Michael Hoexter: Malign Confusion about Growth, Economic Growth or “Degrowth”: Which Way Forward? – Pt 3

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.

Variation in Fossil Fuel Dependency Among Developed Countries and Degrowth

As action is required today and in the near future, though, it is reasonable to assume that production will be organized via some form of a capitalist organization of firms and the motivation of economic actors to achieve monetary profits/savings.  In the period of transition to a new energy economy, the government sector and budget will play an enlarged and leading role in financing and regulating the transition.

Targeting net degrowth over a period of years, perhaps a decade, might or might not inhibit the development of the “greener” sectors of the energy and transport economy exactly because these sectors have to play “catch-up” in the area of infrastructure.  The most secure way to build out these sectors in terms of minimizing technology risk, is to deploy renewable energy generators, some on a vast scale, heavy and light electric rail infrastructure, electric road and other grid-tied systems not dependent on advances in battery technology or availability of moderately scarce elements like lithium.  These systems require as construction materials emissions-intensive steel and concrete on a very large scale.  Innovations may cut these emissions substantially though in the foreseeable future not completely.   Various commercial interests are claiming they have a breakthrough on the energy storage or generation side which would diminish the need for these investments but currently there is no certain alternative to the creation of some massive earthworks.

Anderson and Bows’ degrowth agenda takes the risk of stifling the growth of the greener sectors of the economy with initial embedded emissions costs, for the sake of what is hoped to be early and dramatic emissions reductions in the developed world and allowing some of the remaining atmospheric resources to be taken up by emissions from developing countries.

To avoid social collapse, Anderson and Bows’ degrowth perspective would require that a fossil fuel-independent basic community and transport infrastructure is in place in those countries that embark on a radical degrowth program.  They also assume, I believe, a robustly unified polity and sacrifice-ready members of the top 10-20% in wealth, who would assent to degrowth targeted at their consumption, with much sacrifice required of people of more modest incomes and wealth.  The countries where it would be easier but by no means easy to institute a degrowth program would include the densely populated countries of the British Isles, Western, Northern, and Central Europe that still have extensive rail and public transport networks, though have become dependent on fossil-fueled trucking for freight and fossil fueled personal transport for convenience.  Not only do these regions possess these potentially zero- or low-carbon networks but they also have from pre-capitalist times, structures of urban and community life which pre-date the fossil fuel age.

By contrast, the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia, and much of Latin America do not have a low- to zero-carbon potential infrastructure already built.  In many areas of these countries, commerce and community hinge upon the ready access to fossil fuels, as urban planning and more recent economic development, were predicated upon automobility and far-flung supply chains for goods and services.  Some of these nations have had oil deposits and a large oil industry presence in their political and economic systems.

So in some of the Annex I countries, UN-speak for the most developed countries,  as well as other highly fossil fuel dependent countries, a degrowth-first strategy has a high probability of attenuating the communication, commerce, and social support networks that are vital in the initial and longer-term in combating climate change.  Much of the radical conservation measures that Anderson and Bows are counting on require a unified polity and community integrity in order to make the proposed degrowth bearable for ordinary folk.  The choice is easier for Western, Northern and Central Europe, which in many countries enjoys an overall quality of life at fractions of the per unit GDP carbon emissions than other countries in both the developing world and in non-European and Eastern European Annex I nations (US, Canada, Russia, Ukraine, etc.).  Besides the density of population and choice of transportation services in these more fortunate Annex I countries, they can export their emissions by relying, increasingly on manufacturing and emissions-intensive resource extraction from other nations with laxer environmental standards or reserves of fossil energy.  As also mentioned above, they benefit from some of the highest levels of state-funded public services in the world, which, one assumes and rightly would remain largely in place as a degrowth program was put into action.

By contrast, the more recently built and sparsely populated parts of the world both in Annex I and outside it, a sudden reduction in emissions from degrowth without a massive countervailing program of social integration will lead to social and commercial disintegration rather than a path to a more sustainable society.  The effort to address climate change will involve in these countries, a simultaneous effort to reconstitute society, a society that is more resilient, future-oriented, nature-aware, and community-oriented.  While European countries fractured by austerity, the rise of right-wing anti-immigrant parties, and neoliberalism could also benefit from such a program of social integration, they are not as dependent upon large scale infrastructure projects to “green” their common spaces.

Clearing the Field: It’s Between “Green” Growth and Degrowth

We have over the past several years been living in a period of malign, toxic confusion about economic growth and how it is achieved.  This has been spurred on by the deficit hysteria/austerity campaign that has served only a small fraction of the elite in our financialized economy yet has dominated discourse in Washington and many other capitals.  The deficit hysteria campaign has capitalized on the deep flaws in academic economics and economics education to distort the understandings of politicians and lay people about how our capitalist economy works, in particular the functions of government spending and overall demand in regulating the rate of economic activity and growth.  Claiming to support growth, the austerity campaign has undermined it, yet continues to convince lawmakers otherwise, continuing to lead them or have them lead us, into an emissions-intensive economic abyss.

The political and economic predators who have pushed deficit hysteria have politically capitalized on sincere concerns that some individuals and political leaders have had about lax financial standards in the private credit industry, debt-fueled consumption and overconsumption more generally.  They have misattributed the private debt-fueled consumption boom of the last decade to government, exonerating the role of private lenders eager to profit via offers of credit from people’s wish to consume essential or luxury goods and services.  They have politically capitalized on the confusion of laypeople and many economists between financial and real resources especially as regards government finance, treating conservation of a limited pool of financial resources as equivalent in virtue to conserving the finite resources of the earth.

A critical casualty of the deficit hysteria campaign is the instrument of government itself, a necessary institution for the process of transforming our energy and transport systems to face the challenge of climate change.  In pursuing their perverse campaign for political power, the policy space for government has been hemmed in by false accusations and notions about money and the role of government.

An honest discussion about the standards according to which we might organize and regulate our economies must exclude the false notion that there exists for a monetarily-sovereign national government a limited pool of financial resources even though we are fast approaching real limits in the planet’s ability to absorb the effects of our economic activity.  The difficulty of this mental and political feat in an era where we have two versions of the austerity narrative, a reluctant “Left” or “liberal” one and an enthusiastic, sadistic right-wing one, is quadrupled:  not only do listeners need to distinguish between the two but a sham political conflict between the two flavors of deficit hysteric can further confuse.  It is no progress to content oneself with the sympathetic version of deficit phobia that laments that government does not have the financial resources to address the existential social and environmental threats facing us.

This leaves among the tripartite choice offered in the title of this piece between the current “malign confusion”, growth and degrowth, only the latter two as options to be taken seriously.   Of course confusion about growth, stoked by our ambivalence about consumption, remains the dominant political-economic discourse, so to have this serious discussion about the choice between growth and degrowth requires considerable focus, mental effort and research.

A government’s growth orientation, once disentangled from the ideological morass of neoclassical economics, neoliberalism, and the deficit hysteria campaign, however faces some real rather than financial constraints as well as real constraints that will become financial constraints.  In the former category, as discussed above, economic growth as currently conceived is predicated upon a diminishment and in many cases destruction of the non-human biosphere, most sharply and critically by fossil fuel use.

With climate change that destruction is not merely a passive deformation and diminishment of non-human nature and that nature growing more scarce as a resource for humans but rather a rebound by climate forces that will destroy large parts of human civilization.  In the area of financial constraints, the fossil resources required for growth in our current technological regime are not unlimited in supply, contrary to industry propaganda and government complicity with the industry; increases in demand for fossil energy lead to increases in prices and puts pressure on supply.  These shortages and price rises in turn put a damper on growth, yielding a negative feedback loop.

The only currently feasible and realistic growth orientation then would mobilize available resources upon the task of freeing society from the scourge of fossil fuel dependence, even as some of the activities involved in that process will inevitably use substantial amounts of fossil fuels for at least a decade and a half.  As my Pedal to the Metal Plan demands, as well as other “Green New Deal” proposals, copious government spending with or without compensatory tax increases are required to build infrastructure, fund innovation, and subsidize nascent industries.  Taxes, the “degrowth” side of the economy, would need to target those activities that yield high emissions with some exemptions for those activities that are life-essential or on a path to zero net emissions during operation.

Another orientation that we have considered as serious is a degrowth orientation, which attempts to front-load emissions savings by strict conservation and small-scale energy efficiency measures that themselves do not represent large emissions investments.  Degrowth advocates seek to engineer a controlled economic recession that would guarantee yearly emissions reductions.  As currently understood, these efforts would in developed countries leave some of the nascent green industries or infrastructure projects in a state of limbo as well as have negative employment effects unless counteracted by something like a job guarantee program, itself with a low emissions profile.  Instituting a degrowth politics and strategy would require an extraordinary commitment on the part of a large swath of the population to break with the economic and social status quo, as well as experience some forms of deprivation.  The role of state support and leadership, while critical in the Pedal to the Metal Plan, becomes even more central in an economy that would degrow over the period of perhaps a decade.

Managing Growth and Degrowth under Threat of Climate Apocalypse

Ultimately, if economics is to become a relevant and realistic discipline, it must confront the real physical world which economies have transformed but economics has not measured or accounted for in relevant physical aspects like carbon emissions and other dimensions of ecological footprint.  An exclusive focus on growth or degrowth as “good” or “bad” or vice-versa will lead to mismanagement of an economy, even one that is attempting a crash-course in emissions reductions.

The management of growth will depend critically upon carbon emissions incurred during production and consumption of goods and services, which currently are known in estimates but often not in detail or in measured reality.  If we take the Pedal to the Metal Plan as a model, the exact timing and prioritization of elements of that plan may depend on engineering analysis and real world data collection regarding actual emissions required to provide certain economic services in the present and results in future emissions reductions.  The interaction between those emission expenditures and economic benefits will feed into an iterative process whereby incentives and subsidies can be adjusted to lower emissions and/or increase economic output per unit emissions.   The focus on projects that reduce overall consumption, such as energy efficiency and conservation projects, would seem an intuitive place to start.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. American Slave

    Which way forward… How about what some would consider the Libertarian nightmare and let people build new somewhat self contained communities rather than the centralized federal nightmare we now have with the federal creeps watching our every move we make and an oversize military that causes trouble everywhere they can not to mention the big central bureaucratic unaccountable monolithic corporations that come with it and frack where the locals dont want it and pollute the water in our food growing areas.

    Im not against having a federal government to protect the borders that maybe at most collects 10% tax but when they collect 35% income tax it leaves little room for local taxation as they waste it on their imperial project and police state that is nothing but an economic deadweight and adds little to production if any.

    We should give local communities a chance to determine how they are run, who knows maybe one of them will come up with a system that works that we can all use.

    The community that I would want to live in just to give a few examples would by law have to have solar panels covering each rooftop and electric buses. There would be a community owned fully equipped machine shop for people to rent out on a temporary basis to produce a batch of products to sell than when they sell them out they can rent the shop again, and unlike Detroit they wont be able to close it down and leave nothing behind. There would also be a community owned kitchen that people and farmers, hunters etc would be able to rent out for a day to sell their product. And there would be common grazing land for peoples livestock and old Soviet style garden plots for people to rent for real cheap that include tool sheds and running city water and free public transportation to them. The goal would be to maintain as much productive capacity as possible without someone being able to shut it down and destroy it like there doing in the rust belt and that’s what real infrastructure is not just roads and bridges, but if someone wants to open there own shop or restaurant than I have no problem with it as long as its not the only game in town.

    And if anyone doesn’t like it than the beautiful thing is they dont have to live there and they can create there own community and no one will bother them like the Amish.

    1. American Slave

      People need to realize that this system is stupid and the people who run the world are dumb even if there smart I couldn’t imagine a more dumb and idiotic way to run the world that requires a full blown police state, just let the people be free.

      1. American Slave

        Im not saying we should all live like the Amish but that we all should be able to live in the kind of community we want to with minimal outside control as long as were not hurting anyone.

        1. Dan Kervick

          Easier said than done. If these self-contained communities are excreting any waste products at all into their external environment, then they are hurting others.

    2. Cassiodorus

      There is, at present, a marginal entity called the “transition town movement” which is dedicated to just this goal. As for the Rust Belt, I hear that Detroit now has a thriving community garden situation, since its descent from the 5th most populous city in America to the 17th most populous city in America has opened up a lot of free space.

    3. Banger

      In the U.S. is seems the only possible direction to go in. Social democracy appears to be dead since in morphed into the corporate state where no sensible plan for the future is even remotely possible without a multitude of corporate hands directing money their way. We will probably see a neo-feudal world with large estates mixed in with free cities and towns. The advantage of this period of history is this could work with social media/the Internet. Towns, cities, collectives, and so on can link to gether for common protection.

      1. Dan Kervick

        Americans possibly tend toward some very unrealistic attitudes about the paths available for social change and for personal and community self-realization because we live in a large and relatively young country that was settled by European runaways claiming large tracts of “uninhabited” land and building what they wanted to build upon that land.

        That specifically American form of utopianism is no longer a live option. I think we need to get accustomed to the idea that we now live in a very settled, heavily populated and ecologically fragile world in which we are all deeply interconnected and from which the possibilities of socially viable escape from established political communities and economic infrastructures are very limited. Everybody’s business is our business and our business is their business, whether we like that fact or not. Social change and reform, environmental preservation, social justice and even a decent quality of life for the lone individual will require engaged, global activism aimed at the largest structures of political, social and economic organization.

        There is no freedom via escape, apart from the illusory freedom of virtual lives inside whatever virtual communities the operators of the world system are content to deliver to us to placate us. The world in the 21st century is a machine, and we either step up to influence how it is operated or accept that our lives will be run for us by other people who do seek to run it.

        1. Banger

          Excellent point, Dan. However, I believe the “machine” is operating under very kludgy code that can not address the real problems we face thus we are witnessing, in my view, a slow-motion breakdown. Technology actually allows us to become more decentralized even as we exist on some common grids. Decentralization and “progress” are not exclusive at all and, besides, that is the direction people want to go.

          Yes, escapism is real but it is a result of a very ugly reality of living under rules that are out-dated and don’t deal with the actual reality we face.

          1. Dan Kervick

            It doesn’t seem to me that technology is moving us in the direction of decentralization, Banger. All of that technology is a network, the parts of which communicate and interact with all of the other parts through numerous protocols, standardized specifications and unified energy grids.

              1. Dan Kervick

                It’s always been that way, no? Technological innovations often transform societies in totally unforeseen ways.

                1. Cassiodorus

                  Well, the Manhattan Project invented the atom bomb, but somehow human beings only felt obliged to use the new technology on other humans twice.

                  There is no law of nature that compels human beings to use all new technologies.

                  1. Dan Kervick

                    Well what about the internet? Has it made us more or less centralized. On the one hand, there has been a proliferation of separate online speech communities. On the other hand, the whole system depends on an integrated global telecommunications network, including a variety of state-run security systems.

            1. Banger

              While some aspects of technology can be cenralized and have best practices–thus we have few operating systems because that part of computers is pretty much set–but the technology itself enables decentralization–the internet is an example of that. It is true that large entities are trying to control it but it is still a decentralized utility. Large databases certainly can centralize information on the other hand, we allso have a move to alternative currencies and informal networks.

              I don’t have to comb the mainstream media to read between the lines–I can go to a variety of places where there are people doing that so diversity of information has increased sharply and made people who are interested in public affairs much more hip than they were a decade or so ago. Now people can also use technology to be part of mass-culture and follow mass cultural currents but they don’t have to. We have far more choices.

              We live in a Stewart Brand fantasy—we have deep access to tools, to build our own community, light our own lights, print our own guns and other objects–we don’t need the Big Consumer Culture–we can step out of it if we want.

              1. Dan Kervick

                That seems a little dangerous to me. Although these online communities might be real communities and so not exactly “virtual”, they are also just secondary formations inside something larger and more powerful. I worry that people might be lured by the attractions of a kind of spurious managed freedom to escape into these kinds of dubiously separate secondary communities that are no more free or self-determining than a monkey house in a zoo.

                It seems to me that Americans are rapidly throwing themselves into the project of abandoning their democracy and passively handing real power over to a plutocratic and managerial elite.

                1. Banger

                  Everything powerful is dangerous. How we use technology is our choice ultimately. The issue we face may come down to “are we strong enough?”

                  BTW, I am a deep student of technological critics like Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman. When we get to the point where we understand what technology has become we will be able to use it to move forward spiritually because we will have stopped worshipping mechanical devices and move on to what comes naturally to human beings.

        2. Malmo

          “Everybody’s business is our business and our business is their business, whether we like that fact or not.”

          Are you saying there are no limits whatsoever? Are you saying there is no right to privacy? Are you saying the state has the right to colonize one’s mind in the interest of the “collective”? Is your idea of organic community contained in units of hundreds of millions of people if not billions? Is individualism (whatever that abstraction means) really the enemy? Is collectivism on a massive scale what defines meaningful, interactive community. Do you really think you have a snowball’s chance in hell of implementing your sought for world absent significant force?

          1. Dan Kervick

            I’m saying that insofar as the behavior of other people influences my own life, I have a legitimate interest in that behavior. And others have a legitimate interest in my behavior to the extent my behavior has an impact on their lives.

            I’m not describing a sought-for world. I’m describing the world that already exists.

            Your mind is already “colonized”. Just about every theory, notion, intellectual formation, skill, and habitual moral or emotional response you have is the product of other people. It was developed by others and delivered into your mind by education and the other transmission mechanisms of human culture. There is no inner nut where the pure, inviolable “you” is located. You and the rest of the human world interpenetrate.

            1. Malmo

              My mind has not been colonized solely by the state collective, which was my point.

              I’d appreciate an answer to all my questions. I’m interested in what you have to say.

                1. Malmo


                  LOL. I’m not paranoid about any of what I asked you to answer. The perfectly efficient, scientifically planned world you desire so as to get to the place you want to go will never happen. Never. I’m certain “individuals” will see to it’s demise if you try. It can get better, but not at the expense of humanness. Your human-robot world is simply a pipe dream.

                  1. Dan Kervick

                    “The perfectly efficient, scientifically planned world you desire..”

                    As I said, paranoid. I have never argued that we can achieve or should try to achieve a “perfectly efficient ” or “scientifically planned” world. I just think that we can successfully plan a few more things than you seem to think we can, and that there is a larger and more important role for government than you seem to want to give it.

                    “Collective” is one of those kneejerk Randian phobia words that you want to pre-pack into my opinions. It’s like you said, “Why won’t you answer my questions about why you want us to become Borg and live in a hive?” I’ve learned not to follow people down this path of crazy.

                    1. Malmo

                      I’m not a Randian. Far from it. And to claim I’m crazy is dirty pool. If u don’t like the collective, then cool, neither do I. I think this whole damn thing is a whole lot more complicated than any of us can fathom. There’s no simple solution.

            2. Malmo

              “There is no inner nut where the pure, inviolable “you” is located. You and the rest of the human world interpenetrate.”

              So what? This gives you or your “collective” a right to decide the myriad of inputs? You want robots?

  2. American Slave

    And now to comment on the neo-gulag job guarantee program.

    I dont know what the hell world these people live in but it takes a hell of a lot of time and energy to go job hunting with all the tests they require so how is one to look for work? and who is going to pay for transportation to the JG site.

    Im glad that some people are well employed and dont have to worry about finding a good paying job but I will miss the days of getting an unemployment check and having a little break from life while finding a new job since its almost impossible to get a vacation these days but in the future it seems that our only choice will be a sandwich made of horse sh*t or dog sh*t so yay for that.

    1. American Slave

      Or if they want to create work than pay prevailing wage so at least I can be stuck in a good paying place.

    2. Dan Kervick

      I imagine you will go to a single office where someone will say, “Here are the public jobs available to you. Which one would you like to have?”

  3. j gibbs

    “if economics is to become a realistic discipline?”
    If you want realistic try Veblen. He and Keynes and Henry George are the only economic thinkers whose work is grounded in reality. The rest is fantasy and propaganda in behalf of absentee ownership. As for Marx…. well, everyone knows about Marx, especially those who have never read a word he wrote.

    1. Mafer

      Marx said “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist” because of those who “know” about Marx, and especially those who have never read a word he wrote.

  4. Cassiodorus

    “Ultimately, if economics is to become a relevant and realistic discipline, it must confront the real physical world which economies have transformed but economics has not measured or accounted for in relevant physical aspects like carbon emissions and other dimensions of ecological footprint.”

    Economics is already relevant and realistic — it’s relevant to the elites’ need for propaganda in a society ruled by the guardians of capital interests, and it’s realistic insofar as its academic patrons do what they’re paid to do — churn out propaganda for capital and its glorious capitalist system.

    Let’s be serious here. A world-society that does not routinely produce 89 million barrels of oil each day, day in and day out (http://www.eia.gov/countries/index.cfm?view=production ) is a world-society that doesn’t need all of that energy to do its business. So the whole matter of “degrowth” begs this single question: what is world-society’s business? What, more specifically, is the capitalist system’s business?

    Until recently, it was unquestioningly observed (in societies with empires of any sort) that domination was the most important social fact of human societies. The powerful rule, in formulations more or less corresponding to Mao Zedong’s observation that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” and the powerless must submit to whatever is in store for them. This common observation was often used to excuse conquest, mass rape, pillage, slavery, mass murder and other such violent activities, on the grounds of realism.

    In more advanced societies, domination continues to be the most important social fact, but said domination is often sanitized for the purposes of polite conversation in privileged social strata. Domination in advanced societies continues on the grounds of capitalism, in which the mass of humanity is inducted into a society in which everyone must “make money” in order to “have property,” rather than merely living off of the land. This is the social fact when the barrels of the guns are pointed to maintain the society based on money and property. Aha! We are getting closer to how it is so that the daily 89 million barrels of oil became a habit and a “necessity,” here. Our world-society is dominated by all sorts of property- and money-mongering professionals who consume enormous amounts of energy without really doing all that much to maintain the collective welfare: militaries, police forces, weapons manufacturers, lawyers, judges, sales representatives, insurance businesses, professional sports businesses, corporate hierarchies, and so on. A fair list can be found in Victor Wallis’ essay “Ecological Socialism and Human Needs,” published in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (December 1997).

    If you want serious degrowth, and not some small reckoning of what the existing society feels it can afford while keeping everything else the same, you will have to reorganize society so as to minimize the extent of these professions. Each corporate professional eliminated from the modern economy means one less person driving to work each day, and thus one less car on the roads.

    Clearly, as you point out, “copious government spending with or without compensatory tax increases are required to build infrastructure, fund innovation, and subsidize nascent industries.” But I think we need to specify what sort of “innovation” we really need here — we need to “innovate” a society not dominated by vastly energy-consumptive social parasites.

    1. Banger

      …what is world-society’s business? What, more specifically, is the capitalist system’s business?

      I think the question needs to be extended to “what is our business?” Society reflects/imposes the values of the people as a whole. The people believe in mass-consumption, wasteful and escapist amusements for the privileged and as little as possible for the poor. The business of modern society seems to be to give individuals a chance to acquire as much wealth as they can earn or steal or defraud others out of–there is no other value that we can agree on, even religion tends to take a back seat to the hedonistic materialism that has become a religion for us. As long as these values hold the public will support the oligarchs even while grumbling about their corruption and greed.

      I believe that the re-growth of spiritual life perhaps a “re-enchantment” of the world will allow us to see the connections we have with each other and nature and supplant the worship of money. It seems that the popular zombie stories on the various screens points to a high anxiety state of the public about our civilization, its values, and pleasures may be coming to an end. For most people the world is beyond understanding symbolized by the zombie myth–it’s all threatening noise out there.

      Having said that, domination has to have its corollary which is submission. Politically, refusing to submit will severely undermine the dominators. I sense people are less in a mood to submit now than they were even a few years ago.

      1. Dan Kervick

        The free enterprise approach to social organization allows for the possibility that the combined actions of numerous individuals and small local actors, each pursuing only some limited local aims through the free production and exchange of labor and goods, might produce some aggregate outcome that almost nobody would have voted for.

        It is perhaps misguided to try to look for “the purpose” of the system as a whole. The system as a whole is at least in great part only what has emerged from many, many people seeking more limited purposes. If that global system has features that many of us would prefer it didn’t have, then that is due to our failure to govern it and direct it to our desired ends.

        1. Cassiodorus

          If we wish to understand the purpose of the system as a whole, we need to characterize it fairly. The “free enterprise” system does not operate through “combined actions of numerous individuals and small local actors” except insofar as the “numerous individuals” constitute a social class, and there are two identifiable classes: 1) the working class, and 2) the owning class.

          Moreover, the idea of the “free production and exchange of labor and goods” is misleading, as under capitalism the working class is compelled to work for the owning class. The owning class likes this arrangement just fine — and if it produces a lot of global warming, they no doubt figure that they can buy their way around it somehow. There are about 24,000 families that control all of the major businesses — a large number to be sure, but small in relation to the total human population. They aren’t “local actors.”

          1. Dan Kervick

            There are more businesses than the major businesses.

            I just think we need to resist the idea that whenever some social phenomenon exists, that’s because some powerful person or people decided that phenomenon should exist. The world bumbles into a lot of contingent facts – even the rich do.

            1. Cassiodorus

              As Michael Pollan points out in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the dependence of small business upon large business is evident even in the food-production industries. There’s a reason society is arranged in a wealth pyramid.

              1. Dan Kervick

                Seems to me that class warfare is generally fought to preserve and protect the ownership privileges that have come to exist, but does not plan those privileges in the first place. The rebel entrepreneur of today becomes the entrenched capitalist power-broker of tomorrow. Look at Silicon Valley, Google, etc.

                Libertarians worship entrepreneurs. But an entrepreneur is just an aspiring plutocratic titan who hasn’t hit it big yet.

      2. Alejandro

        Nice words. My challenge has been finding a place and time for solitary reflection and then determining if my mental activity is critical thinking or regurgitation of propaganda. Not an easy sequence of tasks. I guess it depends on how you feel and if you’re honest about giving and receiving feedback or more interested in preaching. Also, imho, it depends on when, where and with whom the feedback takes place. Finding that place outside of the PR behemoth can prove to be the more daunting challenge.

      3. Cassiodorus

        The reason we ask “what is society’s business?” about a blog entry in “degrowth” is to figure out how it became world-society’s business to consume 89 million barrels of oil per day, and how it can be otherwise. Consumption is part of it but I think you’ll find, as Foster, Clark and York found in their “Metabolic Rift” book, that productive consumption is far bigger than actually enjoyable consumption. Let’s start with the enormous transportation network that moves commodities around the world. Decentralize all production, and the fossil-fuel costs of maintaining the “global market” disappear.

        1. marcum

          Which brings up an interesting question for any NC mentats here… where could one find the ratio of global energy expended for raw commodity transport vs total global energy expenditures? Is it growing, static, decreasing…etc…

    2. Moneta

      We could actually start by better managing the cities… making sure the workers live closer to their work. Here in Canada, the retirees are staying in their houses close to the core and forcing the gen-x and gen-y in the outer burbs and exurbs.

      Something tells m that over time, new city cores will evolve. Especially when one considers how mismanaged the city core infra has become and how expensive homes are there. Most Gen-X and Gen-Y have no money and they are the one who will need to support the ageing population.

  5. Mogden

    The real calamity for the human race would be if any significant fraction of this mush-headed social-engineering hocus-pocus was to be implemented.

  6. Moneta

    By contrast, the United States, Canada, Russia, Australia, and much of Latin America do not have a low- to zero-carbon potential infrastructure already built. In many areas of these countries, commerce and community hinge upon the ready access to fossil fuels, as urban planning and more recent economic development, were predicated upon automobility and far-flung supply chains for goods and services.
    I don’t see it the same way at all. Here in Canada, the burbs have a lot more fat that can be cut than in those European areas you mention. I believe we will gradually go backwards to the 60s-70s materially over the next few decades.

    From 2 cars to 1 car.
    Lower focus on landscaping and manual lawnmowers.
    Less pools and less air conditioning.
    Less soccer moms and more ad hoc activities
    The list goes on…

    A couple of years ago I was talking to my assistant, in her late 20s, probably making in the mid 30ks and she kept on talking about how her car gave her freedom. Her husband probably made the same and the bought a 400k house. Meanwhile, I took the bus. It’s amazing to see how people don’t see debt as slavery. The burbs is made up of people with this philosophy. When I was a kids, there were less cars so kids were more independent. Now all parents are expected to show up with their own car, if not, one is considered a leech. As long as there are people who think like she does, we won’t be able to fund the transit system. In fact, our transit system keeps on getting cut as more and more people buy cars with their tax cuts.

    If we stopped buying so many cars, our economy could drastically improve since most of these are imports. And that is the tip of the iceberg. All we need is a change in paradigm which will happen gradually as people are forced to shrink their material lives.

    1. Moneta

      As I look around, on my street (average in Canada), most houses have 2, 30-40K cars in the driveway.

      We could easily go to 2 15-20K cars over the next decade… the only reason stopping us now is because most people see cars as a status symbol but this could quickly change with a generalized drop in wealth.

      1. Banger

        Status, indeed, is the main driver of consumption. Interestingly people never admit to it. They say the $500 high-heels just “feel better” and so on. I’ve had the opportunity at various parts of my life to experience brief bits of luxury–even in small doses it gets boring, it really does unless you spend your time impressing others–women will flock to you for sure, people turn around and listen to you when you speak no matter how banal your conversation. Status is very seductive. I don’t hang with those kinds of people anymore, can’t stand it.

  7. docg

    So instead of something like Mao’s Great Leap Forward what’s contemplated is a Great Leap Backward. What both have in common is a blind faith in the sort of Utopian thinking that expects everyone involved to go along with the plan enthusiastically and selflessly. If not self-destructively. Mao’s great idea failed miserably and this one will fail also, if actually implemented, which of course won’t happen. Thank God Hoexter is not quite as powerful as Mao.

    1. Banger

      Indeed, I was going to make that sort of comment. Central planning works only in theory or in some computer game. Whatever we do will emerge out of our present situation through billions of small decisions which, in turn, will cause people to react. Paradigm shifts are mysterious–but we are nearing one–I can feel the vibrations. Once that happens the many plans some of them really genius will come into play–there will be competition and cooperation and a sudden rise in spirit and mood in the world. We have everything we need to make the internal change that will fuel the external one.

      1. Dan Kervick

        “Central” planning sounds very grandiose. But successful planning of various kinds exists everywhere in modern life. Cities have planned sanitation, transportation and electrical systems. Large firms employing thousands of people are planned enterprises. Whole nations and their national governments successfully manage national-scale legal and regulatory systems, as well as defense systems. Each of us as individuals successfully plans and manages a course of daily living, a household, etc. We need to continue thinking about what can be planned and what can’t be planned, and not stigmatize planning as such.

        1. Malmo

          A highly technological society requires central planning. There can be no other way. The trick is, as Dan said, what can and can’t be centrally planned. Peoples and lives and individual choices informing them must be in the can’t centrally plan category.

          1. Dan Kervick

            How can we plan anything at all that doesn’t impinge on people, their lives and their individual choices, Malmo? Every law that exists is a restriction on people’s lives and individual choices.

            1. Malmo

              I’m not implying free reign to do whatever one wants. Obviously there will be and should be limits and thus laws governing certain behaviors, which we have in bulk already. What we don’t have is some central planner/s deciding what individual decisions one makes which informs the unique path taken in an individual’s life. There’s broad latitude in what way a person desires to travel in their life’s journey here in the states and that’s a very good thing indeed. The state can point to ways just like the Pope, parents or others can, but ultimate decisions on how one chooses to live should reside with the individual. Anything short of that is simply totalitarian nonsense.

        2. Wayne Reynolds

          And hierarchy will continue to be a necessary part of any future system. Organization with people accountable are unavoidable evils needed to move and implement action. David Harvey, one of the worlds leading Marxists recognizes these facts. Todays problem, as I see it, is that the masses of people have abandoned their responsibility in the decision making process. It is time that everyone becomes more involved and educated to the consequences of our available choices. A more active bottom of the pyramid with those higher in the hierarchy implementing the decisions agreed upon by an active civic minded society are the only hope. There is a famous footnote in Marx’s “Capital, vol 1” where a prestigious London paper describes the success and benefits of a labor controlled factory and its greater efficiency and happiness of workers. Mondragon style?

    2. jrs

      Unfortunately total ecological collapse from doing nothing will fail also and miserably, and unfortunately everyone seems to be going alone with THAT plan self-destructively. Infinite growth on a finite planet is Utopian thinking, with blind faith hoping for a techno-miracle to save us. Thank God capitalism is not as powerful as the laws of nature, well no actually since it only means mass death, I don’t thank anything for that.

    3. American Slave

      Speaking of Mao’s Great Leap Forward for people who know what really went on in China wouldn’t exactly say it was a failure at all, it laid the foundation for their industrial growth and things such as steel production increased 300%. Trust me going off a high school education is not a good idea.

      And take note of the 7hr workday


      1. different clue

        What quality was the steel? And didn’t the Great Leap Forward also cause a multi-megadeath famine?

  8. susan the other

    Either something like a wartime mobilization, or alternatively some sort of spontaneous greening? The awareness of just how serious our situation is must sink in for anything spontaneous to happen. Right now the illusion persists (among the elite) that they can survive this with little change in their life style and they have accumulated wealth to insure their positions. Already China is imposing restrictions on days of driving because their smog is intolerable. And imposing large license fees, etc. Fewer people will buy cars now in China, but it is nowhere enough to mitigate the pollution. I submit this applies here too – we can’t just use incremental measures. We need to ban automobiles. Now. And replace them with an industrialization to manufacture sufficient public transportation. From there, more transformation will be possible. But we (the entire world) should focus on cars first.

    1. Banger

      I enjoy walking and taking public transportation but most Americans don’t like it–perhaps because we are always in a hurry. Private vehicles create deep separation/isolation which I’m not sure most people want. People prefer isolation because they’ve lost the art of interaction and conversation that our ancestors enjoyed.

      1. Wayne Reynolds

        Perhaps Americans dislike public transportation because of the quality and inefficiency of what is offered to us? I lived for 25 years in a major East coast city with a good public transportation system, including trains right to the beach for a summer days enjoyment. I soon sold my car. Of course as the neo-liberal mind set established itself in price increases and service curtailment began, attitudes changed. Negatively. Neo- liberalism does not bring personal freedom, only misery.

  9. wendy davis

    Yves, Lambert, anyone,
    TAFTA/TTIP negotiation instructions to the EU were leaked yesterday by Economia-Ciudadana and WikiLeaks. I thought you might find them useful, and be able to spread them about a bit. I sent this post to Friends of the Earth US and EU this morning, and to Global Trade Watch last night. At Common Dreams they announced that negotiations have started in DeeCee again this week.


  10. coboarts

    I keep seeing this idea that, “we are all deeply interconnected.” What, the Internet means we are all one big family – only in the sense that we share each others’ bad air. It’s as all-against-all as it has ever been, maybe more so. I get the interconnectedness of the web of life, but try bringing that up while your being raped, pillaged and burned.

  11. normansdog

    once again –
    go and read Steady-State economics by Herman Daly.
    There you will find this topic discussed in great detail.

  12. Hugh

    As I have written in the past, we have two sets of problems we need to deal with. The first are those of kleptocracy, wealth inequality, and class war. I figure we have a timeline of about 5-15 years to resolve these. Not begin to address them but definitively clear them up.

    This will only allow us the possibility of marshalling the resources to address the second set of problems which pose an existential threat to us. These problems are overpopulation, resource depletion (especially energy, water, and soil), and environmental degradation (global warming, pollution, and species and habitat loss).

    The truth is that with our current technology and understanding, the planet’s long term human carrying capacity is only about 3-3.5 billion. We are projected to hit 9 billion by around 2040. If we do not act voluntarily and on a planet wide scale to scale back our population and resource usage sensibly and humanely, nature and the implacable logic of numbers will do it for us through war, pestilence, and famine. If we do not act or act in only a half-hearted, half-assed fashion, then the human population of our planet could be a billion or less by 2100.

    This is why it is so imperative that we must overturn our present kleptocracies and our present consumption patterns. As hateful and destructive as they are, they simply mask far greater and more lethal threats.

    1. susan the other

      I agree with the gist of this, Hugh. I am the grandmother of 2 beautiful grandchildren. Their parents were both only children who chose to have only 2 children to replace themselves. At that rate the population will not go down. So we need something less than a full replacement, which Ihing will happen quite naturally over the course of the century, given a widespread attitude to reduce the human population. But we cannot advocate this as long as the Christian right wing is so nutty and adamant about procreation. I do hope they give us all a life-saving spiritual break.

    2. MikeNY

      Jeremy Grantham has written a good deal about commodity scarcity, with special reference to agriculture and phosphorus. I’d say read it, Hugh, but it sounds like you have.

      A thought re: philoprogenitivity (!) and wealth: there’s a pretty strong correlation between a society’s wealth and its birthrate (China excepted): wealthier societies tend to produce fewer children. Perhaps that correlation is another argument for a more equitable distribution of wealth worldwide. As if one were needed.

  13. bluntobj

    The important takeaway from this post and the others is to ensure that you are not the one being “greened.”

Comments are closed.