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Planning Degrowth: The Necessity, History, and Challenges

Climate protest of Fridays for Future (FFF) in Heidelberg

Climate protest of "Fridays for Future" (FFF) in Heidelberg. The protestors demand not only (purely technological) measures for decarbonization, but mainly climate justice (March 3, 2023). Credit: Stephan Sprinz - Own work, CC BY 4.0, Link.

Kent Klitgaard is professor emeritus of economics and sustainability at Wells College in Aurora, New York.

Unplanned degrowth can be a disaster for those living in a capitalist system, especially the poor and working classes. Unplanned degrowth, most often known as a recession, a depression, or a crisis has manifested itself historically as increases in unemployment and financial hardship. Such cyclical crises are a fundamental part of the process of capital accumulation. Without capital accumulation there would be no capitalism. Capitalism without sufficient growth is a stagnant, crisis ridden state.

Since the 1940s, politicians and mainstream economists, and even some socialist economists, have advocated that economic growth, or growth in the Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is the most important metric for judging the success of an economic policy. While classical political economists such as Adam Smith focused on accumulation and expansion in the eighteenth century, by the late nineteenth century economics was dominated by theories that asserted that possessive individualism was “human nature,” and that value was determined by the pursuit of subjective well-being. This is, in essence, a static approach to economic theory, modeled on physics. William Stanley Jevons, originator of the marginal utility approach went as far as to define economics as the mechanics of utility and self-interest.1 Even the theories of John Maynard Keynes used static, rather than dynamic, equations.

The New Deal of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration was not especially oriented toward economic growth. It was about recovery and restructuring. Roosevelt believed that the cause of the Depression was domestic overproduction. The concern with overproduction led him to create two agencies, The National Recovery Administration and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Both were early attempts at planned degrowth, designed to limit industrial and agricultural output, and equalize agricultural and industrial incomes. Unfortunately, both were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the United States has since advocated for growth instead of planned degrowth in the face of subsequent crises.2

The focus on economic growth did not appear until the Second World War. After the war’s end and the passage of the Employment Act of 1947, economic growth was seen as the vehicle that would enable full employment and the stable prices that the act called for. It was also in the postwar era that concern with economic growth became a theoretical focus.

Although Michał Kalecki began publishing dynamic models in the early 1930s, his work was published in Polish and not available in English translations until the 1960s and ’70s. Economic growth theories in the English-speaking world did not emerge until the end of the Depression. Keynesian-based theories associated with Roy Harrod in England and Evsey Domar in the United States stressed the economic volatility that arises from the dynamics of the accumulation process. Neoclassical growth theories did not emerge until the 1950s, which promoted the idea that the growth trajectory of a competitive economy is stable and best explained by technological change.3 The belief that economic growth and technological change will save us from misery and provide an improved quality of life is still dominant.

Despite the promises of mainstream economics, which pays little attention to the limits of nature, we are facing an existential threat: a global habitability crisis engendered by capitalism. Scientific studies from those devoted to human appropriation of net primary productivity, to ecological footprints and planetary boundaries, show that we have already exceeded many of nature’s limits to provide resources and assimilate wastes, and that further economic growth would only exacerbate the situation. Moreover, we have little time to solve the problem.4

The most recent Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a stark picture of the reality the world faces. They conclude unequivocally that the emission of greenhouse gases is the cause of warming in every region of the world. The increase in global average temperature since the mid-nineteenth century until 2019 was in the range of 0.8–1.3°C, resulting in widespread adverse effects. If we are to limit the average increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels to below 2°C, emissions must decline by 73 percent by 2050. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows assert that a 2°C increase is not the threshold between safe and dangerous, but between dangerous and very dangerous.5 If we are to keep warming below the 1.5°C threshold agreed upon in Paris, greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by 99 percent by 2050. Cuts in emissions need to be “deep, rapid, sustained, and immediate.” While the IPCC estimates that the most likely increase in temperature at the end of the century will be between 1.4° and 2.7°C, the possibility of an utterly catastrophic 4.4°C is not beyond the realm of possibility if emissions continue in the future as they have in the recent past. Moreover, the worst impacts are falling on the nations and regions of the Global South that have contributed least to the problem.6

Minqi Li argued in 2020 that there were only two strategies that could accomplish reducing carbon emissions below the 2°C threshold at the end of the century, and neither are compatible with continued economic growth. The first strategy he calls inertia, which calls for each country being entitled to emit a share of carbon that is equal to their current percentage. This benefits the OECD countries, which have much higher per capita emissions. The second strategy is equity, which allows a country to emit a share that is equal to its share of the world population, which would benefit poorer countries with lower per capita emissions. Wealthy countries of the Global North find equity unacceptable, while the nations of the Global South will not likely accept the inertia approach.

The consequences of not reducing emissions on the scale proposed by the IPCC would be calamitous. A 2°C increase could cause the Antarctic ice sheets to disintegrate resulting in up to a nine-meter rise in sea levels. A temperature increase of three degrees could raise sea levels by twenty-five meters, endangering world food production. This, as well as the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, could result in billions of climate refugees. An increase in carbon dioxide concentrations of 550 parts per million, associated with a 4°C temperature increase, could raise sea levels by as much as seventy-five meters, inundating most coastal areas.7

If catastrophic climate change is not enough to limit further economic growth, one must also consider the end of the age of fossil fuels. In 1956 petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that the domestic production of oil in the “lower 48” states of the United States would peak between 1968 and 1972, and therefore begin an inevitable decline.8 Hubbert found that oil discoveries peak about forty years before production does. U.S. oil discoveries peaked in the Depression year of 1930, and production peaked forty years later. The peak of international oil is a more difficult endeavor as the amount of oil reserves are often state secrets, and the calculation of reserves is subject to political manipulation.9 Oil companies have found and produced the cheapest, easiest-to-get oil first. The remainder is harder to acquire, found in deep water or polar areas, or must be hydraulically fractured or mined, as in the case of Canadian oil sands.10 This is not necessarily the end of oil, but the end of cheap oil. Since the introduction of the age of coal, fossil energy has been the motive force behind capital accumulation. No economist spoke of self-perpetuating growth in the age where energy came primarily from the solar flow. Only fossil energy could provide the material force behind self-expanding value and economic growth.11 In order to forge a solution, we must understand the material nature of production and the dynamics of capitalist production and accumulation.

From a material perspective, production involves work, and work, in the physical sense, is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. We can neither create nor destroy energy or matter. Furthermore, energy that is available to do work degrades in the process of doing work, as is measured by the degree of disorder called entropy. Some energy or matter is always lost to waste.

The laws of science limit production through the availability of resources and by the ability of our atmosphere and ecosystems to dissipate waste. In the era of the Anthropocene, we have crossed or neared the thresholds of our planetary boundaries. Since there is absolutely no technological change that can repeal the laws of thermodynamics, the only possible solution is to produce and consume less and step more lightly on the planet’s biophysical systems. But can capitalism, with its ever-increasing need to accumulate, provide a way to live well within nature’s limits?

Valorization and the Labor Process

In the first volume of Capital, Karl Marx declared that capitalist production was the unity of a labor process and a valorization process. Also in the first volume, he asserted that value and surplus value were created in the process of production by living labor employing means of production to produce commodities. The money realized from the sale of commodities was then recapitalized and used to purchase additional labor power and means of production. That is, capital is self-expanding value, M – C – M’.12 Without capital accumulation, there is no capitalism. Therefore the possibility of degrowth under capitalism is essentially nonexistent.13 The difference between M and M’ is unpaid labor, or surplus value. To increase either absolute or relative surplus value capitalists must either extend the working day, make it more intense, or increase labor productivity. This was accomplished first by organizational means, and then by equipping workers with fossil fuel driven machines. Increases in productivity under capitalism are associated with increases in relative surplus value. Marx devoted thirteen chapters of the first volume of Capital to the study of the historical transformation of the labor process.14 Substitution of fossil fuels for machinery and relatively docile labor for skilled and willful labor enabled a greater degree of capitalist control over the labor process and labor productivity. The expanded circuit of capital, showing the purchase of labor power and means of production, appears as:

M – C (LP + MP) – P…P’ – C’ M’

M becomes M’, followed by M”, and then M”’, and so on, in perpetuity. Capital was built upon exploitation, accumulation, and ideology. Capitalists had both to exploit workers and convince them they were not exploited.15 Over the years, capitalist control of media and education continues the ideological acculturalization of workers through inculcating the belief that more money to purchase more commodities is the best of all possible worlds. Meaningful work is a meaningless concept for most. Mainstream economics posits that work is a disutility and is engaged in only to provide money for the purchase of commodities. It is a strongly held belief, not only among the affluent, but among large segments of the working class.

In the third volume of Capital, while explaining the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and periodic crises of overproduction, Marx said: “The true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself.”16 In a price-competitive economy, capitalists are forced to invest in evermore means of production to increase labor productivity and reduce price. Those capitalists who do not are soon bankrupted. But as the organic composition of capital (constant capital over variable capital or dead labor to living labor in production) grows more rapidly than does the rate of surplus value/rate of exploitation, the rate of profit begins to fall. The circuit of capital breaks, and crises ensue. In the resulting depression, capital values are written off and desperate workers are willing to work harder for less. Consequently, the organic composition falls and the rate of exploitation increases, setting the conditions for the return of profits. In the process, large capitals assimilate smaller ones, exhibiting both concentration (fewer, larger firms) and centralization (fewer owners). Overproduction crises produced not only decennial cycles but a tendency toward monopolization. Marx also understood the material nature of production. “If the capitalist mode of production is therefore a historical means of developing the material powers of production and for creating a corresponding world market, it is at the same time the constant contradiction between this historical task and the social relations of production corresponding to it.”17

This contradiction is at the heart of our current planetary-level crisis, between capitalism that must pursue accumulation/growth and the material world, which is threatened by it.

Limits to Growth in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the large-scale corporation had become the dominant mode of business organization. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy chronicled the change in value relations that occurred when corespective behavior supplanted price competition as the fundamental strategy of large oligopolistic corporations. Competition did not end, but took the form of competition to reduce unit costs and expand market share. The difference between aggregate income and the wage costs of productive labor came to be known as the economic surplus, which had a tendency to rise, reflecting a rising rate of exploitation within production.18 This was largely due to the decline of price competition and the tremendous power of fossil fuels, especially once oil and natural gas supplanted coal and the electric motor replaced the steam engine, increasing the efficiency of production.19

If the surplus was not absorbed, the normal tendency of the monopolized economy would be toward stagnation. In the absence of the benefits of imperialism or of some epoch-making innovation such as the steam engine, the railroad, or the automobile, sufficient spending outlets would not be forthcoming. In The Great Financial Crisis, John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff calculated the growth rate by decade from the 1930s to 2007. Growth of GDP in the war-driven 1940s averaged nearly 6 percent per year, and 4.4 percent per year in the ’60s, the decade of the New Frontier and the Great Society. Since the 1970s growth rates continued their secular decline, averaging only 2.6 percent from 2000–07.20 Then the great recession hit. Using the same data source (Table 1.1.1 of the National Income and Product Accounts) one finds that the entire decade of 2000–09 produced a growth rate of only 1.9 percent and the following decade of the 2010s saw growth rates averaging only 1.7 percent per year. After rebounding to 5.9 percent per year following the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the growth rate of real GDP fell to an anemic 1.1 percent for the first quarter of 2023. The dynamics of monopoly capitalism indeed show powerful internal tendencies toward stagnation, if not degrowth.

The normal methods of surplus absorption are consumption, investment, and waste. This makes it difficult to plan for degrowth in the monopoly capitalist era. Baran and Sweezy wrote at length about the sales effort needed to create a nation of conspicuous consumers who were taught that the constant purchasing of new commodities could compensate for the alienated and degraded labor necessitated for most workers in a capitalist labor process. One of their examples of waste was the planned obsolescence of shoddily built commodities and fashion that called for a steady stream of new purchases. Advertising also played, and continues to play, a role. Foster and Brett Clark delineate the continuing problem that waste continues to play in consumption and surplus absorption. Not only are planned obsolescence and the sales effort faulted for their role in the ecological crisis, but so is the production of luxury goods, military spending, and speculative finance. They single out the packaging industry for special chagrin. Only 9 percent of the 6.5 billion tons of the total plastic waste generated has been recycled. Three hundred million takeout cups are discarded every day.21 Much of the waste winds up in landfills or the oceans, where an island of plastic garbage three times the size of Texas floats in the Great Pacific Gyre between Hawaii and the California coast. Nearly every marine bird shows signs of plastic in its bodily systems.

Another sign of waste is the outmoded and carbon emitting electricity generating and distributing grid. We are attempting to run a so-called twentieth-century information economy on the backbone of a nineteenth-century hydrocarbon fueled production system. Although great strides have been made over the last decade in the use of renewable energy such as geothermal, solar, and wind power, they still represent only around 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Fossil fuels still dominate. Coal is still used to produce more electricity than renewables, at 22 percent. Coal-fired electricity generation did not peak until 2008, at 1,040.58 trillion watts of power. After declining since then, coal generation actually increased again from 2020 to 2021. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels and the waste gases contribute strongly to climate change.22

The idea of waste is highly contradictory. Ever since the days of Charles Babbage, capitalist enterprises have tried to reduce costs by becoming more efficient and reducing waste. Yet at the level of the macroeconomic system, the absence of waste would exacerbate the already existing problem of stagnation.

Eight years after the publication of Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital appeared in print. Expanding upon the labor process chapters in the first volume of Capital, Braverman analyzed the effects of scientific management as used to separate conception from execution in order to reduce the abilities of skilled craftworkers to impede rapid throughput of materials and energy in the process of production. As a result, the conditions of labor were degraded as workers were deskilled. Not only did this occur in manufacturing, but it also included the separation of conception and execution in expanding sectors such as clerical work and professions.23 The real subsumption of labor to capital now fully dominates the workplace and the labor process, where human metabolism with nature can most likely to be found. Not only is work now more alienated from other human beings, but also from nature itself. Less direct contact with nature translates into less concern for nature.

The role played by fossil fuels in the accumulation of capital, the realization of surplus value, and the danger posed by the continual emission of greenhouse gases was made poignantly by Andreas Malm. He defined the fossil economy as “an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on a growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in the emissions of carbon dioxide. Roughly synonymous with ‘business-as-usual’ in the lexicon of climate politics, this, we submit, is the main driver of global warming.”24 Fossil capital allowed for the “original expropriation” (or “so-called primitive accumulation”) underlying the Industrial Revolution. Coal mines existed before James Watt’s improvements that made steam engines commercially viable substitutes for water as prime movers of industrial processes, and the their existence was a precondition for the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Sweezy’s dissertation and subsequent 1938 book, Monopoly and Competition in the English Coal Trade: 1550–1850, chronicled this process and described the behavior of coal mine owners to restrict output and divide markets in order to eliminate price competition.25 Additional circuits describe the expansion of fossil fuels and carbon emissions in both production and consumption. The circuit of fossil capital augments Marx’s circuit of capital, where F stands for fossil fuels:26

M – C – (LP + MP[F])…PCO2…C’ – M’ → M'(LP’ + MP'[F’])…PCO2…C” – M” →

Fossil fuels power the machinery that enhances the productivity of workers at the point of production. The productive consumption of labor power and materials, resources, and energy (MRE) is the primary source of carbon emissions. While much of ecological economics and degrowth theory spells out the need to reduce the MRE throughput, business historian Alfred Chandler reminds us that the Industrial Revolution was built upon the increase of such throughput, entailing an increase in the number of machines and energy per worker.27

Malm also included circuits of workers’ and capitalists’ consumption. The circuit for workers is one of simple commodity production, the exchange of equal values with different use values, C – M – C. However, since production is a material process the circuit is augmented by fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions: C – M – C(F)CO2. This presents a great challenge for the future, as workers’ consumption, as well as capitalist production, adds to the level of fossil fuels consumed and emissions released into the atmosphere.

After more than a century of a prodigious sales effort, workers are acculturated into what Juliet Schor called the endless cycle of work and spend, largely in an attempt to find in consumption of commodities the happiness that has been stolen from their workplaces and communities.28 Many workers are unlikely to sacrifice their trucks and fossil fuel-using recreational opportunities for the sake of a science they may not embrace. Capitalists and other luxury consumers will be even less likely to abandon their supposed birthright to comfort and convenience. The fact that both fossil fuels and carbon emissions are deeply embedded in “the American Way of Life” makes cutting carbon emissions a formidable challenge.

The Literature of Degrowth

The degrowth movement is usually associated with the publications of Serge Latouche in the mid-2000s. Yet in the 1960s and ’70s, a number of writings questioning the effects of economic growth on the planet’s ecosystems appeared as well. Early examples include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which confronted the sales effort of the pesticide industry.29 Kenneth Boulding’s “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” heralded the end of the “cowboy economy” with its unlimited frontiers for growth, and the coming of the “spaceship economy” in which resources had to be shepherded carefully and growth was limited.30 Then, in the early 1970s, as stagnation and the end of cheap oil set in, myriad articles and books questioning economic growth from scientific and political-economic perspectives began to appear. The year 1971 saw the publication of both Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which introduced economists to the limits set by the laws of thermodynamics, and Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle, the first of many books that enunciated the dialectical conflict between that product of capital accumulation known as the technosphere and the ecosphere.31

The same year saw the publication of two important articles questioning the nature of economic growth that appeared in the Review of Radical Political Economics. “The Political Economy of Environmental Destruction” by John Hardesty, Norris Clement, and Clinton Jencks argued that nearly every component of national output can be placed in categories that are environment destroying in consumption or production. Some goods, particularly packaging, are environmentally destructive in disposal, and many investments are environmentally damaging as well, especially those that burn coal for heating and industrial processing. Capitalism is a fundamentally irrational system, driven by profit and not by need, a concept they attributed to their reading of Monopoly Capital. They concluded that the low levels of resource use, pollution, and planning needed to stay within the earth’s limits were incompatible with capitalism. They also referenced Baran’s idea of planned surplus, a concept appropriate for a rational socialist society.32 Reducing growth rationally means reducing the economic surplus that must be absorbed. In this case, planning is clearly more rational than periodic crises or the chaos of ecosystem collapse.

In the same issue, Richard England and Barry Bluestone published “Ecology and Class Conflict.” They argued that working people, such as coal miners and migrant workers, have the fewest occupational choices and are most likely to encounter health-debilitating pollution at work. However, working-class support for environmental legislation was scant. The inability to produce sufficient material growth was the root of the economic crisis befalling the country in the early 1970s. But, as long as material consumption continued to increase, intolerable levels of pollution would soon follow. They also argued that liberal reforms would only allow capitalists to rationalize the current mode of production. In conclusion, the arduous task that faces us is the complete transformation of the mode of production.33

The Limits to Growth was first published in 1972 and subsequently updated in 1994 and 2004. The MIT team that wrote it, headed by Dennis Meadows, conducted a series of simulations including five variables: industrial output; non-renewable resources; human population; food production; and pollution. They concluded that while resources would deplete steadily, the other variables would rise, hit a peak somewhere between 2000 and 2100, and then decline exponentially. The team made several runs of the model with different assumptions, for example doubling resources, but the results were essentially the same. Although they never claimed to make predictions, their results remain very accurate.34

In 1973, Herman Daly, a student of Georgescu-Roegen and the soon-to-be doyen of ecological economics, published a collection of essays entitled Towards a Steady-State Economy. The anthology included not only his own essay on steady-state economics, but also papers on population, thermodynamics, limits to growth and carrying capacity, and ethics and population. This was followed by Steady State Economics in 1977; For the Common Good, in collaboration with John Cobb Jr., in 1989; another anthology with Kenneth Townsend entitled Valuing the Earth in 1993; Beyond Growth in 1996; and a text with Joshua Farley in 2003.35

Through his books and numerous papers, Daly made invaluable contributions to the discipline of ecological economics. He was at the forefront of the idea of sustainable development, enunciating rules for the use of renewable and non-renewable resources and dealing with waste. Daly brought us the idea of the embedded economy, that is, that the economy was an open subsystem of a finite and non-growing planet that was constantly supplied with low entropy energy from the sun and had to dissipate high entropy heat waste. The inability to do so, because the economy was too big, resulted in a warming planet. Hence, the need for an economy that develops qualitatively but remains at the same level of quantitative production, consumption, and waste. Part of this model was the distinction between the empty world, with a limited human population and abounding nature, and the full world, with a depleted nature and a large and growing population. Daly was a fierce critic of neoclassical economics and a well-read historian of economic thought, drawing much of his inspiration of a better life in a steady state from John Stuart Mill.

One of his more valuable contributions was the stipulation of what an economy should do when it is working well. A well-functioning economy should allocate resources, distribute incomes, and limit macroeconomic scale to the ability of the planet to provide resources and assimilate wastes. Daly believed that markets are effective devices for allocating resources, but that distribution and scale must be planned!

In 1975, Georgescu-Roegen published “Energy and Economic Myths.” Here he argued that the laws of thermodynamics preclude the conversion of energy into minerals. There is a finite quantity of minerals that are both irreplaceable and exhaustible.36 When I ask people most committed to technological change as a solution to exceeding planetary boundaries, whether they believe that there are sufficient minerals to gear the solar flow economy up to the level of the fossil fuel stock economy, I usually get an admission they have never thought about it. However, a 2021 study by the International Energy Agency casts doubt on the possibility of an easy transition. Mineral demand in general is supposed to increase thirty-fold to meet the Sustainable Development Scenario, and lithium demand will increase by more than forty times. Resource quality is declining, and producing lower grade ores releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Moreover, each wind turbine requires 220 kilograms of the rare-earth mineral neodymium, which is in declining supply and is separated from the rock matrix by means of coal. Wind turbines are fastened to concrete bases and aluminum is needed for the rotors. The fossil fuel imprint is high on the new economy of the solar flow.37

Georgescu-Roegen provided a second great insight after his discussion of minerals. The entropy principle allows no way to cool a continuously heated planet. Therefore, thermal emissions may prove to be an even more intractable problem and limit to growth than the shortage of minerals.

Degrowth From the 1970s to the Present

Serge Latouche’s Farewell to Growth appeared in 2009.38 This was followed by several books and papers authored and edited by Giorgio Kallis and colleagues at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, a hub of degrowth scholarship. Joan Martinez-Alier should be singled out for his commitment to environmental justice in the context of degrowth.39 In the English-speaking world, degrowth theory was championed by Peter Victor in Canada, and Tim Jackson in the United Kingdom. Jackson certainly understands the biophysical limits to continued economic growth and makes an excellent case for exploding the myth of decoupling, questioning Keynesian so-called green growth and seeing the contradiction between an ever-growing economy and the integrity of the earth’s biophysical systems. Yet, in Prosperity without Growth, he did not accept the argument that capitalism without accumulation cannot exist. Consequently, a series of liberal reforms regarding the transition to a service-based economy, investment in ecological assets, and a reduction in work time could allow for a non-growing form of capitalism.40 However, Jackson revisited this question in his recently published Post Growth. Here, he moderates his critique of socialism and admits that the drive for productivity that drives economic growth is built into the mechanisms of capitalism. He also states that socialism should be better than capitalism and hopes it will be in the twenty-first century. Yet he maintains his critique of Soviet socialism in the 1950s for focusing on increasing productivity and economic growth.41 As Foster states in Capitalism in the Anthropocene, critics, including Jackson, rarely speak of Cuba, which is the only nation in the world to exhibit both high levels of economic development and a sustainable ecological footprint.42

The degrowth literature is built upon the solid foundation of environmental political economy that appeared in the 1970s, and the critiques remain much the same from author to author. Growth in monetary value depends upon material growth, which is subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore, reducing the throughput of the material economy can be expressed and measured by the reduction in aggregate income, most prominently GDP, although many degrowth economists express doubt at the accuracy of this in measuring well-being.

At the present rate, humanity will reach its carbon budget by 2036, essentially eliminating the possibility of not exceeding the 2°C target that separates dangerous change from very dangerous change.43

Economic growth has brought unprecedented wealth to millions of people but has also pressured nature’s systems and cannot be a policy for the future, if we want to live within nature’s limits. But growth is also ideological, expressed in the fact that growth is an inculcated belief and a growth paradigm is different from actual growth. Nearly all degrowth theorists now express the idea that degrowth cannot be implemented easily, and that the degrowth paradigm must entail a fundamental and radical transformation of society.

In order to reconcile large-scale investments in renewable energy and other so-called green technologies, we must deal with the unemployment that results from increasing productivity without also expanding the economy. The degrowth literature consistently calls for a combination of a guaranteed basic income or else universal basic services and a reduction of work hours.

A Plan for the Future

We can neither rely on technology to save us, nor believe that a transition to an economy that lives within nature’s limits can be accomplished by a series of minor reforms. Technologies are built upon fossil fuels, and if there are not sufficient minerals in the earth’s crust to gear up alternatives, the future may include longer hours of physical labor. The degrowth literature contains little on the resistance the transformation will encounter, not only from workers and consumers, who see their provisions reduced, but from the power of the capitalist class to resist any limitations on their power to accumulate. We should expect such a pushback from capitalists themselves, from a barrage of advertising and media, and from hired politicians.

We cannot simply wait for socialism to create the appropriate material conditions for degrowth to survive. Socialism, unlike capitalism, does not have an inherent tendency to accumulate, nor does it have need for a gargantuan sales effort by which to absorb surplus. We need to act now. Since the essence of capitalism lies in the labor process, driven by fossil fuels, conspicuous consumption, and the accumulation of capital we can start here with reforms that heighten the contradictions rather than mollify them.

Demand a return to meaningful work. A labor process that allows us to live within nature’s limits is a labor process that substitutes meaningful work for deskilled work and conspicuous consumption. Reducing hours and instituting a guaranteed income, as many degrowth economists call for, are not sufficient for a sustainable society. Work must have meaning, and meaning must include a respect for nature’s limits, in addition to greater ties to community and increased leisure time in which to identify with nature.

Stop subsidizing fossil fuel extraction and production. If oil companies simply extracted all the oil they have already found, and discovered no more, we would be locked into 3°C of warming, which would make large swaths of the planet unlivable.

Work in coalitions. You may learn something important from interacting with someone who does not think exactly the same as you do. We are not strong enough at this point to make the necessary changes by ourselves, and time is of the essence.

Limit capital accumulation. Make finance capitalists pay for their international arbitrage. Direct investment away from those things that harm the planet and into those that help. By all means, get out of the imperialism business, and shut down the weapons manufacturers and banks who finance them. Do expect capital to fight back and do not expect the transition to be smooth. Planned degrowth may be difficult, but it is certainly more rational and less chaotic than total ecosystem collapse, which is the inevitable consequence of unabated capital accumulation and economic growth.


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  2. David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  3. Michał Kalecki, Theory of Economic Dynamics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965); Michał Kalecki, Selected Essays on the Dynamics of the Capitalist Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); Roy Harrod, “An Essay in Dynamic Theory,” Economic Journal 49 (March 1939): 14–33; Evsey Domar, “Expansion and Employment,” American Economic Review 37, no. 1 (March 1947): 34–55; Robert Solow, “A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 70, no. 1 (February 1956).
  4. Peter M. Vitousek, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Pamela A. Matson, “The Human Appropriation of the Products of Photosynthesis,” BioScience 36 no. 6 (June 1986): 368–73; Johan Rockstom et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature 461, no. 24 (2009): 472–75.
  5. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘Dangerous’ Climate Change: Emissions Scenarios For a New World,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. 369 (2011): 20–44.
  6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers,” Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report (Geneva: IPCC Switzerland, 2023), 22.
  7. Minqi Li, “Anthropocene Emissions Budget, and the Structural Crisis of the Capitalist World System,” Journal of World Systems Research 26, no. 2 (2020): 288–317.
  8. King Hubbert, “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” presentation at the spring meeting of the Southern District, Division of Production, American Petroleum Institute, Division of Production, San Antonio, March 7–9, 1956.
  9. Colin Campbell and Jean Lahererre, “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American 278 (1998): 78–83.
  10. Charles A. S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, 2nd ed. (Chelm, Switzerland: Springer Verlag 2018).
  11. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016).
  12. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976).
  13. John Bellamy Foster, Capitalism in the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2022), 363–372.
  14. Marx, Capital, vol. 1, chapters 7–18.
  15. Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
  16. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), 358.
  17. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 359.
  18. Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966).
  19. Richard DuBoff, “The Introduction of Electrical Power in American Manufacturing,” Economic History Review 20, no. 3 (1967): 509–18.
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  42. John Bellamy Foster, Capitalism and the Anthropocene, 363–72.
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2023, Volume 75, Number 03 (July-August 2023)
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