Why climate change action requires "degrowth" to make our planet sustainable

Salon spoke with Japanese philosophy professor Kohei Saito about his new book, "Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 3, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Industrial Wasteland VS Natural Green Field (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Industrial Wasteland VS Natural Green Field (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Climate change truly is a major existential threat, one we're clearly not addressing fast enough. But as individuals, there's little we can do to stop it on a grand scale — it will require global cooperation to overcome. Nonetheless, the accompanying feelings of helplessness when faced with such a daunting crisis can make many feel paralyzed with despair. So what can be done?

"Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto," a new book from University of Tokyo philosophy professor Kohei Saito, offers more than a diagnosis of the systemic problems that brought us to this moment; it lays out, in clear and well-researched language, how those problems can be thoroughly addressed. In 2020, when "Slow Down" was originally published in Japan, it went by the far more fitting title "Capital in the Anthropocene" — with "Anthropocene" being the proposed geological era that began when human activity started radically altering natural conditions on the planet.

"My idea is really not state socialism, but associated model production."

Saito's argument, as translated by Brian Bergstrom, is that climate change exists because humans as a species prioritize economic growth instead of economic sustainability. Capitalism itself, Saito asserts, is unsustainable. Even though well-meaning liberal politicians like to push for Green New Deals in the hope of continuing non-stop economic growth without the consequent ecological harm, Saito argues capitalist societies need to perpetually consume resources to remain prosperous.

As a result, capitalism itself inevitably brings about planet-wide problems like climate change, habitat destruction, plastic pollution and other environmental issues. The only solution is for humanity as a whole to slow down our obsession with work, productivity and materialism. Notably, Saito stresses that the bulk of the burden to consume less falls on the wealthiest among us.

Saito doesn't take credit for these observations. Philosopher Karl Marx developed a philosophy in the 1860s that Saito describes as "eco-Marxist" (particularly in Saito's previous work, "Karl Marx's Eco-Socialism"). While the German philosopher's early works like "The Communist Manifesto" urged the working class to insist on receiving its fair share of the benefits of industrialism, Marx's later writings praised Indigenous peoples in the Americas, India and Algeria for living in communes that stressed sustainable environmental practices.

As such, "Slow Down" is that rare hybrid among ideological manifestos: It opens new insights into an existing ideology while uplifting something distinct of its own. Salon spoke with Saito about "Slow Down" and the relationship climate change has to economics.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

For those who are totally unfamiliar with the works of Karl Marx, can you please explain how one must distinguish between his early works and the later works that you describe as "eco-Marxism"? 

Marxism is known for socialism, and socialism is often described as the exploitation of the working class. Capitalism has a tendency to increase technologies and promote innovations because of market competition. But Marx thought that once the workers take over power and kick out the capitalists, they can utilize the development of productive forces for the sake of themselves — more wealth, more well-being.

But there is one problem: Sustainability. Because as Marx started to study natural sciences later in the 1850s and 1860s, he came to realize the development of technologies in capitalism actually don't create a condition for emancipation of the working class. Because not only do those technologies control the workers more efficiently, they destabilize the old system of jobs and make more precarious, low skilled jobs. At the same time those technologies exploit from nature more efficiently and create various problems such as exhaustion of the soil, massive deforestation, and the exhaustion of the fuels, and so on.

Marx came to realize that this kind of technology undermines material conditions for sustainable development of human beings. And the central concept for Mark at that time in the sixties is metabolism. He thinks that this metabolic interaction between humans and nature is quite essential for any kind of society, but the problem of capitalism is it really transforms and organizes this entire metabolism between humans and nature for the sake of profit-making. Technologies are also used for this purpose. So technologies are not for the purpose of creating better life, free time and sustainable production, but rather it exploits workers and nature at the same time for the sake of more growth, more profit, and so on.

My point is basically Marx was quite optimistic when he was young in terms of the development of technologies, but later he came to realize actually technologies have more damaging impact on both humans and nature. So he became more critical of that possibility of solving those problems of poverty and ecological problems using technology. That's how the issue of degrowth and eco-socialist ideas came to be central for his ideas.

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"We used to believe that it's impossible for the state or for the society to intervene in the market and say, 'You know, we shouldn't be making profit because human lives are more important or nature is more important.' But in the middle of the pandemic, we did this."

There's another distortion in Marxist thought, what you described as "the monster known as Stalinism." What ideological corrections do you offer to the Marxist model to avoid a repetition of history? 

So I advocate for a kind of eco-socialism, that kind of socialism that is more sustainable, that is not based on exploitation of nature. Because in the 20th century, Stalinism and other kinds of socialist experiments was a disaster. It was un-democratic. It was a dictatorship of the Communist Party, but at the same time it was also destruction of the environment.

I think their ideas were rather based on the development of progress through technology, and productive force is the condition for the working class emancipation. And the most efficient way of developing these technologies and productive forces is the monopoly of the means of production by the bureaucrats and the party. It just created a kind of the central planning, which is very top-down and authoritarian and anti-democracy. At the same time, they didn't care about the environment, so it basically destroyed nature.

In Marx's later works, he quite intensively studied natural sciences. He also studied at the same time other societies, non-Western societies, that were more sustainable. He came to realize that these societies were not driven toward endless growth. They were communally managing land. They were also democratically redistributing wealth. So he came to realize that more of a kind of bottom-up management of the commonwealth is good for people and creates a more equal society. It's also good for the environment. It was more sustainable because that's why those [Indigenous] societies lasted for many, many years. In America, they lasted many, many years before those people coming to conquer the land.

Marx came to recognize that not necessarily Western societies are more progressive in creating a better society for the workers, but rather Western society also need to learn from non-Western societies. This is another very radical transformation for Marx in his late years. But then he came to realize not a top-down Soviet style dictatorship is necessary for the sake of establishing socialism, but rather more democratic, horizontal management of commonwealth lands, water, forests and other resources. That is quite essential for creating a better society.

And he actually uses the term association — not socialism or communism. He often describes the future society with "association." And so my idea is really not state socialism, but associated model production. This is why I still use the term "communism," because the society based on capital is capitalism and a society based on the commonwealth, the democratic management of commonwealth is actually to be called "communism."

Could you elaborate on how the degrowth philosophy that you say has been implemented in locations like Quito, Ecuador or Barcelona, Spain, as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My book, originally in Japanese, was published like three years ago, so it was published in the middle of pandemic. Japan is also a captive society and it's a very conservative society. I didn't expect that this call for going back to Marx and reviving the tradition of communism combined with new idea of degrowth would attract so much attention and interest from people.

But it was, I think, because of the pandemic, that we came to recognize how destructive our economic activities were. It was obviously deforestation and that kind of thing. Ugly business was a main cause of the pandemic. Now at the same time, the climate crisis was deepening. So it was a moment we saw how our daily life was quite clearly destructive, but at the same time, we had to stop the economy for the sake of protecting our lives. Shutting down departments, shopping malls and restaurants and so on.

We used to believe that it's impossible for the state or for the society to intervene in the market and say, "You know, we shouldn't be making profit because human lives are more important or nature is more important." But in the middle of the pandemic, we did this. We came to realize that these things are actually possible. And once we started working from home, once we stopped taking trains and going to hang out with people, buying new clothes all the time and so on, we came to realize, 'Why did we consume so much? Why did we work so hard?'

The pandemic created some kind of space for reflection upon our previous life, the massive consumption, massive production, and massive waste. This is really the moment when the degrowth idea appeared more attractive, because people could spend more time with family, friends — not necessarily friends because of the pandemic, but maybe with friends — they could read more books and newspapers, and they enjoyed different ways of life that are not necessarily consumptionist. 

"The solution to some kind of environmental damage was simply externalized to somewhere else. It was shifted basically to the global south."

At the same time, a new crisis is coming — the climate crisis — and it will accelerate inflation. It will create a bigger economic inequality. And various natural disasters will also create a food shortage, which might lead to various kinds of conflicts. Geopolitical tension will increase, and so on. My claim in my book is basically this crisis cannot be simply overcome by investing in new green technologies. It is like early Marx: We overcome the crisis of capitalism by technologies, the state should intervene, the Green New Deal must be new investments, blah, blah, blah. But I don't think that works.

My idea is basically we need to learn from the experience of the pandemic — that capitalist society is driven for the sake of creating more profit, not necessarily able to provide what is necessary. Because what is necessary, like medicine and education and hospital masks and so on — are not necessarily profitable. Capitalism doesn't produce what is necessary unless it is profitable.

This gap creates disparities for us to tackle. My idea is basically degrowth is focusing on what is necessary rather than what is profitable. We should share more with the commonwealth like public transportation, the education system, the medical care system. These necessary things, essential goods, must be shared more equally instead of some rich people monopolizing all the wealth of the planet. 

Can you explain the "Netherlands Fallacy" — namely, the idea that the Netherlands proves that socialism can be ecologically sustainable and prosperous. Can you elaborate on why that is indeed a fallacy? 

I don't know why it's really the Netherlands. It can be the U.S. Fallacy or whatever, but it's traditionally called the Netherlands Fallacy. The Netherlands had some environmental pollution and basically they overcame this issue with new technologies. Everything seems fine, but the problem is this fallacy. The solution to some kind of environmental damage was simply externalized to somewhere else. It was shifted basically to the global south.

One contemporary example is electronic vehicles, EVs, which are today very important; Tesla making massive profits, and so on. For the sake of a decarbonized society, I totally agree that we need more electronic vehicles and we need to produce them more, and that gasoline should be abandoned as fast as possible. I totally agree. But the problem is, are electric vehicles totally sustainable? 

"This is open to misunderstanding that degrowth denies technology to try to go back to nature or something like that. This is absurd."

The answer is obviously no. It is not just that usage of electric vehicles still consumes electricity, which might be produced by using fossil fuels, but the problem is — instead of fossil fuels — we also need a lot of rare metals: Lithium, copper, cobalt. And those rare metals are often located in the global south: Latin America, China, Russia, Africa and so on. And in these places now, the extraction of metals are creating very poor working conditions for even children.

Child labor is obviously a problem in Congo, where a lot is massively extracted, but also the problem of environmental pollution, massive deforestation and the lithium use uses a lot of water. Chile is now suffering by wildfires, but they are also suffering from drought. And then mining lithium consumes a lot of water when people actually need water for their lives, and also for producing food, and so on. 

People like us and affluent people in the global north can continue a very comfortable life by buying new electric vehicles like Tesla instead of Toyota. And they think that, "Okay, we did something good for the environment. I feel my responsibility for the next generations and so on." They are actually falling into this fallacy of believing their sustainability. No, they're not. Their behavior is not sustainable because the real problem is only hidden: massive extraction of the lithium in the global south. It's still causing quite a damaging impact upon people and the environment. So the metabolism between humans and nature, it's still distorted and disrupted in a quite serious manner.

And my idea of degrowth is not a negation of technology. We need electric vehicles. I repeat again because this is open to misunderstanding that degrowth denies technology to try to go back to nature or something like that. This is absurd, but at the same time, I clearly want to say that there are too many cars.

We need to shift to a society where we share electric vehicles with neighbors. So sharing cars. And we also need to invest in more green technologies like public transportation and also bicycles. And the bicycles of today are kind of dangerous because all the roads are created for the sake of cars. So the city urban planning is centering around all industries, and that needs to be challenged, that needs to change. And these are idea that degrowth will create a more eco-friendly, pedestrian friendly kind of society. The new kind of fair mobility is a central idea of degrowth. But this is just one example we need.

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My basic point is that often technologies simply hide the true environmental impacts, and we needed technological development, but at the same time, we need to reduce our excessive consumption. Otherwise we will fall into the Netherlands Fallacy. 

I'm reading a book by billionaire philanthropist, Tom Steyer, who argues for more traditional approaches to addressing climate change: Funding green technologies, pushing voter registration drives, supporting a Green New Deal platform. Do you think there is anything fundamentally flawed about approaches for dealing with climate change when they come from billionaires or from others in the elite classes? 

Yes. I don't actually deny some kind of Green New Deal, but not a Green New Deal for people like the American people. Because my idea of sustainability is more comprehensive. It includes the people in the global south. So greening or decarbonization in the U.S. can be achieved at the cost of people in the global south, and that doesn't make sense, right? And the same thing can be said within the U.S.

The green transformation for the sake of billionaires could be achieved at the cost of many people in the global south. Minority indigenous people could be sacrificed for the sake of sustaining today's capitalism. What do I mean by this? Growth is always good for billionaires. They say, "Okay, we'll invest more in something good — green technologies — and it will grow the economy. And then all the poor people working class people will also benefit from growth."

Growth actually hides the necessity of redistribution. When we talk about redistribution and compensation or reparation, billionaires needs to give up some of what they have gained. Not just wealth, but also private jets, massive houses and cruise ships and those luxury items, too.

But when we invest in green technologies, flying jets can be sustainable, blah, blah, blah. And they also don't have to redistribute their own wealth because the entire pie of the economy will be bigger, so that the working class can also gain higher salaries and so on. My idea of degrowth is much more challenging because the degrowth doesn't seek after continuous growth of the economic pie. 

When the pie doesn't grow, we need to share more. So it really clearly demands the massively distribution of the wealth from the rich people to the poor people. But also we should give up what is actually unnecessary. I claim that, but the most obvious example is private jets. Private jets are unnecessary because people can still fly with business class or whatsoever. So my point is, rich people should give up their wealth, rich people should give up private jets and so on, other unnecessary things. And when people now talk about the Green New Deal, they hide the necessity of such a radical transformation of our lifestyle for the sake of everyone.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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