climate change

If Degrowth Is Coming, What Does It Propose for Workers?

Hannah Hubbard

Hannah Hubbard is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

In 2015, countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rallied around preventing the rise in average global temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. With an average rise of 1.5–2.0 degrees, scientists predict 70–90% loss of coral reefs globally, an explosion of natural disaster–related deaths, and displacement of up to 1.2 billion people by 2050.

We already stand at an increase in average global temperatures of 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and, according to the World Meteorological Organization, there is now a 40% chance that the world will see average global temperatures increase to 1.5 degrees in the next five years. As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded last year, the world missed its opportunity to prevent many of these devastating impacts and can only hope to prevent the “most harrowing” possibilities — but we need to take decisive action, and we need to do it now.

In the United States, advocates are calling for a “Green New Deal” to redirect innovation toward sustainable enterprise before it’s too late to avoid the bulk of climate change’s devastation. With a Green New Deal, the federal government would provide the job training and economic investment necessary to decarbonize the economy by developing renewable energy, upgrading buildings across the country, and building a sustainable national transportation system. Besides creating upwards of 30 million long-term, full-time jobs in the “clean energy” sector, this program combined with the Climate Jobs Guarantee could advance workers’ rights and the position of labor by building “a powerful labor-friendly coalition” between organized labor and environmentalists and providing guaranteed employment at a baseline $15 dollars an hour with benefits.

Although some have dismissed the Green New Deal as a “radical front for nationalizing [the U.S.] economy,” others question whether it is enough to avoid oncoming climate catastrophe.

Enter “degrowthers” who claim that a Green New Deal only “greens” the “capitalist imperative of perpetual economic growth, which is the true cause of environmental destruction.” The degrowth movement insists that we can’t have our cake (ecological sustainability) and eat it too (while maintaining economic growth at all times) — to truly reduce our environmental impacts, degrowthers believe we must “scale down energy and material use throughout the economy” ultimately “lead[ing] to a downturn in gross domestic product (GDP) growth.”

Degrowthers have reason to be skeptical of the mainstream campaign to decouple economic growth and ecological sustainability. According to one study published in Advances in Applied Energy last year, only 14 of 116 countries surveyed were able to decouple GDP growth from CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2018; even then, those countries continued to add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and some countries that had decoupled GDP and emissions at the time of a previous study had actually reverted to increasing emissions for GDP gains since.

Accompanying worldwide economic growth is also an increase in demand for energy — the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a 50% increase in global energy use by 2050, which cannot be fully offset using renewable sources. Fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy landscape — fueling about 80% of the United States’ energy-use in 2018 — leaving some to conclude that “peak oil and the slow expansion of renewable energy will result in a decrease in the total quantity of energy available by 2050,” bringing about widespread descaled economic production (i.e., degrowth) whether we like it or not.

Spontaneous economic contraction is a huge concern for workers. GDP, while an imperfect measure for societal welfare, is largely correlated with a country’s standard of living; economic downturns almost always hit lowest-wage workers the hardest and it can take much longer for poor individuals to see true recovery than the rich. Even mild recessions have a distinct racial character, with negative impacts disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Indeed, advocating for degrowth requires serious caution. For example, a so-called ecofascist framing of degrowth might characterize the suffering accompanying a rapid economic downturn as a necessary check on our overconsumption of natural resources. (A damning indictment of the radical ecological movement is that it has, at times, taken for granted the Malthusian notion that poor individuals, immigrants, and those with large families are to blame for climate catastrophe and that the ravages of poverty or economic contraction are a “positive check” on overpopulation.) However, insofar as the degrowth movement has any cohesive action plan (and critics often insist that its biggest downfall is that it does not), it could intersect with some strong labor-friendly policies — and backing these specific policy interventions could prompt more workers to support degrowthers’ vision of a radically reshaped global economy.

For instance, degrowthers are in a much stronger position to advocate for a universal basic income than mainstream green-growthers. A major axiom of degrowth is that our economy needs to descale in many if not most sectors. Since climate change is primarily driven by the “cumulative historical consumption of the Global North,” rich countries need to shrink our economies while concentrating productivity in sectors that are sustainable and necessary. This most likely translates to shorter work weeks: Professor Jared Fitzgerald at Boston College has found that each percent increase in working hours corresponds to a 0.65 percent increase in carbon emissions. Combined with redistributive policies, reducing the world’s working hours could thus be a necessary component to decarbonizing the global economy. While the final bill proposing a Green New Deal erased any reference to UBI due to backlash over the notion of supporting those “unwilling to work,” degrowthers can advocate for UBI precisely for its potential to empower workers to reclaim their time and take up non-growth-based labor.

Degrowthers also invite us to reimagine work and consumption in a world that has eschewed growth for growth’s sake. Degrowthers blame the “capitalist economic model” for producing a society which prioritizes “corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption” over “social and ecological well-being;” degrowth’s “logical implication” is to challenge this economic model since, as political economist Güney Işıkara posits, “[o]nly under social ownership of the means of production can we extend democracy to the realm where resources are allocated and limits are defined.” In pursuit of this, ecosocialist scholars like Stefania Barca argue that “degrowth should aim for a truly democratic, workers’ controlled production system, where alienation is actively countered by a collective reappropriation of the products of labor and by a truly democratic decision-making process over the use of the surplus.” To this end, degrowthers could support a transition to “alternative political economic arrangements” by advocating policies that specifically encourage the growth of worker co-operatives, public banking, and the public provision of essential goods.

The Green New Deal, if ever passed, would be a tremendous step forward for raising minimum labor standards while decarbonizing the U.S. economy. But the degrowth movement implores us to remain unsatisfied by anything short of a “fundamental overhaul of the way our economies work.” And the exact contours of this transition could make all the difference; as Işıkara concludes, “[a]voiding ecological collapse” may be “more closely linked to the emancipation of the working classes than it appears.”

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