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Degrowth—can it save the planet?

The popular theory acknowledges the waste and inequality built into capitalism—and demands radical change. But, says Sophie Squire, some advocates think that we can rid ourselves of the worst aspects of the system without overthrowing it
A mass Extinction Rebellion protest blocks main roads

A mass Extinction Rebellion protest blocks main roads in central London, 2019 (Picture: saw2th)

The popularity of degrowth as a solution to the environmental crisis flows from the recognition of the world’s finite resources and because capitalism is a system of waste and degraded priorities.

It’s absolutely right that too much of the wrong things are made and distributed. And that instead of changing this, giant firms encourage endless consumption that makes the situation worse.

Food is a sharp example. Globally about a third of the food that is produced is then wasted. Some is priced too high for people to buy, and other perfectly usable crops don’t meet the cosmetic standards of the supermarkets.

The food not used means that the labour power, water, energy and components for machinery and pesticides are effectively thrown away. We don’t need less food produced, but we need degrowth in the waste that flows from the profit motive.

Last year the new Chilean government revealed that British firms were primarily responsible for mountains of textile waste accumulating in the Atacama Desert. Almost 40,000 tonnes of waste “fast fashion”, most of it from Britain, had been illegally dumped, forming poisonous heaps of rubbish.

A degrowth of production of such garments would benefit everyone except those at the top of the clothing firms. Karl Marx said that growth under ­capitalism destroys “the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer”. And it’s a system that systematically wastes immense resources.

In a book written in the 1960s, the economist Joseph D Phillips said that the parts of the economy that served no socially useful purpose and would therefore be considered waste in a more rationally organised society averaged over half of the gross national product of the United States.

For reasons of equality, as well as environmental reasons, we need massive degrowth in the production and consumption of super yachts, mansions, Rolls Royce cars and second, third and fourth homes.

A report by the charity Oxfam found that the wealthiest 10 percent globally were responsible for half of all emissions of greenhouse gases, whereas the poorest half of the world’s people were responsible for about 10 percent. And the almost £2,000 billion spent on war fighting and preparation for more wars is waste that flows from competition between states.

Such a distorted society is built into the way capitalism operates. Marx said that competitive accumulation is central. Capitalists fight with their rivals nationally and internationally to ­maximise their profits. 

In order to maintain and enhance their position, they then put back into new rounds of production a significant part of the wealth they grabbed from workers. If they do not ceaselessly grow their capital, they will go under. 

The pressures of capitalist production, Marx said, are “felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws”. They compel them “to keep constantly extending” their capital, to preserve it. 

The only way to extend capital is “by means of progressive accumulation”. Such trends undermine any idea of a “green capitalism”.

Socialism isn’t about endless expansion of production, except with more democracy in the workplace and in society. Workers’ power and democracy would inevitably involve discussion about the effects of expanded resource use, and the limits of some types of ­production that heavily use such resources.

Presently economic growth is measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—a measure of all goods and services produced within a country’s borders. Those at the top often say that if GDP rises, general living conditions will improve for ordinary people. But, for example the US has the highest GDP in the world but was rated worst in a study of 11 high income countries when it came to healthcare in 2021.

The flaws of measuring wellbeing and growth with GDP is something detailed in one of the most popular books on degrowth—Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, written by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel. Hickel argues that millions of unnecessary products are made every year that are designed with built-in obsolescence and are even designed to break.

Hickel writes, “Reducing resource use removes pressure from ecosystems and gives the web of life a chance to knit itself back together, while reducing energy use makes it much easier to accomplish a rapid transition to ­renewables before dangerous tipping points begin to cascade.”

But this could become a war on the living standards of ordinary people. Even in “advanced” countries, workers have too few goods and services, not too many.

A rational society would be one of rising living standards for workers ­everywhere, but a reordering of priorities and methods without the profit motive involved. The question is how to achieve such change.

What’s the best way to bring about radical change? 

Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, school strikes and direct action have put environmental issues at the forefront of debate. But they haven’t yet moved governments to take the action that is so urgently required.

So it’s understandable that Extinction Rebellion (XR) is casting around for new ways to be effective and to secure the change that’s needed.

Major social transformation has generally involved two central elements. The first is protest in large numbers. 

Coming together in large numbers to protest can break the feeling of helplessness that comes from the scale of the climate crisis. And it gives confidence to people that change is possible.

Demonstrations may not instantly force change, but they can cohere the forces that want change, scare politicians to be the basis of networks that can go further.

The plan for XR’s The Big One is to get 100,000 in the streets around parliament. The group says, “The streets will be transformed with People’s Pickets outside government departments and a diverse programme of speakers, performers and workshops, awash with colour and culture.” 

Socialists should support the events and the protests, and if possible they should be there. But change usually involves another element. That is breaking the power of the ruling class and corporations with the use of a counter-power. 

Sometimes that involves violence, such as the resistance by oppressed peoples against colonialism and imperialism. Sometimes, and best, it means using the power of workers through strikes as well as mass mobilisations. And always it means defiance and readiness to confront the state’s power. XR’s most effective action came in 2019 when thousands of people blocked roads and bridges. 

That threw the cops and the government on to the defensive and showed it was possible to bring a city to a standstill. Direct action also has an important effect on those who take part in it. It can make them realise they don’t have to obey the rules and laws governing us.

But XR now wants to stress, “The first thing to know is that our plans do not include roadblocks, or locking on or gluing on to anything. Nor do we plan to throw paint at buildings, or anything of that nature. This is because The Big One intentionally focuses on attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks.”

Unfortunately the people at the top are often unmoved by “attendance”. Tony Blair’s Labour government went ahead with war on Iraq despite 2 million opposing it in the streets.

French president Emmanuel Macron knows that the large majority of people oppose his pension attacks, and millions have protested against them. But he is determined not to bend an inch to the opposition.

Leading climate activist Andreas Malm said recently, “Since the peak of the climate marches in 2019, there has been a diversification and radicalisation of certain branches of the movement which is reflected in Ende Gelande, the speeches of Greta Thunberg, post-Extinction Rebellion groups like Just Stop Oil or even the Stop Cop City mobilisation in Atlanta (United States) which fights through occupations and sabotage against the installation of a police training centre.

But he added, “It must be remembered that each time there have been radical mass mobilisations, the first attempt is a success, such as the demonstrations in Seattle in November 1999. But very quickly afterwards, the police readjusted, changed their policing practices to stifle any protest.”

Direct action, even by tens of thousands, won’t be enough. So the answer is both to grow the turnout of our side—a mass movement—but also to find ways of overthrowing those at the top.

And here the growth of strikes in Britain is a really positive sign. Climate activists have joined pickets because they sense that this is a transformative power—if it’s not held back by union leaders and Labour Party politicians.

The argument for the power of a combination of masses on the streets and action in the workplace has been blunted by the way many unions have not supported environmental action, and have not launched strikes.

There’s a chance to change that now. The great Yellow Vest movement in France had a good slogan—“End of the month, end of the world, one struggle”. It said that the system that means your pay or benefits run out too soon was the same one that endangered the planet.

We need to make the battles over pay and jobs and conditions and the struggle against environmental collapse part of a common resistance to capitalism.

The big one

Climate campaigners Extinction Rebellion are organising a four‑day protest to take place at parliament in London from Friday 21 April. The aim is to show a huge scale of public support in a vibrant demonstration of the passion for transformation.

A critical mass of people will unify behind a demand for action that tackles the climate and ecological emergency and inequality.

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