The Green Divide

Between Degrowth and the Green New Deal

By Lola Seaton

Image of planet earth with illustrative border around edge

Essays and books about the climate crisis conventionally open by setting the scene — invoking the latest storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires made more severe by the abnormally warm climate, and perhaps reeling off some of the nightmarish scenarios that our current emissions trajectory makes probable over the next few decades. This essay, for example, might begin by selecting from among countless recent headlines: the fierce heatwaves and prolonged drought that affected much of Europe as well as swathes of China and the U.S. over the summer; the lethally hot spring in India; the flooding in Pakistan that killed over 1,500 people and displaced 33 million; Hurricane Ian, which killed 110 in Florida and may prove to be among the most

expensive storms in U.S. history, following quick on the heels of Hurricane Fiona, which left the whole of Puerto Rico without power; the flooding in Nigeria that has so far killed 600 people and displaced 1.3 million.

By the time you read this, of course, fresher disasters will have overtaken that sample. But such ritualized establishing shots are in any case no longer necessary. As Benjamin Kunkel has observed: “Who that has glanced at a newspaper in the first decades of the twenty-first century, or even ventured outdoors a few times, could need persuading of the importance of developing a politics that answers at one and the same time to the imperatives of socioeconomic remedy and ecological rescue?” When climate change first emerged as an issue in the late 1980s, among the foremost political challenges was to “raise awareness” of the problem — to bring it to the attention of the public and onto the agendas of ruling elites worldwide. Three decades on — during which time as much carbon was released into the atmosphere as in the rest of human history, with frighteningly visible consequences — we cannot fail to realize we’re in trouble. Outright denialism is now a residual force, marginalized less by scientific argument than by empirical reality.

A range of ecopolitical manifestoes travel under the degrowth banner and the project has not yet spawned a single, definitive agenda.

But while there is consensus across the political spectrum about the urgent need to rapidly decarbonize the global economy, the question of the most efficient and effective means by which to accomplish this remains a source of animated dispute, including within the climate left. A lively and at times heated debate has raged among environmental progressives hinging on the issue of economic growth — about whether or not growth is compatible with stabilizing the climate and protecting the ecosphere, and, most pressingly, about whether growth would help or hinder the transition to post-fossil economy. For some, “degrowthers,” growth is driving the ecological emergency and must be suppressed; for others, “green growthers,” growth is the solution to it. It’s worth recapping some of the key arguments and disagreements the controversy has produced, because this sometimes rancorous clash of perspectives has not only prompted useful reflection on growth — what it is, what it’s for, whether it’s necessary or desirable. It also has raised indispensable questions about the sort of political strategy and social vision that should guide the effort to keep the world cool enough to collectively live well on.

Although the term “degrowth” has been gaining traction, manifest in a burgeoning popular literature on the subject — recent examples include Jason Hickel’s Less Is More (2020), Tim Jackson’s Post Growth (2021) and Matthias Schmelzer, Andrea Vetter, and Aaron Vansintjan’s The Future Is Degrowth (2022) — it remains a relatively niche movement. The inspiration for small organizing collectives and loose activist and advocacy networks like DegrowNYC and DegrowUS, as well as local pilot projects such as the Catalan Integral Cooperative in Spain, degrowth remains a largely intellectual movement, rooted in a heterodox quarters of the academy, though not an entirely cohesive one: A range of ecopolitical manifestoes travel under its banner and the project has not yet spawned a single, definitive agenda (it has been described as a slogan in search of a program).

In broad terms, however, degrowthers’ claim is that untrammeled economic growth is intrinsically unsustainable. The increasing resource extraction on which growth depends — especially of fossil fuels — is eroding the ecological conditions of human flourishing (or even survival). It is therefore imperative to scale down material consumption, or what’s sometimes known as the biophysical “throughput” of the economy — the total flow of energy and materials in the production process. Degrowthers often advocate ditching the statistical instrument by which growth is conventionally measured, too: Gross Domestic Product. GDP quantifies annual output — that is, all the goods and services consumed, or the sum of all spending in the economy — and is used as an index of economic strength or health. But in practice GDP has long served as a proxy for social wellbeing, too, despite abundant evidence that beyond a certain level of development producing and consuming more stuff does not necessarily make societies healthier or happier, or more peaceful and equal. Degrowthers point out that GDP, as an aggregate monetary value, does not tell us anything about the usefulness or harmfulness of what is being consumed — it does not differentiate, for example, between paying for dance lessons and buying a gun. The figure omits labor that isn’t commodified, much of which is of course vital, such as reproductive work, and it tells us nothing about the distribution of consumption, and so about inequality.

image of an unlit match

The idea that economic growth might not, or ought not, go on forever, in view of the Earth’s scarce resources, has been around for at least half a century, since the appearance of books like The Limits to Growth, a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome, and E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 classic Small Is Beautiful. Among the key theoretical progenitors of degrowth is the ecological economist Herman Daly, whose pioneering notion of a “steady state” conceives the economy not as a limitless realm but as a sub-system of a larger system — the ecosphere — which is finite and fragile.

Although the critique of economic growth is chiefly directed at its ecological destructiveness, it often assumes an existential or moral-philosophical dimension. Despite being the lynchpin of economic policy-making, the unrelenting drive to increase output is not always a rational ambition, especially if it does not enhance and may even diminish our collective quality of life. In the pressing terms of the climate crisis, however, the case for degrowth is grounded in the fact that growth and rising energy use are tightly correlated and that energy use remains stubbornly carbon-intensive. Degrowthers are therefore convinced that it will be much harder to effect the transition beyond carbon if energy demand continues to grow. The fastest and most effective way to bring down emissions, degrowthers insist, is not only to rapidly wind down fossil fuels and scale up clean alternatives but simply to use less energy overall by shrinking our economies. Mainstream approaches to the climate crisis are de facto staked on the plausibility of what’s known as the “absolute decoupling” of carbon emissions from economic growth — where economies continue to grow but carbon emissions don’t, such that the two factors, historically closely linked, become untethered. But such decoupling, as degrowthers point out, has nowhere been achieved at the pace necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.

It has been described as a slogan in search of a program.

Degrowthers’ blueprint for how this economic slowdown would be achieved in practice vary but many envisage eliminating not only fossil fuels but other industries and practices deemed socially unnecessary or environmentally damaging — such as advertising, private planes, weapons manufacturing — as well as a shift away from industrial agriculture to organic farming and agroecology, the (perhaps coerced) universalization of a low-meat or vegan diet, and the reduction of working hours. Although degrowthers advocate an aggregate scaling down of the economy in material terms, they also argue that some ecologically benign and essential sectors of the economy must continue to grow — not only renewable energy but care work and other forms of socially necessary, resource-light labor (typically under-valued in the current system and historically associated with women). In view of the extreme disparity in levels of consumption and energy use between the rich and poor, both within nations but especially between them — the average U.S. citizen, for example, consumes about 28 times more energy than their Bangladeshi counterpart — many degrowthers also add that high-consuming citizens in the most affluent countries ought to bear the responsibility for the bulk of this reduction in consumption and energy use.

The degrowth camp has been criticized from within the left, at times fiercely, by those gathered under the rubric of the Green New Deal. A capacious and contested term, “Green New Deal” was initially popularized by the New York Times columnist and free-market enthusiast Thomas Friedman around 15 years ago but has since become the rallying cry of progressives — from avowed eco-socialists advocating ecologically-inflected class struggle to egalitarian Keynesian technocrats — achieving in the process a kind of rhetorical hegemony, with numerous Democrats, for example, expressing their support. (Degrowth has also been attacked — or dismissed — by “green growth” enthusiasts of a more reactionary hue who are pro-private capital and techno-optimistic, as enshrined in the European Green Deal and, more recently, the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S.)

As we saw, the promise of green growth — the possibility of growth without fossil fuels — has so far not been realized. Despite degrowth’s more iconoclastic and unworldly demeanor, its wager — less growth will lower emissions — is ratified by the historical record. The only periods when the rise of carbon emissions has stalled has been during economic recessions or collapse — during the Great Depression in the 1930s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, following the 2008 crash and, most recently, at the height of the Covid 19 crisis. Yet as these examples vividly suggest — as they are best remembered not for their salutary ecological side-effects but for the social devastation they unleashed — while economic contraction may have environmental upsides, it is typically socially catastrophic and politically unsustainable, distinguished by immiseration, mass unemployment, eviscerated public services, austerity, and falling living standards. Green New Dealers often profess sympathy with the degrowth critique — conceding that growth can be not only environmentally damaging, but wasteful, exploitative, and irrational. But engineering a severe economic downturn, they argue, is perverse, if not dystopian.

And ineffective: Recessions do not on their own reduce carbon emissions enough to stave off frightening levels of warming. A shrinking economy would also likely impede the transition to clean energy in other ways, by hampering the flow of investment into renewables and slowing innovation in energy-efficient technologies. In his recent book, Growth for Good (2022) — a kind of paean to green capitalism — Alessio Terzi also observes that the state’s ability to finance investment programs of the kind necessary to accelerate the energy transition, including funding the social provisions to support and retrain workers in defunct industries, would be radically diminished in a steady-state or contracting economy, both by the shrunken tax base and the government’s reduced capacity to borrow.

Degrowthers retort that the sort of economic contraction they envisage wouldn’t resemble these painful recessions or exogenous shocks: their intentional slowdown would be “managed,” selective, and equitable. But growth has become so entrenched in modern economies, green growthers reply — not to mention indispensable to the stability and legitimacy of political regimes — that suddenly suppressing it would entail a thoroughgoing overhaul of society, which degrowthers provide no viable template for. Since growth is a side-effect of capitalists’ effort to increase productivity and maximize profits, deliberately constraining growth implies a confrontation with the profit imperative and private industry — and so an epochal political struggle obscured by the anodyne notion of a planned slowdown.

Image of the sun looking fiery

If degrowth lacks a fully worked-out positive vision — a vacuum that the specter of past economic crashes tends to fill — the Green New Deal has a more concrete agenda. Its centerpiece is a massive fiscal stimulus that would drive fossil fuels out of the economy. This giant public investment program — to scale up renewable supply and infrastructure, to invest in the development and deployment of energy-efficient technologies (as well as, in many visions, carbon capture and storage), retrofitting housing stock, electrifying and expanding public transport, among other things — would stimulate growth, its proponents maintain, boosting living standards and creating jobs (especially as producing and distributing renewable energy tends to be more labor-intensive than supplying fossil fuels). Meanwhile, as the economist Robert Pollin noted in an essay outlining a global Green New Deal, published in New Left Review in 2018, higher economic growth would also “mean a higher level of investment being channeled into clean-energy projects.” Decarbonization and economic growth, in this vision, can be mutually reinforcing.

Beyond these core disagreements, there are a host of ancillary differences of emphasis, strategy and style between the two outlooks. Degrowthers tend to embrace local and small-scale initiatives — “nowtopias” and prefigurative experiments in sustainable living, for example — while Green New Dealers are inclined to argue that the magnitude of the crisis requires a global response. Equally, if degrowthers are disposed to enthusiasm about being less productive, and are sometimes caricatured as Luddites yearning for a pre-industrial way of life, Green New Dealers, sometimes described as eco-modernists, are convinced that the nature of the emergency demands the total mobilization of the resources of modern industry and technology. (Symptomatic of this difference is each side’s position on the totemic question of nuclear energy, which degrowthers tend to be strongly against and eco-modernist Green New Dealers tend to regard as indispensable.)

What business do we have weighing post-carbon visions when the climate crisis is already upon us?

Green growthers and degrowthers also have diverging visions of the political means by which their programs might be realized, and invest their hopes in different agents of transformation. In his new book Climate Change as Class War, Matthew Huber is focused on how to construct and galvanize a popular climate coalition rooted in the U.S. working class and spearheaded by the electric utility unions. By contrast, the sort of movement envisaged by Schmelzer, Vetter, and Vansintjan in The Future Is Degrowth is pointedly ecumenical, if also more inchoate: Degrowth, they write, “can rely less on the traditional male industrial working class” and “to a greater extent on new formations and struggles around precarity, patriarchy, racism, ableism, class hierarchies, ecology and global justice — the ‘multitude’ of those left behind by capitalist growth.” The authors of The Future Is Degrowth also emphasize the ways a pluriverse of prefigurative projects, municipal initiatives, and civil society experiments can become “incubators for counter-hegemony” which can inspire people and through that inspiration lead to structural change. Likewise, while Green New Dealers tend to be focused on advertising the ways decarbonization can materially improve people’s lives, degrowthers are more inclined to emphasize the need to radicalize subjectivities, to “decolonize” our imaginations around growth, and to cultivate counter-hegemonic values. “Self-transformation,” for The Future Is Degrowth authors, can be “a starting point for social transformation.” For those like Huber in the Green New Deal camp, meanwhile, individual behavior cannot fix the climate crisis, nor is it primarily at fault for it: Those who control society’s resources, and fossil capital in particular, “produce climate change,” Huber argues, not consumers going about their resource-intensive lives.

Growth may sometimes be an exaggerated fault line dividing the climate left and occluding substantial common ground. For example: Wherever they stand on the question of economic growth overall, thinkers in both camps are persuaded of the need for the rapid “degrowth” of the fossil fuel industry, and simultaneously the massive “growth” of the renewable sector. Many on both sides of the growth question also agree that basic necessities — food, shelter, transport — ought to be not only decarbonized but decommodified, removed from the sphere of market forces and made freely and universally available. Redistribution and democratization are central to both agendas, too.

image of an unlit match

But the debate is sometimes detached from the actual conditions and trajectory of the global economy, analysis of which ought to be the starting point of all climate strategy. The historical fact is that growth in advanced economies has been feeble since the 1970s (and is weakening in emerging ones, too, including in China). Green growthers hope that, as with a wartime mobilization, the extraordinary efforts to mitigate climate change themselves might reverse this trend. But as Jack Copley observes in a perceptive recent article published in Competition and Change, it is not clear that growth can in practice be either “prioritized or de-prioritized”: The protracted downturn that has beleaguered advanced economies for the last few decades, or what’s sometimes known as “secular stagnation,” is in any case the empirical context in which any decarbonization initiative must be pursued.

This is without even considering the effect on GDP of the immense damage caused by the climate-related shocks by which societies are guaranteed to be battered in the coming decades. Research released last year by the Swiss Re Institute suggested that by mid-century, on our current course “the world stands to lose 10% of total economic value from climate change.” The notion, commonplace in official discourse, that no country ought to have to sacrifice its economy for the planet is essentially nullified by these grim forecasts: As Terzi observes in Growth for Good, “business as usual is a nonexistent scenario. There are only two scenarios ahead of us: successful climate mitigation, and catastrophic damage from climate change.”

In view of this intractable economic outlook, likely to be both stagnant and turbulent, it is worth assessing the Green New Deal and degrowth not only according to the substance of their economic models, but according to their political resonance or strategic potential as visions. In particular, how convincingly does each resolve what could be described as the paramount strategic challenge of the climate change era — from a more limited technocratic perspective, how to secure public assent for the energy transition, or, in more radical terms, how to cohere a popular constituency with the clout to compel its acceleration?

For the stubborn fact remains that despite the ubiquity of the climate crisis in public discourse and consciousness, there is as yet no mass movement wielding enough political power to defeat the forces and interests ranged against climate action. Even though the appalling blowback from global warming is affecting more and more people and anxiety and dread about climate change has become a kind of ambient context to contemporary life in regions that remain, for the moment, comparatively unscathed, and even though the world’s most powerful states and corporations express concern for the climate and advertise their green credentials and commitments, environmental activism nonetheless remains too marginal, in large part still the concern of professional activists and eco-theorists, school children, and those on the “frontline,” such as the Indigenous communities leading the ongoing pipeline protests.

Among the key obstacles to a truly mass movement coalescing is not a shortage of awareness or concern, but the apparent disconnection, or even conflict, between action taken to stabilize the climate and our more immediate, everyday concerns and material interests. An obvious instance of this seeming misalignment “the end of the world” and “the end of the month” was Macron’s ill-fated attempt to impose a diesel tax in 2018 in a context of depressed living standards and rampant inequality. It was met by the gilets jaunes protests, which had a truculence and tenacity that climate mobilizations sorely need and have largely lacked.

There remains, in other words, a need to transform a cumbersome, abstract ecological obligation into an ardent subjective demand and urgent mass priority capable of congealing and propelling a popular movement. It is partly on these grounds that class-struggle Green New Dealers like Matthew Huber object to degrowth. Its critique of consumerism and emphasis on stewarding scarce resources (abetted by some unfortunate rubrics, like “egalitarian eco-austerity”) is, Huber argues, politically tactless, entrenching the association of climate action with hardship, the curtailment of freedom and forgoing of luxury. A “politics of ‘less’ and ‘limits’ has no resonance for the vast majority of people already living precarious and insecure working-class lives,” he writes. The Green New Deal, by contrast, aims to “link direct material improvements in people’s lives to climate action,” and to make the energy transition the lynchpin of a more expansive program of social uplift and collective emancipation. The promise of green growth is that the dramatic change necessitated by the climate crisis needn’t be grimly endured but can actually improve life for everyone. As Nancy Fraser notes in her new book Cannibal Capitalism, for a new “eco-political commonsense” to “become counter-hegemonic” it must “transcend the ‘merely environmental,’” with decarbonization just one part of a much more comprehensive vision of human progress.

Notwithstanding its reputation among its critics, degrowth has its own means of showing that stabilizing the climate does not require sacrifice or “individual renunciation,” but can deliver what the authors of The Future of Degrowth term a “promise of radical abundance.” “Scarcity,” they maintain, “is not a natural fact.” Rather “it is precisely capitalism — through alienating us from each other and from the abundance of the earth — which undemocratically imposes limits on us and makes it impossible for us to set our own.” Degrowth is thus not about submitting to limits — sacrificing the social on behalf of the planetary — but undoing the “imposed limits set on us by capitalism and hierarchy” and “deliberating collective” ones, to create “a self-determined post-scarcity society.” 

What business do we have weighing post-carbon visions when the climate crisis is already upon us? While it is surely true that visions of a green future without any of the wider social advance are politically sterile, such a future may now be the the likeliest outcome, in the medium term, anyway. Indeed, it seems that a minimally greened capitalism may be the precondition for a green socialism, insofar as the latter depends on our keeping the planet habitable. As Jake Bittle argues in a recent essay for The Drift, “the forces driving the energy transition over the past decade have turned out to be private and profit-oriented, rather than egalitarian and democratic” and the left needs to “update” its strategy in response — feeling no shame “about having a plan B.” Bittle calls for a kind of reformism that is not only geared to demolishing fossil capital but to working within and against an ascendant green capital.

Image of a used match

Given the likelihood that the capitalist order will judder on or even intensify in the low-carbon world being forged belatedly by state-subsidized private capital, it is easy to dismiss climate agendas of socially transformative ambition and anti-capitalist passion as unrealistic and irresponsibly utopian. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that averting catastrophe is an ongoing struggle to shape this world. The interventions the worsening crisis will necessitate can always, as Jack Copley puts it, “assume a progressive or regressive bent.” Radical visions of a better, not just a greener, future remain indispensable to collective efforts to shift the balance of power — a balance of power that will determine not only the course and pace of the transition, but the humanity and fairness of the post-carbon future.

Lola Seaton is associate editor at New Left Review and a contributing writer at the New Statesman. She lives in London.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Earth photograph courtesy of New York Public Library / Unsplash. All others: Original photographs courtesy of Georg Eiermann / Unsplash