Czech-Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil is often hailed as one of the world’s top authorities on energy transition. He has published dozens of books on energy and has built a strong scholarly reputation and public profile, a rare feat for someone pumping out dense academic tomes. His message has often been deeply pessimistic about the world’s engineering and administrative capability to transition energy from fossil fuels rapidly. He makes rigorous, compelling cases for why it’s so difficult.
But like most writing coming out of liberal academia, his books have often skewed away from explicitly moral or political positions. Perhaps because his technical-but-gloomy assessments can be readily co-opted by right-wing ideologues interested in sustaining a high-emissions status quo, he has been embraced by capitalist crusaders like Bill Gates. The computer billionaire has said, “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie,” which I can only assume means he posts angry screeds on reddit in a Chewbacca onesie. Smil has also written extensively for the neoliberal propaganda mill called the American Enterprise Institute—although, to be fair, not since 2015. And he has said—ruefully, according to Wikipedia—“I’ll forever be Bill Gates’s scientist.” His politics remain murky.
It might be surprising, then, that his latest book aims to critique one of the central tenets of capitalist orthodoxy: the economic growth mandate. As the energy guru told aptly named Jonathan Watts for the Guardian, “The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense.” In an interview with New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, he explained this fact even more colorfully:
This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology. Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology […] This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.
This is a big deal. Smil is one of the few mainstream figures to be making such a strong, vocal case for what many people ideologically closer to the left—and radical environmentalists—have long been calling for: economic degrowth. Mainstream economists have invariably dismissed the idea out of hand. The economic growth mandate, after all, has been one of the most important ideological ballasts holding steady the neoliberal consensus. Prior to this consensus, economists like Adam Smith reasonably factored material limits into their ideas. As Christopher F. Jones writes in the New Republic, it was only in the 1950s that the idea of infinite growth began to gain the status of inviolable law. The concept remains deeply embedded in the discipline and those institutions that defer to it (basically all of them).
Smil isn’t the only mainstream voice beginning to challenge this fanciful notion. Johann Rockström, former Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and a leading sustainability scientist, has recently reversed his long-held stance supporting “green growth” to a position more aligned with a degrowth agenda. Greta Thunberg, one of the most popular mainstream figureheads of the global climate movement, recently shamed a roomful of world leaders for believing in “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Such turns toward degrowth, or the more rhetorically palatable “postgrowth,” could portend a broader shift in mainstream circles toward embracing the idea, or at least softening their opposition to it. There may be more and more people from across the political spectrum adopting this idea in the near future. As Jason Hickel, one of the postgrowth movement’s strongest voices recently said, “the conversation is changing, and a new consensus is emerging.”
This could be good…or bad. That’s because opposing infinite economic growth alone is morally and ideologically neutral. There’s nothing inherent to the idea that’s egalitarian, prosocial, or just. Because it has been championed by benevolent environmentalists or good faith leftists most recently, one could be forgiven for presuming it is an egalitarian idea.
A left-wing degrowth agenda could be a very good thing: In addition to halting our doomsday course, it plausibly could result in increased prosperity for most people as it would, by definition, entail mass redistribution of resources, even as economic growth slowed and reversed. One can envision much better lives of greater abundance, in both rural and urban contexts, under a postgrowth, egalitarian economy. The idea of “public luxury, private sufficiency” advocated by author George Monbiot, for example, is another depiction of such an outcome. But a right-wing degrowth agenda would almost certainly result in less prosperity for most, and even great violence. It’s just as easy to imagine deeply savage governments pursuing aggressive degrowth agendas that do aim to make the economy more materially sustainable, but doing so through brutal austerity measures like those that, in Britain, caused up to 130,000 preventable deaths, or through an upward redistribution of resources that continues to deprive the Global South and the poor of the Global North a fair share of dwindling wealth, or even outright ethnonationalist genocide.
Since some fascists on the political fringe have begun to incorporate sustainability and material scarcity into their justifications for nationalist violence, there’s no reason to believe mainstream voices will side with a socialist postgrowth agenda over the fascist variety. Given the way in which capitalists are responding to rising fascism today—that is, with glowing media profiles and rebukes of the left—there’s good reason to believe they’ll swing rightward before they support the left. The existence of “Lifeboat Britain” and ubiquity of billionaires scrambling to buy up bunkers and walled-off enclaves offers a glimpse of the way in which the wealthy and the right will approach a degrowth scenario.
That means that anyone promoting a degrowth agenda who is not also embracing a leftist vision of society—one that equitably spreads remaining material resources—should be met with vigilant skepticism. In the New York interview, Smil rightly identifies rich countries as the main driver of overconsumption and the main targets for degrowth. But, when pressed, he distinguishes between the Global North and Global South like this: “I always tell people this, we don’t matter anymore. People talk about global problems. That our problem is their problem. Our problem is that we are dying out but still consuming like crazy. Their problem is that they want to consume like us, and they are increasing at a rapid rate.” The ambiguity of who is included in “us” and “they” leaves his message veering worryingly close to the quasi-eugenicist messages coming from the right.
It might be tempting to advocate just leaving any notion of deliberately scaling back economic growth in Pandora’s Box. After all, why risk giving ammo to elites looking for an excuse to deprive more people of wealth and well-being?
The unfortunate fact is degrowth is inevitable. This is because it’s a basic fact of physics—“common sense,” as Smil puts it—that GDP cannot grow infinitely on planet Earth. There’s no form of economic activity that can be completely divorced from the finite materials provided by the Earth, regardless of who governs it: Wealth is intrinsically tied to material resources. Some economic activities are more obviously dependent on materials. Agricultural production, for instance, is very obviously bound by material limits. There’s only so much arable land area, only so much ammonium nitrate, and only so many hands to till the land. Heavy manufacturing also has very clear physical limits: There are only so many minerals, only so much iron, copper, lithium, cobalt, and aluminum. Fossil fuels, too: only so much oil, coal, and gas. But there are other kinds of economic activity that are less obviously material, like digital tech companies, or services like barber shops, or entertainment industries like sports teams. But the bodies of the people who drive this kind of economic activity are also dependent on finite resources, the time people have to use their bodies for these activities is limited by physical resources, and all the tools used in these activities, whether data centers or fiber optic cables, footballs or scissors, are also dependent on limited resources. The electricity required for a single bitcoin trade could power a house for a whole month.
Economies have already stretched beyond what the planet can sustainably provide. With wells running dry, arable topsoil being depleted, and increasingly extreme climate disruption, the flow of these resources will inevitably slow and, in some cases, stop entirely. The question now is whether growth will reverse in a way that’s peaceful, equitable, and deliberate, or violently haphazard, the result of countless unrecoverable calamities that collapse civilization into states of fractured barbarity, just because rich people want to keep being rich while everyone else gets poorer.
The left must incorporate postgrowth deeply into any programs it puts out, whether it’s a Green New Deal or Green Industrial Revolution, to monopolize this monumental task. After all, the hard fact is that any vision of society that does not entail reducing production, extraction, and distribution is a vision that is comfortable with the mass extinction and climate chaos now gripping the globe, regardless of whether it’s being promoted by socialists, capitalists, or fascists. But perhaps more importantly, the left should be monopolizing a controlled and deliberate degrowth strategy because if it doesn’t do it, the rich and their authoritarian, ideological vanguard will. And it will be ugly. Those not on the left who are currently advocating for degrowth—whether environmentalists or the ideologically uncategorizable (looking at you Vaclav)—should be ensuring that leftists guide a degrowth agenda, unless they’re fine with having lots of blood on their hands.