Discussion article: Why technological determinism, ‘degrowth’ and ‘green populism’ cannot stop capitalism’s runaway destruction of nature

'The essence of capitalism is to turn nature into commodities and commodities into capital. The live green earth is transformed into dead gold bricks, with luxury items for the few and toxic slag heaps for the many.’ – Michael Parenti, Against Empire

The latest environmental studies show that capitalism is devouring Earth’s resources in increasingly destructive volumes. As climate change threatens to make the planet uninhabitable, movements for ‘degrowth’ and ‘green populism’ are forming on the utopian left. But as BRIAN HENRY explains, the laudable goals they promote can only be achieved with socialist central planning.

In 2018, a year’s worth of carbon, food, water, fibre, land and timber was consumed in a record 212 days. This means that ‘Earth Overshoot Day’[1] – the point at which consumption exceeds the capacity of nature to regenerate – moved forward on 2017 by two days to 1 August, the earliest date ever recorded. In other words, we are using 1.7 Earths each year.

The data has been recorded by Global Footprint Network (GFN). Its studies show that consumption was first pushed beyond a sustainable level in 1970, but then only just before the end of December. Ever since, the day at which humanity has busted its annual planetary budget has tended to move forward. Thirty years ago, the overshoot day was on 15 October. Twenty years ago, 30 September. Ten years ago, 15 August. Next year could mark the first time the planet’s budget is busted in July.

The ongoing and ever-quicker destruction of nature is the inevitable consequence of the perpetual demands of capital accumulation. In order to continually reproduce and expand the overall mass of existing capital, a sufficient magnitude of surplus value has to be generated by commodity-producing human workers. Every time the overall mass of capital rises, it therefore requires an even higher production of commodities than before in order to reproduce and expand capital yet further. And since commodities are made from natural resources, the quantity of food production, mineral extraction, forest clearance, fossil-fuel burning, and so on, has to rise, year after year after year.

The process of turning nature into commodities releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The growth in global carbon emissions has accelerated from 1% a year in the 1990s to 3% a year in the 2010s. The average temperature of the planet’s land surface rose by 1C between 1750 and 2015, at an average of 0.038C a decade – but the planet is now warming at 0.17C a decade. It is not going to take a further 265 years to hit the dreaded second degree rise, which climate scientists warn will cause unprecedented levels of migration, declining crop yields and resource shortages, as well as radically heightening the intensity and frequency of extreme weather. The heatwaves that have triggered an alarming number of devastating wildfires this summer in North America and Europe are a portent of things to come.[2] The past three years have been the hottest ever.

With ‘feedback loops’ kicking in – such as melting Arctic ice releasing trapped CO2 – the rate of warming will continue to speed up. With some studies saying that the world is currently on course for an apocalyptic 8C rise by 2100,[3] it seems the 2C threshold will be hit well before the end of the century. Capitalism has existed for less than 1% of human history and yet it is so destructive it threatens to wipe out half a billion years of evolution in the blink of an eye.[4]

Mathis Wackernagel, chief executive and co-founder of GFN, describes the process of environmental destruction as a ‘ponzi scheme’ whereby ‘we are borrowing the Earth’s future resources to operate our economies in the present’.

The trend is reversible. GFN says, for example, replacing 50% of meat consumption with vegetarian food would push back the overshoot date by five days. Efficiency improvements in building and industry could make a difference of three weeks, and a 50% reduction of the carbon component of humanity’s footprint would give an extra three months of breathing space.

Periodic economic slowdowns, which tend to reduce energy consumption, have occasionally shifted the ecological budget in a positive direction. The 2007-08 financial crisis saw the date fall back by five days.

Degradation and deforestation

Separate scientific studies released over the past year have continued to show the extent of environmental devastation. A third of the Earth’s land is now acutely degraded, with fertile soil being lost at a rate of 24 billion tonnes a year through intensive farming.[5] Heavy tilling, multiple harvests and abundant use of agrochemicals have increased yields at the expense of long-term sustainability. In the past 20 years, agricultural production has increased threefold and the amount of irrigated land has doubled, often leading to land abandonment and desertification. Decreasing productivity has been observed on 20% of the world’s cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland.

Furthermore, tropical forests have become a source rather than a sink of carbon.[6] Forest areas in South America, Africa and Asia – which have until recently played a key role in absorbing greenhouse gases – are now releasing 425 teragrams of carbon annually, more than all the traffic in the United States. This is because of the thinning of tree density and the concomitant culling of biodiversity, reducing biomass by up to 75%.

Scientists combined 12 years of satellite data with field studies. They found a net carbon loss on every continent. Latin America – home to the Amazon, the world’s biggest forest – accounted for nearly 60% of the emissions, while 24% came from Africa and 16% from Asia.

Every year about 18 million hectares of forest – an area the size of England and Wales – is felled. In just 40 years, possibly one billion hectares, the equivalent of Europe, has gone. Half the world’s rainforests have been razed in a century. At current rates, they will vanish altogether in 100 years.

Technological determinism

How do we stop destroying nature before it is too late? We certainly cannot depend on neoliberalism. The United Nations’ ‘sustainable development goals’ amount to little more than ‘raising awareness’ about how individuals can ‘consume responsibly’ while ignoring the role of capitalism and imperialism.

‘Green growth’ under capitalism is impossible. Numerous climate studies have shown that emissions rise more or less in line with GDP growth. Climate scientists (Anderson and Bows, 2011) say that to limit global warming to below 2C, rich nations must reduce their emissions by 8-10% per year. A number of studies have shown that reductions greater than 3-4% per year are incompatible with a growing economy (Stern 2006; UK CCC 2008; Hof and Vuuren 2009). The existing decarbonisation rate is only about 1.6% per year. Schandl et al (2016) suggest that some rich nations might be able to climb to a maximum of 4.7% per year if they roll out a high and fast-rising carbon tax, and somehow manage to double their material efficiency.

Despite these warnings, neoliberal politicians and NGOs claim it is possible to continue growing GDP without consuming more resources. But this is another fallacy. Research (Ward et al, 2016) says that the ‘decoupling of GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible… because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits.’ Another study (Schandl et al, 2016) says that ‘while some relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint’.

Neoliberals tend to believe in ‘technological determinism: history is determined by technology, rather than modes of production and class struggle, and so they can have faith that the gods of innovation will deliver salvation. But geoengineering proposals are falling flat. There is a growing consensus that bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS)[7] is unworkable. The technology has never been proven at scale. Even if it did work, it would require the creation of plantations for biofuel equivalent to three times the size of India, a fantasy that would anyway devastate the global food supply. Scientists have also found that reflecting the sun’s rays back into space by injecting aerosol particles into the high atmosphere would cause widespread crop failure.

What is needed in terms of technology is the much quicker development and implementation of clean, renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuel. There has been some progress thanks to the falling costs of solar and wind technologies, which is largely down to the sheer scale of China’s clean energy investment. It is spending more than twice as much as the US, and two-thirds of solar panels are produced in China.

There are other possibilities that could also assist, such as the development synthetic or ‘clean’ meat – grown from animal cells – which if taken up widely would, compared to livestock production, use far less water, denigrate far less land and create far less methane as a by-product. But this is only being explored by a small number of start-ups and proposals to scale it up commercially would be fiercely resisted by farmers.

Contrary to the perceived wisdom that capitalism encourages technological innovation, it is in fact held back by capitalism in multiple ways. For starters, the system suffers from increasingly massive overaccumulations of capital that cannot be reinvested profitably. This surplus capital is a barrier to investment and productivity. Only very wealthy corporations can afford the large-scale research and development required, because investing in renewable energy remains relatively unprofitable. The competition-strangling effect of monopolies therefore creates artificial scarcity – a lack of products that could otherwise be abundant. This is partly why fossil fuels still supply 80% of the world’s energy supply.

The other reason is that the sections of capital which produce fossil fuel have no incentive to stop – if they don’t keep mining the Earth for oil and selling it at a profit they will go bust. BP invests just 1.3% of its total capital expenditure in low-carbon projects while Shell has pledged to invest 3% of its annual spend on low-carbon by 2020. If the liberal section of the ruling class really wants to stop the conservative climate-deniers they so detest they will have to wage civil war on them and seize their assets. But they won’t go beyond pious handwringing because they too are capitalists. They know that moving more significantly away from fossil fuel under capitalism would threaten the solvency of banks and pension funds.

While the capitalist state is a better innovator than the private sector,[8] its budget necessarily shrinks in relative terms as overaccumulations of capital grow ever-larger. Not only do tax revenues decline from falling profits, but state expenditure has to be cut continually[9] to make it available for the restoration of the accumulation process, meaning the state’s ability to develop renewable technology is increasingly limited. The Conservative government – despite setting a new carbon target to reduce carbon emissions by 57% on 1990 levels by 2030 – has halted new subsidies for onshore wind farms, solar and biomass, while killing off a ‘green homes’ scheme and selling off most of the state green investment bank. President Donald Trump has similarly rolled back environmental schemes in the US. Social democrats denounce these moves as unnecessary ‘political choices’, but they are wrong – conservatives understand capitalism better than they do.

The nature of innovation under capitalism is another reason that ‘green growth’ is impossible, as every innovation spawns new use-values – new commodities that were not previously needed or could not be made under the former method of production. Socialist innovation would also spawn new products, but we could decide whether or not we really needed them. Capitalism cannot turn away from wasteful commodities because producing them is a necessary part of satisfying the demands of capital accumulation.


Something more radical than blind faith in technology and the individual is urgently required. On the utopian left there is much talk of ‘degrowing’ rich countries – ‘the reduction of production and consumption in the Global North’. Indeed, the Earth Overshoot Day statistics show that, if everyone on Earth lived like an average citizen in oil-rich Qatar, we would be using the resources of 9.3 earths a year; the figure is 4.9 for the US, 3.0 for Germany and 2.2 for China. In contrast, the figure is 0.6 for India and Nigeria and 0.4 for Vietnam. As we have consistently argued, this shows that overconsumption is driven by purchasing power, not – as is dangerously suggested by neo-Malthusians – population growth, which in any case is determined by the process of capital accumulation.[10] 

Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, is one of the faces of the degrowth movement. He is accused by his detractors on the right of wanting to ‘immiserate the West’.[11] But, as he puts it, ‘the opposite of growth isn’t austerity, or depression, or voluntary poverty. It is sharing what we already have, so we won’t need to plunder the earth for more.’

He points out that cutting the average GDP per capita in the US down to less than half its present size, in real terms, would take it to the equivalent of US GDP per capita in the 1970s, when real wages were higher and the poverty rate was lower. ‘The only difference is that people consumed less unnecessary stuff,’ he says. He also points to Costa Rica, where GDP per capita (£7,640) is one-fifth that of the US while enjoying a higher life expectancy and higher levels of happiness. This is because it abolished its military and spent the money saved on universal social services – how much disposable income do you really need when those things are free?

Moreover, it is economic growth that immiserates because, as well as destroying the environment, the process of accumulation necessarily and increasingly concentrates capital into the hands of a super-rich minority. Hickel cites a study[12] showing that ‘even during the most equitable period of the past few decades, only 5% of new income from annual global growth went to the poorest 60% of humanity. At this rate of trickle-down, it will take more than 100 years to get everyone above $1.25 per day, and 207 years to get everyone above $5 per day. And in order to get there we will have to grow the global economy to 175 times its present size. That’s 175 times more extraction, production and consumption than we’re already doing. Even if this kind of growth was physically possible, it would cause catastrophic ecological crisis.’

Hickel says that degrowth ‘does not mean shrinking the existing economy, which would surely be painful, but shifting to a better one’. This would necessitate ‘some kind of debt jubilee’ to deal with financial crisis and ‘getting rid of our debt-based monetary system’. Degrowth would also involve redistributing wealth to reduce inequality and decommodifying key social goods such as housing, education and healthcare.

But the problem with Hickel and the degrowth lobby is that while they are good at diagnosing the disease, they are rather timid and vague about naming the cure. He promotes ‘shifting to a better economy’ but cannot tell us what this economy would be called or how it would work. If he wants to abolish the ‘debt-based economy’ then he must be talking about actual socialism.

Hickel and the degrowthers will have to shake off their liberalism if they are to move beyond pious wishfulness. How would this ‘shift’ happen? Do they think they are going to convince the ruling classes to give up their wealth and property without a fight? The imperialist powers are not Costa Rica – they have neocolonial assets to defend. They aren’t going to abolish their militaries. Only after the global victory of socialism will it be possible to end militarism and use the saved resources for universal social goods across the world.[13]

‘Green populism’

Similar to degrowth is ‘green populism’. In an article for Novara Media,[14] the erstwhile ‘libertarian communist’ platform which has since lapsed into ‘critical’ support for the social imperialism of ‘Corbynism’, Aaron Bastani writes that ‘fully automated luxury communism is green populism’. Even by the standards of the British Left the ridiculousness of this statement is hard to beat, conflating an anarcho-techno-utopia with bourgeois electoralism.

In fairness to Bastani, his politics have matured beyond the impossibility of anarchism, as he now recognises that ‘only states, the greatest instruments of collective action yet created by humans, can pull off what is needed’, adding that sufficient decarbonisation requires the ‘mobilisation of states in something akin to a war effort’.

However his recognition that ‘states matter’ is coupled with the declaration that ‘electoralism is important’ because geen populism requires ‘huge levels of consent’. How he expects a coalition of pro-environmental parties to win enough landslide victories in enough countries to ensure ‘the decarbonisation of the Global North by 2030’ quickly enough is a mystery. Furthermore, as Cuba has demonstrated in dealing with devastating hurricanes, socialist states are far more effective at organising mass mobilisations than capitalist states.[15]

Like Hickel, Bastani lapses into reformism, believing somehow that enough popular pressure can be applied to convince capitalists to accept the voting away of the productive and social relations of capitalism. Even in the unlikely event that a green coalition could win the landslides needed to pass legislation unhindered by reactionary filibustering, property-owners would physically resist lawfully permissible expropriations. Militant mass action will have to be taken against them to ensure that they are given no choice.

The project of green populism includes ‘public goods like universal health, education and housing’. But capitalism in deep crisis cannot afford such luxuries, and since green populism is to pursue bourgeois electoralism, it would be subject to the laws of capitalism. The ruling classes, who control the bourgeois state with their armies, police and secret services, would turn to war and fascism before allowing social democrats to tax them enough to make green populism’s proposed social transformation even faintly viable.

Perhaps it seems logical at this point in time to believe that the rich could be converted, given that existential threats do not discriminate against class. But if that were really possible it would have happened by now – they have been lectured to about the dangers of climate change since the end of the 1970s. Scientists say that 33% of the world’s oil and 49% of its gas have to be left in the ground to avoid 2C, yet BP and Shell are basing their business strategies on a 5C rise (The Independent, 27 October 2017). Why? Because melting ice caps are revealing new sources for oil extraction. Global warming is in their financial interests! Capitalists are only ‘rational actors’ if the rationale is profit.

Bastani claims to be a Marxist yet he does not accept that, just as the capitalist mode of production is the dictatorship of capital, the socialist mode of production is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Proletarian planning

Many within the green movements are explicit in claiming that ‘neither capitalism nor socialism’ provide the answer to the environment’s plight because ‘both rely on development’. This presents nothing more than a nebulous ‘third way’ that can only succeed in a fantasy world. It is time to wake up: not only is socialism the historically necessary successor to capitalism – which is now heading towards its greatest ever breakdown – it is the only hope if humanity is not to hasten its own extinction.

As John Rice, an Australian founder of the ecosocialist network in Adelaide,[16] has said: ‘Cuba has roughly double the growth rate of other countries in Latin America, and yet is recognised by the World Wildlife Fund as the only country in the world with sustainable development. It’s an example of the fact that it’s not development per se that is the problem, but capitalist development. This is a real lesson for the western environmental movement, which often argues for a decrease in development and living standards in the developed world. Given thoroughly democratic, community economic planning, there’s no reason why we can’t have wealth for all and a healthy, thriving environment, right across the world.’

And that’s the key: planning. By prioritising human need instead of profit, Cuba has, for example: reversed colonial deforestation; reduced long-distance food transport by developing urban farms; and replaced synthetic pesticides with unique biopesticides to maintain soil fertility.

A socialist state can control and direct production and development, whereas a capitalist state can only apply modest regulations on the inherently anarchic production of the ‘free market’. Development under socialism means eradicating poverty, which is necessary in order to clean up the planet and make it a healthy place to live – it does not mean perpetuating the throwaway consumerism that characterises capitalist imperialism. While a socialist world would raise the productivity and development of essential goods and technologies, it would do away with unnecessary production and inbuilt obsolescence. Given the decimated and overheated planet capitalism will bequeath to socialism, it is clear that very careful planning will be required.

That is not to say that socialism now has to be about green-primitivism. Rather than simply consuming less energy because we need to give up fossil fuels, raising the global energy mix to 100% solar and wind has the potential, once the technology is sufficiently developed, to create distributed energy in limitless abundance – the sun furnishes the earth with enough energy to meet humanity’s annual demand in just 90 minutes. Decarbonisation won’t just save the planet, it will deliver electricity to hundreds of millions of people in sub-saharan Africa and South Asia who currently subsist without it.

But only socialism can unleash the full potential of technology because it will remove the fetters that hold back development under capitalism – surplus capital, the profit motive and competition-strangling monopoly capital. The eco-consciousness of degrowth and green populism are certainly desirable, but how the goals they promote are achieved in reality is a question that can only be answered by ecosocialism and central planning.

[1] https://www.overshootday.org/

[2] Fire in Greece: a ‘natural’ disaster fuelled by the drive for profit, revolutionarycommunist.org, 16 August 2018 http://revolutionarycommunist.org/europe/greece/5312-fire-in-greece-a-natural-disaster-fuelled-by-the-drive-for-profit

[3] ‘Climate outlook may be worse than feared’, University of Edinburgh, 9 February 2015 https://www.ed.ac.uk/news/2015/climate-091215

[4] See ‘New reports warn global warming threatens human extinction’, revolutionarycommunist.org, 6 October 2016 http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/environment/4439-nr061016

[5] The Global Land Outlook, United Nations https://global-land-outlook.squarespace.com/the-outlook/#the-bokk

[6] ‘Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss’, Science, 13 October 2017 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6360/230

[7] BECCS is a climate mitigation measure designed to achieve permanent net negative carbon emissions. CO2 from the atmosphere is locked into biomass and then redirected underground via pipelines and stored underground. BECCS combines the natural CO2 capture process in trees and plants with the benefits of geological carbon storage (CCS), ie storing the carbon dioxide emissions underground in depleted oil and gas fields or deep saline aquifers.

[8] As Mariana Mazzucato has shown in her book The Entrepreneurial State, radical innovation under capitalism is almost always led not by the private sector, as has been mythologised by capitalist media and advertising, but by the state. In a series of case studies – from IT, biotech and nanotech, to today’s emerging green tech – Mazzucato shows that the private sector ‘only finds the courage to invest after the state has made the high-risk, long-term investments that the private sector cannot afford. The state socialises the risks, while rewards are privatised.’ For example, every technology that makes the iPhone so ‘smart’ was state funded: internet, GPS, touchscreen, battery, hard drive, and voice recognition.

[9] Public spending as a percentage of GDP fell every year from 47.8% in 2010 to 41.1% in 2017. https://tradingeconomics.com/united-kingdom/government-spending-to-gdp

[10] See ‘The “sixth mass extinction” is a product of capitalism – not population growth’, revolutionarycommunist.org, 25 August 2017  http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/environment/4944-the-sixth-mass-extinction-is-a-product-of-capitalism

[11] ‘Why Branko Milanovic is wrong about degrowth’, jasonhickel.org, 19 November 2017

[12] ‘Incrementum ad Absurdum: Global Growth, Inequality and Poverty Eradication in a Carbon-Constrained World’, World Social and Economic Review, 9 February 2015 http://wer.worldeconomicsassociation.org/papers/incrementum-ad-absurdum-global-growth-inequality-and-poverty-eradication-in-a-carbon-constrained-world/

[13] Incidentally, the US military is the largest institutional consumer of oil in the world.

[14] Fully Automated Green Communism, Novara Media, 19 November 2017


[15] See ‘Cuba puts the US to shame as hurricanes wreak destruction’, revolutionarycommunist.org, 2 November 2017 http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/americas/cuba/4989-cp021117

[16] See ‘Ecosocialism or imperialist destruction’, revolutionarycommunist.org, 9 June 2010  http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/capitalist-crisis/1832-ecosocialism-or-imperialist-destruction-frfi-215-junjul-2010


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