Fear of a Green Planet

The term ‘ecofascism’ is a notable addition to the lexicon of climate change sceptics and the anti-environmentalists. It is an attempt to discredit those who observe that limitless compound growth on a planet with finite resources can only end in ecological catastrophe, and to portray environmentalists as misanthropic, unfeeling Malthusians with totalitarian inclinations. While this was once a left wing epithet, intended to criticise those who wrongly saw overpopulation as the main driver of the climate crisis, it has been hijacked by right wingers who use this term to smear all environmentalists. Indeed, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), Britain’s most prominent rabble of climate change deniers, used this term to attack environmentalists in the aftermath of the El Paso shooting,  tweeting: “The greens' loathing of population growth, technological progress and free markets has disturbing roots in totalitarian movements of the past. 'Ecofascism' cannot be ignored.” Even former UKIP and Brexit Party leader and seemingly ubiquitous grifter Nigel Farage, who has described wind energy as a “collective economic insanity”, has used the term to describe a vote by LSE students to ban beef from their campus. 

This represents a snide attempt for climate change deniers to discredit leftists and environmentalists on their own terms; accusing those who often champion the cause of the poorest and most disadvantaged of being motivated by underlying misanthropy is an effective tactic, no doubt. But in fact, genuine environmentalists have always disavowed fascists and Malthusians who dress themselves up in green. Murray Bookchin recognised that, “There are barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones and outright social reactionaries who use the word ecology to express their views, just as there are deeply concerned naturalists, communitarians, social radicals, and feminists who use the word ecology to express theirs.” The ‘overpopulation’ myth remains a marginal viewpoint among environmentalists. The idea that rising populations in the Global South are responsible for exacerbating climate change has been debunked extensively, as a study from Oxfam showed that the world’s richest 1% are responsible for double the CO2 emissions of the poorest 50%, and that between 1990 and 2015, CO2 emissions rose by 60%, but the increase in emissions from the top 1% was three times larger than the increase from the bottom half. ‘Overpopulation’ is a falsehood that pseudo-environmentalists turn to when they are unable or unwilling to adequately critique an economic system which relies on the constant expansion and reinvestment of capital by firms who must stay competitive or go under - requiring endless growth at 3% per year to ensure its very survival.

The attacks on environmentalists as misanthropes have not just been deployed by outright climate change deniers. Within environmental discourse, a broad schism exists between those who believe that economic growth is perfectly compatible with solving climate change, as long as renewable energy is developed significantly, and those who believe that a more drastic course of action, a programme of ‘degrowth’ is necessary. Those who advocate for degrowth consistently face the aforementioned accusations, as Branko Milanovic, for instance, wrote an article entitled, ‘The illusion of ‘degrowth’ in a poor and unequal world’. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that degrowth is not only necessary to alleviate the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but can also be accompanied by an increase in living standards for the poorest and most vulnerable. 

In 1972, the Club of Rome published their ‘Limits to Growth’ report, which tracked hypothetical models of industrialisation, pollution and resource use up to the year 2100, predicting ecological “overshoot and collapse”, before 2070, on current trends. Despite being consigned to the “dustbin of history” by Bjorn Lomborg, new research has shown that we are on course to meet that trajectory, unless we do something about it. This is not to say that clean energy is entirely useless or that its development is completely superfluous in dealing with the climate crisis, but it is important to maintain some perspective. Current trends indicate that we are producing 8 billion Kwh, more clean energy than in 2000, which is positive, but the 3% per annum growth imperative means that the demand for energy is 48 billion Kwh. Scaling up the amount of clean energy to meet these demands would likely require extraction of metals such as lithium, cobalt and silver, which are required to build renewable technologies such as solar panels, electric car batteries and wind turbines, to increase by as much as 105% in the case of silver and 920% in the case of indium, in addition to cobalt extraction increasing by a projected factor of four. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the 19th century spawned ruthless imperialist exploitation of labour and materials such as tin, copper and rubber from the Congo, Zambia and countries further afield such as Malaysia, facilitating the development of combustion engines, railroads and motors. Similarly, the 21st century may give rise to a new wave of imperial domination, as a rush to exploit the aforementioned resources facilitates the development of renewable technologies in rich, western countries. 

All of this, of course, presupposes that the 3% per annum growth imperative is maintained, and that the rollout of clean energy is compelled to meet these demands. For example, according to Jason Hickel, under the 3% growth imperative, decarbonisation must occur at 10.5% per year to achieve 1.5 degrees celsius of global warming, which is unheard of for any technology. According to Minqi Li, a Professor of Economics at the University of Utah, emissions intensity of GDP only declined by 0.87% between 1990 and 2018, despite 2.81% growth. It is unsurprising that growth offsets the decline in emissions intensity that renewable energy achieves, as the ‘Jevons Paradox’ dictates that for any advancement in the efficiency of a new technology, the benefits can be rendered obsolete by rising demand and rising production. For example, it might be affordable to cut pollutants by car in half as a result of developing electric cars. If the number of cars doubles, however, the emissions will have to be cut in half again to maintain the same air quality, and if the number of cars doubles three times, emissions will have to be cut by 87.5% to maintain the same air quality. The ‘degrowth’ alternative, involving a 40% reduction in global energy consumption, makes it much more feasible to decarbonise. 

The dismissal of degrowth as a form of eco-austerity, coupled with the erroneous association between GDP and human prosperity, has sidelined degrowth as a viable alternative to climate change within mainstream environmentalism. It is incorrectly assumed that degrowth, which is a planned contraction of excess energy use in line with ecological boundaries, involves sacrificing the wellbeing of the poorest people on the planet to stave off ecological breakdown. But these claims are incorrect; GDP is merely a measure of the total exchangeable value of all commodities in a country at any given time, and is unrelated to, and often diametrically opposed to genuine, tangible measures of wellbeing. For example, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico increased GDP despite incurring substantial environmental damage, and even a car crash could increase GDP if more production and manufacturing was required to repair the cars, irrespective of the damage done to the victims. Indeed, GDP in the United States had tripled in the four decades prior to the COVID-19 pandemic while wages stagnated, homelessness skyrocketed and food insecurity mounted. Only the richest in society accrued any concrete advantages from this. Karl Marx summarised this tendency in Capital Volume 1, stating that, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e, on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.”

Degrowth is primarily concerned with opposing these capitalistic metrics of wellbeing, and ensuring that waste and energy throughput are minimised through democratic planning. It has been estimated that wealthier nations could meet their citizens’ material needs with up to 80% less resource use, and a third of global food production is wasted due to capitalist overproduction, which ensures that goods that cannot be sold at a profit are simply discarded, as workers cannot afford to buy the goods that the capitalist system produces. Planned obsolescence, which ensures that products are built to break down so more can be sold, must also be eliminated if environmental externalities are to be avoided. Degrowth is not about depriving those who are already poor of basic necessities, or about enacting a Malthusian population cull, as the climate change sceptics argue. Rather, it is about ending wasteful production and decommodifying private goods, re-localising production and minimising carbon-intensive global trade.

This brings us to the paradox of degrowth; despite being castigated by conservatives as a Malthusian ideology, at odds with the onward march of technological innovation, growth and endless progress, it is an ostensible conservative idea, valuing the dignity of small producers and communities over the destabilising, corrosive influence of giant multinational corporations. George Monbiot recognised this, writing: “As a young man, I was amazed to see the burghers of middle England look the other way as their beautiful market towns were turned into car parks and the glorious countryside that surrounded them into chemical deserts”, continuing: “As a road-building programme driven by the demands of construction companies ripped through ancient monuments and nature reserves, they did nothing, leaving hippies and anarchists to defend our national heritage.” It is the constant expansion and accumulation of capital that commodifies and denudes nature, subjecting it to a balance sheet, and is the most un-conservative idea imaginable. Far from being a misanthropic ideology, at the heart of degrowth is the restoration of autonomy and dignity to the small producer, as opposed to the footloose corporation, and to the family farm, as opposed to the agro-industrial behemoths whose techniques of production erode the soil and perpetuate biodiversity loss. As T S Elliot summarised, “The endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

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