Dr Clemens Hoffmann, Lecturer International Politics, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Stirling
Is ‘Degrowth’ the only game left in town? The perhaps unsurprising answer this question is, at least to my mind: yes! From ocean acidification to the loss of biodiversity, from the increase in frequency and severity of weather extremes to the much-cited continuous and dangerous rise in global mean temperatures: we are in the middle of what is rightfully called a climate emergency! And while the COP26 in Glasgow draws to a close, the main cause of said catastrophic changes, the continuous increase in emissions, is unlikely to change. Recent calculations put this at 2.4 degrees – after all current COP26 pledges are implemented!
The Covid-19 pandemic and the related fears of a global recession and, more recently, inflation, have overshadowed some of these catastrophic developments. It has privileged economic recovery as the top priority on the global policy agenda. And the way out is the same as always: more growth, better growth, higher growth, sustained by monetary expansion and a further round in the debt cycle. And while this magic trick seems to have worked (again), while adding some public stimulus this time instead of austerity, the structural problems with this ‘more of the same’ approach are not exhausted in inflation, debt and adding to the already existing capital glut. Emissions may have briefly declined during the global lockdown (and left the global economy with severe supply chain issues), but are now back on their upward trajectory. This, despite a significant increase in investments in green technologies, energy production and transportation. The World Bank, the EBRD and even China’s state banks are now seemingly working hand in hand. And despite all these efforts, the ‘greening’ of the economy and, above all, finance itself, has yet to show a sustainable impact on global emissions.
But why is this so? The truth is that ‘Green Growth’ is still not only carbon intensive, but also brings with it new environmental and social hazards. Even if the economy was fully decarbonised tomorrow, the rapid mass production of the new infrastructure required for the mostly electricity-based mobility solutions and, above all, the large-scale production of renewable energy, requires massive land and mineral use not least because of the large-scale storage solutions they require. The mining for these mineral-hungry technologies is not extremely environmentally destructive, but is also said to have fuelled various local conflicts.
Digitalisation, while certainly central to a modern, decarbonised economy, is generally mineral and energy hungry. The most impressive example of which is probably the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies. So, the digital economy, far from being ‘post-industrial’ requires vast amounts of resources in the form of electricity, physical infrastructure and land for cloud storage and high-speed computing capacities. It bears at least as many problems as it bears solutions.
But above all, the heart of the problem lies at the continuation of financialised growth, green or not: green investors literally want to have their cake and eat it: Glossy brochures promise a win-win future of a fossil-free portfolio with high returns. However, renewables not only carry high up-front financial, but also carbon costs, yet low (or no) returns if the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. So, they require back-up, or securitisation, both physical and financial. Consequently, the physical and financial architecture of green investments is primarily designed to return a profit. This isn’t always identical, or reconcilable with the integrated sustainable planning of a future economy that relies not only on less carbon, but that is, ideally, geared towards reducing demand for energy and mobility altogether. Simply replacing the sources for an energy hungry growing economy will likely only shift the problem elsewhere, but not solve it. So, the biggest problem with these financialised ‘green growth’ investments is that they aren’t integrated into a sustainable energy future. They are stand-alone solutions, not to climate change, but to guarantee capital returns. They may well produce too much or too little electricity, while also producing a significant carbon footprint across their entire lifecycle. Of course, this isn’t to say that these investments shouldn’t take place. They are essential for our survival. But it is to say that they should be government by a logic other than that of capital accumulation.
But what governs these markets if it’s not a more integrated approach to decarbonisation? Mostly, it’s investors’ decisions. And these aren’t just ruled by a profit motive as such. Rather, they are now frequently determined by (energy intensive) high-pace trading robots, or algorithms. These obviously don’t care if their investments require large land-use, extraction and/or cause emissions. Most companies with the highest market capitalisation are now all ‘high tech’ – and one producer of electric cars – rather than heavy industry or oil companies. So, companies that should be at the heart of a decarbonised economy. But not only is the digital infrastructure also carbon intensive. The larger problem appears to be the induction of artificial demand: Capital needs investment opportunities. Tesla, for example, provides this and grows on the back of a major financial infrastructure, without which there wouldn’t be any demand for a mass consumer market for e-mobility. But the business model of e-mobility isn’t mobility, but Big Data: The case of electric city scooters for hire illustrates this point very well: They are abundantly available, at relatively low cost to rent. They are all but durable transport solutions and are unlikely to even offset the carbon emitted in their production process over their lifetime. And they are certainly put on the streets not by smart, high-tech start-ups, but by their financiers. The ultimate return on investment aren’t the hiring fees either, but the data the customers willingly produce by signing up to their use schemes. And yet ‘just’ because they don’t have an engine that produces emissions ‘on the spot’ (but may well do so in the process of producing electricity and certainly produces toxic waste), they fit into any ‘sustainable’ portfolio with no problem, without having solved any problem of urban sustainable transport, while having created many more problems.
But why is this so hard to change? An increasing number of scholars now points to the fact that greening the economy isn’t just a question of technology and re-directing sources of wealth towards a carbon-free, but otherwise structurally untouched global economy. For one, our societies are simply built on a specific form of capitalist development that still relies on the drilling, burning and transformation of fossilised minerals into kinetic energy and heat. The excessive and constantly increasing release of toxic gases and, above all, heat, into the atmosphere is part and parcel of our social fabric.
The extent to which fossil fuel, and oil in particular, is woven into the fabric of the global economy and in fact most societies, suggests that undoing more than 100 years of ‘Hydrocarbon Capitalism’, or ‘Carbon Democracy’ requires a fundamental social transformation that may not be as easy as shifting some assets or changing the portfolio slightly. Especially at a time when postcolonial economies have, perhaps understandably, developed a taste for these tested and almost fool-proof, but environmentally destructive sources of wealth-generation. So, the historic debt for climate change certainly lies in the developed industrial world, even if current emissions may be higher elsewhere. And it is also in the West where decarbonisation requires the most fundamental societal, or power shift.
So, after all this pessimism, what can ultimately be done short of a rapid move to de-industrialise our economies? After all, we all want to maintain a relatively decent and comfortable living, while ideally staying within the 1.5-degree target. And we all will use resources, or maintaining a certain standard of living, under the conditions of capitalism. And, indeed, a socio-ecological metabolism between human and non-human nature is, for lack of a better term, ‘natural’. Water, matter, energy, along with capital, circulates, rather than disappears. This is, indeed, where Malthus (and his old and new followers) got it wrong: The earth’s resources are indeed abundant, because they are renewable. Energy doesn’t disappear, it just transforms. Water evaporates and comes back as rain. Just that there are certain limits at which the earth’s resource base loses its natural capacity to maintain the metabolism, both socially and ecologically. And the particular and sometimes overlooked problem is the pace at which extractivism takes place, driven by high volume high speed, robotised trading.
What has ‘Growth’ ever done for us?
And the associated problem is the believe in unlimited growth. The problem with this is threefold: First, it misunderstands the resource base, including human energy, or labour, to be infinitely recoverable. Life expectancy has declined even before the pandemic, due to an increase in chronic illnesses, likely stress related. Second, growth is measured quarterly, i.e. it’s not just any growth, but rapid growth. The simplest example for how problematic this is, is agriculture: High yields are required for high capital returns, thus requiring high amounts of chemical fertilisation and irrigation in monocultures that kill biodiversity. A sustainable crops rotation is not possible in the conventional agribusiness. Third, and most importantly, growth is by now also a political ideology and a powerful one at that. From pension funds (no pun intended) to the UN sustainable development goals, growth is seen as essential to our way of life, or bare survival even. Until recently, this was never really challenged and everyone from small charities to multinational corporations adopted this as a company policy. This is marred by a ‘Personal growth’ and ‘self-improvement’ literature that has filled high street bookstores, thus convincing every last one of us that growth is imperative for our survival. Most importantly, it is the institutions where political power rests, from local and national governments to the United Nations themselves, that measure the welfare of their citizens, or humanity in general, in this competitively mediated quantity of ‘GDP growth’. And for those it is of course politically opportune to give from the horn of cornucopia to those that have (‘growth’), while mobilising dystopian Neo-Malthusian narratives against those that have not (‘climate wars’).
And admittedly ‘Degrowth’ is as much of an ideology, or political project. But its starting point is precisely that those claims about ‘growth’ being the only ‘rational’ and ‘technical’ solution to humanity’s wealth creation, that needs to be challenged – intellectually and politically. Growth without alternatives, green or not, really is, in its final analysis, dystopian. It will certainly continue to destroy life on this planet and make it uninhabitable. Conversely, the adaptation of a full ‘degrowth’ agenda by policy makers seems all but utopian at the moment. Still, there is hope in small-scale, decentral approaches to degrowth economies, which can coexist with a capitalist global growth agenda, but may one day become the mainstream. So, rather than waiting for a ‘big bang’ transformation towards degrowth, small, for now, remains beautiful and may well have the key to the future.