One might think that the arrival of the planet’s eight-billionth resident — a title symbolically awarded to Vinice Mabansag, a baby girl born in the Philippines — would be cause for celebration. Amid a sharp drop in the global fertility rate, the staggering rise in the world population witnessed over the past 70 years is the result of the extraordinary advancements in public health, nutrition, personal hygiene and medicine that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates. Vinice’s birth, in other words, is a testament to the power of human ingenuity to make the world a better place.
And yet, for many in the Western intelligentsia and policymaking circles, little Vinice is a harbinger of doom — a reminder of how “overpopulation” is destroying the planet. The prize for the most miserable response predictably goes to the New York Times. The paper used the occasion to offer a platform to Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which calls on people to abstain from reproduction to usher in man’s extinction — the only possible solution to the problems facing the Earth. “Look what we did to this planet. We’re not a good species,” Knight is quoted as saying.
At the very least, by opting out of reproduction, couples will avoid “sentencing their offspring to a rapidly deteriorating quality of life and unimaginably horrible death”, according to the movement’s website. This mixture of misanthropic anti-humanism and Malthusian apocalypticism used to be among the fringiest of fringe theories; today, however, wishing for humanity’s extinction is touted as just another form of benign environmentalism. The reaction of other mainstream outlets was less grotesque, but the message was more or less the same: the growing global population, said CNN, represents a serious “challenge” to the environment.
The idea of “overpopulation” is difficult to talk about seriously, since it is inevitably tied to outlandish conspiracy theories about 5G or Covid vaccines being part of a nefarious plan to depopulate the planet; but it’s clear the elites are concerned about the issue, as the Times piece demonstrates. The argument is one we’ve heard a million times: human activity is destroying the planet’s biodiversity, and outstripping its capacity to replenish natural resources, and more people on the planet means more pressure on nature.
The issue is rarely framed in terms of the need to forcibly reduce the world population — though it is becoming increasingly acceptable to talk of the need for tools of population control, such as one-child policies, regardless of the fact that the population growth rate is falling rapidly. Rather we are told of the need to “change the way we live” by reducing our “ecological footprint”. The most important goal of all, according to governments and international institutions, is Net Zero — the need for the world to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to zero as soon as possible.
This might seem like a sensible idea on paper; there’s no denying that fossil fuels have serious drawbacks in terms of climate alteration and pollution. Yet its practical implementation is a different matter entirely. The pressure on developing nations by institutions such as World Economic Forum, the UN and the World Bank to stop subsidising fossil fuels or to ban fertilisers in food production has already caused chaos, political instability and unrest in dozens of countries: in 2019, there were major protests in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Lebanon, Ecuador, Iraq, Chile, and Iran.
These protests serve as a reminder that one can be concerned about climate change and the state of the planet while still being sceptical of the idea that these problems can be solved through top-down solutions imposed on nations by the Davos-attending, private jet-flying, corporate-backed (if not corporation-owning) policy-building elites of the world — people at the absolute peak of the global capitalist power pyramid. Yet remarkably, these very elites have found an unlikely ally in the struggle against the evils of anthropogenic activities: radical anti-capitalists known as “degrowthers”.
Degrowthers claim that the problem at the root of humanity’s negative impact on the planet is economic growth itself, which in turn is said to be driven by the logic of the capitalist mode of production. It is, in the words of Jason Hickel, one of the most prominent degrowth advocates, “organised around the imperative of constant expansion, or ‘growth’: ever-increasing levels of industrial extraction, production and consumption”. The solution to the many of the world’s problems, according to degrowthers, is therefore to “go beyond growth” — and ultimately capitalism itself.
Once relegated to the political fringes, degrowth theory has been gaining traction in recent years among environmentalists and Leftists. Who, five years ago, would have bet on an academic book about the relationship between capitalism and the planet becoming a bestseller? Well, Capital in the Anthropocene (English translation forthcoming), a book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective written by Kohei Saito, an associate professor at Tokyo University, appears to be on track to do just that, having sold more than half a million copies in Japan since the book was published in 2020.
Saito’s message is simple: capitalism’s drive for profit is destroying the planet and only “degrowth communism” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth. Humans need to find a “new way of living”, and that means replacing capitalism.
But what does this mean in practice? There seems to be some confusion about this, even among degrowth activists. Growth is generally measured using the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which represents the total value of all the goods and services produced domestically by a nation during a given period, and therefore the size of its economy. If the latter is expanding, we call it economic growth; if it is contracting, we call it a recession or even a depression, depending on the length of the contraction.
Yet while the appeal of turning to GDP seems obvious — a higher GDP tends to be associated with higher incomes and higher standards of living, and studies show it correlates with national happiness — material wealth isn’t everything. Indeed, the concept of GDP has long been criticised as a poor way to measure a country’s well-being. It doesn’t take into account the state of the environment, levels of inequality or human health, or crime rates; neither does it take into account whether a country is growing its GDP by building guns and prisons or by building schools and hospitals. And yes, growth clearly has a negative impact on the natural world — as does any human activity, for that matter.
However, it’s one thing to acknowledge the limitations of economic growth — that is, GDP — as a measure of national well-being; it’s another to say we should dismiss it altogether, or even that we should “stop growing”, especially when so many countries around the world are striving to industrialise and grow out of poverty. To be fair, degrowthers such as Hickel are keen to note that “degrowth is not about reducing GDP. It is about reducing the material and energy throughput of the [global] economy.” But this is little more than sophistry, as that would almost certainly entail a reduction in GDP.
Hickel says this could be achieved by allowing low-income countries to “increase energy and resource use in order to meet human needs” — which is a welcome distinction from the WEF’s Net Zero-for-all approach — while drastically reducing energy and resource use in high-income countries, by “scal[ing] down ecologically destructive and socially less necessary production (i.e. the production of SUVs, arms, beef, private transportation, advertising and planned obsolescence), while expanding socially important sectors like healthcare, education, care and conviviality”.
I wouldn’t mind living in a society with better parks, schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, and fewer SUVs, Primarks and H&Ms, with good jobs for all in non-polluting industries and sectors. The problem, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t the society envisioned by degrowthers. It’s the unintended consequences of their theory. Most obviously, they erroneously conflate energy and resource consumption, but the two are very different. The production of things inevitably entails the use of finite resources, and therefore cannot be expanded indefinitely. But the same doesn’t go for the production of energy: nuclear energy, for instance, could provide bountiful, clean, carbon-free energy, thus allowing us to potentially expand energy use — ideally to power less resource-intensive industries and sectors — while rapidly phasing out fossil fuels once and for all. And yet, most environmentalists and degrowthers are zealously opposed to nuclear energy.
This highlights the second problem of degrowthism (and environmentalism in general, for that matter): its inescapable Luddite, anti-industrialist bias, which represents a conceptual obstacle to the massive state-sponsored industrial and infrastructure investment that would be needed to make our economies more sustainable — for instance, by rapidly building up nuclear capacity.
And here lies the third problem: even assuming citizens in Western countries did come round to accepting a deliberate reduction in their material wealth in exchange for immaterial benefits, it is highly unlikely they’d consent to the massive expansion of state power that would be required to implement such a programme. The authoritarianism and assault on democracy witnessed during the pandemic has understandably made many fearful of unchecked government power. No programme that requires giving the state even more sweeping powers of intervention in the economy — something which I personally view as necessary — will win the support it needs until we’re able to build a new democratic social contract. This means, among other things, clawing back the only institution that has historically managed to deliver democracy — the nation-state — from the clutches of the globalists and corporate interests that have hijacked it. But this will take time — something degrowthers constantly repeat we don’t have.
This is where the most concerning element of degrowthism and any other form of apocalyptic environmentalism comes in: by constantly engaging in “doomerism” — the idea that either we fix everything or we’re all screwed — they’re effectively saying that anything is justified in order to “save the planet”, including all manner of authoritarian interventions. It’s like Zero Covid on steroids. After all, if the very survival of life on Earth is at stake, surely we can’t allow the complexities of democratic debate and deliberation to stand in the way of doing what’s needed? Indeed, rather ominously, Saito cites the pandemic as proof that “rapid change is possible” — with apparently little concern for the fact that this “change” was achieved by sweeping aside democratic procedures and constitutional constraints, militarising societies, cracking down on civil liberties, and implementing unprecedented measures of social control.
In this sense, doomerism offers a political cover to what is ultimately the easiest way to reduce people’s consumption levels: making ordinary people poorer — which indeed seems to be the solution pursued by elites. This highlights probably the main flaw in degrowth theory: the driving force of capitalism is not growth or even profits, but power. Those sitting at the top of the capitalist pyramid are more than happy to have less growth if this means increasing their influence. How else should one understand our ruling classes’ passion for growth-crushing austerity?
This is the ultimate paradox of degrowth communism: its proponents may want to overthrow capitalism, but their ideology is actually empowering the globalist capitalist elites they claim to be fighting.
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