Amid the misery and chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic, there are some short-term consolations. The precipitous drop in road and air traffic has left the air cleaner and the skies clearer. For advocates of a Green New Deal (GND) – a vast, state-funded green infrastructure project, including a total transition to renewable energy and the construction of mass transit systems – there are reasons to be optimistic. As the severity of the unfolding global recession becomes clear – the IMF predicts a 3% global contraction – the GND looks like the best route to recovery.
The GND had been growing in popularity before the outbreak – including among establishment politicians, with all the leading Democratic presidential candidates expressing support for some form of it. But with with 26 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks alone, and given that green industries are more efficient job creators than fossil-fuel ones, there is a powerful, immediate economic rationale for some kind of “green stimulus”. That is without even taking into account the longer-term economic case for decarbonizing: a 2018 US climate report calculated that the devastating effects of unchecked global warming will shrink the US economy by as much as 10% by the end of this century.
But the economic fallout of Covid-19 has cast a harsher light on another strand of the climate movement, commonly termed “degrowth”. Influential among Extinction Rebellion activists, but often regarded as unrealistic by mainstream policymakers, degrowthers, as their name suggests, argue that uncontrolled economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and that to avert climate catastrophe we need to not only shut down the fossil-fuel industries but to reduce consumption overall. Degrowthers insist that we must find ways of living and working that do not require our economies to endlessly expand.
Degrowthers have been particularly susceptible to caricature in recent weeks. “The coronavirus crisis reveals the misery of degrowth,” the Spectator predictably argued. But current living conditions – sudden mass joblessness, confinement and isolation, widespread food and income insecurity – are not a meaningful foretaste of greener things to come. The nightmare we are currently enduring is not degrowth’s secret dream come true; it is at most a grotesque parody of it, and one which is now liable to be weaponized by opponents of the movement.
Reading the current moment as a repudiation of degrowth is premature and unjustified. It overlooks the distinction between what we are experiencing now – an unplanned, abrupt cessation of vast swaths of economic and social activity – and what advocates of degrowth envisage: a thoughtful, democratic, managed and equitable downsizing of the economy.
Most degrowth advocates do not champion economic contraction as such, but argue for the necessity of adapting to the continuing, long-term global stagnation sometimes called “secular stagnation“. The fact that we can only think of slowing down our economies in terms of recession and austerity – with the associated cuts to public spending, growth in inequality and decline in real earnings – says much more about our political landscape than the economic facts.
Yet there is one important criticism of degrowth that has been decisively bolstered by the sharp reversal in global economic fortunes resulting from the coronavirus lockdowns: the consequences for jobs. GDP is a notoriously crude and partial measure of a society’s wellbeing, failing to account for a whole host of indicative factors including equality, access to energy, the quality of healthcare, education and social support systems. But when GDP falls or slows because workers cannot produce goods or offer services, unemployment surges. Coronavirus has brought that reality dramatically home.
As the economist and energy adviser Robert Pollin has written: “the immediate effect of any global GDP contraction would be huge job losses and declining living standards for working people and the poor. During the Great Recession, global unemployment rose by over 30 million. I have not seen a convincing argument from a degrowth advocate as to how we could avoid a severe rise in mass unemployment if GDP were to fall by twice as much.”
The twin crises besetting us – the public health emergency and the unfolding economic trauma triggered by the measures to contain it – have laid bare much about the configuration of our world that we already knew but rarely fully apprehend: its interconnectedness, its fragility, its stark inequalities. But these crises have also brought into visceral relief the fact that employment is the heart and soul of the economy. As the British economist James Meadway has argued, the economic depression now upon us threatens “the most fundamental institution of all in capitalism: the labor market itself”.
Since we have so little time left in which to stabilize the climate, we must be ruthlessly pragmatic in assessing the limitations of green strategies. Degrowth is no exception. The scale and speed of investment required to completely renovate the energy and transportation sectors does not seem conceivable without growth continuing, at least for the time being. Politically, as long as a steadily rising GDP remains an electoral necessity, it is difficult to imagine a recovery that doesn’t involve desperate efforts to restore growth – and not necessarily through greener means – by politicians anxious to revive flagging ratings.
Yet to fixate on the question of growth risks exaggerating the differences between the Green New Dealers and degrowthers – elevating the former as practical-minded technocratic capitalists who want a return to normal economic activity, just motored by a different energy source, and dismissing the latter as abstemious, back-to-the-land utopians who want to deprive of us most of the luxuries of modern capitalist life.
This in turn could lead to our learning only some of the lessons of the current predicament, and taking only some of the opportunities it offers. What both strands of climate thinking ask us to consider – and what the current crisis poses with special, brutal force, as phrases like “key workers” and “essential services” enter common parlance – is the question of what kinds of jobs we need, and what kinds our planet needs of us.
Which goods and services are indispensable, and which would we be better off without? Degrowth and the GND offer different answers to this question – from green infrastructure construction to the care economy – but they both pose it, as well as raising important broader questions about how, how much and why we work. Once it is safe to emerge from economic survival mode, I hope we will have the wisdom to follow the lead of both movements by systematically reflecting on which kinds of productive activity actually enrich our lives – and which among these our planet can sustain.
Lola Seaton is assistant editor at New Left Review