Degrowth, or a ‘green new deal’? Robert Pollin’s contribution to the recent debate on environmental strategy in these pages counterposes the two paths that currently dominate radical discussion of this issue. That they do not exhaust it is clear from the other contributors: Herman Daly, the Grand Old Man of ecological economics, reiterates his call for a ‘steady state’ economy in his interview with Benjamin Kunkel. Troy Vettese, drawing on the example of the seventeenth century’s Little Ice Age, argues for a ‘natural geo-engineering project’ to lower global temperatures through reforestation, and against mooted artificial geo-engineering solutions, which propose to manipulate the Earth’s cloud cover, alter the chemical composition of the oceans or release a ‘solar shield’ of sunlight-reflecting sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere. At the same time, Mike Davis’s discussion of the painstaking archival research by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie into the evidence for the Little Ice Age in France illuminates the limits of our knowledge of climate history. What follows will focus on Pollin’s trenchant criticisms of degrowth and the version of ‘green growth’ he offers as an alternative.footnote1
Pollin’s starting point is the urgent need for emissions reduction to stabilize global temperatures, as set out by the International Panel on Climate Change. Other environmental issues—biodiversity, clean air and water, liveable cities—as well as political questions—social and international equality, for example—are subordinated to the imperative of moderating climate change. ‘There are no certainties about what will transpire if we allow the average global temperature to continue rising. But as a basis for action, we only need to understand that there is a non-trivial possibility that the continuation of life on Earth as we know it is at stake.’footnote2 His programme calls for an extra 1.5–2 per cent of global gdp to be invested annually in a fast-growing programme of clean, non-nuclear, renewable-energy provision, while fossil-fuel industries will be shrunk by 35 per cent over the next twenty years, an annual 2.2 per cent. Taking aim at proponents of degrowth, he argues:
It is in fact absolutely imperative that some categories of economic activity should now grow massively—those associated with the production and distribution of clean energy. Concurrently, the global fossil-fuel industry needs to contract massively—that is, to ‘de-grow’ relentlessly over the next forty or fifty years until it has virtually shut down.footnote3
This scenario is based on the ‘absolute decoupling’ of economic growth from fossil-fuel consumption—the former can expand while the latter contracts. Pollin claims this will drive down CO2 emissions ‘by 40 per cent within twenty years, while also supporting rising living standards and expanding job opportunities’. He provides costings for the social support and retraining of fossil-fuel workers: for the us as a whole this amounts to $600 million a year, or 0.2 per cent of the Federal budget. There are no costings for compensating the giant oil, gas and coal corporations; instead, Pollin notes in passing that these behemoths ‘will have to be defeated’. Although he concedes the moral case for rich countries to reduce their per capita emissions to the level of poorer ones, he considers it politically unrealistic for the us to do so. Under his programme, us emissions will fall from 16.5 to 5.8 tons per capita after twenty years, but they would still be three times the world average and three times higher than China’s per capita emissions, which would fall to 2.3 tons. To compensate, Pollin hopes the us will provide poorer countries with financial help for the transition.
Taking issue with Kunkel’s opening flourish, that ‘fidelity to gdp growth amounts to the religion of the modern world’, Pollin counters that, under financialized neoliberalism, the real religion is not growth but maximizing profits ‘in order to deliver maximum incomes and wealth for the rich’. While agreeing with the degrowth movement that much global-capitalist production is wasteful and that gdp is a flawed metric, he argues that degrowthers have not produced a viable set of policies to cut greenhouse-gas emissions enough to stabilize global temperatures. Most damningly, it would seem, Pollin charges that degrowth would create soaring levels of poverty and unemployment, while failing to arrest climate change. According to his calculations, a 10 per cent contraction of the global economy, following a degrowth agenda, would create a world-historic slump, with global unemployment rocketing and declining living standards for poor and working-class people, but would still miss ipcc targets.
How well do these claims stand up? Pollin’s argument that the drive for profits, not gdp growth, is the real ‘religion’ of financialized neoliberalism fails to acknowledge that both neoliberalism and financialization are part of capitalism’s response to the crisis of profitability that arose following the breakdown of the post-war settlement between capital and labour. The underlying problem is not ‘neoliberalism’ but the self-expanding system of capitalism, which turns everything into a commodity (real or fictitious), and so threatens the basis for the social and physical reproduction of human society at a variety of levels. Perhaps it is this misidentification of the villain(s)—targeting neoliberalism, not the capitalist mode of production—that helps Pollin to propose what is essentially a social-democratic approach of mitigated capitalism. At the same time, there is no doubt that the imaginary of gdp growth remains a powerful ideological force in its own right, mystifying the real economic processes at stake and instead focusing debate on the idea of expansion as an inherent good. It has a significant influence on decisions regarding production, distribution and consumption, and on the financial system that facilitates each of these elements.
Pollin is partially right to argue that the degrowth movement has not prioritized the formulation of detailed policy proposals on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; its contributions have generally concentrated on showing how gdp growth makes such reduction harder. However, there are degrowthers who have addressed this question. Kevin Anderson, certainly an ally of degrowth, has proposed a Marshall Plan to decarbonize energy supplies, as well as shifts in ‘behaviour and practices’ such as frequent flying.footnote4 Energy and resource caps feature in the work of ecological economist Blake Alcott, for example, and the ‘cap and share’ variant of this approach has been taken up by Brian Davey and the Irish ngo, feasta.footnote5 Again, Pollin is right to call for a specific sectoral analysis of what needs to happen to make the ‘dirty’ sectors contract and the clean sectors—the ‘replacement economy’—expand. Proponents of degrowth have never argued that some sectors should not grow, and shutting down fossil-fuel industries has been a strong strand in their work; it was, for example, the main extra-academic project of the Leipzig degrowth conference in 2014. Crucially, however, this sectoral adjustment needs to take place within an overall envelope that contracts, so that aggregate human activity remains within safe planetary limits and its ecological footprint does not exceed the available biocapacity. This is not just a matter of carbon; it involves water, air, forests, croplands and fishing grounds, as affected by the processes of production, consumption and trade.