities (regardless of their politics) an active hindrance to SEM. In his view, the less plugged in and less reliant a locality is on the macroeconomy, the less modernist (and ergo sustainable) it is.
Herein lies another aspect of the approach to the ‘eco’ of ecomodernism. SEM is human-oriented, Promethean, and triumphalist. Phillips takes this to its logical conclusion with his “Principle of Audacity” that humanity must transcend ecological constraints, rather than work within them. Echoing the thought of effective altruism, his higher goals for humanity are to:
“continue to grow economically so that we can… spread throughout the galaxy so as to assure the continued existence of the species in the life-vitiating event of a local supernova; and ultimately advance to a level of technology and understanding of reality that perhaps we can figure out a way to permit intelligence to escape the heat death of the universe”
In the transformation of a capitalist society to an advanced socialist society, the environment — or a community localized to its environment — is an obstacle. As Phillips puts it: “Let us remember that our degrees of freedom can be limited by other humans through oppression, exploitation, and inequality, but also by the rest of nature”. Nature is a site of opportunities and limitations to be tackled or taken advantage of; but remains without an inherent worth. Nor does it provide a sufficient framework for analysis, but rather remains as a subordinate component of the planned economics of SEM.
This approach is already present in the ‘inadvertently-laying-the-groundwork-for-socialism’ firms of today, the group of large, heavily planned multinationals that Phillips considers so important for an SEM transition. Take, for example, the sustainability report of one of the world’s largest (and successfully ecomodernising) construction firms, ACS (Actividades de Construcción y Servicios), an archetypal primogeniture of a Phillipsian economy:
“The aim is to provide a perspective that allows us to understand, in a concise manner, the company’s ability to create value in the short, medium and long term as well as its positioning regarding the risks and opportunities presented by the environment.”
This is the framework ecomodernism is working within, capitalist or socialist, and why it constantly runs into intractable issues with movements such as degrowth and ecological economics. Both situate the environment at differing levels in their analysis, ecomodernism as a site of ‘risks and opportunities presented’, whereas degrowth treats it as the source of overarching coherence in its theory. In this sense, these theories are talking past each other. Both may be aiming towards the same vague buzzword goals (freedom, sustainability, liberation, etc.) but from completely different starting points. As a result, they end in correspondingly divergent endpoints. It would be easy to claim that one comes from the point of historical materialism and another does not, but this is false. Both engage, to varying degrees, with Marxist theory, but emphasize differing aspects, degrowth the metabolic rift, and ecomodernism the “unfettering [of] the forces of production”.
The Allure, and Prospects, of Socialist Ecomodernism
The allure of ecomodernism lies in its powerful call for a better future without losing the fruits of the present. Its uncompromising, Promethean approach can be attractive, but is treated with derision by more ecological thinkers, who consider SEM’s inability to accept trade-offs as naively utopian. But Socialist Ecomodernism does have trade-offs, they simply lie in the core components of its theory. The negative costs of growth, or illth as Herman Daly put it, are acceptable as long as the technological growth of a socialist society is being achieved. Of course, if illth grows greater than the benefits of growth, as is the case of climate change, they must be combated. This lends the SEM a sort of safety valve. Biophysical breakdown can presumably only get so bad before vast state resources pour in to staunch the wound. It is more a question of what is lost in the interim. And what this loss will cost us in the long run.
And what are the prospects for Socialist Ecomodernism as opposed to degrowth in the real world? It varies. Despite Jacobin’s claims that “an increasing number of activists and intellectuals have united under the banner of ‘eco-modernism”, it is unclear if there is any popularity of one over the other. Degrowth certainly appears to be growing faster, but from a vastly smaller starting base. It is perhaps only a matter of perspective. Or perhaps not.
SEM also has the benefit of a similar approach to constraint as its capitalist predecessor: it can always be overcome. This makes it more likely that existing political elites — responding to a socialist upwell — would favor it over degrowth. Their growth dependency is more in line with SEM’s expansionist modus operandi than the limitations acknowledged in degrowth. Likewise, its purported ability to build upon existing infrastructure would certainly benefit any transition. As Phillips says: “The problem with capitalism [is] not that it produces too much, but that it irrationally limits production to what is profitable.”. In his vision, it seems that the socialist world is already here, merely waiting to be freed from its capitalist chains.
I do not hold this to be true. It avoids the thorny questions of economic differentiation and dependence between the global north and south. Neither does Phillips really dispel the notion that a finite planet can only have finite growth. His examples of absolute decoupling, potato crops in the US for example, still rely on non-renewable inputs through the Haber-Bosch process. There is little to no mention of our ongoing mass extinction, in the interview or wider SEM literature. Nor an explanation of how some of the logic of capitalism can be retained (even accelerated!) while removing the rest. But for all this, it would be obtuse to claim Socialist ecomodernism has no appeal. As the hard grind of resource scarcity and the first shocks of climate breakdown wrack our economic system, SEM offers a way out. Building upon the past, or even just reorienting its production, is easier than a thorough remaking of socio-economic relations. Facing climate change with more, not less, is also a far less daunting proposition.
Though I am not convinced, I have hoped to demonstrate that there is in many ways (if not all) a sound logic, or at least emotional appeal, to socialist ecomodernism. It works upon the margins, appropriates existing apparatuses, and washes aside (some of) the irrationalities of old, delivering the hidden potentials of our contemporary world. There is also a hard logic. The theory picks its fights and has unashamed biases that are not wholly unjustifiable. It fights for an ecomodern future because that is the only avenue it envisions to achieve consumerist socialism that doesn’t cause climate breakdown. But there are drawbacks, and there are flaws. Its most powerful message, that the present order can be appropriated to build the future, is also its weakest. Its socialist consumerism does not offer a way out for our overstretched world, promising only a more equitable decline to our planetary biosphere, and us with it.
Teaser photo credit: Pixabay