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Critiques of Pollin: A Facebook Thread

A Facebook conversation on Robert Pollin's New Left Review article, “De-Growth vs. a Green New Deal

M_: This essay is not without interest. But it seems that we have an economist writing from on high so to speak. NO mention of the military and the environment, agriculture and the environment, no notion of political realities today, just that if we do this and this and this, there is a viable path to stabilizing CO2 emissions at an earth sustainable level. No notion of land and income and wealth expropriation and redistribution. Not a word about tourism, automobiles, public transit in the vast western US. Just that with clean energy investments, employment will rise, making it easier for workers and peasants to get a bigger share of the pie. No notion of changing the nature of work. And many other things. He seems to be speaking ex cathedra, so to speak. Doesn't he travel around, look at reality in places large and small, in the US at least? Yes, let's put solar panels all over the deserts. But what about the desert landscape? Well. to hell with it I guess.

J: I agree with your critique, M_. I haven't completed reading the article yet, but it's very notable from the start that (with some minor caveats) Pollin takes for granted the existing ensemble of use-values that energy “production” and consumption serves. (In passing he does criticize the luxury consumption of the rich.) But no big deal, as a mix of wind, solar, geothermal, and appropriate scale hydro electricity generation, especially if coupled with energy efficiency innovations in industrial equipment, building heating/cooling, and consumer goods design, can eventually meet the high levels of energy demand required to fulfill these use-values. (And yes, Pollin focuses mostly if not exclusively on electricity generation, which is only one part of the picture, and just assumes that technological progress in electricity transmission and battery storage will allow for continuing high levels of energy consumption without relying on fossil fuels – and/or nuclear power – as a complement to clean renewable sources.)

I haven't gotten to the part yet where, I presume, Pollin identifies the political formula that will force such a hothouse pace of fixed investment growth in clean renewable energy. Mainstream energy economists like Smil have shown that in general it takes a very long time for energy transitions to occur – even once it becomes profitable for capitalist energy “producers” to adopt new technologies – because of the legacy infrastructure and stranded asset problems. So for Pollin's technocratic vision to be realized in the time frame and on the scale he proposes, it would require the rapid and massive liquidation of the fossil capitalist sector, and of course a large, powerful, and radical social movement pushing for that liquidation….

Pollin touts the feasibility of his plan. Workers, especially displaced workers formerly employed in the fossil energy sector, will ostensibly get behind a plan centered on massive and rapid investment growth in renewable/sustainable energy technology – wind, small-scale hydro, geothermal, low-impact biofuels, and PV/solar – and energy efficient industrial equipment and building cooling/heating systems because it holds out the promise of expanding employment and increasing incomes. But in our oligarchic political system, since when does the ostensible fact of a blueprint “appealing to workers” or “garnering workers' support” translate into heightened feasibility? Under present conditions, what clinches the political viability of a plan – including a “progressive” one – is the backing of a segment of the owning class. So, if Pollin is to be honest about the short-term feasibility of the GND, he needs to frame it as a coalition of green capitalists (who stand to benefit from the socialization of R&D expenditures, tax breaks, market guarantees, and other subsidies) and labor, with labor in a junior partner role.

If, on the other hand, the question is merely one of “appealing to workers,” why not forward a vision that answers workers' anxieties about livelihoods by severing the link between workers' material well-being and their performance of salaried and waged work in order to pay for commodified goods and services? It seems in this essay that Pollin hews to the growth idyll because he considers it impossible to gain working class support otherwise, but that should be true only to the degree that household livelihood comes from the earning of salaried and waged income.

M_: Thanks, J_. A friend sent me a critique of Pollin's essay. Among the points made are:

Pollin stays within a basically liberal discourse while trading on his leftist credentials.

He reduces the whole ecological problem (which the degrowth theorists who are his main opponents do not) to climate change, ignoring all other ecological problems, even when closely related. There is no recognition here therefore that we are crossing numerous planetary boundaries, and that simply solving climate change (which he thinks possible in the system) is not enough.

He pretends, that is, that reducing emissions 80 percent below present levels by 2050 is sufficient. It is not. The science now says that we have to reach zero emissions by 2050 and even that would require that we find some way to institute negative emissions, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere—the problem is worse the longer we delay and the slower we are to respond. Global emissions are still increasing and have not yet peaked by any means.

He pretends that technology and the market, specifically alternative forms of energy, are sufficient to solve the problem with no changes whatsoever in fundamental social relations….

Pollin is basically providing a Democratic Party platform that says the elites, the technocrats, the corporations, the state, and green Keynesians like Pollin will take care of the whole matter. No need to mobilize the population or question the system. But of course this guarantees catastrophe.

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