20 Reasons to Prefer Degrowth to the Green New Deal (as a political option to address the collapse of civilization)

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(Translated from original in Spanish, by Steven Johnson, Mark Burton and Amelia Burke. Reviewed by the author.)

Text of the talk given (by videoconference) at the Universidad Socioambiental de la Sierra de Guadarrama (Socio-environmental University of Guadarrama Mountains, near Madrid, June 26, 2020), in the round table dialog about ecosocialism, ecofeminism, degrowth, and the Green New Deal, “Crossroads in the face of the Collapse”. (Slightly revised for a print format.)

The 20 Reasons

  1. Degrowth is a much more homogenous proposal in its diversity than the GND. The term “Degrowth” has one clear and unambiguous meaning, as generally understood by most of its advocates, which could be expressed as follows: “Democratically managing, in an internationally just manner, a decline in the levels of production and consumption of materials and energy of the socioeconomic metabolisms, until we place ourselves back within the limits of the biosphere with the objective of a decent life for all people” (Buen Vivir, as some peoples call it). We could say (simplifying) that there is one Degrowth, and many GNDs.
  2. Degrowth carries within its own name an unmistakable message about its content (stop growing) that gets to the heart of our civilizational problem: the obsession with perpetual growth. Under the label of GND, by contrast, one can sell (almost) anything, including mere greenwashings of capitalism. And, in fact, if we consider the original reference (Roosevelt’s New Deal), it was a Keynesian proposal that sought to stimulate precisely economic growth. And so the risk of “working for the enemy” through using that slogan is high, as is being seen with the European Green Deal of the European Union (an egregious exercise in techno-fantasy that seeks an absolute decoupling between the economy and the consumption of resources).
  3. If we sketch out the different possible scenarios, considering how rapidly the process of collapse takes place and the potential policies to prepare for it, we see that a decision to pursue Degrowth, in the event that the collapse ends up taking place more slowly and being less severe than was expected, will not cause tragic consequences, while if we pursue the GND and it turns out that there was less time than we thought, it will make things worse in a way that could be extremely tragic.
  4. Degrowth is drastic and radical, while the GND is gradual and accommodating (“it gains time,” some of its defenders insist). At most, in the versions of it that are most aware of collapse (like Emilio Santiago and Héctor Tejero’s), it seeks to postpone the most profound and radical action that is needed, which, as they recognize, is Degrowth. Which strategy is better suited to a time of climate and energy “emergency”? To act now, or to delay doing what we know will be necessary, while we devote ourselves to doing other things, which could even take options away from us because we didn’t implement them in time? Far from “gaining time” with the GND, such plans could “lose time” by trying out dead-end routes, spending irreplaceable resources, taking us down dangerous and wasteful detours. Apart from the fact that Degrowth cannot be postponed, we no longer have any room for manouevre. Therefore, in this sense, the GND would be an act of political procrastination.
  5. Science (for example, the MEDEAS/LOCOMOTION models) tells us that the GND could even make the collapse worse, ultimately making it more catastrophic. Diverting energy resources and minerals to the construction of massive renewable infrastructure will keep them from being used in other ways (this reduces the general EROI of the socioeconomic metabolism), and could even increase emissions in the short run. It could also increase inequality, since it calls for dedicating more energy to the energy sector and that reduces the social pie (other uses of the energy) available to share during the Energy Transition. The Limits to Growth already warned about this: Seeking to delay the collapse ends up causing a more pronounced fall. Perhaps more comfortable for us, but certainly worse for our children.
  6. The problem is capitalism, but the GND is not anti-capitalist. At the most, it is anti-neoliberal. Degrowth, by contrast, is necessarily anti-capitalist, since there can be no capitalism that stops growing. That is, now that capitalism has reached a point at which it cannot continue (because of the end of growth), the GND does not dare to end it, but instead merely yearns for its pre-neoliberal versions, while Degrowth recognizes: Now that we cannot continue growing the economy, we cannot continue functioning with capitalism. The GND in its most social democratic version wants to strengthen the public sector but it also supports in a substantial way the private sector, where the more social-liberal versions place the emphasis. But Degrowth defends everything public, understood not only as the state sector, but expands it to the communal dimension of society, and is based on non-capitalist forms of economy.
  7. Degrowth expressly includes the impoverished countries in its proposal, because it specifically proposes “degrow here so that they can grow there” to a just minimum. The GND is a proposal that is more focused on the problems of each country (or the European Union as a whole), and can even be implemented at the expense of the impoverished countries, by means of a mining and energy neocolonialism to feed its supposedly “green” plans, as has already been denounced in some writings. That is, there can be a neocolonial and imperialist GND, but not that kind of Degrowth. (Emilio Santiago, for example, has recognized that the GND does not address “climate justice” as understood on a global level.)
  8. The GND barely goes beyond the idea of jobs as the only way to satisfy human needs and is obsessed with the creation of thousands of new, supposedly “green,” jobs. Degrowth expands the proposal beyond the framework of jobs by advocating the sharing of a reduced workload because production has reduced. It also considers other ways to satisfy needs besides paid employment.
  9. The revealing effect of the public handling of the pandemic of COVID-19: One common argument against Degrowth – that it is unthinkable to stop certain sectors of the economy “on purpose” – has been completely refuted. The “politically impossible” has been shown to be not so impossible. The “unchangeable” has changed. That is possible to “put on the brakes,” to manage the economy from the State, prioritize what is essential… By contrast, in the light of all this, the GND has not moved an inch from its negative political determinism, nor has it seen its theoretical positions and strategic arguments favored, although perhaps only in practice by the business-as-usual movements toward the so-called “Green Re-Construction”.
  10. The GND does not put the brakes on extractivism and can even make it worse. Antonio Aretxabala (geologist): “Generally the technologies that they want to expand for this “green growth” require more minerals than their counterparts based on fossil fuels. A couple of examples: the electric car uses five times more minerals than one with a combustion engine, and a wind generation plant on land requires almost 10 times more minerals than a combined cycle plant of equal capacity. (Petrocenitales mailing list, June 13, 2020). We can also apply this to the concepts of digitalization and modernization constantly used by GND supporters. (Emilio Santiago talks of “ecological modernization,” for example.)
  11. In general, the proposals encompassed by GND do not take sufficiently into account the limits of resources and energy that we are facing in the short and medium terms. Degrowth, by contrast, takes these limits as its starting point.
  12. The GND, by strongly pushing for efficiency, but without doing so within a policy framework to reduce demand, succumbs to Jevon’s Paradox, besides having blind faith that its implementation will not face limits or downward curves.
  13. The GND, by pushing for an increase in renewables without reducing demand, ignores the fact that the contribution by these systems will be incapable of anything except to be devoured by the global increases in consumption as long as we maintain a capitalist (that is, managed for profit, and therefore growth-dependent) economy.
  14. The GND, by starting from what the current social majority is supposed to be able to accept without problems, fails to educate people, politically and ecologically, and thereby fails to tackle the root sociocultural problem. Those of its defenders who are closest to Degrowth say that it is a necessary preliminary stage to make degrowth possible later, but to whom is that message addressed? To the public? To the social-liberals who wave the same flag? Social democracy was also a preliminary stage before we could have socialism, and socialism a stage before we could have communism, and we’ve seen how that turned out. In order to be a preliminary stage to something else, the goal has to be clear, and it cannot go in contrary directions (in regard to extractivism, the lack of international justice, acceleration of the collapse…).
  15. The GND maintains the Great Social Deception, and generates hopes of continuity without any solid basis. Degrowth seeks to wake up a society that is sleepwalking toward the precipice, without fearing the effects of shocking people, which are preferable to the effects of the fall itself. Therefore Degrowth immunizes against the explanation for the collapse that fascism offers, or will offer, with its Nazi, Hobbesian, Neo-Darwinist… interpretation. The GND, by contrast, fails to so immunize, by keeping the gravity of the situation hidden from a confused society.
  16. The GND is techno-optimistic, and at times technology-worshipping, while Degrowth is technologically sober and skeptical. If the problem is cultural, the GND does not attack the cultural roots of the illusion of control, of faith in progress, of technolatry… and actually not even market-idolatry.
  17. The most conscious GND proposals, to the degree that they depend on hypocritical strategies, are playing with fire in the face of growing political disaffection in the citizenry. Degrowth, by contrast, tells uncomfortable truths, and therefore addresses that disaffection.
  18. The risks of “minimum” strategies, like that of the GND: when one lowers the bar of what has to be done, one is exposed to the risk that others (including your political fellow travelers) will understand that this is all that has to be done, and so the necessary is turned into the sufficient.
  19. The various GND proposals assume that the collapse of civilization is still avoidable, while we can say that Degrowth, by definition (collapse = reduction of complexity, which results from a lower flow of energy), seeks to manage the collapse, or to “collapse better,” as Riechmann would say.
  20. The GND seeks to be an easier and more politically feasible way than Degrowth. But do we really think it is easy to change the meaning of a term that was created not by ecosocialism, nor by ecofeminism, nor by the Degrowth movement, but by very powerful political and economic forces that haven’t the least intention of putting the brakes on growth or finding an alternative system to capitalism that could operate within the limits? Which proposition is more improbable: To turn around the meaning of a term that is already established (not “in dispute” as Emilio Santiago says) as business-as-usual and a replacement of the worn-out “sustainable development,” or to introduce new terms with meanings that are harder to co-opt? In the “war of position” that Santiago seeks to “advance” by donning the uniform of the enemy and jumping into their trench – is that not a suicide mission? (Certainly the war is not one of politics, but of religion… and the GND doesn’t go beyond the level of politics. This deserves a brief commentary, as it is a recurrent discussion among certain Degrowth collectives in Spain, but it might not be so common for the general reader. Certainly if we are to arrive at responses that can adequately address our crises, we must challenge and seek to replace the prevailing religion of Perpetual Progress that currently constrains what options are politically feasible or even culturally thinkable. The GND, out of a false and counterproductive sense of political experience, does not transcend or challenge that underlying controlling cultural myth in our societies, and therefore proposes solutions at the wrong outer level.)

Final Quotes

  • Greta Thunberg, quoted in Emilio Santiago and Héctor Tejero, ¿Qué hacer en caso de incendio? Manifiesto por el Green New Deal (“What to do in case of fire?: Manifesto for the Green New Deal”): “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope”.
  • The Limits to Growth: “Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem – the problem of growth in a finite system – and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it”.

(Thanks to Carlos de Castro and Marcos Rivero for their contributions to the text.)

Degrowth vs. Green New Deal (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez meeting)
Digital collage by Casdeiro.

Cited bibliography

  • Meadows, Donella H; Meadows, Dennis L; Randers, Jørgen; Behrens III, William W (1972). The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books
  • Meadows, Donella; Meadows, Dennis; Randers, Jorgen (1992). Beyond the Limits. Chelsea Green Publishing. ISBN 0-930031-55-5.
  • Meadows, Donella; Randers, Jorgen; Meadows, Dennis (2004). Limits To Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing.
  • Santiago, Emilio; Tejero, Héctor (2019). ¿Qué hacer en caso de incendio? Manifiesto por el Green New Deal. Madrid (Spain): Capitán Swing.
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Public speaker and writer on Peak Oil and other threats to industrial civilization. Author of La izquierda ante el colapso de la civilización industrial, We, the detritivores and coordinator of Guía para o descenso enerxético. Founder and coordinator of 15/15\15 magazine.

3 Comments

    • Sí, puede ser un buen símil. Desde luego está claro que somos sociedades adictas a un alto nivel de consumo energético y material, comenzando por el petróleo. Gracias por el aporte 🙂

  1. For any complex transition, one fundamental question cannot be escaped: what is the first step ?

    The GND has one element in it that is IMO the first step: ending oranized scaricity.

    Capitalism functions on oranized scarcity: anyone needs money to live, and money is concentrated in the hands of capital owners, therefore, one must sell his labor (or whatever resources he posesses) on the market, in which purchasing power is concentrated in the hands of capital owners at the top of the pyramid.

    Ending organized scaricity is more radical that it sounds, and the only way out of it is the development of publicly owned, non profit production capacity for goods that are essential to survival, mainly food and energy.

    One element of the GND is to do precisely that.

    It sounds less exciting than “ending capitalism”, but it is a very good first step in that direction.

    Once organized scarcity (also known as austerity) is ended, capital owners will have much less power, they will not have monopoly on “job creation”, we can then figure out whatever we want to do with capital ownership.

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