The Paradox of Degrowth Communism

Left-wing doomerists are empowering global elites

One might think that the arrival of the planet’s eight-billionth resident — a title symbolically awarded to Vinice Mabansag, a baby girl born in the Philippines — would be cause for celebration. Amid a sharp drop in the global fertility rate, the staggering rise in the world population witnessed over the past 70 years is the result of the extraordinary advancements in public health, nutrition, personal hygiene and medicine that have extended lifespans and dramatically reduced maternal and child mortality rates. Vinice’s birth, in other words, is a testament to the power of human ingenuity to make the world a better place.

And yet, for many in the Western intelligentsia and policymaking circles, little Vinice is a harbinger of doom — a reminder of how “overpopulation” is destroying the planet. The prize for the most miserable response predictably goes to the New York Times. The paper used the occasion to offer a platform to Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which calls on people to abstain from reproduction to usher in man’s extinction — the only possible solution to the problems facing the Earth. “Look what we did to this planet. We’re not a good species,” Knight is quoted as saying.

At the very least, by opting out of reproduction, couples will avoid “sentencing their offspring to a rapidly deteriorating quality of life and unimaginably horrible death”, according to the movement’s website. This mixture of misanthropic anti-humanism and Malthusian apocalypticism used to be among the fringiest of fringe theories; today, however, wishing for humanity’s extinction is touted as just another form of benign environmentalism. The reaction of other mainstream outlets was less grotesque, but the message was more or less the same: the growing global population, said CNN, represents a serious “challenge” to the environment.

The idea of “overpopulation” is difficult to talk about seriously, since it is inevitably tied to outlandish conspiracy theories about 5G or Covid vaccines being part of a nefarious plan to depopulate the planet; but it’s clear the elites are concerned about the issue, as the Times piece demonstrates. The argument is one we’ve heard a million times: human activity is destroying the planet’s biodiversity, and outstripping its capacity to replenish natural resources, and more people on the planet means more pressure on nature.

The issue is rarely framed in terms of the need to forcibly reduce the world population — though it is becoming increasingly acceptable to talk of the need for tools of population control, such as one-child policies, regardless of the fact that the population growth rate is falling rapidly. Rather we are told of the need to “change the way we live” by reducing our “ecological footprint”. The most important goal of all, according to governments and international institutions, is Net Zero — the need for the world to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to zero as soon as possible.

This might seem like a sensible idea on paper; there’s no denying that fossil fuels have serious drawbacks in terms of climate alteration and pollution. Yet its practical implementation is a different matter entirely. The pressure on developing nations by institutions such as World Economic Forum, the UN and the World Bank to stop subsidising fossil fuels or to ban fertilisers in food production has already caused chaos, political instability and unrest in dozens of countries: in 2019, there were major protests in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Haiti, Lebanon, Ecuador, Iraq, Chile, and Iran.

These protests serve as a reminder that one can be concerned about climate change and the state of the planet while still being sceptical of the idea that these problems can be solved through top-down solutions imposed on nations by the Davos-attending, private jet-flying, corporate-backed (if not corporation-owning) policy-building elites of the world — people at the absolute peak of the global capitalist power pyramid. Yet remarkably, these very elites have found an unlikely ally in the struggle against the evils of anthropogenic activities: radical anti-capitalists known as “degrowthers”.

Degrowthers claim that the problem at the root of humanity’s negative impact on the planet is economic growth itself, which in turn is said to be driven by the logic of the capitalist mode of production. It is, in the words of Jason Hickel, one of the most prominent degrowth advocates, “organised around the imperative of constant expansion, or ‘growth’: ever-increasing levels of industrial extraction, production and consumption”. The solution to the many of the world’s problems, according to degrowthers, is therefore to “go beyond growth” — and ultimately capitalism itself.

Once relegated to the political fringes, degrowth theory has been gaining traction in recent years among environmentalists and Leftists. Who, five years ago, would have bet on an academic book about the relationship between capitalism and the planet becoming a bestseller? Well, Capital in the Anthropocene (English translation forthcoming), a book on degrowth from a Marxist perspective written by Kohei Saito, an associate professor at Tokyo University, appears to be on track to do just that, having sold more than half a million copies in Japan since the book was published in 2020.

Saito’s message is simple: capitalism’s drive for profit is destroying the planet and only “degrowth communism” can repair the damage by slowing down social production and sharing wealth. Humans need to find a “new way of living”, and that means replacing capitalism.

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