When America is ready for ideas that work, we’ll need political leaders who are ready with ideas that work
This is Part 2 of my discussion of how ecosocialism might come to America. Part 1 is here. Although America is far from ready for ecosocialist solutions — in fact, it harbors so much resistance to the fundamental precepts of ecosocialism that these ideas have little currency in mainstream American political discourse today — my argument here is that there will come a time, soon, when old mental models will fall and a struggling nation will finally begin to consider radical alternatives. In this piece, I attempt to describe how and when America might come to this point, as climate change and resource depletion wreak havoc across the land.
Climate crises, resource depletion, energy descent, and degrowth
Many have speculated about how climate change and resource depletion will trigger (or are already triggering) our descent from the carbon-powered plateau humanity enjoys today (source). This is the path I have called involuntary degrowth. Milestones likely to appear along this path include:
- Climate damage, initially in the more-vulnerable Global South, will result in disruptions in global production and agriculture, leading to shortages and price increases for food and consumer goods in the Global North. Growth (as measured by GDP) will decline.
- Because Central Banks will interpret price increases as demand-driven inflation, they will drive up interest rates, causing financial chaos among America’s highly-indebted wage earners. These efforts will fail to control prices, because the source of volatility will be external supply, not internal demand, and national Central Banks have no leverage over international energy and food prices.
- Meanwhile, extreme weather events will continue to escalate in frequency and severity, disrupting economic flows and resource stocks around the world.
- Escalating prices and endless climate disasters will sap the financial resilience of even the richest countries. Economic output will decline and GDP will decline further, leading to an essentially permanent supply-driven recession. This will also produce the first truly existential crisis for capitalism, as the absence of growth renders the global system of capital debt and repayment-with-interest inoperable (source).
- Reluctantly, governments will resort to the only proven solution to supply-driven food and resource scarcity — rationing. This will lead to significant distributional issues as different groups in society lay claim to their “fair share” of shrinking supplies. Highly unequal distributions of income and wealth will play a major role in determining “who gets what”, with wide disparities in access visible for all to see.
- In this world of growing shortages and inequality, extreme weather events, increasing environmental destruction, and governments still in the thrall of a dangerously dysfunctional mental model, we are likely to see a spike in social instability and political conflict, both within and between nations.
- If history is any guide, as these crises accelerate, nations will tend to turn inward, toward protectionism, repression, and isolationism. The most powerful nations are likely to become more interventionist externally and more repressive internally.
- In the final phase of our energy descent, large political entities (like nation-states) are likely to become unmanageable and ungovernable, resulting in a final, involuntary “de-complexification” of no-longer sustainable institutions, technologies, and structures. Communities and local regions will find themselves on their own as they struggle to provide the basic ingredients of life — food, water, and energy — while operating in a much hotter, resource-depleted, and ecologically-damaged world. Some will survive, many will not.
The question is: when along this gloomy path can publics be expected to say “enough is enough”? In other words, at what point will the pain finally exceed the gain to an extent that publics in still-democratic nations will be willing to elect leaders advocating an ecosocialist agenda?
My guess is that this point could be reached at its earliest around step #4, but is probably more likely to be reached somewhere around steps #5 or #6. Rationing will be a wakeup call that finally convinces people the current system is no longer working. The promise of neoliberal capitalism has always been “a rising tide of growth raises all ships”. Rationing and unequal access to supply-constrained food and resources will send a very different message: “some boats are rising just fine, but mine is sinking”.
Currently, degrowth scholars are focusing on how policy decisions, if implemented soon enough and widely enough, might avoid the kind of disastrous descent sketched out above. As much as I respect and admire this impressive body of work, my argument here is that this is unlikely to be successful, because resistance to change is still significantly greater than the pain the system is inflicting on its primary beneficiaries. Until that equation changes (and it will change), I don’t believe the world is ready to accept the radical transformations that degrowth scholars have identified, even though these transformations are the only path by which we can realistically put our civilization on a more sustainable footing once we have lost the magical elixir of fossil fuels.
Given that degrowth is more likely to emerge within the climate crisis, rather than as a deliberate strategy to avoid the climate crisis, we can expect degrowth’s three primary goals to be achieved somewhat differently than much of the degrowth literature to date anticipates (source). Those goals, introduced in Part 1, are:
- abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal.
- scale back destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use.
- focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.
How might pursuit of these goals differ in the midst of our growing polycrisis of climate disasters, resource shortages, and energy descent?
GDP is a measure of aggregate production. As degrowthers have noted, it makes no distinction between $100 worth of tear gas and $100 worth of healthcare (source). Similarly, in terms of GDP, a forest has zero economic value until it is cut down and sold as lumber. These deficiencies are well-known. Yet, the world today runs on GDP signals. It is the measure of growth, which in turn is the measure of success, for every nation on the planet.
Degrowthers imagine that nations can be talked out of measuring their success via GDP growth. This is indeed a major challenge and serious obstacle to any strategy of voluntary degrowth. However, in an involuntary degrowth scenario like the one outlined above, growth doesn’t need to be deliberately curtailed via policy interventions, it will cease on its own due to a massive decrease in global production caused by climate change disruptions.
In this scenario, nations will not need to abandon GDP, because GDP will abandon them. When growth ends, measuring growth will become much less interesting. An end to growth will have a secondary benefit: as economic activity contracts, demand for fossil fuels will decline, and greenhouse gas emissions will decrease, providing some relief from our annual orgy of pumping more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. To be clear, this benefit will be gained at the expense of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, who will bear the brunt of the unemployment, business failures, and wage stagnation that such contractions typically entail. That’s just how capitalism works these days.
Scaling back overconsumption
Dealing with overconsumption and the deep inequality with which it occurs is probably the thorniest problem voluntary degrowth must confront. Here again, rethinking this issue in the context of a supply-driven economic contraction leads to different conclusions. Deconsumption in the Global North is unlikely to require government mandates to enact. Like the end of growth, the end of overconsumption will be imposed by supply shortages induced by the devastating effects of climate change in both the South and North. For example, consumers in the (relatively) rich North will not need to be told by their governments to eat less meat, they will choose to eat less meat when a “real beef” hamburger costs $100 and an “impossible beef” plant-based hamburger costs $10.
This is not to say there will be no role for government in these circumstances. Governments will be forced to ensure a fair distribution of scarce goods with rationing programs much like those enacted during World War II. The purpose of these programs will be to distribute food and goods more fairly, but perhaps more importantly, they will be necessary to help quell the civil unrest and conflict that are likely to accompany any imposition of consumption restrictions, especially if the rich find ways to bypass the system and hoard an unfair share of available supply for themselves, much as they do today.
Degrowthers emphasize the need to scale back destructive and unnecessary forms of production. As a first priority, this means ending the oil and gas industry, but degrowthers have identified many other industries they see as fundamentally tied to overconsumption and global warming. Often-cited examples include aviation, meat production, industrial farming, the insurance industry, the fashion industry, the military-industrial complex, the cruise industry, and the advertising industry (see, e.g., source, Ch. 5). Mandating the demise of these industries is unthinkable under current political and economic regimes, but within a supply-driven economic contraction, they all are likely to suffer significant reductions in their size and reach without requiring any government intervention. People won’t be flying less because they are “mandated” by law to one flight per year, they will be flying less because flying is too expensive and cheaper, more environmentally-friendly alternatives are available, such as travel by electrified train (source) or using video conferencing to eliminate most business travel altogether.
Focusing on human needs and well-being
The final plank in ecosocialism’s platform for the future is a wide range of policy proposals that address the social crises of inequality, wealth concentration, and inadequate access to resources and services, both within and between nations. These proposals encompass many diverse policy areas, but for the sake of simplicity we can summarize many of them within five key research areas (source).
Remove dependencies on growth
Economies today are deeply dependent on the assumption of continued growth. Investors depend on growth to increase the value of their investments. Firms, in turn, cite their potential for growth to attract investors. Welfare programs are funded by taxes, which require growth to increase the tax base. Pension funds, which support millions of retirees, depend on stock market growth to finance their operations. More generally, the fundamental engine of capitalism — investors loaning capital to debtors, who repay the loan with interest — is dependent on growth to ensure investors receive a profitable return on their investment. Firms that grow are rewarded with more investments, resulting in more growth. Firms that fail to grow are unable to attract investors and either go out of business or are absorbed to become part of more successful competitors’ growth.
Ecosocialism calls for the removal of these dependencies. For example, the “fiduciary duty” of corporate boards of directors should be modified by legislation to replace prioritizing the short-term financial interests of shareholders with promoting longer-term social and environmental benefits and wellbeing. Corporations should also be held responsible for the social and ecological costs of their operations, including their greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of environmental damage.
Some of these reforms have already begun to emerge, challenging current mental models in relatively mild ways. For example, a growing movement emphasizing the inclusion of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors in investment decisions has been adopted by some of the largest investment funds (e.g., Blackrock and Vanguard) as a way to better anticipate the risks that climate change and ecological disruption might impose on investors. Unsurprisingly, however, these efforts have recently come under withering attack (and more than one lawsuit) by rightwing politicians and Red State legislatures who are now denouncing ESG as a dangerous “woke” politicization of investing (source).
This response illustrates how even a slightly ecosocialist-friendly proposal can trigger a leap from “ridicule” to “violent opposition” if the powers that be see it as potentially threatening (see Part 1). If there is one unshakeable principle underlying our current devotion to capitalist growth, it is that size of financial return is the only valid criterion for making an investment decision. If that return comes at the cost of boiling the oceans or putting billions of people at risk of starvation, that is not the investor’s concern. ESG says those considerations should be a part of an investment decision. True-blue capitalists say, over my dead body.
Here again, I believe the end of growth will finish off much of this opposition to degrowth policies, by virtue of deflating the political and economic power of those most responsible for the obstruction we see today. Only when climate change and resource depletion have rendered growth impossible will governments be ready to entertain new ways to protect the health and wellbeing of their citizens.
Fully fund basic public services
Under a traditional capitalist regime, public services such as education and healthcare are privatized as much as possible. As such, the extent of their reach is determined by their profitability, not their recipients’ needs. Under conditions of economic adversity, privatized public services are thus likely to shrink, not expand. This is a good example of how capitalism in “normal” times generates artificial scarcity in public goods to maintain a steady flow of labor into private firms, thereby ensuring that access to public goods is dependent on wages and income, not need (source). When growth ends and poverty and unemployment become rampant, this method of provisioning public services will no longer suffice.
The range of fully-funded public services that ecosocialists want to make available of course includes healthcare and education. A key ecosocialist principle is that healthcare should be free to all, ideally through a public provider, without the intermediation of expensive private insurers. Similarly, public education should be tuition-free from primary school through university. Existing debts accrued for healthcare and education should be cancelled.
Looking beyond healthcare and education, ecosocialists are working on policy options in several other sectors, including housing (an end to homelessness), transit (public transportation should be affordable and available to all), food (no child or adult should go to bed hungry), labor (a public jobs guarantee), communication (broadband internet and mobile phone access for all), power (a guaranteed quota of energy should be available to all), and water (a basic allotment of clean water should also be available to all).
Programs in all these areas have been blocked time and time again with affordability arguments emanating from the right, especially in the US. But these arguments will fade (along with the political parties who make them) as economic and energy-availability conditions worsen. Affordability is a bit of a red herring even today. It is a blocking tactic used by conservatives to restrict spending for things they don’t like, such as providing public services, but it never comes up when they are approving things they do like, such as tax cuts for the rich or defense spending. Ecosocialists have developed a provocative response to these affordability arguments, noting that any government that has sufficient monetary sovereignty can mobilize public production directly, simply by issuing public finance to do so. Details are beyond the scope of this paper, but curious readers can find the basic argument here (see also source).
Shorten working hours and adopt a “green jobs” guarantee
With unemployment and poverty on the rise, governments will need to provide new ways to make new jobs available for displaced workers. Several policies have been suggested to achieve this result, such as lowering the retirement age, encouraging part-time work, or adopting a four-day work week. These measures would lower carbon emissions and allow people — especially young people — to devote more time to much-needed climate mitigation activities. Similarly, a green jobs guarantee — something like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided millions of jobs during the Great Depression — could train and mobilize young workers to tackle urgent social and ecological objectives, such as installing renewables, insulating buildings, regenerating ecosystems, and improving social care services. These efforts would also help stabilize employment as fossil fuel-dependent industries shed jobs through layoffs and bankruptcies.
Establish living wage and minimum income standards
Among ecosocialism’s most controversial proposals is a recommendation to establish a universal basic income for all residents, along with a much more livable minimum wage for the lowest-paying jobs. These are proposals that today make conservatives’ heads explode, because they fundamentally oppose the rightwing core belief that poor people are greedy and lazy, and will only fritter away such largesse on drugs and alcohol.
In the real world, those concerns have proven to be unfounded (not to mention totally lacking in empathy) as several experiments, including the massive subsidies disbursed during the COVID pandemic, have shown that a basic income floor provides significant benefits. A two-year program in Stockton California, for example, provided 125 low-income families with a stipend of $500 per month from the start of 2019 to the end of 2020. Independent researchers evaluated the results and concluded that even this small subsidy significantly reduced recipients’ month-to-month income fluctuations, enabled them to find full-time jobs, decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, and created new opportunities for recipients to exercise self-determination, goal-setting, and risk-taking (source).
In an era of continued global warming, energy descent, and resource depletion, such programs are likely to become essential for maintaining peace and civic order in communities and nations experiencing unprecedented volatility and uncertainty.
Reduce inequality through tax reform and other measures
Finally, ecosocialists want to give millionaires and billionaires a haircut. They recognize that late-stage capitalism has left us with a huge hoarding problem, one that denies most of the world’s population access to much of the wealth their labor produces (source). Instead, we are subjected to the spectacle of billionaires shooting fossil fuel-guzzling rockets into space while millions go to bed hungry every night. This is where unfettered capitalist accumulation inevitably ends up, as scholars from Marx to Piketty have reminded us for almost two centuries (source). Reducing inequality, in contrast, is one of the most effective ways to reduce demand for frivolous and wasteful products. It cuts high-impact luxury consumption by the rich and reduces keeping-up-with-the-Joneses consumption across the rest of society.
Reining in the consumption of the wealthy is the most consequential immediate action governments can take to reduce carbon emissions and cap global warming at a lower level than where it is heading today (source). In America, the world leader in overconsumption and total CO2 emissions (source), the richest 10% of households are responsible for 40% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (source). Unfortunately, an even smaller segment of these elites, the now-infamous “1 percent”, today effectively control the agenda of one of the country’s two major political parties, thereby ensuring that any effort to make the rich pay their “fair share” in taxes is blocked before it has any chance of being adopted. This is unlikely to change as long as economic power is distributed the way it is today.
This balance of power will shift as the world enters a period of economic contraction, product and food shortages, and an end to fossil fuels. Attitudes toward the rich will likely turn from fascination and adulation to anger and resentment as people watch the wealthy continue to gobble up a disproportionate share of dwindling resources, essentially acquiring bigger and bigger proportions of a smaller and smaller economic pie.
Degrowth scholars and ecosocialists see rebalancing inequality in the Global North as an essential ingredient for addressing the second crisis facing humanity today: the social crisis. Many scholars recommend a return to the progressive tax structure of the 1950s and 1960s, in which the top income bracket in the US was taxed at 91%. Degrowthers consider this to be a necessary but not sufficient step for reducing both inequality and carbon emissions. In addition, they see a need to redistribute wealth, not just rebalance income. For example, economists Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman have found that a 10% annual marginal tax on wealth holdings over $1 billion in the US would raise over $250 billion per year, push the richest to sell off some of their assets, and stabilize wealth inequality at a level last seen in 1980 (source).
Other proposals for undoing today’s extreme inequality in income and wealth include legislating a maximum wage for corporate executives by tying their pay to the average pay of all employees in their companies. If CEO salaries were capped at 10 times their companies’ average salaries, for example, this would give those CEOs an incentive to raise everyone’s wages in order to raise their own — a clever way to instantly reverse today’s incentives, in which CEO raises come at their workers’ expense, not their mutual benefit (source).
Finally, because the main benefit society derives from reducing the economic power of the very rich is to reduce their energy and resource consumption, other proposals have focused on imposing heavy taxes on specific behaviors that produce those high carbon emissions, such as purchasing and operating private jets, high-end yachts, massive real estate holdings, and gas-guzzling luxury cars (source).
When the world is ready for ecosocialism, ecosocialism must be ready for the world
Today, the political stage in most western democracies is occupied by three main groups: (1) deregulation-obsessed billionaires, science deniers, and oil-industry boosters on the right, (2) a hodge-podge of “green growth” advocates in the middle who believe we can swap in renewables for fossil fuels and continue growing as in the past (many climate boondoggle projects are found here), and (3) a small coterie of progressives on the left who believe inequality also needs to be addressed as a contributing factor, but still embrace ongoing growth as an attainable goal.
Currently, there is no room on this stage for degrowth or post-growth advocates who see growth as the problem, not the cure, and identify over-consumption and carrying-capacity overshoot as equally important threats to human civilization. Accordingly, when degrowth ideas hit the mainstream in these countries, it’s much like a fly hitting an electric fly catcher. Pffft.
Over time, this will change. As the world gets hotter and more ecologically damaged, demand for better solutions will increase and radical change will become more acceptable to a struggling populace. When that day arrives, and previous occupants of the world’s political stage have scattered in disarray, America’s Ecosocialist Party must be ready to step up and provide the answers humanity needs.
The Ecosocialist Party I have described here is essentially the political equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Rather than saving seeds for an unknown future when the world will need them, it’s saving ideas for an unknown future when the world will need them. We have a long way to go.