Is "zero growth" the answer?

Submitted by Matthew on 2 December, 2010 - 12:56 Author: Stuart Jordan

In a recent speech to the Texas Academy of Science, world renowned ecologist Dr Eric Pianka called for the genocidal culling of 90% of humanity through release of an airborne Ebola virus. Pianka explained that such radical measures were the only way to stop environmental catastrophe. At the end of his speech, the two or three hundred scientists present gave him a standing ovation.

Pianka is obviously an extreme case, but there are softer variations on this theme of “population control”. From David Attenborough to David Rockefeller, the theme is becoming a mainstream response to climate change.

Advocates claim the world’s population is unsustainable and needs to be reduced. They say “we need three planets to sustain this level of consumption”. This logic also flows into more sophisticated arguments for “negative” or “zero economic growth”, which have recently been raised by the “ecosocialists” in the British Section of the Fourth International.

Behind the zero or negative growth arguments is an understandable anti-capitalist belief that unending economic growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability. This is a common sense. But I will argue that if there is a natural limit to growth then we are far from reaching it. Instead, it is capitalist growth, rather than growth per se, that has caused the environmental crisis.

Capitalism is the most dynamic and productive economic system in human history. Human activity has never before been organised on such a vast scale — we can rearrange the elements of nature to create vast cities, global communications networks and the technology to leave the planet and fly to the moon.

Advocates of zero growth argue that this level of activity alone has created ecological imbalance. They believe the earth’s ecology could tolerate humanity in pre-capitalist times when we lived as isolated communities scratching around with primitive tools. But now we are organised in global production lines wielding modern machinery, Mother Nature is unable to sustain us and is in effect fighting back. There is a belief that we need to return to lower levels of productivity, below an unspecified threshold, where we will live in poverty but in harmony with nature.

The zero growth argument states that you cannot have unending growth in a finite world. This is true up to a point. If the earth’s population was so large that we ran out of arable land to provide food for everyone then we would have exceeded a natural limit. But modern famines are not caused by lack of food: they are caused by lack of money.

Finite resources?

We often talk about the resources in the world “running out”, but what does that actually mean?

Two hundred years ago, when capitalism was in its infancy, our ancestors found a world where the earth’s resources were largely untouched by human hand — virgin forests, enormous seams of rocks, minerals and fossil fuels beneath earth’s surface. Capitalism has organised human activity to transform these easily accessible resources into useful things.

By using our arms and legs, head and hands, we have ripped out enormous quantities of rock, minerals and metals. We have processed these natural resources, transformed them into machines powered by other natural resources (coal, oil and gas) and created modern civilisation. Over the years, these materials have travelled through multiple processes of production and consumption. Our activity has stirred up the elements of the earth.

But this activity has not exhausted these natural resources. The constituent elements still exist. Instead, they have become more difficult to find, harder to extract or lie wasted in useless form.

Instead of abundant resources concentrated in geographical locations, we now have an assortment of metal, plastic, rock and decaying organic matter scattered across the globe, in landfill, polluting our air and water systems.

It will take a lot of energy and work to transform these waste materials into useful products. This is especially alarming given that our traditional energy source, the carbon that once existed underneath the earth’s surface, is running out.

Moreover, our activity has transformed this carbon so it now exists as gas in the earth’s stratosphere, creating climate change. Has this happened simply because human beings are naturally parasitical and wasteful? Or is there a different explanation?


Capitalism produces things to sell on the market. These things roughly fulfil a human need of one sort or another. This could be a survival need such as food or it could be a socially constructed need, like the high definition TV.

The majority of the population do not choose what is on the market in the first place — we do not choose what we produce and by extension, we do not choose the world we live in.

As the commodities are exchanged some people accumulate money. As the system develops control of production is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Fewer and fewer people can afford the time, machines or land to provide for their own basic needs. Eventually our needs can only be satisfied by going to the marketplace. We can only access the world through the exchange of cash sums. To get hold of cash, the majority of us, without access to tools, land or machines, sell the only thing we have left — our time and skills as workers.

We sell the hours and days of our lives. Once sold, this time belongs to our boss and they set us to work on a production process. Bosses are only interested in making profit and to this end they try to make us work harder and longer for less money.

By organising human activity in this way, the resources of the earth are transformed by human labour for the sole purpose of increasing sales on the market place. This has several strange consequences.

The market develops a life of its own, directing the course of human civilisation. As technologies develop, the world changes around us. This process creates new needs. For example, the invention of the car and the ability to mass produce it created the market for cars.

This in turn creates a world built around the car – a modern road network, an urban environment of carparks, out-of-town shopping centres and industrial parks, the dispersal of family units etc. In such a world it is almost necessary to have a car to get to work, to access the shops and to travel to see friends. None of this was planned. There was no need for a car before it was invented; the need was created by the market.

From a capitalist point of view, the consuming mass of humanity is simply a mouth and anus. Everytime they feed the mouth they make money. The waste product that comes out the other end is not their business. The quicker we consume our products the sooner we return to the marketplace for a replacement. The human being is nothing but a consumer, the end point of the world’s production processes.

The earth’s finite resources once found in pristine state have been passed through a process of consumption till now they lie in useless form polluting the environment. For the zero growth and population control advocates, this is a natural state of humanity. But it is not natural. It is “man made”.

Not just consumers

What is missing from this picture of humanity, what some see as natural, is that we are not simply consumers. We are also workers. When we are at work our time belongs to our boss and we have to follow her/his orders. Outside of work life begins, we have freedom to do what we want, but that is limited. We can only access the world as it is available on the market place and we can only buy what we can afford.

Ultimately, human activity is nothing but the constant production and reproduction of human civilisation. With every interaction with the world, we are changing the nature around us and in the process changing ourselves. The problem is that our most important activity, our work, is controlled by a hostile force only interested in profit.

Capitalism takes the easiest route to make profit. As long as there are still easily accessible resources under the earth’s surface, capitalists will continue to set people to work on it. They will exploit these resources until they are no longer economical and then will turn elsewhere. The plundering of the earth’s resources and the creation of waste is a peculiar feature of capitalism.

The decisions about how we use our productive energy and transform the world are too important to be left to a few unaccountable individuals. Their right to control production is dependent on our cooperation. We should reject this right and fight for an economy under democratic workers’ control. Workers’ control would mean our collective work could be organised on the basis of human needs and the needs of our environment.

A society organised on the basis of participative democracy in economic decisions is the only society that could deal with the economic crisis. It could implement a system of recycling where the useless remains of our consumption go back into a production process to be transformed and made useful again by human labour.

Productive activity could become an active intervention into the earth’s ecological processes, transforming the world for human need and actively extracting and reprocessing waste. We could continue with high levels of productivity to create and transform the world.

Such a society would be able to make decisions about whether or not a particular product was ecologically viable. For instance, it is unlikely that we would choose to produce unrecyclable plastics. The key ecological determinants of what can be produced will be time, energy and scientific knowledge.

There is ample energy from the sun that could be tapped without any detrimental ecological effects. Social relations between human beings are a far greater barrier than technology for creating a viable renewable energy.

The Vestas wind turbine manufacturers demonstrated this when they closed down the Isle of Wight plant in 2009 arguing (correctly) there was no market for their product (in one of the windiest parts of the world!).

On a geopolitical scale, it is impossible to imagine the Saharan desert being utilised for solar energy given the parasitic imperialist projects of the US, China and Europe in the region.

An ecological future does not require a reduction in population or a return to productivity levels of pre-capitalist times. Humanity is not a parasite living on the earth but a part of nature. Capitalism long ago developed the productive powers so an individual could produce much more than was needed for her/his survival.

The more people available for work: the greater the forces of our productive power and the more we can achieve. The problem is that without democratic control over our world, these productive forces are directed in wholly destructive ways.

The struggle to claim democratic control over our working lives is simultaneously the struggle to recreate a world based on solidarity and internationalism. It can only be achieved by an international working class movement organising for power.

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