An ardent anti-capitalist advocate of degrowth makes a passionate case for using the energy source that’s often hated by his allies. In this brilliant three-part longread, Polish climate activist Leszek Karlik explains what’s wrong with our obsession with economic growth, and why nuclear power fits well with a degrowth society.
By Leszek Karlik
I’ve always been a science fiction geek. I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and reading Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. That’s why I never believed that the 18th century resource allocation technology we call ‘capitalism’ is humanity’s final achievement. Replacing the kings who rule by ‘divine right’ with billionaires who rule by ‘market forces’ is a kind of progress, I guess. But when 90% of us remain dirt poor in comparison, we can still do better, surely?!
As I’ve grown more and more worried about planetary overheating, I’ve stopped believing that capitalism is compatible with the survival of the Earth’s biosphere. There’s just no science to support it.
After all, modern capitalism requires constant, perpetual, exponential growth. This growth imperative results from many factors, starting from the need of capitalist enterprises to grow or fail, and ending with the current monetary system which is based on the creation of interest-laden debt by commercial banks. In practical terms, this means that the size of the global economy doubles every two decades or so.
And, as it happens, this ‘size of the economy’, which is measured by the total worth of all financial transactions (also known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), or in the case of the entire planet, Gross World Product), is strongly coupled with the environmental destruction we are causing.
So, like all systems before it, late-stage capitalism will be replaced by something new. But what will this new system look like? Two radically opposing views are often spouted.
Will we have a ‘green, sustainable capitalism’ powered by a mixture of nuclear fission, massive amounts of renewables and ultimately fusion power? Or will we have a small-scale economy based on principles of degrowth, powered by solar panels and wind turbines, with reduction of energy use as the primary factor?
The answer to both questions is ‘no’. It’s far more interesting than that, possibly a bit more surprising…
I’ve stopped believing that capitalism is compatible with the survival of the Earth’s biosphere
In the early 2000s, when I started reading about climate change, I hoped that the promise, ‘exponential growth of renewable power’ would save us from catastrophic planetary overheating. Today, we have, indeed, witnessed an exponential growth of renewable power. We have also observed something else – the exponential growth of greenhouse gas emissions, year after year.
Since the modern world took shape, there have been only six substantial decreases of global greenhouse gas emissions: the 1918 flu, World War II, the energy crisis in the early 1980s, the economic recession in the early 1990s, the financial crisis in 2008–2009, and the COVID pandemic lockdowns and recession in 2020 (which was, tellingly, compensated the next year by a rebound of over 4%).
In other words, only when ‘economic growth’ was disrupted did greenhouse gas emissions fall significantly.
Even then, they did not fall sufficiently.
To keep the global temperature increase below 1.5C we would have to lower global emissions by 7.6% annually, for 10 years straight. For this to happen, we need the economy to shrink, shrink again, and then shrink some more.
Only when ‘economic growth’ was disrupted did greenhouse gas emissions fall significantly
Most people don’t want to stop economic growth. We have been taught since childhood to equate ‘economic growth’ with ‘life getting better’, even though these are quite different things.
Yes, economic growth generates wealth, allowing us to live lives that are not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, as Thomas Hobbes once said. We can cure most diseases that killed people in the past. We can save women from dying in childbirth and save newborns from dying of cholera. We can eat healthy diets. We can keep warm in the winter, and keep cool in the summer. We can entertain ourselves any time we want. We can contact our loved ones almost anytime we want. We can access all the cumulative knowledge of the world; it’s there in our pockets.
All this would seem like magic to our ancestors.
However, economic growth also acts as a pump that moves wealth upwards, to the global 0.1% forming the zillionaire class, while generating ‘illth’ – negative external costs borne by society, including by future generations.
Think of the unhealthy diets many of us eat, because the most profitable cheap food is processed to be highly addictive. Think of for-profit healthcare killing people in the richest country on the planet by forcing them to ration their insulin, or why protecting the patents of the biotech industry was more important than saving lives in the Global South during the COVID pandemic, with vaccine apartheid contributing to the rise of the Omicron variant.
Economic growth generates wealth, allowing us to live lives that are not ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but it also acts as a pump that moves wealth upwards, to the global 0.1%
Think also of the fact that in a world of unimaginable wealth, where we produce more than enough calories to feed every human on the planet, 9 million people die of hunger every year.
Think of the microplastics that will be our mark in the geological record, seeping endocrine disruptors into our water.
Think of the conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine movements and general science-denial amplified by the global network of supercomputers in our pockets.
And think of greenhouse gases. It looks like we have already dumped enough fossil fuel waste in the atmosphere to overheat our planet by 1.5C above the pre-industrial level, and we released most of it after we already knew about the climate breakdown we were causing.
Unfortunately, the zillionaire class, which benefits the most from fossil-fuelled growth, owns much of the mass media, shaping popular opinion and the terms of the public debate, and finances the politicians who pass laws that shape the socio-economic system, which in turn increases the wealth and power of the zillionaires. It’s a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
It should not surprise us, then, that there are no political parties in power advocating for degrowth.
Proponents of degrowth want us to concentrate on providing everyone with enough resources to live a dignified, fulfilling life
What exactly is degrowth? Since enormous interests are vested in keeping the machinery of financial growth going for as long as possible, it is easy to find articles which mischaracterise degrowth as some kind of ‘eco-austerity’ or ‘anarcho-primitivism’, a misguided attempt to keep poor people poor, and so on.
There may not be a single definition of degrowth, but one thing that all its proponents agree on is that it means ending the unhealthy obsession with economic growth, and instead concentrating on providing everyone with enough resources to live a dignified, fulfilling life. This does not mean ending development or science or technology, just stopping the focus on economic growth over everything else.
So, what is economic growth? It’s simply the growth of ‘the economy’, as measured by GDP – all the money that’s going around whenever we buy goods and services. This means the economy grows when one person buys a gun and someone else pays for a funeral. The economy grows when one company cuts down a forest and another sells it as ‘renewable energy’.
Building an oil pipeline and cleaning up an oil spill after a leakage will boost the economy. Sending your child to a public school is a state expenditure and thus good for the economy; sending her to an expensive private school is even better. Staying at work to earn overtime instead of going home and being with your family increases the economy, just as hiring a babysitter and a cleaner do.
There’s a well-known joke: ‘If a man marries his housekeeper, the GDP goes down.’
Simon Kuznets, the economist who came up with the concept of Gross Domestic Product, has criticised the use of this indicator as the all-important target for which we optimise our economies. He merely created GDP as an instrument for economic planning during World War II, not as something to be used afterwards for shaping the entire global economy.
Yes, there would be some disruption and jobs lost, but we might be happier in different, more useful jobs
Degrowth requires that we scale back many of the activities which increase GDP but have a significant negative impact. Degrowth could entail phasing out the fossil fuel industry, shrinking the advertising industry, working fewer hours, swapping our cars for mass transit, walking or cycling, and so on.
The most succinct summary of degrowth is the motto George Monbiot has provided: ‘private sufficiency, public luxury’.
A good example of a degrowth policy would be transitioning the US to a single-payer healthcare system (as in France, UK, Denmark etc). This would degrow the US economy significantly (by a few percentage points of GDP) while significantly improving the quality of life for the vast majority of Americans.
Yes, there would be some disruption. The insurance industry would shrink dramatically, and people who earn their living conducting personal bankruptcies of seriously ill patients would have to find another job. But if your job is to deny life-saving treatments to people in the hope that they die before they become a financial burden to an insurance company, you might be happier in a different, more useful job.
And there would be a lot of jobs. We have the resources to provide everyone on the planet with safety and the material means to live a dignified life. But that life cannot be the Hollywood model of McMansion, two SUVs, 10 hours of work and 3 hours of commuting per day.
Making everybody moderately wealthy while keeping the capitalist patterns of consumption isn’t ‘degrowth’, it’s ‘burn the planet, but everyone does it, not just the rich’
It seems very unlikely we will transition to a degrowth economy soon, because enormous wealth, and thus enormous political power are being used to keep the Ponzi scheme of ‘economic growth’ going for as long as possible.
But in a conflict between the hard laws of physics and the invented ‘laws of economy’, the former will always win. We will not be growing our economy exponentially forever, because we live on a finite planet. We will hit hard limits. When we do, there will be many deaths. Degrowing the economy may avoid such a scenario.
Degrowth is about shrinking the economy and reducing its environmental impact while radically redistributing resources. After all, capitalism has accumulated enormous amounts of resources, they’re just unequally controlled: the average global wealth per adult in 2021 was over $87,489, but already in 2017 the richest 1% owned half of this global wealth, and since 2023, the richest 1% have taken for themselves almost two-thirds of all new wealth created.
To some, redistribution may spark nightmares of Soviet-style communism. As someone who was born in a communist country (and then lived through a transition to market capitalism), I can confidently state that first, communist countries were obsessed with economic growth; they were just worse at it than the West.
Second, we do not live in a binary world, where the only two options available are ‘rapid exponential growth and high inequality under capitalism’ or ‘slower exponential growth and lower inequality under communism’. In fact, redistributing wealth without changing anything else would still increase emissions, because there are physical limits to consumption.
Making everybody moderately wealthy while keeping the capitalist patterns of consumption isn’t ‘degrowth’, it’s ‘burn the planet, but everyone does it, not just the rich’.
Similarly, degrowth requires reducing the amount of energy we use in rich countries while increasing energy usage in poor countries – and yes, to make things more complicated, finding ways to produce energy without destroying the planet.
A degrowth society needs power plants which minimise ecological costs for the planet and future generations
So how should we power a degrowth society?
The energy sources we would choose will have to meet several criteria, dictated by physical constraints rather than the arbitrary social rules of a capitalist market economy. This means we should not look for power plants which minimise monetary costs and maximise financial returns for a capitalist looking for a quick buck. Instead, we need power plants which minimise ecological costs for the planet and future generations.
Specifically, these energy sources require few material resources, produce minimal amounts of waste (in particular: greenhouse gases, but also other kinds of waste) and are preferably very long-lived.
We should also look at social costs. In an ideal world, nobody will die from the way we produce energy. Also, the stability of energy generation is important, as are affordability of energy and the type of jobs that are offered.
That’s the kind of energy that can power a degrowth society. Where should that power come from?
>> Continue reading: Part 2. Energy means progress
Leszek Karlik, MA in English studies at the University of Warsaw, is a climate activist and freelance translator. He’s the coordinator of the Energy Group of the left-wing Lewica Razem party in Poland, and one of the authors of the party’s energy policy plan. Leszek has published articles (in Polish) on climate and capitalism, such as in Oko.press, Nasze Argumenty and Równość.