Growing Small: The Nihilism of Degrowth


   ‘Is it possible for machines made from industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?’- Planet of the Humans

General complaints against ‘industrial civilization’ in its various forms have always been the most reactionary of sentiments. Indeed, for a long time that was the very point. Longing for the days of pre-industrialization and was always the realm of aristocracies, Popes, and feudal lords. In his classic short novel, The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1965, Thomas Pynchon had his main character Oedipa Maas come across an outfit founded by a Confederate officer called the Peter Pinguid Society. Its member, Mike Fallopian, when confronted with the organization and its founder’s dislike of industrial capitalism, declared ‘Good guys and bad guys. You never get to any of the underlying truth. Sure he was against industrial capitalism. So are we. Didn’t it lead, inevitably, to Marxism? Underneath, both are part of the same creeping horror.’

A few years later fears of industrialization and the economic growth it brings began to find its way into more modern circles. In 1972, the Club of Rome published Limits to Growth. Published with much fanfare, the book predicted by the year 2100 the planet’s resource base will have shrunk so badly that the global economy would quickly find its way back to the 19th century:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

      Such thinking recently received a shot in the arm from the Planet of the Humans. Produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs, the film undoubtedly attempts a Leftish critique of the Green Energy industry and its infiltration by corporate money but ends up putting forward the same Malthusian ideas that were given a shellacking by Marx and Engels.

First, the film wrongly finds Green Energy to be no cleaner than fossil fuels (many critics have pointed out the information the film uses for this point is outdated). Finding that technological advance is a dead end, the film falls back on the idea that the problem is there are just too many damn people using too much stuff. ‘Desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life’, Gibbs bemoans when describing such efforts. It is worth asking who the ‘our’ is in that sentence. The word ‘class’ makes nary an appearance in the film. And obviously the planet itself has no need to be saved from global warming- it is precisely large parts of humanity that need saving.

Featured in the film was Richard Heinberg, author of The End of Growth. Heinberg declares ‘too many human beings, using too much, too fast.’ Anthropologist Nina Jablonski claims, ‘Population growth continues to be, not the elephant, the herd of elephants in the room.’ Steve Churchill, professor of Anthropology at Duke University, says ‘As a global community we have really got to start dealing with the issue of population.’ None of this is original. The film echoes the spiel of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 opus The Population Bomb. Ehrlich really made the rounds after the book was published, appearing on The Tonight Show over 20 times. In 1970, he told CBS News. ‘Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come. And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.’ In reality, the rate of global population growth was declining for years prior to Ehrlich’s book being published and has been in consistent decline since.

Moore and Gibbs certainly aren’t racists; however, they do seem oblivious to the racial implication of the lazy way the film makes its point. Population growth in the world is highest in places where overall consumption is low (i.e. places full of black and brown people). High consumption is concentrated in countries where population growth is low- many wealthier countries, including Japan and several places in Europe, are actually at risk of significant population decline. Rather than exploring how to alleviate this dynamic, such as empowering women in poorer countries to control their own reproductive choices or more liberal immigration policies in wealthier countries, the film leaves the point hanging.

Accompanying videos for the film give a somewhat clearer idea of what Moore and Gibbs envision: counties in the Global South can continue to develop, while more developed countries will have to scale back. Likely without realizing it, they are endorsing the idea of degrowth. Degrowth is a notion that, at least according to its proponents, has grown in recent times. Touted by advocates such as Jason Hickel and Naomi Klein, the idea is that since economic growth drives up demand for fossil fuels to be extracted and used at an increasing rate, along with other materials, it should be curtailed and reversed, at least in the most developed places.

How exactly would this play out? Both Hickel and Klein have an ironic fascination with the 1970s. Here’s Hickel writing on his blog in November 2017:

‘Imagine cutting the GDP per capita of the U.S. down to less than half its present size, in real terms. This might sound horrible on the face of it, but it would be equivalent to U.S. GDP per capita in the 1970s. Folks who lived through the 1970s remember them as heady days. And the poverty rate was lower back then and happiness Levels were higher- than now. Real wages were higher, too. The difference is people consumed less unnecessary stuff.

      Depending on one’s perspective, or better still one’s class, the 1970s may be a strange time to romanticize in the U.S. The urban crisis was worsening, the result of capital flight, austerity, and racism. Neoliberalism was rapidly being asserted as an economic cure-all. Smog and water pollution were bigger problems than they are now. The trucking and meat industries were being deregulated with wages crashing. As for the real wages Hickel refers to, for the working class they have hardly budged in the decades since- would it be consolation to the workers in the slums of St. Louis, Lowell, and East Baltimore that their wages are in line with the degrowth agenda? Such would save time on union-organizing. The difference in American society stemming from the 1970s is not increased consumption by everyone, it was the resurgence of capital over the working class.

Pointing out the unrealistic nature of this proposal, the economist Branko Milanovic estimated that the global median income in 2017 was $5500. Hickel replied in the same post just prior to the quote above with ‘If we bring the poorest up to $5500 per person per year, then in order to stay within the GDP cap everyone above this level will have to take an income cut.’ Leaving aside the feasibility of convincing basically everyone in the Western world and plenty of others elsewhere to cut their incomes substantially, and obviously the one-percent would take the biggest hit, but even for the working class this would seem to be austerity on a scale far beyond the dreams of even Reagan and Thatcher. By this logic, would the approaching austerity on the way from COVID-19 pandemic be a positive thing?

Some suggestions found in degrowth literature include legislating extended warranties on products, ensuring that they last longer, a “right to repair” to break the corporate monopoly on products to enable repairs to be cheap and affordable, banning food from landfills, taxing fossil fuels and red meat, and limiting single-use plastic. All surely fine ideas. Yet it is obvious that wouldn’t be enough. Here is where things get dicey. In a recent tweet Hickel proposes ‘In the wake of coronavirus, imagine this simple change to the airline industry: the return leg of any flight must be at least one week from the date of departure.’ Regulating and/or curtailing the use of private planes until technology becomes clearer is a good idea, but this seems unworkable, not to mention undesirable. Would other ideas along those lines be any more desirable?

Everyone mentioned in this piece comes out against forcible population control and there is no reason not to take them at their word (on the Citations Needed podcast Hickel, correctly criticizing the focus on African population growth, along with the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 90s that cut education in the Global South, envisions a cultural movement to what he calls a ‘post-Natalism’ for high consumption Western societies). This only emphasizes the point that such paths and their tributaries are dead ends. Despite its proclaimed tenants, conservatism is never a static force. It becomes ever more reactionary then its adherents envision. Let it be left to conservatives.

Geologists are increasingly calling for the current epoch to be renamed the Anthropocene to reflect the profound impact that humanity has on the Earth. This should be seen as cause for humble pride rather than a grim tragedy.  The delusions of some environmentalists aside, there never was a ‘balanced’ nature before humans or outside of human activity. Extinction, for instance, has always been inherent in nature. Human sadness over it only emphasizes human agency within nature. Glorious actions like preserving and returning land to forests or reintroducing species result from human action. As Leon Trotsky wrote in his 1924 book Literature and Revolution regarding the future of human innovation:

He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of rivers and he will lay down rules for oceans. The idealist simpletons may say this is a bore, but that is why they are simpletons…. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times.

Our mission is to build egalitarian cities and return more land to forests. Let us do away with factory farming and help develop lab-grown meat to prevent pandemics, reduce pollution, and expand animal rights. Let us build public banks and democratize workplaces to do what markets can’t and won’t such as create new antibiotics and transition from fossil fuels. The point of socialism was always abundance and prosperity for all. It is a time for thinking big, not growing small.

Joseph Grosso is a Librarian a writer living in New York City. His book Emerald City: How Capital Changed New York is being published this fall by Zero Books. Here’s a link :


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