By: Andrew Stuttaford – nationalreview.com –
A hamstrung green economy would mean a worse future
The industrial revolution is not yet canceled, but it has become “problematic.” When delegates arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, for Conference of the Parties 26, the 2021 edition of the U.N.’s climate jamboree, Britain’s then–prime minister, Boris Johnson, welcomed them with a speech in which, after some by-the-numbers apocalypticism (crops withering, locusts swarming, wildfires, cyclones, Miami underwater), he turned his attention to the industrial revolution: “It was here in Glasgow, 250 years ago, that James Watt came up with a machine that was powered by steam, that was produced by burning coal. . . . We’ve brought you to the very place where the doomsday machine began to tick.”
There was no mention of the extraordinary spike in human flourishing that Watt and other inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs kick-started over two and a half centuries ago.
In presenting the costs of economic growth as catastrophic while ignoring its benefits, Johnson stood in a venerable tradition that has yet again made a comeback. Doubts about our ability to improve the human condition, including those expressed by Thomas Malthus, Watt’s near-contemporary, go back a long way. But Malthus can be forgiven for his myopia, since, after all, he’d seen the grim conditions that often accompanied the early decades of the industrial revolution, and he had no opportunity to witness the remarkable flowering to come. His modern heirs have no such excuse. And their rising interest in the idea of “degrowth” threatens to undo much of that progress.
Post-war critics of growth were enjoying a moment in 1972, when the Club of Rome issued The Limits to Growth. “We have,” the book’s authors conceded, “ample evidence of mankind’s ingenuity,” but they were either unwilling or unable to grasp its significance. Humanity, by then 3.8 billion strong — a figure beyond Malthus’s imaginings — had come a long, long way. It was, as a whole, far richer, and the green revolution in agricultural productivity, which has probably saved more than a billion lives by now, was well under way. Indeed, the authors of The Limits to Growth acknowledged that revolution, although, tellingly, they fretted that it was increasing inequality. By 2023, the green revolution’s rap sheet had lengthened. Its entry in Wikipedia now includes this: “Recent research demonstrates that the green revolution is a major contributor to exceeded planetary boundaries, including increased greenhouse-gas emissions.”
Should the starving have done the decent thing and died?
The Limits to Growth was a product of its time, its gloomy message paralleled to a greater or lesser degree in works such as The Population Bomb (1968), Only One Earth (1972), A Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small Is Beautiful (1973). The first Earth Day was in 1970. Seven months later, the EPA was established, and shortly thereafter Iron Eyes Cody shed a Sicilian tear over pollution.
The authors of The Limits to Growth thought that then-current growth trends in population, industrialization, pollution, and resource depletion would lead to disaster “within the next hundred years.” But these trends could be “altered” by a “great transition” (talk of a “great reset” was still decades away) from “growth to global equilibrium,” a state “of ecological and economic stability . . . sustainable far into the future” (a principle taken up by economists such as Herman Daly, among others). Such an economy would ensure that “the basic material needs of each person on earth” were satisfied and that “each person” had “an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential” — if, presumably, he did not aim too high. This economy would naturally involve a bigger, more intrusive state. Certain “human freedoms, such as producing unlimited numbers of children or consuming uncontrolled amounts of resources,” would have to go.
For some environmentalists, neither sustainable growth nor even the “steady-state economy” would suffice. They called for variants of what came to be called “degrowth.” This term seems to have been coined by the Austro-French philosopher André Gorz in 1972. A leftist, he asked whether the “no-growth — or even degrowth — of material production” needed to preserve “the earth’s balance” was compatible with “the survival of the capitalist system.” His answer was not hard to guess. At around the same time, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian-American economist, was arguing that because Earth’s supply of minerals was finite, we were doomed, in the end, to economic collapse or, as he cheerily put it, “annihilation.” A steady-state economy would only postpone that unhappy fate. But his “declining state” (degrowth) model would provide a much longer stay of annihilation and (good news!) would not require returning “to the cave or, rather, to the tree.”
In Energy and Economic Myths (1975), Georgescu-Roegen sketched out how to attain that declining state. It included scrapping weapons production, helping developing countries reach “a good (not luxurious) life,” gradually reducing the population to a level that could be sustained by organic agriculture, ending the “morbid craving for extravagant gadgetry,” and opting for durability over fashion and for more leisure time (“spent in an intelligent manner”). Until solar power became “a general convenience” or controlled nuclear fusion had been achieved, “all waste of energy . . . should be carefully avoided, and if necessary, strictly regulated.”
While, then as now, humanity faced real environmental problems, the spread of fears that they would overwhelm us owed a great deal to the way the doomsday scenarios reimagined two persistent, potent myths. The first was of an Arcadia, the second of apocalypse. Industrialization had torn us away from a happier, if fictitious, past in which we had lived in harmony with nature. Worse, when blended with technological advance, it had also led to hubris and, in wealthier countries, overconsumption that threatened to catapult everyone into the abyss.
As with so many apocalyptic narratives, this one’s appeal is enhanced by the thought that “the rich” (in this case, the developed world) were responsible for humanity’s predicament and that a reckoning for these sinners was coming. And there was the promise of redemption: A superior, morally elevated status could be reached through the embrace of asceticism and a more collective way of life. It didn’t hurt that these ideas are an opportunity for the ambitious. Environmentalism is an ideology of scarcity. This means power, prestige, and more to those who are allocating resources.
For a time, it seemed as if disco-era apocalypticism might be eclipsed by the achievements of the ensuing decades, as the growing ascendancy of more-market-friendly policies lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty across the globe, an eventuality unforeseen by the prophets of doom who had little faith in individual human initiative. Meanwhile, human inventiveness and the market-price mechanism had, one way or another, averted the shortages forecast by some to have crippled us by now. What’s more, the experience in many nations appeared to back, albeit imperfectly, the theory embedded in the environmental Kuznets curve, which is that after passing a certain threshold, the more prosperous a country, the higher priority it puts on the environmental protection it had once regarded as a luxury.
Climate change rescued the doomsayers. Promoted quickly from problem (which it is) to existential threat (which it is not), it was an answer to their prayers. Wonderful solutions to yesterday’s crises — such as those provided by the green revolution — could now be blamed for their contribution to tomorrow’s emergency. Moreover, the central role played by greenhouse-gas-emitting industries that make possible so much of what we do and so much of how we live opened up almost limitless areas in which our behavior had to be controlled, for the good of the planet, of course — for a long, long time, and perhaps forever.
Climate change was used to redefine “sustainable” growth, a concept that had emerged during the 1980s as a more politically palatable alternative to the “steady-state economy.” Sustainability was a slippery notion that allowed the developing world to develop and, for the most part, required rich countries merely to show more mindfulness of growth’s environmental downsides. Once sustainability came to include reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, however, the concept was transformed into a straitjacket — in the West, anyway, where skillfully marketed climate panic has, for now, revised the political calculus. Those shaping climate policy in both Europe and the U.S. can downplay cost-benefit analysis and rational trade-offs, an approach in line with the idea that fighting climate change is not only a necessity but also a penance. It is supposed to hurt.
Back in the 1970s, Georgescu-Roegen had accepted that most people might reject the degrowth he was recommending: “Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence. Let other species — the amoebas, for example — which have no spiritual ambitions inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine.”
But nearly half a century later, Jason Hickel, a prominent advocate of degrowth (and there are many of those now to choose from) was infinitely more optimistic about the life it would lead to. In his Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2020), he argued that reorienting economies away from the wasteful “excess production” generated by the endless pursuit of “capital accumulation” and toward “human wellbeing” would ease the pressure on the planet while ending poverty, leaving humanity healthier, better educated, better housed, with more free time, and, yes, happier.
“Of course,” wrote Hickel, “doing this may mean that GDP grows more slowly, or stops growing, or even declines. And if so, that’s okay; because GDP isn’t what matters.” Growth would be permitted in some areas, to improve living standards in poorer countries and in the first world too, but there only in the interests of “human wellbeing.”
Writing in The Ecologist in 2021, eco-socialist Gus Woody explained: “Radical degrowth aims for the abundant production of objects for their use, rather than the current piling up of junk for profit. By focusing on what is necessary, degrowth allows us to ask the wider question of what a society which satisfies all needs looks like” (emphasis in original). And so, of course, does the market, but organically, rather than by bureaucratic fiat. Citing Marx, Hickel too drew a sharp distinction between “use-value” and “exchange-value.” But who ultimately decides on the use-value or on what is “necessary”?
It’s easy enough to poke holes in the feasibility of Hickel’s vision — “plan” would be too flattering a word. It is a dream of a heaven on earth and, as such, is in keeping with the millenarian faiths to which such strains of environmentalism invite comparisons. This interpretation is bolstered by the veneration of “nature” that runs through Less Is More, accompanied by shout-outs for shamans, animism, and the wisdom of indigenous peoples, a type of nonsense not infrequently found in environmentalist discourse. “Individuality is an illusion” to Hickel. “Life on this planet is an interwoven mesh of relational becoming.” Okey dokey.
Less Is More is also further evidence (as if it were needed) of how red has turned green. This has meant junking the Left’s former Prometheanism. (“What,” asked Friedrich Engels, criticizing Malthus, “is impossible to science?”) But the Left’s other beliefs live on. Hickel’s principal evildoer is a pantomime-villain capitalism. And his recommendations for remedying our “ecological breakdown” are those of the hard Left, to which he, like many others in the degrowth camp, or adjacent to it, still belongs. Hickel may distance himself from “the command-and-control fiasco of the Soviet Union,” but he subscribes to the ideological biases that underpinned it. And what he proposes would involve plenty of commanding and controlling.
The use of fossil fuels would be “radically reduced,” as would the production of arms, private jets, and SUVs, just a few items on what must be a very extensive list. Advertising, frowned upon for encouraging consumption, would be cut back, with some of it being replaced by propaganda, or rather “messages that build community and affirm intrinsic values.” Beef-farming must be “radically” (that word again) “scaled down,” but we could feast on beans and other legumes instead. There will be less flying, income differentials would be capped, rent controls would be permanent, and there would be a “democratic conversation” about how rich anyone could be. And while “we need to switch to electric cars,” ultimately their numbers would have to be “radically” reduced, too.
However disappointing Tesla drivers might find that prospect, it is an inevitable consequence of Hickel’s conviction that climate change is not the only area in which the environmental impact of our species is exceeding safe limits. To bring us back within what some scientists term Earth’s “planetary boundaries,” we, particularly in the richer countries, must simply produce less. Hickel is far from alone in thinking so. “There is no such thing as green growth,” warns British writer George Monbiot. “Growth is wiping the green from the Earth.” “Barreling forward on renewable energy is the last thing Earth’s critters would vote for,” worries astrophysicist Tom Murphy. “Ecological economists,” writes Hickel, “insist that the only way to [go] is with a hard limit: cap resource and energy use at existing levels and ratchet them down each year until you get back within planetary boundaries.”
There are plenty of reasons to take issue with Hickel’s conclusions, ranging from his relentlessly hostile interpretation of how capitalism works to the suspiciously convenient fashion in which his supposedly environmentalist prescriptions fit so neatly with his leftist beliefs. His faith in the judgment of some scientists and in the wisdom of indigenous peoples is matched by his skepticism about the ability of our species to weather what some scientists see as a new geological era, the Anthropocene, without, in essence, retreating. This ignores the way our growing wealth has made (and will continue to make) it increasingly possible to decouple growth from environmental despoliation and fund the remediation of the damage that has already occurred.
And don’t think of Hickel, a successful economic anthropologist and writer, as an outsider or outlier. Among his other positions, he’s a member of the Roundtable on Macroeconomics and Climate-Related Risks and Opportunities of the National Academy of Sciences. To be sure, degrowth ideology takes many different forms. There are neo-Luddites, neo-Malthusians, and ecological Leninists. And there are those who favor voluntary human extinction. Some regard us as a cancer, others as a virus.
But views akin to Hickel’s are shared by a significant cohort of scientists, economists, NGOs, activists, and writers. In Japan, Capital in the Anthropocene (2020), by Tokyo University’s Kohei Saito, a “degrowth communist,” has sold 500,000 copies. It will shortly be published in the U.S. as Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto. There are mounting signs of interest in both bureaucratic and political circles, including, inevitably, the Democratic Socialists of America. Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, claims that economists’ “fixation” on “perpetual” growth has made their discipline blind to “the ecological catastrophe we now face.” Former Obama energy secretary (and Nobel laureate) Steven Chu has argued for “an economy based on no growth or even shrinking growth.” Mentions of degrowth are creeping into the deliberations of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The EU is taking an interest.
If degrowth penetrates even the edges of policy-making, the effects will be immensely damaging. And if its supporters eventually win the argument, they will create narrowly constrained, tightly controlled, economically failing, and technologically stagnant societies in which, behind an egalitarian façade, those in charge grab a disproportionate share of a shrunken cake. Quite a few people would push back against the restrictions of such regimes, at which point “democratic conversations” would cease.
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