Sustainability efforts are scaling and speeding up — but the treadmill of global economic growth is still faster.
A new ecoliberal political consensus is struggling to be born — a consensus whose commitment to a truly sustainable modernity might well prove resilient to the authoritarian-nationalist and collectivist overtures gaining signal strength and ground troops around the world. But it has a long and difficult road ahead of it, and a paradox at its heart.
In 1984 Claus Leggewie and Brice Lalonde wrote about “ecoliberalism,” the idea that classic liberal values like individuality and industry can harmonize with serious ecological politics. The term describes a liberal-democratic trend dating back to the 1970s that has become more prominent in recent years as signs of climate catastrophe and ecologically influenced social destabilization have multiplied around the world.
It is sometimes mistaken for a neo-Keynesian economics, but Keynesianism had no great environmental mission to offer. Where Keynesianism and ecoliberalism do overlap is in their acceptance of growth-oriented capitalist industry as the economic core of liberal-democratic society.
Keynes saw market capitalism as a lesser evil than state-controlled industry, even if he dreamed of doing away with the types of capitalists who demand rents without adding value. Early ecoliberals helped shape the aspiration toward “sustainability,” which was (and is) predicated on the idea that advances in technology could eventually provide a secure industrial infrastructure for ecologically sustainable growth.
Today’s nascent ecoliberal consensus is exemplified by the recent passage of the European Climate Law, a binding framework for bringing Europe’s economy and society to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Though critics have said it made too many concessions to fossil fuel interests, there is good reason to think we will look back on the ECL as an important watershed in the global struggle against climate change. A legally binding pathway to decarbonizing roughly a sixth of the global economy is a historic achievement by any measure.
The ECL’s broader framework, the European Green Deal, originally aimed to “transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use.”
“Sustainability efforts are scaling and speeding up — but the treadmill of global economic growth is still faster.”
One could argue that the whole promise of ecoliberalism lives or dies on the term “decoupled.” Unfortunately, there is scant evidence thus far that decoupling economic growth from resource use is both possible and sustainable.
A major study published in 2021 that looked at both production- and consumption-based emissions from 2015 to 2018 in 116 mostly high-carbon national economies found that only 14 of them had been able to decouple GDP growth from both types of carbon emissions growth.
That might seem like progress, since a similar study published in 2012 found that zero countries had achieved decoupling. But the 2021 study also found that 22 countries that had managed to decouple between 2010 and 2015 had actually recoupled again after 2015. In other words, decoupling requires both pressure and vigilance. Worse yet, the study found, “Even countries that have achieved absolute decoupling are still adding emissions to the atmosphere thus showing the limits of ‘green growth’ and the growth paradigm.”
This is the ecoliberal dilemma in a nutshell. Legislation like the European Climate Law and the stalled Build Back Better plan in the U.S. show that sustainability efforts are scaling and speeding up — but the treadmill of global economic growth is still faster. The global supply of renewable energy will increase by about 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022.
That would be marvelous news, if not for the fact that the world’s power demand is projected to increase by 100 gigawatts during the same year. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, which renewables will only be able to partly cover, thus leaving the world in still worse emissions shape than it is today.
The EIA growth data is more convincing than its prediction that the energy mix will still be predominantly made up of fossil fuels in 2050. Still, it underscores a genuine problem. We are working harder and better at sustainability but finding ourselves falling still further behind.
Of the three core concerns of liberalism — liberty, private property and industry — the attachment to industry is strongest. Liberalism champions freedom and liberty relentlessly, but it has always quietly tolerated dispossessing and even enslaving some as the cost of enabling others. The private property commitment is more resolute, but certain variants of liberalism, notably Keynesianism, have displayed strong commitments to redistributive mechanisms in the name of public goods and national welfare. Industry, meanwhile, is liberalism’s one true love, a connection that dates back to the dawn of liberal political philosophy.
In his “Second Treatise,” John Locke, for example, describes labor as intrinsic to the establishment of property: “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property.” But not even all hard work is created equal.
Much as Adam Smith would later echo in this theory of opulence, technology combined with labor (in other words, industry) was the decisive formula for creating value out of the natural resources God gifted humanity. Technology functioned, according to the philosophy of the time, as a sign of grace dividing the world into those with the rational wherewithal to make the most of divine gifts (European men mostly) and those who allowed their gifts to lie fallow and go to waste.
“There is an ancient symbiotic relationship between liberal political ideology and the industrial growth orientation.”
How this equation functioned as a pretext for global colonial occupations and dispossessions for several centuries is the subject for another essay. My point here is that there is an ancient symbiotic relationship between liberal political ideology and the industrial growth orientation that is usually glossed as the internal logic of capitalism. Buried in growth is the pursuit not just of profit, but also of grace, and above all the moral right to accumulate resources and exert dominion.
I believe this history sheds light on why ecoliberalism hasn’t yet proved itself capable of fully acknowledging, let alone remediating, the problems (ecological but not only ecological) created by its centuries-long legacy of relentlessly expanding industrialization. These problems are constantly discounted and marginalized in mainstream liberal politics. Back in the 1970s, when the unsustainability of the current global trajectory first came into clear focus, the few, like André Gorz, who were brave enough to talk about the obvious need for “degrowth” were laughed out of the political sphere.
Today, degrowth is poised to become a much more salient political movement, one that is gaining strength from new economic theories — like Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, for example, which seeks to rethink economic activity as finding a “safe and just space” for humanity between social minima and planetary maxima. Such theories are being put into experimental practice by city governments in places like Amsterdam and Barcelona.
Mainstream liberals, and many ecoliberals, continue to laugh them off. But the laughter is increasingly nervous, a recognition that degrowth is likely on the horizon one way or another: either through collapse of the current civilizational trajectory or through some of kind of managed transition to widespread industrial and economic downscaling. In a fundamental way, liberalism finds it difficult to imagine, let alone to embrace, such a future. Liberalism has historically always been about the quest for “more.” It has no idea what to do with “less” as a rallying cry.
Instead, at the moment, ecoliberalism (as well as the “green capitalism” that is its symbiotic companion) is betting the only hand it really knows how to play: technology. From massive investments in speculative technologies like nuclear fusion and deep geothermal, to the serial boondoggles of nuclear fission renaissance and carbon capture and humbler options like solar photovoltaic technology, everywhere ecoliberalism seeks the cure for several centuries of rampant industrialism in the emergence of new forms of industry.
It imagines that it can beat out the worst scenarios of environmental collapse by coming up with a technological solution that allows us to have it all: that is, a universal so-called “middle class standard” predicated on massive energy and resource use that can center a global ecoliberal dispensation. But the truth is that it hasn’t yet found an ensemble of technological solutions that are adequate to take on even one of the several hyperobject-level environmental dilemmas facing us (e.g. global warming, plastic and toxic pollution, species extinction) let alone all of them together. And the solutions that is has found so far are not keeping pace with the rising global demand for “middle class” lifestyles.
The problem is less the technologies themselves than the expectation that they must combine efficiently with a model of endless capital development. The more foresighted among contemporary ecoliberals — let’s say Elon Musk — combine a fabulous technological inventiveness with a clear thirst for the extraplanetary as the only way to keep the current ecological Ponzi scheme going more than another few decades. The truth is that if we stay on just this one planet, degrowth needs to be taken more seriously.
“Liberalism has historically always been about the quest for ‘more.’ It has no idea what to do with ‘less’ as a rallying cry.”
What also remains constant, however, is that new technology emerges in a context of scarcity that preserves class inequality and hierarchy. According to Gorz, new technological achievements and luxuries enjoyed first only by the elite attract the desires of the masses toward them. As the masses gain access to old luxuries, new unattainable luxuries develop to replace them. This dynamic is intrinsically growth-oriented: “the mainspring of growth is this generalized forward flight, stimulated by a deliberately sustained system of inequalities.”
Even if capitalism can lift the floor of poverty as measured by consumption, it also raises the ceiling of luxury just as quickly. Technologies may themselves be helpful, but the dynamic of constant innovation and consumption is intrinsically unsustainable. Gorz imagines the world of degrowth as defined instead by universally available highly durable goods, beautiful public dwellings and transportation and a 20-hour work week focused on providing essential needs for all, with the remaining time left over for creative self-realization.
Contemporary degrowth thinking is not simply Gorzian — it is an experimental space for many ideas including ecofeminist and Indigenous interventions like the Red Deal. But it tends to be at least loosely anti-capitalist in its orientation and critical of the luxury consumption trends of the global North. Degrowthers, generally speaking, do not wish to deprive the global South of the opportunity for material development. They want to see the degrowth of Northern high energy consumption, creating the opportunity for a more equitable planetary modernity.
The core reasoning that the global economy needs to slow down — if only to buy ecoliberalism more time to solidify its consensus and improve its technology — is solid. And, in an ambitious way, degrowth synthesizes certain Keynesian and ecoliberal ideas into a worldview that seeks to remediate both social inequality and environmental destabilization at the same time.
Contemporary degrowth theorists tend to share a Pikettyian sensibility that the world does not lack sufficient capital development to address human misery; rather, the problem is resource hoarding by wealthy nations and classes, meaning that the world distributes its abundant existing capital poorly. Here’s how Jason Hickel puts it in “Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World,” one of the more comprehensive and persuasive texts in the emerging degrowth canon:
“Capitalism is a giant energy-sucking machine. In order to reduce energy use, we need to slow it all down. Slow down the mad pace of extraction, production and waste, and slow down the mad pace of our lives. This is what we mean by ‘degrowth’. Again, degrowth is not about reducing GDP. It is about reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy to bring it back into balance with the living world, while distributing income and resources more fairly, liberating people from needless work, and investing in the public goods that people need to thrive. It is the first step toward a more ecological civilisation.”
Hickel joins ecoliberals in fierce opposition to obvious scandals like ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and the massive energy waste associated with speculative instruments like crypto. He also offers a rough list of intermediary objectives for making this new civilization, including: ending planned obsolescence, limiting advertising, shifting from ownership to usership, ending food waste, downscaling ecologically destructive industries (industrial beef for example), redistributing labor to avoid unemployment, and reskilling labor toward low carbon industries.
Still, Hickel openly acknowledges that “we don’t yet have all the answers. No one can give us a simple recipe for a post-capitalist economy; ultimately it has to be a collective project. All I’ve done here is offer a few possibilities that I hope will nourish the imagination. As for how to make it happen — that will require a movement, as with every struggle for social and ecological justice in history.”
The pivot away from degrowth governance and toward movement politics inevitably raises questions such as “degrowth by whom?” But I don’t think Hickel and others are trying to be evasive, so much as realistic that talking best practices of governance before a strong social movement emerges is a cart-horse reversal.
“There’s nothing wrong with pursuing a creative, experimental and joyful approach to remaking civilization.”
With all due respect to good governance, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a creative, experimental and joyful approach to remaking civilization. Together with Cymene Howe and Daniel Aldana Cohen, I led a public event in Austin, Texas, a few years ago called “Low Carbon Leisure, Low Carbon Pleasure,” the point of which was to remind us high-carbon Northerners that much of what is truly enjoyable in life is either already low carbon or could find a low-carbon substitute with relative ease.
Low-carbon play, in other words, remains available to us even in a world defined by the high-carbon treadmill. Degrowth sounds like sacrifice, especially to ecoliberals. But what if the pursuit of less was framed as the pursuit of happiness by better means? Decoupling is much more likely to be achieved sustainably if citizens and governments are rowing in the same direction.
Ultimately, I think collaboration with the degrowth movement is part of what solves the ecoliberal dilemma. It will help ecoliberalism to fall out of love with industrial expansion while reinforcing the values of liberty, equality and justice that liberalism has long championed. I’m not expecting ecoliberals to fall in love with degrowth, at least not right away. But perhaps they can develop a solid friendship based on their common cause to avoid the worst scenarios of environmental catastrophe.