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Degrowth: An environmental ideology with good intentions, bad politics

Jul 20, 2021

Grain elevator. Source: Wikicommons.


The planet is experiencing multiple environmental crises: biodiversity loss, deforestation, increased rates of pandemics, chemical pollution, soil depletion, water contamination and shortages, runaway non-renewable energy consumption, and climate change. “Degrowth” is an environmental ideology that arose as a political response to these compounding crises. Degrowth was originally termed by André Gorz in 1972. Gorz argued that global environmental balance, which is predicated upon non-growth (or “degrowth”), is not compatible with the capitalist system, which requires “accumulation for the sake of accumulation” [1]. Degrowth, according to Gorz, is thus a challenge to capitalism itself.

Degrowth has become increasingly popular among many environmentalists and leftists. There are some who even call themselves “degrowth communists” [2]. Thus, it’s important to have a clear understanding of exactly what degrowth is and whether it has the potential to advance or hold back the class struggle.

Jason Hickel, a prominent proponent of degrowth, defines it like this: “The objective of degrowth is to scale down the material and energy throughput of the global economy, focusing on high-income nations with high levels of per-capita consumption” [3]. The degrowth perspective asks why society is so obsessed with “growth” (measured by Gross Domestic Product) and seeks to deconstruct the entire “ideology of growth.” The “ideology of growth” is used by the capitalist class to argue that more and more growth is needed to overcome poverty and to create jobs. This is bourgeois ideology in the sense that capitalism relies upon and produces the artificial scarcity to which we’re subjected.

The reality is that, in developed capitalist countries like U.S., there is an overabundance of material wealth and that scarcity is socially produced by the capitalist market and private ownership. Degrowth is correct on the point that if wealth were redistributed then there would indeed be abundance. However, even though proponents of degrowth are well intentioned and truly want to solve environmental crises, the political-economic methods and solutions that degrowth calls for actually work against creating the critical mass necessary to make a socialist revolution here in the U.S. I address each of these below by showing how 1) degrowth reproduces Malthusian ideas about so-called “natural limits;” 2) it’s anti-modern and anti-technological orientation lacks a class perspective; and 3) there are key practical issues with deploying degrowth ideas in the class struggle itself. 

The Connections between Thomas Malthus and Degrowth

Thomas Malthus was an aristocratic political-economist who did much of his work before the development of industrial-scale agriculture. In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principles of Population, Malthus argued that in every geographic region there are particular resource limits or “carrying capacities” [4]. Malthus’ so-called “law of population” says that unchecked population growth will outstrip this carrying capacity that eventually leads to a “natural check” in the form of massive deaths from starvation and disease to bring the population back under the carrying capacity. Malthus blamed poor people for “unchecked” population growth and argued against policies to alleviate people from abject poverty because it delayed the inevitable: the “natural check” of overpopulation. Rising wages, Malthus said, led to workers having more children and thereby creating overpopulation. He blamed workers themselves for economic crises, with a convenient argument against rising wages. Marx rebuffed Malthus’ erroneous theories, clarifying that “every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population,” and that crises were caused by capital, not by workers [5]. (This is also a point on which he diverged from Darwin, who adopted Malthus’ ideas of population).

Much of this same Malthusian discourse continues to exist today as an explanation for problems such as environmental degradation and poverty. However, the development of industrial agriculture and the production of increasingly higher crop/food yields proved much of Malthus’ theories incorrect.

Malthusianism focuses on “overpopulation” as a main cause of environmental degradation. Degrowth actually reproduces this faulty notion through the proposition that once resources and wealth are equally redistributed (which degrowth rightly wants to do), there must be some “check” on population because, as population grows without any added economic growth, people will eventually have access to fewer and fewer resources. For instance, Giorgos Kallis, another major proponent of the movement, says that “degrowth envisions radically reducing the surplus” and advocates so-called “self-limitations” where there are “collective decisions to refrain from pursuing all that could be pursued” [6]. Rather than the typical Malthusian “natural” external limits, degrowth goes a step further: it calls for a collective enforcement of the internalization of Malthusian ideas of limits and constraints.

The target of degrowth, Kallis declares, is “not just capitalism, but also productivism” [7]. Proponents of degrowth argue that any type of “economic growth is ecologically unsustainable—whether it is capitalist growth or socialist does not make a difference” [8]. In doing so they artificially equate the two antagonistic systems and abstract away from the qualitative differences between socialist and capitalist growth. Kallis justifies this claim by arguing that if we did not change consumption levels in a post-carbon energy regime, then nothing would really change in terms of environmental destruction because “the manufacturing of renewable energies requires lots of earth materials. And the fact that they cost more than fossil fuels might have something to do with their lower energy returns and higher land requirements” [9]. Thus, degrowth does not really have an ecological theory of capitalism, but an ecological theory of accumulation. For degrowth, any type of accumulation is bad and requires increased “material throughput.”

False equivalences between different social systems

But do proponents of degrowth know what accumulation entails? Accumulation simply means reinvesting the surplus back into production (either to expand or repair existing means of production). The accumulation of a surplus is necessary in any society. In his discussions of the reproduction schemas in the second volume of Capital, for instance, Marx writes that there has to be some sort of accumulation in order to reproduce existing society, to replace and repair fixed capital like machinery and roads, societal infrastructures, to care for those who can’t work, and so on. There also has to be surpluses for, say, pandemics and droughts.

The difference is that accumulation under socialism is guided by the workers themselves who collectively determine what and how much surplus to produce and how to use it. Under capitalism, accumulation happens for accumulation’s sake, without a plan, and purely in the interests of private profit. Under socialism, accumulation benefits society as a whole, including even the ecosystems we inhabit. When workers are in control of the surplus, will we not develop and grow the productive forces to make life better and easier for ourselves and more sustainable for the earth and its inhabitants? Wouldn’t we especially grow green productive forces to build more (and better) schools, public transportation, etc.? Shouldn’t socialists in the U.S. strive to repair the underdevelopment of imperialism by assisting in the development of productive forces in the formerly colonized world? While there are sufficient surpluses of, say, housing in the U.S., there are certainly not surpluses of housing in the entire world.

Since the rise of neoliberal capitalism, the size of the working-class stratum composing the “labor aristocracy” has substantially reduced. Whom exactly are we telling to “self-limit” what we consume and live at a time when most workers in the U.S. are living paycheck to paycheck, and accumulating more and more debt? Wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s while prices have increased over 500 percent. Who exactly is supposed to limit themselves, and to what? Isn’t the problem that the masses are limited by capitalism?

Degrowth is, in essence, a form of ecological austerity for working-class people [10]. Stated simply, by focusing so much on the consumption habits of workers within capitalism and so little on the conditions and relations of production, proponents of degrowth end up reproducing Malthusian ideas of “natural limits.” 

We must analytically evaluate production and show how production “produces consumption” itself [11]. The wasteful and environmentally unsustainable consumption patterns of the working class are not produced by “personal” choice but are system-induced. Every day, millions of workers in the U.S. commute to work in single occupant vehicles not because we “choose” to drive. It’s because public transportation is so unreliable (if it exists at all), jobs in the labor market are so unstable and temporary that few workers are actually able to live close to work, and the rents around major industries tend to be unaffordable for our class.

Then there is planned obsolescence, such as when commodities like cell phones are produced to break every two years. When capitalism is overthrown and replaced with socialism, we can produce things that are “built to last” because our aim is to satisfy society’s needs and not private profit. Indeed, Marx argues that capitalist production in itself is wasteful, even in its “competitive-stage:”

“Yet for all its stinginess, capitalist production is thoroughly wasteful with human material, just as its way of distributing its products through trade, and its manner of competition, make it very wasteful of material resources, so that it loses for society what it gains for the individual capitalist” [12].

Degrowth is antithetical to Marxism

Proponents of degrowth argue that there are absolute “planetary limits” and a fixed “carrying capacity” that cannot be surpassed by humans if we want to avoid ecological collapse. This is not only pessimistic in that it dismisses the idea that, under socialism, we could figure out new sustainable ways to grow, but it’s also completely devoid of class analysis. There’s no distinction between socially-produced limits and natural limits.

Degrowth is anti-modern, anti-technological, and anti-large scale production and infrastructure. Kallis argues that “only social systems of limited size and complexity can be governed directly rather than by technocratic elites acting on behalf of the populace… Many degrowth advocates, therefore, oppose even ‘green’ megastructures like high-speed trains or industrial-scale wind farms[!]” [13]. 

The same can be said about degrowth solutions to the problems the capitalist agricultural system creates. Proponents of degrowth propose small scale (both urban and rural) methods of agriculture production to replace industrial-scale agriculture. They, in fact, glorify and romanticize “peasant economies.” 

Despite the problems of capitalist industrial agriculture, there are two main benefits of industrial-scale agriculture. First, it has drastically increased yields. At the present moment, there is enough food produced to feed 11 billion people. Second, industrial farming has thoroughly decreased the backbreaking labor needed for agricultural and food production. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. workforce labored on farms. In 1900, it was 35 percent At the present moment, only one percent of the U.S. workforce works on farms [14]. 

Certainly, in any just society we would want to spread out food production more evenly amongst the population. But getting rid of industrial-scale agriculture and reverting to small-scale peasant and small landowner agriculture would require massive numbers of workers to go back to the land and perform backbreaking agricultural work. Such a transformation would inevitably reduce agricultural yield substantially, increasing the possibility of food insecurity and hunger among vast swathes of the population. And what would we do with the commodities and infrastructure we’d have to destroy to create such plots of land? Moreover, such a vision necessitates the redistribution of land from private ownership of large landholders. Is this achieved through revolution or through governmental reforms? In either case, if we’re struggling to reclaim land then why not broaden our horizons and redistribute land in the interests of the environment and the people, including Indigenous and other oppressed nations in the U.S.?

Degrowth is, furthermore, idealist and divorced from the material reality within which U.S. workers currently live. Matt Huber, a Marxist environmental geographer, argues that a “truly humane society must commit to relieving the masses from agricultural labor,” and that we cannot act as if “small-scale agricultural systems are much of a ‘material basis’ for a society beyond industrial capitalism” [15]. This is not to say that small-scale and urban farming are undesirable, but that they’re insufficient in a country like the U.S. The Cuban model of urban farming and agriculture–which is a heroic achievement of the Cuban Revolution–can’t simply be mapped onto this country or the rest of the world.

Additionally, we shouldn’t forgo modern technologies that already exist just because they are “large scale” or because they currently contribute to environmental degradation within capitalist society. Doing so would in effect produce more ecological waste!

In an important piece on capitalism and ecology, Ernest Mandel writes: “it is simply not true that modern industrial technology is inevitably geared towards destroying the environmental balance. The progress of the exact sciences opens up a very wide range of technical possibilities” [16]. Increased rates of pollution and environmental degradation occur because capitalists pursue profits at the expense of the environment, not because of the technologies themselves. Socialists have to distinguish between instruments of production and their use under capitalism.

Degrowth and building the class struggle

In the U.S., degrowth remains an ideology that is relatively socially isolated but gaining influence among environmentalists and some on the left. It’s an ideology of guilt rather than revolutionary action. The ideas from degrowth will not appeal to masses of exploited and oppressed people who actually need more, not less. Imagine, for example, canvassing and talking to people in working-class neighborhoods, trying to get them on board with a degrowth political platform. How do degrowth proponents think workers in oppressed neighborhoods respond if they were told they needed to consume less to fight climate change? Many of us already wait as long as possible in the winter to turn on our heat! As organizers, we would not get the time of day, and we wouldn’t even believe ourselves. Can you imagine organizing homeless and unemployed workers around a program of less consumption? Degrowth is an ideology fit for the privileged, and if they want to consume less, they should.

From the perspective of the practical class struggle, degrowth is particularly problematic. Degrowth has a rhetorical strategy problem. In an unequal country such as the U.S., is the discourse of less and “self-limitation” realistic and inspiring? Is this tactic energizing, does it speak to the needs of the exploited and oppressed, can it mobilize people into action?

Rather than limit everything, we actually need to grow certain sectors such as green infrastructures and technologies. Our class doesn’t need a political platform that calls on us to give up the little pleasures we might have–if any at all–for the sake of the environment. Our class needs a political platform that states clearly what the real problem is and how we can solve it to make life will better.

Degrowth takes a non-class approach towards consumption and production. It is true that some of the more privileged sectors of the working class, particularly in imperialist countries, consume excessively and wastefully. Degrowth, however, fails to account for the class that takes wasteful consumption to almost unimaginable levels and the system that produces these production and consumption patterns. An increasing portion of the labor of the working class is wasted on supporting the consumption habits of the numerically small capitalist class. No amount of preaching self-limiting morality is going to convince the capitalist class to consume less, expropriate less, or oppress less. Once we can get rid of the parasitic imperialists, then human needs and desires can be met through a planned economy led by the working class.

Thus, the solution to these multifaceted and compounding environmental crises is not “degrowth”, but rather, as Mandel formulates it, “controlled and planned growth:”

“Such growth would need to be in the service of clearly defined priorities that have nothing to do with the demands of private profit…rationally controlled by human beings… The choice for ‘zero growth’ is clearly an inhuman choice. Two-thirds of humanity still lives below the subsistence minimum. If growth is halted, it means that the underdeveloped countries are condemned to remain stuck in the swamp of poverty, constantly on the brink of famine…

“Planned growth means controlled growth, rationally controlled by human beings. This presupposes socialism: such growth cannot be achieved unless the ‘associated producers’ take control of production and use it for their own interests, instead of being slaves to ‘blind economic laws’ or ‘technological compulsion’” [17].


[1]“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! ‘Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates.’ Therefore save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value or surplus product into capital! Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the formula in which classical economics expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination.” Marx, Karl. (1867/1976). Capital Vol 1 (New York: Penguin Books), 742.
[2] Hansen, Bue Rübner. (2021). “The kaleidoscope of Ccatastrophe: On the clarities and blind spots of Andreas Malm.” Viewpoint Magazine, April 14. Available here.
[3] Hickel, Jason. (2019). “Degrowth: A theory of radical abundance,” Real-World Economics Review 87, no. 19: 54-68. “Throughput” is the flow of energy and materials through a system.
[4] Malthus, Thomas R. (1789/2007). An essay on the principle of population (New York: Dover).
[5]Marx, Capital, 784.
[6] Kallis, Giorgos. (2018). In defense of degrowth: Opinions and manifestos (UK: Uneven Earth Press), 22, 21.
[7] Ibid., 24.
[8] Kallis, Giorgos. (2019). “Capitalism, socialism, degrowth: A rejoinder.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30, no. 2: 189.
[9] Ibid., 194.
[10] See Phillips, Leigh. (2015). Austerity ecology & the collapse-porn addicts: A defense of growth, progress, industry and stuff (Washington: Zero Books).
[11] See Karl, Marx. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the critique of political economy (rought draft), trans. M. Nicolaus (New York: Penguin), 90-98. 
[12] Marx, Karl. (1991.) Capital Vol 3 (New York: Penguin), 180.
[13] Kallis, In defense of degrowth, 21.
[14] The World Bank. (2021), “Employment in agriculture (% total employment) (model ILO estimate),” January 29. Available here.
[15] Huber, Matt. (2018). “Fossilized liberation: Energy, freedom, and the ‘development of the productive forces.’” In Materialism and the critique of energy, ed. B.R. Bellamy and J. Diamanti (Chicago: MCM’ Press), 517.
[16] Mandel, Ernest. (2020). “Ernest Mandel on Marxism and ecology: ‘The dialectic of growth.’” Monthly Review, June 17. Available here.
[17] Ibid.

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