Let them eat growth

Image source: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2148

Radicals are right to point out capitalism's need for growth at all costs is the road to ruin, but does runaway climate change wreck the prospect of a communist society too?

A tale of two charts

Two charts have been doing the rounds. The first (pictured above) is from a newly published paper in Nature Climate Change. The authors show that the current emissions pathway is actually tracking above the highest of the IPCC's four 'Representative Concentration Pathways', RCP 8.5. In layman's terms, we're doing worse than the worst case scenario: on course for 5 degrees or more warming by 2100, with 'runaway' climate change almost certainly following. For the authors, the likelihood of changing direction is sufficiently low, that:

...to continue to focus on a 2 °C (or more aggressive) temperature target as the singular inviolate metric of long-term success is to engage in a form of climate denial.

The other image was tweeted by economics professor Richard Tol, from a paper of his published last year:

Tol's argument here is fairly consistent with mainstream economic thinking. The 2006 Stern review for example, says that "it is difficult to secure emissions cuts faster than about 1 percent a year except in instances of recession."1 Indeed, a 1997 piece in Foreign Affairs, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, even argued that because agriculture only accounts for a small percentage of GDP, it was rational, for developed countries at least, to allow a massive collapse in productivity as long as growth in other sectors more than compensated.2 It's telling that this was written during the dotcom bubble, but the attitude of 'let them eat growth' is remarkably persistent.

Tol considers "a cost-effective emission reduction trajectory towards stabilization at 625 ppm CO2e".3 This isn't really how the climate system works. It can't be stabilised at arbitrary concentrations that suit cost-benefit analysis, as once positive feedbacks kick-in, the climate will keep on changing over the course of centuries and millennia. This is also a problem with the Stern Review's 550ppm CO2e target, and according to recent research, even the official 450ppm CO2e '2 degree' one.4 James Hansen's advocacy of reducing atmospheric concentrations to 350ppm CO2e seems the most prudent in light of the scientific evidence and uncertainty over tipping points. This is not compatible with economic growth, at least for several decades until the transition is complete.5

But in any case, Tol's paper concludes that "it is unlikely that a benefit–cost analysis would justify stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases (...) as that would require zero carbon dioxide emissions." Those valuable fossil fuels do have to be burned, after all. He does concede that "catastrophic risk is a more powerful argument for more stringent climate policy, but to a limited extent as emission reduction has downside risks too" (emphasis added). Catastrophe is bad, but is it really as bad as forgoing GDP growth? No wonder we're in the shit.

Climate chaos or communism, is that the question?

The science is very clear, and says we need an urgent u-turn. Economists say 'accumulate, accumulate, Moses and the prophets!'6 As Naomi Klein's recent piece put it, science is telling us to revolt. This seems to confirm a new twist on the old slogan, socialism or barbarism. For John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York:

Humanity cannot expect to reach 350ppm and avoid planetary climatic disaster except through a major global social transformation, in line with the greatest social revolutions in history.7

For Ivan Mészáros:

The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there will be no future for humanity (...) [because] the extermination of humanity is the ultimate concomitant of capital's destructive course of development.8

For the Internationalist Communist Tendency, "the alternative is social collapse or socialism", and therefore "we need to create a higher form of social organisation before the present system destroys us all." There is a line of criticism that this amounts to confirmation bias - critics of capitalism seizing upon any opportunity to bash the system they oppose anyway.9 But this is hardly a convenient truth! 'I told you so' is a very Pyrrhic victory if the price is climate catastrophe. Indeed, in traditional Marxism, the possibility of communism was premised on the abundance created by the development of the productive forces:

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution.10

But the problem with the framing of 'social collapse or socialism' is that it seems to accept that once runaway climate change is locked in, social collapse is inevitable and socialism is impossible. That point is rapidly approaching, or may even have passed. Of course, it's only a slogan, but does runaway climate change really end the possibility of a society based on human needs? Capitalism can exist with chronic hunger, communism, by definition ('...to each according to needs'), cannot.

Avoiding dangerous climate change now requires a rapid and sustained economic contraction. Policymakers aren't going to embark on such 'degrowth' voluntarily.11 But even if they did, it would dwarf the austerity programmes that have provoked misery, riots, strikes, occupations, and movements of the squares around the world. Under such conditions, a communising movement could probably, in theory, still stop the juggernaut. This would involve a dramatic collapse in production combined with efforts to redirect resources to meet human needs. Nobody's going to work in a sweatshop if we sweep away the value form, so this redirection of resources would likely self-organise as people prioritise food and other essentials. But the window for this to happen is rapidly closing, and the technical challenges would still be formidable.

Therefore, we have to pose the question of communism and climate change. This means taking seriously the biophysical aspects of materialism: food production, water supply, clean energy, housing. This isn't only a question of transforming social relations - it requires consideration of the fundamental constraints of thermodynamics that economists typically ignore. Is it going to be possible to feed and house 7-10 billion people under conditions of climate chaos? 'Disaster communism' is our holding term for this problematic. We're currently researching the questions of agriculture, ecosystem restoration, and the worst case scenario of unmitigated climate change. We'll be following up these issues in subsequent posts.

  • 1. The Stern Review: the economics of climate change, Box 8.3, page 204.
  • 2. "Agriculture is practically the only sector of the economy affected by climate, and it contributes only a small percentage - three percent in the United States - of national income. If agricultural productivity were drastically reduced by climate change, the cost of living would rise by one or two percent, and at a time when per capita income will likely have doubled." Thomas C Shelling (1997), The cost of combating global warming, Foreign Affairs.
  • 3. CO2e = carbon dioxide equivalent.
  • 4. Kevin Anderson, Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 20-44 http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.abstract
  • 5. "Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects" (source). If this means James Hansen is engaging in climate denial, by the argument of the Nature Climate Change paper, it can be countered that capital denial is just as big a problem.
  • 6. Yes, there are heterodox, ecological economists who reject this cavalier attitude to the environment, but they're relatively marginalised. The shortcomings of ecological economics we'll have to take up another time.
  • 7. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The ecological rift: capitalism's war on the earth, p.118.
  • 8. Quoted in Bellamy Foster et al, op cit, p.413.
  • 9. See Mike Berners-Lee & Duncan Clark, The burning question, p. 124: "climate change is an attractive concept for people who, for whatever reason, are excited by the idea of modern capitalism imploding." We are not excited, we're deeply worried.
  • 10. This has also been true for ecological, social anarchism - see Murray Bookchin, Post-scarcity anarchism.
  • 11. We hope to discuss some of the proposals for degrowth and steady-state economics in future blogs.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Mar 2 2014 22:33


  • Does runaway climate change really end the possibility of a society based on human needs? Capitalism can exist with chronic hunger, communism, by definition ('...to each according to needs'), cannot.

Attached files


Mar 3 2014 21:55

It is great to see this being discussed.

I think the question of revolution in the context of ecological collapse boils down to the question of which revolution? The scientific-marxist or the anarchist? Ecological context provides us with the key to decide our path: The marxists' historical materialist conception of revolutionary society being based on the productivity created by capitalism is no longer applicable, given the material fact that it is impossible to maintain such industrialism.

Our material conditions have a few things to say about what form successful revolutionary praxis will take in context of ecological collapse:

For one, a revolutionary society must not be based on industrialism created by capitalism. Capitalists development may be the cause of revolution, but it can no longer be seriously claimed that capitalist technology and industrialism are the base of the new society.

This means revolutionary praxis must reject of historical materialism as a road map toward communism. Not because HM doesn't have accurate things to say about development, but because the future path toward communism laid out by HM is no longer a material possibility.

One aspect of HM that needs to be rejected/worked-around is its unidirectional conception of historical development; from epochs of little productivity's generation of despotic social formations, to the super-productivity of capitalism which was predicted to lead to communism. If HM's predictions are accurately applied to the current ecological context, degrowth can only be seen as reactionary; degrowth to HM practitioners is a backward step in history to early-capitalism or even feudalism.

On the one hand we have the obvious future of deindustrialisation(whether we like it or not), and on the other we have the path of industrialism that HM says to take if we want communism. Never have reality and marxist practice been so contradictory! The theory isn't as clean as it was in the midst of the industrial boom. Given a marxist framework, we can either cling to HM and try to maintain productivity and try to shape capitalist industry to be as non-destructive as possible (an incredibly irresponsible direction if you talk to an ecologist), or we can take the responsible steps toward actually saving the ecosystem with degrowth- but with that also accept a reactionary step in history. This is quite the problem as long as we use HM as a framework, for a revolutionary movement that attacks industrialisation is begging for feudalism or capitalism in its early stage.

As long as we remain dedicated to historical materialism, we remain dedicated either to the material impossibility of communism (giving up) or the destruction of the ecosystem (pushing forward in the name of communism against nature). For me, the problem isn't with reality, but with marxism. The only path that is both ecological and communist lies outside the territory of marxism and against the productivist predictions of historical materialism. It rejects the conflation of industrialism and communism. It rejects the unidirectional version of history and the idea of specific social relations being produced by certain levels of economic development. It is egged from the ivory tower by marxists.

If we want communism, It must be made possible within levels of productivity that have only been known by early capitalism (an impossibility to a consistent marxist!). In other words, a successful communist movement will prove marx wrong, by having communist relations within productive economies that have always been thought of as pre-communist in history.

Such a movement will hold that communism has been possible in every historical epoch. What stops it from happening is not the level of productivity, but various power systems negating communism with their alternative order. Necessities such as housing, food, water, etc are all possible to be freely given in every historical epoch. The masters of non-communist regimes are responsible for making these things impossible.

As we head into the future, I think it will become increasingly clear that marxism is not fit for the communist task ahead. This clarity will be produced, perhaps ironically, by material-ecological circumstance and its influence on theory.

Mar 5 2014 01:38

If we want communism, It must be made possible within levels of productivity that have only been known by early capitalism (an impossibility to a consistent marxist!). In other words, a successful communist movement will prove marx wrong, by having communist relations within productive economies that have always been thought of as pre-communist in history.

Mar 6 2014 12:15


I don't think you can boil the problems down to a simple ideological categorisation of the 'type' of revolution and certainly not in terms of a rigid anarchist versus Marxist division.. The blog text here has at least to recognise that there is some attempt by elements within the Marxist influenced sectors of our milieu to take on board the reality of climate change even if their prognosis is not so encouraging in terms of establishing a communist future before a decline into capitalist ' barbarism'.
Of course a communism of some sort may have been possible before the rise of capitalism and indeed experiments in this direction did exist but none had the potential to create the conditions for a sustainable world human community. It is capitalism that has created the interconnected world and the international proletariat with both an interest in and the potential to make such a change. None of this is about 'abundance' or 'productivity' in capitalist terms or a simple democratised industrialism. If indeed we are already locked in to 'runaway climate change' yet to be proved, then we would be talking about a very different and indeed retrogressive form or forms of localised communism - not impossible to envisage but not inspiring either. I hear an echo here of some of the arguments with my Nihilist communist comrade.

Mar 10 2014 13:23

The question of whether runaway global warming will make creation of communism impossible has not been discussed by the ICT and a definite conclusion has not been reached. The text “Social Collapse or Socialism” does, however, imply that once runaway global warming starts civilisation will collapse. From what we know self-sustaining global warming would cause a collapse in food supplies, water shortages, desertification inundation of arable lands and coastal cities etc. This is likely to produce mass starvation, mass migration and wars. The outcome is likely to be localised less developed social groups controlled by warlords, i.e. some sort of barbarism. The critical issue is how rapidly changes occur in the period before runaway global warming starts. A slow deterioration in environmental conditions could lead to mass social movements since the bourgeoisie will inevitably force the working class to bear the brunt of the hardships coming from global warming and environmental degradation. This could lead to mass social movements which link up with the class struggle of workers against capitalism itself. The ICT text shows clearly how global warming is a consequence of the contradictions of capitalism itself and there is no reason why this could not become generally understood and reinforce a movement for communism.
Communism, which will be a system of freely associated producers producing for human need, must develop out of capitalism. Spikymike is right when he says that capitalism has created a global economy and a global working class which are the pre-conditions for communism. Communism is necessarily a global system without classes where human labour power no longer takes the form of value and the products of this labour are use values not commodities. Only the working class is in the position to create such a new society since we are an exploited class on whom the system is totally dependent and a class who can only free ourselves by overturning the whole system. The working class is a class in radical chains. Capitalism has created this class out of the ruins of serfdom and peasantry as Marx so well describes in the last section of Capital volume 1. Communist ideas are a reflection in thought of social reality and social developments.

All this is historical materialism. But to deny this, as "especifista" does, is to deny materialism. This can only lead to idealism in some form. Behind the claim that communism could be developed at any time must be the view that such a development is a matter of will and historical conditions are immaterial. Could communism have been developed without a working class? Early attempts by the “Diggers” in the English revolution or the “conspiracy of equals” and the Utopian social movements of the early 19th century showed the futility of attempting to establish a new social order when the material social conditions and class forces were absent. The denial of historical materialism appears to be behind the claim that industrialism must be abandoned and we must revert to pre-capitalist or early capitalist production. Under communism industrial production will be made to serve human needs rather than profit and accumulation of capital. The present system is aimed at expanding capital and human needs are only satisfied incidentally. The present system entails massive waste production – one only has to think of the armaments industry but this is just one example. Communist society will not be subject to the need to accumulate capital and will be able to move to a static, non-expanding system; one which can be in balance with the ecosystem. A further important point is that industrial production has enabled massive increases in the productivity of human labour to be achieved. This is one of the developments which will enable the construction of communism by drastically reducing working time and allowing more time for all to participate in the management and social organisation of communist society. It will also allow time and opportunity for individual potential to be fully developed, potential which is crushed and squandered by capitalism.

Mar 10 2014 16:44

There seems to be a basic failure to understand the meaning of the word productivity in some of the comments above. This is not surprising as the dominant ideology gives a highly specific meaning to the common use of the term, which needs a little teasing out to expose its presumptions and contradictions.

Productivity is not an absolute "much production, wow" concept. It is a relative concept. So we can say that a production process is efficient in its use of labour time relative to the number of units produced, or labour time relative to the use of primary and auxiliary (e.g. fuel/power) materials, per unit produced. Or it could alternatively be the efficient use of natural materials/resources, relative to units produced, or relative to labour time. The first concept we could call labour-productivity, the second resource-productivity or efficiency.

Conventional economics typically muddies the waters by calling these differences factor-productivity. This both conceals and admits that the productivity or efficiency that matters in capitalism is actually capital-productivity. Now thanks to the foundation of the wage system, capital-productivity is related to labour-productivity - but not in straightforward way. In fact in a contradictory way. The contradiction is due to the collective action problem that individual capitalist agents' route to increased capital-productivity is through increasing labour-productivity, but the total effect of all agents increasing labour-productivity is a reduction in the overall mass of capital produced, i.e. the capital-productivity of the system as a whole. So far, so orthodox...

Clearly to avert environmental catastrophy, we need to move from a system where progressive development of production is measured by capital-productivity and hence labour-productivity. That is we need to move from a one-sidedly labour-efficient economics, to a re-prioritisation of resource-efficiency.

However, in order to achieve this economic revolution, we need to start from a position of relative abundancy in labour-power. If we were all working flat out, just to survive, we wouldn't have the spare capacity to revolutionise the economy without mass starvation or die-off. Thanks to the last two centuries of capitalism's monomaniacal pursuit of labour efficiency, we are thankfully starting from the position of having far more spare labour capacity than you could shake even a very big stick at. And that capacity is getting ever larger.

Which, incidentally means that the idea of the Keynesian left (including the ones that pretend to be some variety of Marxist or Leninist) of continuing the "developing the productive forces" historic compromise with capitalism, by demanding more jobs and growth and taxing the rich/finance to put the un- and underemployed back to work, is ecological suicide.

If we want to develop the productive forces in a resource-efficient direction, then we need to free it from the shackles of capital and the wage system. Printing Lenin's head on the money you get paid your wages in, and calling it "socialism" will not do.

However, it's not simply a case of operating a trade-off between labour and resouce usage within the frame of existing production. Capitalism represents itself as being based directly on labour-productivity. This is false. As we have already seen capitalism is actually based on capital-productivity, which means we produce a ridiculous amount of shit prompted by capital's need for self-valorisation, rather than potential human needs - as they might exist freed from the pressures of wage-slavery, the artificial scarcity of poverty, and so on. Built-in obsolescence is not a response to any human need. Land in Kenya could be used for growing food for Kenyans instead of green beans to be airlifted to the supermarkets of Western Europe, and so on.

But we will still need to have scientific concepts of productivity - food produced per land cultivated, for example - if we don't want to fall back into the primitivist fallacy of desiring the mass death of 4/5ths of the world's population and an authoritarian degrowth regime that sacrifices human needs on the alter of the environment as an alternative to that of capital.

Gregory A. Butler
Sep 2 2018 05:56

So, basically... austerity

If you basically are telling the working class and the poor of the world that we have to keep living in want "to save the environment"...then why the hell should we support you?

From where we sit, you're basically saying the same thing the Wall Street Journal is...

Sep 3 2018 12:38
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
So, basically... austerity

If you basically are telling the working class and the poor of the world that we have to keep living in want "to save the environment"...then why the hell should we support you?

From where we sit, you're basically saying the same thing the Wall Street Journal is...

The article clearly says the only way to reduce emissions as much as we need under capitalism is austerity, but we're not capitalists! I don't think the Wall Street Journal is calling for communism.

OOTW are saying that there are three options, capitalism continues with growth and creates a ecological disaster (which will probably undermine growth at some point), capitalist extreme austerity, or communism. They want the latter, so that there can be an ecologically sustainable society that doesn't need austerity, instead production and distribution are reordered to provide public affluence, a decent living standard for all without unsustainable private consumption. They're not asking people to live in want, they're saying capitalism can't provide a way out of want because of ecological contradiction. They only way out of want is a qualitatively different society.