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Degrowth: with or against the Green New Deal?

GNDb

Social and Political Sciences lecturer Dr Gareth Dale considers two routes out of the climate crisis 

Movements demanding a serious response to the climate crisis are growing. The emphasis is action. Questions of strategy are less clearly defined. But some platforms are eliciting discussion, most prominently degrowth and the Green New Deal (GND).

Degrowth draws on traditions of anarchist and socialist utopian community (or ‘phalanstery’) building. Its pioneers are the “the back-to-the-landers who work the land, or the city dwellers cultivating urban gardens.”

The GND is a flag around which different projects form. Some businesses and political parties look to state-led infrastructure projects. Labour unions campaign for green jobs. For the far left it represents a historic opportunity to wrest reforms from capitalism until the ensuing contradictions reveal spaces ‘beyond’. In each case there’s a dominant complexion. For the GND: social democracy. For degrowthers: narodism, the nineteenth-century peasant-oriented movement of Russian intellectuals.

We’ve recently seen some spiky back-and-forth between ‘eco-modernist’ supporters of GND and degrowthers. Matt Huber accuses degrowthers of advocating “a politics of less.” They can’t “speak to the needs of the vast majority of workers ravaged by neoliberal austerity.” Further, they recoil from “any hint of industrial technology.”

Leigh Phillips presses similar buttons, ad absurdum. Degrowth and austerity “are mathematically and socially identical.” Against austerity-degrowth, he intones the mantra of modernity: “Energy is freedom! Growth is freedom!” To counter climate change, he demands “a massive worldwide build out” of nuclear power.

In response, degrowthers diagnose Huber and Phillips as suffering from technological hubris. They lack understanding of economic-environmental constraints and fail to appreciate the blowback potential of their techno-fixes. 

Phillips’ claim that nuclear power is the safest of all energy sources and emits no CO2 is risible. It’s belied by the tens of thousands of deaths due to Chernobyl alone, and forgets that making reactor fuel requires enormous energy inputs. 

 

What of the other charges?

 

First, Huber’s characterisation of degrowth as a politics of ‘less’ is specious. It offers, rather, a politics of ‘less is more.’: a smaller overall materials and energy envelope, with differentiated contents.

For the rich, much much less, and the same for the frequent flyers and beef guzzlers. For the billions: more good food, better housing, abundant clean water, reliable electricity, efficient sanitation, quality public amenities, and less hierarchy. 

All this requires infrastructure transformations, with “industrial technology” in abundance. Many degrowthers campaign for wind farms, with their reinforced concrete and steel towers, magnetic direct drive turbines, and nano-engineered polymers and composites. They demand colossal investments in transforming energy and transport systems.

Why does this matter? The current conjuncture is remarkably ‘stable-unstable.’ At face value, global capitalism is secure, with little threat from below. Yet, by its own yardsticks, growth (success) is diminishing. And due to capital’s logics, of wealth polarisation, and expanding cycles of production that crunch the earth’s biophysical limits, perceptions of crisis are pervasive.

The GND and degrowth communities seek alliances with sections of capital, but on the left of each, the perspective is to fan movement flames to the point where they can begin to overcome the institutions of power. The strategy of GND leftists is to build strength among workers’ and social movements pushing for major state reform programmes, while working toward socialist goals in the longer run. What of the degrowth narodniki? What ‘just transition’ programmes would they discuss with, say, the Kentucky miners who are blocking coal trains to demand back pay?

On the surface, the view does not seem promising. From the phalanstery window, workers’ jobs and housing can appear distant.

Yet there are three resources in the degrowth tradition that enable a constructive engagement. One is the commitment to powerful unions. They’re central to campaigns for reductions in the working week.

Another is their commitment to self-organisation. This is a mainstay of authors in the degrowth canon, such as Guha. His work on the Chipko peasants who ‘hugged’ trees’ to prevent commercial logging, demonstrated that the environmentalism of peasants, pastoralists and indigenous peoples is entwined with issues of social justice, local rights to resources, to survival and livelihood.

The third is anti-capitalism, understood—with critical input from feminist theory—as a system that loots and plunders across all social-natural fronts. Capital is imperilling the earth, but workers and the poor, above all women and racialised groups, are least responsible, first in the firing line, and possess tremendous latent power. The anticapitalism that correlates to this diagnosis places weight on “the reproductive economy of care”—care for others and the planet.

These principles bear a striking resemblance to those that guide some socialist GNDers. I have in mind Tithi Bhattacharya’s essay ‘Three Ways a Green New Deal Can Promote Life Over Capital,’and Alyssa Battistoni’s vision of a future climate-stable socialism, with its emphasis on green- and pink-collar labour: “work that makes people’s lives better without consuming vast amounts of resources, generating significant carbon emissions, or producing huge amounts of stuff.”

In this survey of the terrain I find no ‘degrowth versus GND’ rivalry as such. Between the camp heartlands obviously there is. Growth boosterism and degrowth are incompatible, and the distinction becomes supercharged when morality and aesthetics enter—on one hand, a fetishism of technology and a dogma that ‘growth is good’; on the other, a zeal for frugality. But at the left corners, the tents are so close as to practically touch.

This is published in the latest Resurgence & Ecologist magazine

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