Techno-socialism or de-growth?

The second in a three-part interview on capitalism and climate breakdown from Political Economy for the End Times.

Capitalism is a future-blind system that’s driven to sabotage its conditions of possibility; it can’t be adapted in the way the green-growthers suppose.

Javier Moreno Zacares (JMZ): In your work, you historicise the emergence of what you call the ‘growth paradigm’ – the self-conscious pursuit of linear growth. You argue that this logic is not built into the human species, but is a relatively recent historical construction that only comes about with the emergence of capitalism. Can you briefly explain how the lineage of the growth paradigm maps to the rise of capitalist accumulation? 

Gareth Dale (GD): Pre-capitalist forms of civilization knew various commitments to certain particular kinds of growth. You had intellectuals drawing up plans to increase trade or improve agriculture, kings and lords fighting for greater territory, and so on. But this peculiar form of ideology, the growth paradigm, the idea of economic growth – which presupposes the existence of an economy for which growth is natural, continuous, and potentially infinite– that is relatively recent. It only took on its fully-fledged form in the twentieth century, but you can see its beginnings earlier. 

I used to think that its first breakthrough was in the work of Adam Smith. He did not conceive economic growth as infinite, but many other ingredients of the growth paradigm were there in his work. Then I looked back at late-mercantilist and proto-liberal economists, particularly English ones, of the mid to late seventeenth century and you can see clearly the ingredients of the growth paradigm forming.

The context was formed by various shifts in social structures and sensibilities. There was a concern with quantification and the reconceptualization of space and time as abstract, infinite, and uniform. There was the rise of the market system and the market paradigm—the idea that there exists an economy with abstract laws and tendencies, the threads of which are connected through the market. There was the scientific revolution, which spurred conceptions of ‘the economy’ as a law-governed system. There was a long-term shift in attitudes to gain, luxury, avarice, greed and commerce: valorising them in contrast to the previous religiously-based frowning on them as sinful in excess.

Capitalism is a future-blind system that’s driven to sabotage its conditions of possibility; it can’t be adapted in the way the green-growthers suppose.

As far as I can make out, the crucible for several key changes was seventeenth-century England. It was here that you saw a fascination in and a commitment to ‘improving’ agriculture—there was a cult of improvement. It was here that you saw the development of pseudo-scientific economics – and the idea that the economy is an entity subject to dynamics (including growth). And the referent of growth itself began to change.

Previously 'growth' had only been applied to organic particulars (trees, plants, populations) but it shifted gradually to inorganic generalities (trade for example). Also here you see stirrings of the notion that growth is of existential interest to the state itself. You see that above all in England’s colonisation of Ireland.

Who was the great innovator in national income accounting, which was crucial to the emergence of the growth paradigm (because you can’t talk of systematic growth unless you can measure it)? It was William Petty, one of the English colonisers of Ireland who in the process developed these systems.

As ideology, growth functions to naturalise capital accumulation. If capital accumulation is re-presented as growth, it persuades us we’re ‘all in it together,’ which in immediate terms has a kernel of truth to it.

JMZ: In recent years the ideologists of capitalism have tried to incorporate environmental concerns into their worldview – giving rise to the idea of ‘green growth’.

Green growth implies that technological innovation through capitalist competition can outpace the climate breakdown by rebooting the capitalist economy in a more sustainable way. You have been critical of this idea – can you give us a sense of what green growth would involve and why you think it’s not viable? 

GD: I don’t think the ‘green growthers’ have a measure of the scale of the problem. Reducing emissions and new technologies that enable efficiency savings is just not going to cut it. Emissions need to be reduced to zero, a fundamental challenge. Secondly, they don’t recognise the problem of ‘rebound effects’ in a market economy. Say for example we spend less on petrol: the price of petrol falls, so demand for petrol rises and people drive more.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If the hole is climate breakdown, stop digging coal. Green growthers pretend to recognise this, they say we must stop digging coal, but they assume business as usual can carry on – same economic system, different sources of energy. But the digging will continue, on a massive scale.

If all fossil fuels are switched for renewables, if the world’s vehicle fleet is replaced by electric alternatives, then the planet’s lithium reserves will all be mined—and the process of mining will in itself take an immense amount of energy. Much of this will reproduce relations of imperialism as well—look at Germany’s lithium-grab in Bolivia. The rich car-producing states are lining up.

The solutions that the green growthers are projecting don’t add up. Of course, they’ll respond: ‘lithium was only discovered as a chemical for batteries in the 1990s and in ten years time there’ll be a new one discovered’. Maybe. But we can’t bet the future of the planet on this kind of speculation.

I first looked into this around fifteen years ago when I was researching strategies of corporations towards climate change. Most of them centred on introducing biofuels into their vehicle fleets and reducing energy use (although all must admit this is what capitalist businesses do anyway—given the imperative to reduce costs, attempts to cut energy inputs are normal).

The oil companies were making token investments in renewables. There was a great deal of faith in technological innovation. The CEO of Virgin Atlantic at the time, Richard Branson, claimed that his planes had to keep flying for if they did not, a “less responsible” firm would fill the gap. He had a vague knowledge of climate change and wished to use biofuel to run planes. The magical ingredient at the time was coconut oil. I looked into the sums involved: even if the technology worked, to run just one airport, Heathrow, for 18 days would require the world’s entire coconut supply!

Lifting planes into the air takes a lot of energy. This faith that green growthers have in technological innovation just isn’t working. Technologies do matter, of course. In aviation we are seeing, roughly, a 1 percent saving in carbon efficiency each year. But the industry is growing at a 4-5 percent each year! And Virgin Atlantic is now a major lobbyist for Heathrow expansion. 

Or take Gatwick Airport. It’s decked with signs declaring ‘Gatwick Airport is carbon neutral!’ The claim is based, firstly, on the fact that the power to run its premises is drawn from renewable sources—but the airport isn’t constructing additional windfarms. Secondly, it undertakes offsetting—yet this is a nonsense, a scam. Thirdly and most obviously, the planes themselves are excluded!

Another example is the ‘smart sustainable’ city of Songdo in South Korea. A poster child ‘green growth’ city, it was selected by the UN to host its ‘Climate Fund.’ But go to the Songdo website. You’ll see much talk of sustainability, and then, lower down, you notice an unusual word: ‘aerotropolis’. What’s this? Songdo, it explains, is a “compelling aereotropolis, strategically located only seven miles from Incheon International Airport.” So, Songdo was designed as a commuting hub designed to expand air travel.

I’m focusing on aviation as these provide the crassest examples, but similar applies in other sectors. Absolute decoupling of resource throughput and GDP just isn’t possible. No matter the individual ethics of a CEO, their actions are governed by profitability: to use inputs from labour and nature as cheaply as possible, to maximise profits.

Capitalism is a future-blind system that’s driven to sabotage its conditions of possibility; it can’t be adapted in the way the green-growthers suppose.

JMZ: Let’s move onto ‘red growth’, so to speak. There has always been a strand of socialist thought fascinated by the idea of accelerating growth. To bring up a famous example from the Soviet Union, Lenin claimed that communism was ‘Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’. The implicit argument is that an expansion of material abundance is a necessary precondition for an advanced egalitarian society.

In recent years, there was been a revival of this way of thinking in the Anglo-American left, often under the label ‘left accelerationism’. Authors argue that growth shouldn’t be rolled back, but rather accelerated beyond capitalism’s limits. The underlying premise is not only that there are technological solutions to climate change, but that an acceleration of technological improvements in areas like solar energy or automated production would usher into the world a degree of material abundance that could unlock a path to a communist society.

In response, you have cautioned not only against technological fixes to climate change but also against such faith in the emancipatory potential of technology – can you explain your critique of what you call ‘techno-socialism’?

GD: I recall reading science fiction when a kid. One story involved someone who invented a technique to extract gravity from objects. He had an old car and couldn’t afford to run it. So he extracted the gravity, to enable it to work cheaply—he hardly had to buy petrol. That’s a case of sci-fi magical thinking, and there’s a lot of the same drug around right now.

As people get more desperate to deal with the challenge of climate change, escapism can take the magical route: technology will save us. As the global economy has industrialised it has become more abstract to people’s perceptions, there has been a loss of artisanal consciousness. As people have less immediate connection to production processes of the goods that we use, it becomes easier to imagine that these things can be produced by snapping your fingers, as if they’re conjured up from nowhere.

On my social media feed I see countless reports of technological discoveries: solar farms on the oceans that can create methane for conversion to hydrogen, trains that run on hydrogen, and so on. These reports become part of our background music of our consciousness, lulling us into the assumption that these gadgets have been invented and can simply be plugged in. This relates to a common experience these days: when we need something to consume, we just click on a button and hey presto it comes the next day to the door; all conditions of production and distribution are occluded.

On the left, this kind of thinking can have a particular function. Take the example of Aaron Bastani’s book, the one that I reviewed for The Ecologist. Bastani’s argument relies on his belief, his faith, that socialist states nationalising corporations can develop rocket technologies to send rockets far into the Solar System and harpoon some asteroids to bring them closer to earth, for mining. This way, we can all be billionaires, thanks to the gold and platinum that is found on these lumps of rock in the heavens.

This nonsense is clever because most people on the left who wish to believe that we can all live like billionaires have to find somewhere where we can extract all those resources and that means confronting the problem of extractivism, north-south inequality, imperialism, exploitation, and the pollution that comes with it, and so on.

But Bastani has a way around all those tricky questions, by a sleight of hand, by imagining asteroid mining. Now all of this has to be done very rapidly because of the window of opportunity I was talking about earlier. Maybe asteroid mining can happen in a hundred years from now, I don’t know, but the technological obstacles are far too great be dealt with in the next thirty to forty years.

I’m not suggesting that technological innovation will not play a vital role in any programme to deal with the climate problem. Of course it will. Take for example concrete. The production of windfarms and the improvement of people’s houses and laying rail track, all of that is going to require a lot of concrete. Already there’s a lot of concrete in the world: by one estimate, it outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet.

Perhaps much more needs to be used…but with restraint. For the problem with concrete is that it’s among those materials causing massive greenhouse production – only coal, oil and gas are worse. But with new technological developments that could be improved and research needs to be poured into that.

So I’m not anti-technology, but I do think that discussions about climate change solutions lean far too much to the techno-utopian. And why is that? It’s because a core feature of capitalist ideology is techno-fetishism. This arises from the role of innovation in enabling capitals to steal a march on their rivals, to accrue the super-profits that give them a lead, to charge technological rents.

Innovation is the elixir of success for firms. Another reason is there’s an importance to capital accumulation of continual novelty, developing new product lines, that’s the way of ensuring your firm will keep ahead of the rest of the pack. So, businesses are always trying to persuade us we need the latest gadgets or we can’t play a full part in social life.

Here’s the puzzle, then: when is the green enthusiasm for tech simply a manifestation of tech fetishism? Is, for example, the electric car a vital element in any green revolution? Or just another product line, to encourage the junking of existing models and purchase of new ones, to keep the wheels of accumulation spinning?

I’m not arguing against electric cars per se. But they’ll require more and more energy, and where do we get it from? For every new ten MW for renewably generated electricity, only around 1 MW of fossil-fuel power is actually displaced. Plus there’s the problem of scaling up technologies. Take solar farms on oceans. They may be possible, but can they be scaled up? Similar applies to carbon capture and storage.

A book on this by Holly Jean Buck suggests this can be seriously implemented to address the climate challenge, yet she also says “it’s not going to happen under capitalism.” But how long will capitalism last? 20 years at least, surely. Yet that’s the period that we have to act. These tech ‘solutions’ give cover to the business-as-usual mentality that forms the basis of the corporate agenda: we can keep pumping oil, for someone will somehow one day catch the emissions and put them underground.

JMZ: Now let’s go to the opposite extreme – the idea that the most plausible way of avoiding catastrophe is by rolling back growth, or ‘de-growth’. The de-growth paradigm is a broad church that counts eco-liberals, eco-socialists and anarcho-primitivists amongst its ranks.

Can you help us make sense of the different strands of this movement, and in doing so, can you give us your diagnosis on the de-growth paradigm?

GD: The degrowthers get a lot right. They certainly recognise the scale of the problem and the need for radical solutions, for an overhaul of the way society is organised, focused on a very rapid reduction of energy and resource throughput. 

In a recent essay in The Ecologist I tried to give a survey of the de-growth camp, and defended the de-growthers from some of their critics. Sometimes it is claimed that they are completely anti-technology, which is not true. Sometimes it is said that they are committed to a ‘politics of less’, to simply tightening one’s belt in a manner akin to Thatcherite austerity.

That’s not fair at all – they are arguing for an overall social transformation, for a society where there would be much less material, resource, and energy throughput but the people who would be hit the most would be the rich, and the people who would gain would be the very poor. In their utopia, there is better housing, sanitation, clean water for all, public transport, quality amenities.

Yes, some people would make some sacrifices. If you’re addicted to beef, you would eat rather less. There would be fewer cars and hardly any planes. But there would be many benefits – a higher quality of life in general. There would also be a large-scale expansion of certain technologies: public transport, renewables, passive houses, etc. All of this would require major construction programmes around the world. And there would be strong unions in the perspective of some de-growthers at least. Why? Because for them, strong unions are crucial for making the gains in social equality on which their programme depends and for greatly reducing the working week.

So the broad argument I was trying to make in that essay was that on the anti-capitalist edge of the de-growth movement, there’s actually much convergence with Green New Deal positions.

You can compare the de-growthers to the Russian narodniks. (I borrowed this from a footnote in a wonderful book by Joan Martínez Alier, a prominent de-growther.) The narodniks in nineteenth century Russia were urban intellectuals, students and so on, who were concerned for the condition of the peasantry; there’s a parallel there. The question for the de-growthers is, will they be able to upscale their movement in the way that the narodniks were ultimately able to do?

One might add that the Russian revolutionaries learned a lot from the narodniks about the conditions of the peasantry and so on. Again, this is part of my argument that there is convergence between anti-capitalist de-growth and Green New Deal positions. That includes Marxists in both camps.

You can read Marx and Engels as critics of the growth imperative. Yes, they maintained that humans are a needs-expanding species, and yes of course, they championed the development of the human capacity to understand and shape nature. But all this is compatible with reductions in resource use. In the Communist Manifesto, they believed that the productive forces had reached a stage at which a transition to communism could be envisaged. This was 1848: before the invention of the car, before the invention of the telephone, before even the invention of the safety pin.

So for these and other reasons you can read Marx and Engels as critics of the growth imperative, and also of course as proponents of the idea that the key human need is a habitable planet. Marx and Engels were concerned with their environment, as authors such as John Bellamy Foster, Kohei Saito, Jason Moore, Andreas Malm have helped us understand in the last couple of decades.

These Authors

Listen to the full interview with Political Economy for the End Times. Read parts one and three now. 

Javier Moreno Zacares is a Leverhulme research fellow at the University of Warwick. Follow him on Twitter @HarveyMurenow. He runs Political Economy for the End Times with Jack Copley, a lecturer in political economy at the university of Bath. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackCopley6. 

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. He is a co-editor of Green Growth (Zed, 2016). His articles are available here. Follow him on Twitter @Gareth_Dale.

Image: Songdo, South Korea. Weli'mi'nakwan, Flickr. 

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