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Is degrowth an alternative?

2022-08-15 | Critique of ideology
Is degrowth an alternative?

The main distinguishing feature of the decadence of capitalism is that it puts in contradiction, in an increasingly violent way, the growth of capital and human development. In our articles we have pointed this out in all sorts of fields, from the chemical industry to culture via medicine and the emergence of new epidemics.

Some readers, despite our basic critique of environmentalism and neo-Malthusianism, understood our argument as reinforcing the arguments of degrowth. Since capitalist growth is anti-human - and it is - we should support degrowth, they tell us.

What is degrowth or collapsism?

Degrowth or collapsism is a neo-Malthusian theory which argues that the finiteness of natural resources and raw materials will produce in the short term a productive collapse so brutal that it will by itself destroy the existing social order, as well as massively shrink the human population (about 5/8 according to some theorists of the movement).

For years the degrowthists focused on the so-called peak oil: the rapid depletion of hydrocarbon reserves once consumption overtook the rate of discovery of new deposits. They predicted it at least twice during the 2000s. It never came but neither did they ever engage in self-criticism of their own analysis and why they had failed at least twice as miserably as the Jehovah's Witnesses' world-ends.

On the contrary, without giving up the idea of a peak oil to which they keep returning every time hydrocarbon prices rise, the discourse then diversified into all sorts of peaks of critical minerals, rare earths and raw materials to finally merge with the discourses that predict human extinction by 2050, trying to carry the waters of climate change, which is real, to the mill of a non-existent resource exhaustion.

What are their technical fallacies?

Oil platform

First of all, degrowthism uses technical and perceptual fallacies in the style of conspiracy theories. They are minor in our critique, but we must point them out at the outset because they generate confusion in each argument.

  1. The fact that a resource is finite does not mean that it will run out immediately. They play here with the difficulty of the listener to estimate the scale of global production. Our brain simply does not have the capacity to visualize figures on that scale, it can only understand their meaning by abstracting them and relating them to others. When we hear that millions of barrels a day are extracted from a field and we compare it with our imagination of that field, we inevitably feel an anguish -that of large numbers when we try to visualize them in an image- that makes us intuit that it is going to be exhausted immediately.

  2. They take for granted that reserves of any raw material are stable physical magnitudes. Not at all. First of all, reserves are measured by their returns in terms of profit. When prices increase, the volume of reserves automatically increases because it becomes profitable to extract what was previously unprofitable within the deposits already discovered.

    On the other hand, new reservoirs are the result of explorations that take place depending on several factors: the investments of the oil companies themselves, their previous calculations... and the availability and accessibility of the territories to be explored.

    It goes without saying that the imperialist game constantly modifies this map. Albania, for example, did not allow exploration until very recently and now it turns out to hold the largest hydrocarbon deposit in Europe (still to be exploited).

    Furthermore, in most cases, neither the geological information provided by the oil companies is anything more than approximate, nor are their economic calculations of future demand and prices infallible, so that they have not always invested enough in exploration for new deposits to appear at the pace desired by the companies.

    That is, the discovery of new fields is not the equivalent of the output of a field when more capital is added without any change in other factors. It need not even be a continuous function. And, as of today, the law of diminishing returns certainly does not apply. There is still too much of the geological world to explore and to know to take anything for granted.

  3. When they compare production, whether of energy or other commodities using critical minerals, with renewable alternatives and project them over time, they take for granted that renewable production will continue to be the same, with the same goals, by the same means and with the same materials. This is not even worth dwelling on: it has never been the case under capitalism, it is the most unrealistic prediction in the world.

What are its conceptual fallacies?

Chongqing, China

Chongqing, China

The main fallacy is ideological. They mistake the growth of capital with the growth of production. The growth of production with the growth of consumption. And the growth of consumption with the growth of human needs. We find ourselves in a fully Malthusian conceptual map.

But the growth of GDP is nothing other than the growth of value, that is, of the product extracted from exploited labor. GDP growth does not measure the growth of total production but the growth of capital, which is something quite different. And consumption does not represent the measure of human needs. Although it is the social form under which capitalism allows workers to satisfy their needs, it does not even measure the degree of their satisfaction by the system.

All this chain of conceptual confusions is not innocent. Collapsism presents capitalist degrowth as an alternative to the growth of capital. A capitalist degrowth which is nothing but a utopia in the worst sense of the word. In fact, their definition of degrowth would imply the continuation of accumulation but by destroying the productive capacities which would serve as the basis for the realization of a society organized around the satisfaction of human needs.

Of course, this uncritical acceptance of the categories of accumulation feeds the catastrophist arguments about the lack of alternatives, confusing social inefficiencies, characteristic of capitalism, with technical inefficiencies.

What happens when you take the capitalist ideology of "efficiency" for granted?

Experimental nuclear fusion reactor

ITER, experimental nuclear fusion reactor in France

For capital the only relevant inefficiencies, the only ones it tries to overcome, are those that negatively affect accumulation. If an inefficiency increases dividends, far from solving these inefficiencies, it aggravates them. And this is all the more common and dramatic the more the system moves into its decadence.

We have seen it in detail in chemical plants, in agriculture, in chip manufacturing, in plastics and even in territorial distribution and urban concentration. And it reaches all scales.

For instance, and it is a classic that comes back again and again, in chemical plants and power plants there is a tendency to increase the volume of reactors/boilers and the diameter of pipes. It's the cheapest per unit of output, but it's also the most comically inefficient in terms of energy and mass transfer. The improvements in engineering to allow efficient production at small but reasonable scales go ahead, nobody is going to prevent them, but they are not applied and will not be applied except in reduced cases under the current industrial model of accumulation and gigantic scales dictated by the social system.

The tension is daily, especially in the electric power field. Plans for the development of alternative energies are subordinated to the generation of profitable applications for large masses of capital. This generally means scaling up productive inefficiencies. For instance, the race for nuclear fusion involves creating temperatures 10 times higher than those of the sun's core. And that is for a toroidal reactor fusing hydrogen isotopes. The new fashionable non-toroidal models with heavier atoms need 100 times higher temperatures than those of the Sun. To fuse atoms together the nuclei must be brought closer together against electromagnetic repulsion, in the Sun this is done by gravity and core temperature (with a lot of quantum tunneling help).

When the gravitational well of a star is not available, the energy barrier must be overcome by raising the temperature by one or more orders of magnitude. From 15,000,000 degrees Celsius to 1,000,000,000 degrees Celsius in the new reactors. And here we are talking only about the temperature of the plasma, which has to be heated with huge sources of microwaves or radio waves. To keep it confined (the plasma is a fluid of dissociated charged nuclei and electrons that responds to electromagnetic fields), it is necessary to operate huge electromagnets that require supercooling. And all this without mentioning that it is actually a thermal power plant, with the inefficiency of any heat engine, which involves throwing away half of the heat generated. In other words, to start up the plant would require the energy consumption of a medium-sized country.

All this to imitate, with great inefficiencies, an available energy source that will not run out in billions of years. But the sun is not so easily monopolizable, not even the manufacture of panels is, nor does the latter absorb such enormous volumes of invested capital as a nuclear fusion project, which can also produce highly profitable amounts of intellectual property.

But if the obsession with fusion is a grotesque illustration of capital's trends, new small-scale fission plants are no better. As the CEO of Rolls Royce makes clear, what matters is their ability to absorb investments, even if they are more inefficient than much of renewables.

But all this is not just about waste and "passive" inefficiencies due to neglect or divergent priorities. For example, in the race to increase capital placement capacity in relatively unprofitable branches, the degree of industrialization in sectors such as agriculture and food has increased. This, together with the growing social atomization of workers and the end of communitarian customs in many places, has led to a boom in processed, pre-cooked and made-to-order food.

Food wastage is colossal, with up to 30% of the total thrown away in China according to studies, and the production of containers and utensils for what is effectively a single use - whether they are made out of plastic or paper - is a brutal waste of resources with added pollution. The international success of formats such as the mukbang, which originally served to provide simulated "company" to millions of people who feel horribly lonely eating in isolation, clearly indicates -in case there was any doubt- that this dissolving trend does not respond to any human need, but purely to the need for capital accumulation.

The rest of the alternatives that flourish and become fashionable in the shadow of the Green Deal, are no different in their demands and presuppositions. But that does not mean that there are no alternatives that collapsism renders invisible by its acceptance of capitalist categories.

What does the degrowth movement not want to see?

HVDC networks

Planning of HVDC networks in Asia

The contradiction between the type of efficiencies that capitalism values - in terms of profit creation, i.e. optimizing the exploitation of labor given a certain correlation of forces - and those that a society organized around the satisfaction of human needs will pursue is obvious.

This does not mean that under capitalism no technologies have appeared that allow or bring us very close to the type of efficient production we need. We saw just this week how precision agriculture could reduce agricultural inputs by up to 70%.

And HVDC grid technologies that would immediately enable 100% renewable production have long been available... if organized internationally on at least a continental scale. But, predictably, the deployment of super-grids clashes with their imperialist instrumentation.

And those problems affect not only hypothetical very high voltage grids, indeed even within a single country like Australia it is incredibly difficult to coordinate conventional grids, where conflicts between investors in different regions prevent unifying the grid and using west coast solar production to offset peak consumption on the east coast, which in turn multiplies inefficiencies.

The problem is not the technology or even the raw materials. The problem is capitalism itself and how it organizes production.

Technology will not *save the world because it is social relations which define the system and not the technologies or the raw materials it uses, social relations are what produce the war, the pauperization and the destruction of the environment which put humanity on the ropes.

What happened to 5G?, 13/8/2022

Not that capitalism does not have technologies or the possibility of developing technologies which would overcome the forms of scarcity which haunt the collapsists, it is that its logic cannot instrumentalize them for accumulation.

But if we free ourselves from the collapsist blinkers regarding the necessity and possibility of abolishing and overcoming capitalist social relations, everything becomes immediately attainable, from spatial, housing and territorial planning to chemical production via agricultural production.

So the real question is. where does this willful blindness come from?

What is the moral problem of collapsism?

Aardehuizen Ecovillage in the Netherlands

Aardehuizen Ecovillage in The Netherlands

There is one element in the degrowth rhetoric that is particularly striking. The demand for quick and instantaneous solutions, immediately applicable within the existing order without changing an iota of the property regime, much less the central institution of the system: wage labor. The only alternative, they say, is degrowth.

The urgency may seem surprising after so many years waiting in vain for the successive catastrophic peaks they predicted. It is, evidently, a rhetorical way of covering up everything they do not want to put in question, presenting as natural what in reality is specifically capitalist. But there is something else.

Under the assumptions of collapsism passivity goes without saying. There would be nothing to be done for capitalism to fall by itself. All we need to do is prepare for the great moment of systemic collapse to find us living in an ecovillage, a housing-with-pool version of a survivalist settlement. As of today, one more consumer choice. Because ecovillages are nothing more than housing developments that only differ from the others in their technological options.

The combination of passivity and substitution of collective struggles for lifestyles, is not innocent either. It reflects the main moral failure of this whole neo-Malthusian construct: the cowardice in raising the question of which collective subject can impose universal human needs as a criterion of social organization.

However, such is always the fundamental question. The problem is that when we get close to them, the citizenship categories of degrowthism collapse.

Any citizenry, Humanity itself or a given population are divided by the system into social classes with conflicting interests. Only in one of them, the working class, are class interests combined with universal human needs. That is why only this class, which is also a global class, with the same interests everywhere in the world, struggling by its own means and asserting itself politically, can lead the whole society to organize itself around the direct satisfaction of universal human needs.

In fact, this is the root issue in any debate with degrowthism. The only reason they can imagine the fall of capitalism as a collapse is because they refuse to imagine the working class asserting itself politically and in doing so deny the existence of a collective antagonist of the system.

Inevitably, their discourse can then only drift towards humanity's guilt and its collective responsibility for crimes against Nature and resources. They render invisible that all these crimes have been previously and necessarily of society against itself, of the exploiting class against the exploited.

What's next?

Printed mini-reactor for distributed chemical production

Printed mini-reactor for distributed chemical production

The problem facing Humanity is not technological. It is the way in which social production is organized which, after a historical period in which it developed productive capacities and knowledge at an accelerated pace, has become a fetter on those same capacities and a drag on our species.

This is why all the fears and urgencies of the degrowthists disappear as soon as we ask ourselves what would happen if the class struggle and the constitution of the working class as a political subject were to develop to the point of decommodifying society at its roots, starting with human labor, without giving up the knowledge and productive capacities that we have today.

That is the world we have been exploring when we ask ourselves what the society that the workers' class movement outlines in its own nature and demands will be like all over the world: whether there will be big chemical plants and gigantic heavy industries; who will do the jobs that nobody wants to do, whether there will be restaurants or what the city and housing will be like. In this blog we have even wondered whether the sexual division of labor will disappear, whether the family and upbringing as we know them will exist or whether, unlike the degrowth fantasy, we will have pineapples, oranges or coffee and whether Art, crafts and traditional productions will be able to flourish in such a society.

It is impossible to honestly ask all these questions above while answering that a communist society will suffer collapse due to over-exploitation of natural resources. There are plenty of resources and renewable energy to establish an abundant and consciously self-regulating society in its common metabolism with Nature.

And no one can think of a conscious human society not fractured by class interests hurling stones against the glass of its own natural environment. In fact historical experience tells us just the opposite, when the proletariat has asserted itself as a class, the defense of the natural environment has far outstripped the imagination of conservationists.

But in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel one must abandon passivity and overcome irrational faith in redemptive collapse. Consciousness -awareness- of the historical situation means recognizing the maximum possibilities open to humanity, and that means joining them, joining the class movement, instead of denying it.