Is it time to Slow Down?

'Humanity is transgressing 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries scientists say we need to keep in check in order to stay in the safe operating space for humans and animals alike. These transgressions are the result of what is known as the Great Acceleration'

'Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto' is a glimmer of hope shining through otherwise dark times.

It is time to slow down, to decelerate: to push the emergency break of capitalism.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recession, an unlikely book became a bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies in Japan. 

The author, Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito, hit a nerve with the public, especially young people, who were looking for an understanding of the present environmental and social crises and how we might address them. For Saito, the answer can be found in the convergence of Marxism and degrowth. 

This article was originally published on The Trouble.

Such are the themes of Saito’s newest publication, Slow Down: the degrowth manifesto. Slow Down is the English translation of his Japanese bestseller, Capital in the Anthropocene and comes only a year after his academic text Marx in the Anthropocene (and is not to be confused with the 2021 book "Slowdown," by Danny Dorling, focusing on some similar themes).

Great Acceleration

Saito makes several things clear from the beginning of his book. As it stands, humanity is transgressing 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries scientists say we need to keep in check in order to stay in the safe operating space for humans and animals alike. 

These transgressions are the result of what is known as the Great Acceleration: the period starting with World War II and up until today where the amount of material extraction and greenhouse gas emissions rose prodigiously, making humanity not just a product of nature but a force of nature as well. 

It is here where Saito notes that the Great Acceleration and its subsequent effects on the global environment are caused by the economic and social system we live in that dictates what is produced, how much is consumed, and for what purpose, namely, capitalism. 

In order to solve the ecological crisis, Saito believes we must usher in a revolutionary postcapitalist ecological program that secures well-being for all within planetary boundaries, abolishes the exploitation and externalization of Global South land and labour (or the “Imperial Mode of Living”), and repairs the rift between humanity and the natural world. We need, according to Saito, degrowth communism.

It is time to slow down, to decelerate: to push the emergency break of capitalism.

It is in his analysis of our present ecosocial crisis where Saito is at his strongest. Saito recognizes that green growth, including its faith in unproven and speculative technologies, is a losing bet. 

Green growth

As multiple studies and research reviews have shown, green growth does not exist among a broad suite of environmental factors and is highly insufficient in the few cases where there may be indications of decoupling between growth and environmental pressures. 

He is also attentive to the global inequities between those in the Global North and the South. While we all live under the boot of capitalism, there is no denying that the Global South bears the greatest burden of environmental impacts, while doing the least to cause them, and has a difficult time adapting and decarbonizing to prevent them from getting worse. 

A global convergence between North and South in rates of energy consumption, volume of material use, and exercise of political power must be part of any just transition. In addition, Saito challenges us not to just think in terms of numbers, but for a new way of life in a different civilization. 

For decades, the capitalist maxim of grow or die has put its foot on the gas, accelerating planetary instability, worsening inequality, and making for an unenjoyable, unfulfilling work and social life. Profits, increased productivity quotas, and ever-expanding GDP has become untenable and unsustainable. 

It is time to slow down, to decelerate: to push the emergency break of capitalism, as Walter Benjamin once suggested.


Degrowth theory has developed a throughline with its maxims of reducing energy and material use to sufficient levels, prioritizing redistribution to promote economic and social well-being, and developing a society with increased free time, participatory democracy, and universal public services. 

As Saito writes, “Degrowth is a transition from quantity (growth) to quality (flourishing). It’s a grand plan to transform the economy to a model that prioritizes the shrinking of the economic gap, the expansion of social security, and the maximization of free time, all while respecting planetary boundaries.”

Combining the scientific and societal insights of degrowth, Saito deploys Marxism to help readers gain a better understanding of capitalism's dynamics and how the work of Marx and Engels can help us analyse and solve our present ecological crisis. 

Saito does this by arguing that capitalism is inherently anti-ecological because it creates a rift between nature’s cyclical processes and capitalism's incessant need for more production, on quicker time scales, and by displacing impacts on other ecosystems or vulnerable populations. 

This is Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift. For Saito, degrowth is a way to repair the rift. Through its commitment to living within planetary boundaries, its judicious attitude on what needs to de/grow, and principled internationalism, degrowth has the potential to truly build a sustainable society for the 21st century if it can build the power to do so.


While degrowth still has work to do on solidifying its ideology and building popular political support, Marxism has its own work to do if it is to become relevant for the 21st century. For Saito, this involves dropping the productivism and eurocentrism that plagued Marxism throughout the 20th century. 

According to the popular reading of Marx’s writing, Marx believed that capitalism would create the productive capacity to emancipate humanity and provide the groundwork for socialism. This is known as historical materialism. 

This prediction has not played out, despite massive increases in technological development, energy use, and food production. We have the productive capacity to end hunger, poverty, and houselessness, yet billions still suffer from these things. 

The central thesis of historical materialism, according to Saito, is wrong. Moreover, many Marxists read Marx as arguing for a eurocentrism in which the displacement and industrialization of colonized nations was justified since this would allow capitalism to take place which would then allow for socialism to emerge. 

As Marx wrote, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.” This kind of stagist historical approach is not only wrong empirically but morally as well.

Slow Down The Degrowth Manifesto by Kohei Saito


Here is where Saito’s most unique contribution comes into play. Using previously unpublished letters and writing from his notebooks which is now known as the MEGA—The Marx–Engels Gesamtausgabe (The Complete Works of Marx and Engels) Saito argues that, by the end of his life, Marx had become critical of this stagist view of historical materialism (developing instead what sociologist Kevin Anderson called a multilinear historical view for postcapitalism), as well as the productivism and eurocentrism that has characterized Marxist theory. 

It is the combination of these three shifts in Marx’s thought that forms Marx’s vision for “degrowth communism,” according to Saito. Saito’s contribution adds to the scholarly tradition of eco-Marxists exploring and exposing Marx’s ecological outlook, but none have gone so far as concluding that Marx developed a precocious form of degrowth, as Saito does.

While this is arguably Saito’s most unique contribution to Marxist and degrowth theory, it is also the most controversial. One could argue that Saito’s evidence for Marx’s jump from ecomodern accelerationist to degrowth communist is a large one given the evidence he provides. 

Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift is well established, but Saito’s reliance on only a couple of letters and notes from Marx’s notebooks is a less robust basis of evidence for such a departure from the conventional understanding of Marx’s thought. 

It is true that no writer, especially one as complex as Marx, should be held to the same political position and societal analysis in his early life compared to his elder years. It does appear Marx became more critical of eurocentrism, capitalist development, and developed an interest in ecology and Indigenous societies. 


But I remain unconvinced that Marx developed a detailed theory of degrowth communism. Rather, Saito seems to be drawing together loose ends of Marx’s thought to develop his own concept of degrowth communism. 

The idea of degrowth communism is interesting and deserves more exploration, but this can happen without needing Marx to have developed a precocious form of degrowth. Like the Marxists Saito critiques, Saito is also guilty of picking his preferred version of Marx and using him to promote his own political philosophy.

Ultimately, this comes down to Saito’s and other Marxists’ obsession with “what Marx really meant.” For decades, the Left has been distracted by finding a “true” interpretation of Marxism that suits their interests—like how Marx was a deeply ecological thinker versus a promethean—producing unnecessary arguments and strife. 

All of these things may be true at the same time, given the scope of Marx’s writing. But one should ask how important and impactful these debates are weighed against the unproductive and unnecessary distraction they provide from achieving actual change. Revolutionary ecosocial change is not going to happen based on a new reading of a man who has been dead for nearly 150 years. At best, arguments such as these might help develop a stronger ecological sensibility among Marxists and push the more ecologically-sensitive towards becoming socialists. 

Beyond that, it often feels like a book club debate among academics and online commentators divorced from building the social movements capable of confronting capital and ushering in an era of degrowth communism, or something like it. That is the task before us.

Second criticism

A second criticism I have of Slow Down revolves around Saito’s theory of change. Unlike Marx in the Anthropocene—the book’s more academic version—Saito does begin to develop a theory of change. At the heart of it is the fact that cities will likely host about 70% of the world's population by 2050 and currently emit over 70% of global carbon dioxide. 

Cities serve as a strategic site for ecosocialist organizing. A model for such organizing, Saito tells us, is the Fearless Cities and Municipalist movements, most notably in Barcelona. 

The Fearless Cities movement has its origins with the political party Barcelona en Comú (BeC), which won the 2015 municipal election running on a platform of a feminist care economy, participatory democracy, and climate justice. One can begin to understand the revolutionary outlook of BeC by looking at their Climate Emergency Declaration issued in 2020, for instance. 

In total there are over 240 items in the Declaration including zero emissions by 2050, restricting the use of automobiles and planes in favour of public transit and biking, and calls for a change of consumption, food production, and economic activity away from “continuous growth and a never-ending race for profits.”

What is happening in Barcelona is inspiring. By promoting robust civic engagement and putting power back into everyday peoples hands, Barcelona remains one of the few places in the world where it feels like ecosocialism resonates with the public and those with political power. It makes sense why Saito would use this as a model to build from.


However, the scale at which we need global change is far beyond the confines of one municipality, and even the strong matrix of worker-owned coops in Spain and elsewhere. 

As tangible and exemplary as these examples are, and no doubt demonstrate things we could all be doing in our own local communities, the degrowth movement has its sights set on global change, which warrants thinking beyond federated structures and mutual aid networks. 

Saito begins to approach the question of State power soon after his praise for Barcelona and municipalism, but fails to expand on any specific details or theories. Instead, he suggests the State should enable various forms of citizen assemblies, policies like those in the municipalist movement, and to expand the commons.

An alternative that could help empower many of the initiatives Saito and other degrowth advocates promote while strategizing at the scale and coordination required is an internationalist ecosocial political party. Such is the suggestion of thinkers like Kai Heron and Jodi Dean in their essay “Climate Leninism and Revolutionary Transition.” 

Recognizing the suite of green transition programs among leftists, Heron and Dean suggest that nearly every one of these proposals sees the need for revolutionary change but lacks the apparatus necessary to achieve it. It is the revolutionary party, they write, that allows us to “build the organizational power capable of using these opportunities to seize the state and steer the restructuring of energy, production, and society…"


"...The challenge of transition thus pushes us toward that form of political organization that endures, scales, supports a collective consciousness, and enables coordinated action.”

Heron and Dean imagine such a party forming and recruiting through many of the local initiatives and social movement demonstrations Saito supports. They write, “The array of tactics familiar to movement actors – blockades, occupations, marches, rallies – becomes a means for recruiting party cadres, building coherent alliances, and weaving a red thread through the movements. 

"Likewise experiments in farming, urban gardening, and similar such survival oriented micro-initiatives can be expanded into the repertoire of party practices, treated as opportunities for building skills and camaraderie.” 

This party, Heron and Dean suggest, would need to be strongly rooted in the Global South and not simply fetishize the industrialized worker of the Global North as some Marxists and Green New Dealers do. Indigenous and Global Majority movements are indispensable for an internationalist party that seeks to solve such global problems as climate change, species extinction, and inequality. 


However, Heron and Dean do not address the spotty history of past and present Leninism, nor expound on how such a centralized party could become more democratic than current party structures in today's parliamentary politics. While Heron and Dean are thinking at the scale required and how to coordinate across geographies, their lack of attention in these areas deserves further thought and planning.

Saito’s commitment to local democratic initiatives and Heron/Dean’s centralized party politics could complement each other in providing a strength where the other lacks. This cross-pollination between the two deserves more attention and dialogue.

While Saito’s theory of change might not reach the scale required, Slow Down has sparked an international debate on the merits and shortcomings of degrowth and Marxism. For this, the book is a major contribution to the fields of degrowth, Marxist ecology, and ecosocialism. 

In a world where capitalism and green growth are often touted as the only options, Slow Down is a glimmer of hope shining through otherwise dark times.

This Author

Andrew Ahern is a freelance writer and ecological organizer based in New England. You can follow him on Twitter @PoliticOfNature.