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Degrowth is utopian, and that’s a good thing ...and it’s scientific, too

By Giorgios Kallis UnevenEarth 4/26/19

Excerpts from a rather long essay at

What we dream about the future affects how we act today. If utopias express our desires, dystopias distill our fears. Utopias and dystopias are images we invoke to think and act in the present, producing futures that often look very different from either our dreams or our nightmares.

An oft-repeated criticism against the green movement is that it is dystopian and catastrophist (some call this ‘Malthusian’) when it comes to its diagnosis, and utopian when it comes to its prognosis. On the one hand, greens warn of a scary future of planetary disaster, and on the other, offer a peaceful dreamland where people bike to their artisanal work and live in picturesque houses with well manicured food gardens and small windmills. Nowhere to see is a realistic political plan on how we could ever escape from the current capitalist nightmare, and move to something remotely close to an egalitarian and ecological future.

I won’t deny that some green writings, especially in the 1970s and 80s (but also still today) merit this critique. But in the meantime, there has been a lot of new thought, under the labels of ecosocialism, degrowth, or environmental justice that cannot be caricatured and packaged in this simplistic mold. And yet this is what geographer Matt Huber does in a recent article published at the Socialist Forum, entitled Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific. Huber argues that there are two types of green socialism, one that is utopian and unscientific, and one that is realistic and scientific, his….

What I want to argue is that, first, being utopian is not a problem as Huber makes it seem it is, and second, we [utopians] are scientific, at least as scientific as Huber can claim his position is….

A scientific socialism, Huber tells us, is one ‘grounded in analysis of what kind of socialist society is possible given historical and material conditions’. So far so good. Only one problem: who is to judge what is really ‘possible’?

Huber, for example, seems to think that something close to the energy or material consumption of an average American, secured for everyone in the world, is possible (Huber is against wasteful capitalism, and implies that unnecessary production and consumption could be curtailed, but is not clear what he classifies as waste –and in any case, insists on the point of ‘abundant energy’, which one can only think means at least as much energy as it is currently consumed, if not more). Energy should come from renewable energy, or why not 80% renewable and 20% nuclear, which is fine, Huber claims – and food from robotic agriculture. Moreover, we will do all this without exploiting anyone, taking everyone’s concerns democratically into account, somehow minimizing damage, or at least making those on the receiving side of such damage concede to it ‘democratically’….

Huber also has a second take on the meaning of ‘scientific’. He writes that ‘let’s get real, or ‘scientific’ … we are not going to win the masses of workers with a socialist program based on … ‘drudgery for all’. Science here seems to refer to realism about how can ‘we’ (sic) win the masses of workers. There are problems with this formulation too.

First, even if Huber were right and there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff. Huber argues that given that the workers will never buy into a degrowth utopia then ‘the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy’.

This actually seems to me a very unscientific, and utopian in the bad sense – having to ‘find some way’ to make something possible, independently of whether it is materially possible or not. Rather than consider integrating your political strategy to what is materially possible, the call here is to bend material possibility, one way or the other, to what you came to think as the only possible political strategy.

But, second, like the statement on material possibility, the idea that some of us can know with certainty the limits of political possibility – that is, know what the workers really want – is also problematic. Who is to say that workers everywhere and always would only be attracted to visions of ‘more’?…

If something disappoints me, and motivated me to write this essay, it is the feeling that no matter how hard some of us work to advance and refine a certain strain of green-left thought (call it degrowth, ecosocialism or else), we are bound to be caricatured as a blend of socialist utopians of the 19th century and neo-Malthusians of the 1970s (never mind the stark differences between these two sets of ideas).

We owe ourselves and the few people who might read us a more informed and refined debate than a repetition of tired dichotomies from the 1970s. Reality is complex, what is possible and what not is hard to know, and the roads to ecosocialism (or however else you might want to call an egalitarian and sustainable future) are many.

Read the full essay

kallis-utop.txt · Last modified: 2019/04/28 10:56 by admin