revolutionary reflections | ‘Green Capitalism’: a critical review of the literature: part 3

Part 3 of Stephen Graham’s critical review of the ‘Green capitalism’ literature examines debates between advocates of ‘green Keynesian’ approaches and supporters of de-growth. It concludes with a discussion that focuses on political strategy and environmentally sustainable transition at a time of acute ecological crisis.

See Parts 1 and 2. A pdf of the whole article is available here.

Max Ernst, Europa nach dem Regen, 1933.

Part 3

Green growth, political strategy and ecologically sustainable transition: ‘green growth’ or ‘de-growth’?

Recently, debates regarding the very possibility of ‘green growth’ have intensified following the (re-)emergence of Green New Deal (GND) thinking in the US.[1] The GND’s increasing political traction – in large part a reaction to the anti-ecological intransigence of the Trump administration at a time of increasingly evident climate breakdown– has pitted defenders of ‘green Keynesian’ ideas such the GND against those demanding not ‘green growth’ but ‘de-growth’ as the socio-economic means by which to ensure planetary salvation.[2]

Before going further, we must note that, despite some major differences between the various strains of green Keynesian and de-growth thinking, there also exists significant common ground. For instance, it would be possible to create more ‘green’ jobs in renewable energy (a typical ingredient of green Keynesian approaches), whilst reducing working time for individual employees (a common demand of de-growth advocates).

Consequently, drawing crude, clear-cut distinctions between de-growth and green Keynesian positions is ill-advised. However, given that such a move is helpful in terms of initially setting out the terrain of debate, it is in this manner that I will proceed. Doing so will enable us to consider the key possibilities and limitations associated with each perspective, and thus will allow us to establish some potential advantages (considered from the viewpoint of those seeking ecologically sensitive social transformation) of a middle way position founded on a more qualitative conception of growth than that frequently employed in the de-growth literature.

Green Keynesian approaches

While there are many Keynesianisms (neoclassical synthesis, post-Kensianism, etc.), we will consider as green Keynesian those approaches that combine Keynesian fiscal policies with environmental aims in an effort to resolve both ‘unemployment problems and ecological problems through a single policy framework’.[3] Such policies typically seek to boost employment (and therefore demand) by ‘greening’ basic infrastructure.[4]

A major tension evident in green Keynesian approaches, however, relates to traditional Keynesianism’s emphasis on growth and the increasingly evident ecological limits to growth.[5] A key challenge for those advocating green Keynesian approaches, then, relates to the question: to what extent can this growth be ‘greened’?

The rapidly rising US GND movement draws on green Keynesian ideas. Driven by groups such as the Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, this socialist-inflected Green New Deal variant is gaining political traction as a potential solution to pressing environmental, economic and social problems. Indeed, the idea is currently supported by several leading Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election.[6]

The programme can be considered relatively ambitious. According to Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a key figure driving the resurgence around the GND, the policy is set to be ‘the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation’.[7]

Proposals centre around a mass public works programme oriented towards rapid decarbonization of the US economy: the aim is to develop a national energy system based on 100% renewable energy within 12 years. It is founded on a federal job guarantee offering work with a ‘liveable wage’ and health insurance for all who want it.[8]

Other demands include the recognition of labour rights and union representation, and a just transition with protections for low-income communities, communities of colour, indigenous communities and those adversely affected by climate change and environmental pollution . To help fund this programme, key figures associated with the movement are demanding tax increases for the rich.[9] Perhaps unsurprisingly, these suggested tax increases have been fiercely attacked by Republican critics; the programme has also faced criticism for the role played by the controversial Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in GND financing.

The scale of the programme and its increasing political traction clearly represents a threat to embedded elements within the fossil-capital nexus in the US. Consequently, the GND movement has faced, and continues to face, significant resistance from such quarters.[10] Yet opposition has emerged not only from those intent on protecting fossil-capital interests, but also from sections of the environmentalist left – in particular from advocates of de-growth.

De-growth

The de-growth movement brings together a diverse range of tendencies, each emphasising different issues: GDP, consumption, work-time, physical degrowth, etc.[11] All, however, tend to coalesce around the view that ‘growth is uneconomic and unjust, that it is ecologically unsustainable and that it will never be enough’.[12]

This stance sits squarely at odds with the orthodox economic view that continuous growth is both possible and desirable – and that its achievement constitutes a panacea for all social ills.[13] Advocates of de-growth tend to stress the need for ‘sustainable de-growth’. This, it is suggested, should not be considered solely in terms of negative GDP growth (a phenomenon that already has a name: ‘recession, or if prolonged, depression’.[14] Instead, this involves an ‘equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials’.[15] This focus on throughput is important, suggests Kallis, as:

In any meaningful understanding of the term, ‘economic growth’ signals an increase of material [living] standards.[16]

This is because:

Growth in the material standard of living requires growth in the extraction of materials. This is unavoidably damaging to the environment and ultimately undermines the conditions of production and reproduction. There is no silver-bullet technology that can make an increase in the material standard of living immaterial.[17]

On this view, reducing ecological impact requires a reduction in material and economic throughput. For Kallis, this is incompatible with GDP growth – and indeed throughput de-growth will likely lead to a decline in GDP.[18]

Therefore, suggests Kallis, what is required is a way to make the ‘inevitable – and desirable – economic (GDP) degrowth… socially sustainable… It is a vision of a smooth process of downshifting the economy through institutional changes, managing collectively a ‘prosperous way down’.[19]

However, as many critics of de-growth perspectives note, devising a way forward that is socially sustainable is one thing – yet it is something entirely different to incorporate such demands for social sustainability into a programme that is politically viable. This issue we will return to below. First it is necessary to take a critical look at green Keynesianism.

Green Keynesianism: critical perspectives

As noted above, a central ecological critique of green Keynesian approaches relates to the detrimental ecological impacts associated with increased levels of employment and, therefore, demand.[20] According to Jackson, this relationship between employment and consumption indicates that:

…the default assumption of even the ‘greenest’ stimulus package is to return the economy to a condition of continuing consumption growth. Since this condition is unsustainable, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the longer term something more is needed.[21]

From an ecological sustainability point of view, Jackson’s doubts are not without foundation. Note, for example, the emphasis placed on increased consumption in the Green New Deal Group’s influential 2008 report:

Any (Green New Deal) public spending should be targeted so that domestic companies benefit, and then the wages generated create further spending on consumer goods and services… workers’ salaries are spent on food, clothes, home entertainment, the theatre and so on, creating demand for those industries.[22]

A common defence offered in response to this line of criticism stresses the possibilities associated with shifting economic activity from production of goods to services.[23]

Yet this suggestion can be found wanting on at least two counts. First, while it might indeed be possible to re-orient a given (national) economy away from manufacturing goods towards service-based activity, this need not necessarily be accompanied by a reduction in levels of domestic consumption (and therefore overall material throughput). Instead, environmentally harmful production processes may simply be exported to other national economies, which in turn export their (semi-)finished goods to the countries in question. While a domestic economy may appear, then, to be de-materialising, this process is predicated on ‘supermaterialisation’ at the macro scale.[24].

Second, those who advocate shifting production from goods to services tend to assume that service-based economic activities are immaterial (or at most have a very light ecological footprint). While of course hairdressing may be less ecologically harmful than steelmaking, service-based economic activities still require a material basis – therefore their continued growth has detrimental ecological consequences.[25]

Another key limitation of Green Keynesian approaches (and an issue of particular importance given the nature of the argument I set out below) is the ‘top-down’ nature of their political decision-making processes. For Wainwright and Mann, this dynamic forecloses the development of radical political alternatives. Keynesian approaches, they suggest, can only:

…further concentrate power and resources in the hands of elites – the technocratic and economic groups with the knowledge and power to carry it out – thus rendering us even more beholden to the political status quo upon which those elites rely.[26]

Their view is supported by Eskelinen, who notes that Keynesian approaches say little about power relations in production, and that they typically overlook privileges rooted in established ownership patterns – omissions that tend to leave existing class relations intact.[27]

Environmental critics of green Keynesian approaches tend to consider such factors inherently limiting in terms of instigating processes of meaningful socio-ecological transformation. However, green Keynesians are able to suggest precisely the opposite: it is the relative compatibility between their proposals and the currently dominant political-economic ideas that makes their translatability into concrete political action more likely.[28]

For many advocates of green Keynesian ideas, however, the same cannot be said of de-growth proposals – which, the argument goes, offer little insight into how to foster the social and political changes required for the enactment of a programme of rapid, radical socio-ecological change.[29]

De-growth: critical perspectives

For thinkers such as Pollin, Foster and Schwartzman, this deficiency is rooted in an inadequate conception of growth itself. Pollin suggests that de-growth thinkers tend to present ‘broad generalities’ about economic growth that result in crude demands for ‘blanket’ de-growth.[30] It is a view is shared by Schwartzman, who criticises de-growth thinkers for prioritising the quantitative, rather than qualitative, aspects of growth. He suggests that:

The concept of economic growth should be deconstructed, with in-depth consideration of its qualitative versus quantitative aspects, particularly its differential ecological and health impacts. Growth of what are we asking? Weapons of mass destruction, unnecessary commodities, SUVs versus bicycles, culture, information, pollution, pornography, or simply more hot air? What growth is sustainable in the context of biodiversity preservation and human health, and which is not?[31]

Emphasising the form of growth (its qualitative nature) offers a means by which to overcome what many characterise as the green growth vs de-growth dichotomy. It also provides a foundation for the development of an emancipatory ecological politics based on green growth.

This is not to deny the need from an ecological sustainability standpoint for an overall reduction in material and energetic throughput – a key concern if we are to remain within planetary limits. This qualitative conception, however, does open up space for thinkers such as Pollin to argue for growth in some categories of economic activity (i.e. clean energy infrastructure development), alongside a rapid contraction in others (the fossil fuel sector, for instance).[32]

This approach offers a way to potentially sidestep the severe social dislocation typically associated with sharp declines in growth. While such economic contractions can have beneficial ecological effects, they typically lead to mass unemployment and declining standards of living – particularly for working people and the poorest in society.[33] It is for this reason, Pollin argues, that strategies founded on the de-growth concept will find little public political support – and therefore must be rejected.

It is a sentiment with which Neale and Dale agree. To build an ecological movement with the social power necessary to drive radical socio-economic change, Neale argues that political demands must centre not on sacrifice and reductions in growth, but on ‘decent living standards, jobs and growth of a very particular kind’.[34]

This is not to suggest that sacrifices are completely unnecessary. Instead, argues Dale:

…certain sacrifices are needed: for instance on the part of frequent flyers, SUV owners, or eaters of beef. These would disproportionately, but not exclusively, affect the wealthy.

However, growth must not be conceived in the abstract, but in determinate, qualitative terms (linked to questions of the form of society). The struggle then becomes one not simply for green growth, but for:

…climate jobs, street by street refurbishment of buildings, additional bus routes and tram lines, solar panels, public healthcare, and so on. In the Global South the list could be extended to include electricity supply for the 1.6 billion people who lack it, an end to back-breaking work, and the installation of sanitation and water systems. [35]

Foster similarly dismisses a conception of growth considered in the abstract – a viewpoint he strongly associates with de-growth thinking. He instead emphasises the need to focus on:

deaccumulation—a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end.

He does not, however, reject outright the importance of de-growth. But he does argue that, while economic growth may be the ‘main driver of planetary ecological degradation’, the concept of de-growth can only take on genuine meaning:

…as part of a critique of capital accumulation and part of the transition to a sustainable, egalitarian, communal order; one in which the associated producers govern the metabolic relation between nature and society in the interest of successive generations and the earth itself (socialism/communism as Marx defined it).[36]

In terms of political strategy, by bringing together the work of Pollin, Neale, Dale and Foster, we can suggest that concrete proposals – renewable energy infrastructure projects, energy efficiency programmes, improving public transport networks etc. – could constitute the initial phase of what Foster has called a ‘two-stage strategy for ecological and social revolution’.[37] This first stage focuses on actions possible under present-day conditions – yet that run counter to the logic of capital accumulation. Such activities can generate the conditions necessary for the second, eco-socialist phase of transformation that Foster ultimately advocates (there are connections here with Gorz’s conception of structural reforms[38]).

Like Foster, Vergara-Camus considers the transition to socialism necessary for long-term ecological protection. For him, this transition would necessarily entail the abolition of capital accumulation as the dominant organising logic of society. In his vision of socialism, the consumer choices of labourers would be determined by ‘democratically decided and ecologically informed objectives’ in a way that could allow such a society to ‘…grow in certain times and degrow in others (depending on the satisfaction of needs and the available technology)’.[39] Clearly, if one accepts the arguments set out above, such an agenda is inconsistent with the logic of capitalist production – no matter how ostensibly green. Instead, as Dale sets out, it would require a context where:

…not capital but need determines what is produced and how[40], in which not profit but the quality of life is the defining purpose of social labour, and in which the planet’s resources and the natural environment are handled with care.[41]

This vision would not appear out of place in the de-growth literature. However, if one accepts the criticisms of de-growth set out above, then perhaps demands for a certain type of (green) growth can better inform the development of a political strategy that, in the longer term, will develop the social forces necessary to make meaningful de-growth a genuine possibility.

Conclusion

The primary aim of capitalist production is the accumulation of capital. Capitalist social formations require constant growth – and as this growth (even when ostensibly green) is inherently ecologically destructive, we can conclude that any future ‘green’ capitalist accumulation regime will eventually hit the limits of nature. A ‘green’ capitalism in any meaningful sense, then, is a contradiction in terms.

While it might be possible in theory to envisage a capitalist social formation that is powered entirely by non-fossil energies, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that such a prospect is pending. As a result of the advantages fossil fuels provide, they remain a central element in capitalist production. Despite current trends showing large increases in renewable energy capacity, the inner logic of capitalism ensures that these new de-carbonized energy systems only supplement existing fossil-based supply in service of capital accumulation. What’s more, the expanded production of these new renewable energy systems will amplify other ecological rifts. As the window of opportunity for action on climate change closes, this situation is a cause for concern. It is clear, then, that a truly sustainable future – one focused on a social metabolism geared to sustainable human development[42] – must be one beyond capitalism.

However, while I object to the notion of ‘green capitalism’, it may be possible to pursue an ecologically-sustainable political programme that includes ‘green growth’ – if one accepts that this can only occur in certain sectors (green energy infrastructure, public transport, etc.) and at particular times as demanded by ecologically-informed social need. This growth must be compensated for by rapid de-growth in ecologically destructive sectors (fossil fuel production, private vehicles, military activity, unnecessary consumption etc.).

Such priorities require a social context in which effective, deeply democratic institutions are firmly embedded and where production is oriented not towards constant capital accumulation, but social need. This vision is incompatible with the priorities that drive capitalist social formations, and instead speaks to socialist demands.

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World Economic Forum, More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency (2012).

Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010).

Edward Anthony Wrigley, ‘The supply of raw materials in the Industrial Revolution’, The Economic History Review, 15:1 (1962), 1-15.

Edward Anthony Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

Richard York, ‘Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?’, Nature Climate Change, 2 (2012), 441-3.

__________

Notes to Part 3

[1] Interest in the Green New Deal concept is also gaining momentum in other settings, including the UK.

[2]  See, e.g.: Kallis, ‘Socialism without growth’; Serge Latouche, Farewell to Growth (Cambridge: Polity, 2009); Jonathan Neale, ‘Climate politics after Copenhagen’, International Socialism Journal, 126 (2010); Troy Vettese, ‘To freeze the Thames’, New Left Review, 111 (2018), 63–86.

[3] Jonathan M. Harris, ‘Green Keynesianism: beyond standard growth paradigms’, Global Development and Environment Institute Working Paper, 13:2 (2013).

[4] Teppo Eskelinen, ‘Possibilities and limits of Green Keynesianism’, in: Eskelinen et al. (eds.), Politics of Eco-Socialism, p. 102.

[5] Harris, ‘Green Keynesianism’.

[6] Cameron Cawthorne, ‘Ocasio-Cortez: “Every Democratic presidential candidate” supports Green New Deal’, Washington Free Beacon (16 February 2019).

[7] Robinson Meyer, ‘The Democratic Party wants to make climate policy exciting’, The Atlantic (5 December 2018).

[8] Katrina vanden Heuvel, ‘Why the time has come for a Green New Deal’, The Washington Post (18 December 2018).

[9] Matthew Choi, ‘Ocasio-Cortez floats 70 percent tax on the super wealthy to fund Green New Deal’, Politico (4 January 2019); Matthew T. Huber, ‘Building a “Green New Deal”: lessons from the original New Deal’, Verso Blog (19 November 2018).

[10] Dean Obeidallah, ‘The right is slamming the Green New Deal, and Democrats need to react fast’, CNN (18 February 2019).

[11] Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis (eds.), Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (Oxford: Routledge, 2015); Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh, ‘Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”’, Ecological Economics, 70:5 (2011), 881–90.

[12] D’Alisa et al. (eds.), Degrowth, p. 6.

[13] Dale, ‘Growth paradigm’.

[14] Giorgos Kallis, ‘In defence of degrowth’, Ecological Economics, 70:5 (2011), 874.

[15] François Schneider, Giorgos Kallis, Joan Martinez-Alier, ‘Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue’, Journal of Cleaner Production, 18:6 (2010), 512.

[16] Kallis, ‘Socialism without growth’, 5.

[17] Kallis, ‘Socialism without growth’, 2.

[18] Kallis, ‘Socialism without growth’, 4.

[19] Kallis, ‘In defence’, 875; quoting: Howard T. Odum, Elisabeth C. Odum, A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies (Colorado: UP of Colorado, 2001).

[20] Wainwright, Mann, Climate Leviathan, p. 120.

[21] Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (London: Earthscan 2009), p. 104.

[22] Green New Deal Group, A Green New Deal: Joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices (London: New Economics Foundation, 2008), p. 27.

[23] Fred Block, ‘Crisis and renewal: the outlines of a twenty-first century new deal’, Socio-Economic Review, 9:1 (2011), 31–57.

[24] Dale et al. (eds.), Green Growth, p. 9; David A. Sonnenfeld, ‘Contradictions of Ecological Modernization: Pulp and paper manufacturing in Couth-East Asia’, in: Mol et al. (eds.) Ecological Modernisation Reader, pp. 386-7.

[25] Wainwright, Mann, Climate Leviathan, p. 120. Hairdressing is a frequently invoked example of a supposedly immaterial entity that has significant detrimental ecological impacts is Bitcoin.

[26] Wainwright, Mann, Climate Leviathan, p. 121.

[27] Eskelinen, ‘Possibilities and limits’, p. 112. However, it is necessary to note that by boosting employment, Keynesian approaches can work to strengthen the position of labour vis-à-vis capital: Michał Kalecki, ‘Political aspects of full employment’, Political Quarterly 14:4 (1943).

[28] Eskelinen, ‘Possibilities and limits’.

[29] John Bellamy Foster, ‘Capitalism and Degrowth: an impossibility theorem’, Monthly Review, 62:8 (2011), 26-33; Neale, ‘Climate politics’; Robert Pollin, ‘Green Growth vs a Green New Deal’, New Left Review¸ 112 (2018), 5–25.

[30] Foster, ‘Capitalism and Degrowth’; Pollin, ‘Green Growth’.

[31] David Schwartzman, ‘A critique of degrowth and its politics’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23:1 (2012).

[32] Pollin, ‘Green Growth’, 7-8; Dale, ‘Growth Paradigm’; Neale, ‘Climate politics’.

[33] Pollin, ‘Green Growth’, 22.

[34] Neale, ‘Climate politics’.

[35] Dale, ‘Growth paradigm’.

[36] Foster, ‘Capitalism and degrowth’.

[37] John Bellamy Foster, ‘Marxism and ecology: common fonts of a Great Transition’, Great Transition Initiative (October 2015).

[38] André Gorz, ‘Reform and revolution’, in: Greg Albo, Leo Panitch, Alan Zuege (eds), Class, Party, Revolution: A Socialist Register Reader (Haymarket: Chicago, 2018).

[39] Leandro Vergara-Camus, ‘Capitalism, democracy, and the degrowth horizon’, Capitalism Nature Socialism (2017), 11.

[40] In Marxist terms, we can state that this is the prioritization of use-value over exchange-value: Marx, Capital, vol. 1.

[41] Dale, ‘Growth paradigm’.

[42] Foster, ‘Marxism and ecology: common fonts’.

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