On the 30th of January, 2020, Gareth Dale held a lecture with the title Can we cool our burning planet? Degrowth, technology and the Green New Deal at tranzit.ro/cluj, Romania. His lecture was also an opening momentum for the tranzit.ro/cluj’s new project for 2020 called Orbiting modernity: from the steam engine to the galactic debris – which promises to be an investigation of the relations between the defining elements of modernity (science and techology, socio-political configurations and dynamics, ideological structures) and their impact on the environment and our planet. Gareth Dale is a lecturer at Brunel University, London. The interview below was conducted by Juhász-Boylan Kincső after his lecture.
The hungarian translation is on the second page. See below.
A magyar fordítás a második oldalon olvasható. Lásd alább.
Juhász-Boylan Kincső: How did you travel here?
Gareth Dale: On foot.
Gareth Dale: Okay, so I flew. I try to travel by train wherever I can. (Two weeks ago, I went to a conference in Zürich, Switzerland, and took the train.) Travelling here would require a two-day journey each way. We need to have a new system where your employer allows you a longer time off, and you can take the journey more slowly, by train. But we need to push for that kind of a system. At the moment, we don’t have it.
JBK: And do you think that this is a specific trait of the academic culture, where travel has to happen very quickly and promptly?
Gareth Dale: Well that’s the way Academia is set up at the moment. But I think all sectors of society have to reduce and slow down. That doesn’t mean you necessarily do less… Instead of lots of journeys each year, take fewer but for longer periods. And that allows you to travel more slowly and maybe go to a conference in Vienna and on the way, do a talk in Budapest, and then come to Cluj, and so on, over the course of a week or ten days, instead of hopping from one place to the other through the year. It requires a big shift in culture and politics. A shift that prioritises nature and human beings and allows people more time off work. A shorter working week would allow that sort of travel— more in keeping with the needs of the planet. Because flying is not!
JBK: Do you often get asked about this issue? There’s a very condemnatory discourse against academics or activists who fly.
Gareth Dale: Yes, there is, but you’re the first person who’s asked me. It’s a good question. I think the Nordic expression flygskam will become more of an issue, because we’ve seen a massive escalation of aviation, a huge rise in travel by air. And that has to stop. I don’t think the way to stop it is by shaming; the strategy of shaming people individually is not very helpful. It’s inevitable, and okay up to a point, but it’s not the best way forward, for people often do things under pressure from their circumstances. If you’re an academic, the structure of your industry pushes you to do these things. But we as academics need to get together collectively and enforce a change in our industry, and that’s going to be much more effective if it’s done collectively by academics themselves, and similarly across all industries.
JBK: I’m guessing this is where the concept of degrowth would come in. What do you think, how can we shift towards degrowth?
Gareth Dale: Well, if by degrowth we mean a general, worldwide reduction in energy and resource use – I think that is the biggest question facing humanity. Because if we don’t, we will burn the planet to a crisp. Future generations will not have a hope of a comfortable life, perhaps even life itself. And the question faces huge obstacles, the biggest being global capitalism. It’s a system that forces firms and nations into competition with one another over profit. (I use a broad understanding of capitalism which includes Romania under Ceauşescu as a form of capitalism.) Its defining feature is the division between a ruling class that has complete control over productive property and working people who have no choice but to work for the employing class. This dynamic pits states, too, into competition with one another, channelling the imperatives of capital accumulation. It, accumulation, gets refigured ideologically as growth: the idea is that growth benefits all and we have to keep growing economically, as a nation,with, more resource use, more energy use and more emissions that cook the planet. So the great obstacle to change is that structure, the global capitalist system. It’s a huge task to overcome that and it’s not going to happen quickly. However, we have to see action quickly, so a key short-term imperative is for these issues to be discussed and to enter into social movements. I see hope, for example in young people’s initiatives. But in the long run, nothing fundamental is going to change [apropos climate] unless we alter the system as a whole.
JBK: But wasn’t there a change in Romania? Didn’t this system shift?
Gareth Dale: I’m not suggesting there haven’t been major changes. Capitalism is a global system that has come into being in the last three or four hundred years. It is dynamic and takes very different forms in different parts of the world. It polarises power and wealth, and countries change. Sometimes that takes place in short bursts of revolutionary change, as occurred in Romania. And the political-economic regime in Romania did change substantially, from a very statised system to a marketised system. I’m not suggesting there was no change: It was a powerful moment, a huge revolutionary uprising, with people occupying Ceauşescu’s palace in Bucharest, and so on. And the political conflict here in the Banat, in Timişoara, was very real, and expressed different systemic agendas.
At the more abstract level, however, the fundamental core or the system remained the same. And, as you are well aware, a substantial proportion of the Romanian elite was able to reinvent itself. I remember clearly people in the 1990s, looking at the top of Romanian society and saying ‘Ceauşecu has gone but many of his cronies are still in power – they’re just running society in a slightly different way.’ I met someone who told me the — typical — story of a guy who was managing director of a tire company in Romania under so-called socialism, and the question for him during the transition was “how do I save my powerful status?”. So, when the laws changed and it was possible to set up private companies, a tire company was set up under his wife’s name. And even though he didn’t own this company under so-called socialism, he was able to use his price-setting power to sell all the tires, all the stock from the state company to his wife’s company at knock-down prices, and that way transfer the value of property in state-capitalist Romania into private property. I’m sure people here know many more such stories than I do.
That’s the type of “shift” that took place, which isn’t a fundamental shift in class structure, or the basic, underlying economic dynamic. It did represent, of course, a change of regime. Although institutions did change, it remained a capitalist society.
JBK: One of the aspects that didn’t change was the drive for growth, you said. What are we missing here, what’s the problem with this very strong want for growth?
Gareth Dale: The way I see it, the underlying drive is capital accumulation. Most of the world is owned by businesses which are subject to a systemic compulsion to produce more profit for their shareholders, and to accumulate capital. That drives them to treat every input as something the cost of which needs to be kept down – the cost of labour power, the cost of resources; and nature has to be treated as an externality. The fundamental drive is to capital accumulation, not to growth. But the way in which we understand it is governed by the ideology of growth: the idea that there is an economy and its core tendency is growth. Growth is a good thing, it happens naturally, benefits everyone, and can and should carry on into the future. And growth is also the solution to social and environmental problems — including environmental problems that have been caused by growth itself. We live in a world governed by this ideology, and we take it as natural. It works to justify and naturalise capitalism, and to present the basic drive of capitalism (accumulation – which benefits primarily the rich), as something that benefits us all.
In the distant past, in ancient societies, there were forms of growth – rulers would gain more territory, scholars would look for ways of improving agricultural techniques to gain higher yields, and merchants would seek more profit. But there was no sense of an economy that grows, and there was no discourse about this trend being something that has to continue into the distant future. That discourse really began to emerge in the 17th century. Above all in England, a centre of early capitalism, and from there it spread around the world. And it began to take on new terms: “the development project”, “modernisation”, “improvement”. Also, the 17th century was the first time that national accounting techniques were developed. Economists were able to estimate how the economy would change in size. The ideology of growth began to take a shape, but it only reached its full form in the 20th century. This is when the idea of growth as something potentially infinite arose.
The 20th century also saw the so-called “social question”: of mass poverty and inequality. Social-democratic parties argued that the way to social progress is through economic growth: their members and supporters will gain from growth and this will be the way of ending poverty. But in the late 20th century, doubts have grown around those ideas. First of all, the world economy is already vastly bigger than it was at the start of the 20th century, but poverty is everywhere. Growth has not been not solving problems of poverty and inequality. In fact, it justifies inequality. And secondly, doubts have arisen because of environmental issues: growth is capital accumulation, essentially, and it’s creating world-threatening changes to the climate and other biophysical processes (not just climate change, but habitat loss and ocean acidification, for example). So there’s a good deal of doubt around the growth ideology these days.
JBK: You said growth justifies poverty and inequality. How does it do so?
Gareth Dale: A very widespread assumption is that growth is the way of overcoming poverty. But, especially over the last 30-40 years, it’s been clear that economies around the world, especially my own, Britain, or America, have seen significant growth and yet there are still lots of homeless people in the streets in the winter, even in the middle of London. So, even at the empirical and observational level, it’s clear that, despite all the additional resources that are being created, despite the greater command over nature that we have thanks to technical innovation, the question of poverty remains.
Historically, economic growth as an ideology has been used as a comfort to the poor: if you don’t disrupt the social system, gradual economic improvement will see that your lives get better and better. And for certain periods of history, at an experiential level, that can make sense. It was an experience in the fifties and sixties in Romania – which was part of what gave the early ‘communist’ regime a degree of legitimacy, a degree of popular support. People’s lives, in a period of economic growth, can improve.
But the ideology of growth functions to naturalise a social system that continually creates economic polarisation through market competition, where some people who have wealth gain more and more, and many who don’t, despite minor fluctuations in their situation, gain nothing that brings them a comfortable life. In an article that I wrote on this question, I look at some periods in history that saw a prospect of radical social change. The supporters of the system preached to the masses: “don’t shake up the social structures, don’t shake up society. Just concentrate on working hard, getting your wage, you might rise up a little bit each year, and you will be able to buy yourself a few more comforts.” This is growth ideology as a mantra of obedience to the ruling order.
JBK: These are some problems in society that, for example, the Green New Deal and the European New Deal strive to change. Is this the thought process behind the social aspects of these deals?
Gareth Dale: What kind of solutions are being offered to the crisis, and the future of the planet? The first sort, let’s call it the “Donald Trump-approach”: there is no problem, let’s just carry on, or, if there is a problem, let’s just plant a few more trees. (Tree planting of course is fine, but it doesn’t address the basic problem, which is pumping carbon from the lithosphere into the biosphere and the atmosphere. Trees can burn, can rot, and so on.)
The second one, let’s call it the “Angela Merkel-approach”, is a more liberal approach, arguing for green growth. The idea is that greening capitalism is perfectly possible. We can have an increasingly efficient economic system, based more and more on renewable energy. But that hasn’t been working, and, although it’s obviously better than the ‘Trump’ solution, it’s no solution at all. Why not? Because it relies on the idea that you can decouple energy and resource use from GDP-growth on the scale necessary to get carbon emissions down to zero. But there’s no evidence that is possible, and it has never happened in the past.
So what does the left have to offer? Well, on the left, there are, especially among anarchists and utopian socialists, movements like the degrowth movement. But by far the biggest initiative on the left is the Green New Deal. It overlaps with the liberal green growth-programme. The Green New Deal is best seen as a landscape of political struggle, and the severity of the question of climate change is going to force political differentiation. It has found support among very moderate liberal green growthers, all the way to the far left. But they are pushing for different kinds of Green New Deals. I think if it’s going to be successful it has to be owned by grassroot movements – that’s what we have yet to see. If it’s not, then it will be occupied by existing power centres who are connected, by a thousand threads, to the current economic system with its growth drive and its complete neglect of nature.
JBK: And how could it possibly become owned by grassroot movements?
Gareth Dale: Well, there is scope for connections between traditional labour movements (like trade unions) and environmentalists. For example around the question of ‘climate jobs’. If we’re going to keep the world as a habitable planet then there will need to be a massive global restructuring of the way we work and live, and that will require lots of human activity. And there are huge questions here, for trade unions. If that transformation is to be rapid and radical, it will need huge numbers of jobs to be shifted out of the polluting industries (such as fossil fuels and cars) into new industries creating new forms of energy, insulating people’s houses, and shifting from industrial, highly inefficient agriculture to agro-ecological farming. Across every sector of society we will need a huge transformation that requires jobs.
This is something that trade unions need to be brought on board with, and linked to environmentalists. There’s scope for red-green connections to be made. You need to be able to link people’s concern for the planet as a whole to their fears and anxieties for their own individual lives (and whether their family will have enough money and food, etc). That’s why climate jobs programmes are very useful. They’re demanding from the state that, instead of wasting money on the military, for example, it takes the climate emergency seriously, employs people, and shuts down the fossil fuel sectors. To support public transport instead of private transport (which is an incredibly inefficient way of using energy and materials, because you’re one person carrying a ton and a half of metal everywhere you go). To renew and insulate houses, and so on.
Romania, for example, is one of the windiest parts of Europe, particularly around the Black Sea coast. But who owns the wind? If Romanian law gives all ownership of the wind to the landowners, then a shift to wind energy would put more and more money in the pockets of the rich. But if Romania makes the wind the property of the nation as a whole, or the property of the villages near the wind farms (for they’re the ones who have to put up with the noise), then a shift to wind energy will be beneficial to everyone. And people will be part-owners of the process. You need to find ways of making people owners of the process of transformation.
The state declaring a climate emergency on the terms I talked about is the solution the Green New Deal is arguing for. It faces the problem that states in a capitalist society are structurally connected to the system as a whole. You can’t simply win the state to back this proposal. But you can win organisations to do so. In Britain we ran a climate jobs campaign – it won quite a hearing within five or six trade unions. Those sorts of initiatives need to be ramped up on a massive scale.
JBK: Is a deal like the European Green Deal a good way to move towards this change? Because, for example, it does mean serious changes, especially in Eastern Europe – if we just think about the carbon tax that would incur a lot of costs.
Gareth Dale: Carbon tax is not a good way of initiating change. A carbon tax would only work if there are real alternatives to what is being taxed. If you put a tax on petrol, but people have to get to work in their cars, then they simply have to pay more tax, while keeping using the same petrol—it’s no solution. It’s a regressive tax, it makes inequality and poverty worse without doing anything for the environment. This is what we saw in France, which sparked the gilets jaunes protests. What governments should do instead is build public transport systems, which offer an alternative. That way you can act positively to create new infrastructures for life and social reproduction. Carbon taxes and carbon trading are the favoured mechanisms of the green growth approach. We live in a neoliberal age in which markets are worshipped as efficient ways of bringing about change. But they don’t work. The European emissions trading system has been an abject failure. And individual lifestyle changes aren’t going to change the world, because they don’t challenge the structures of transportation, of energy systems which will completely have to be torn down, and built in a different way.
So these neoliberal methods are part of an ideology that seeks to impose culpability for environmental harms on individual households—a totally flawed approach, because the key drivers of the environmental crisis are capitalists. They are the people who own the world. They are the ones who make the big decisions, who have created environmentally disruptive systems of life, of energy use and of transportation. So if you then seek to overcome these harms by blaming individual consumers, taxing them for their petrol use, that’s looking in the wrong direction. And if that were adopted by the European Green Deal, it would only antagonise working people and poor people, and make it harder to win the kind of mass movements that require change. So there’s conflict built into the European Green Deal. The EU is enormously influenced by powerful lobbyists of the German car industry and fossil fuel companies. (Nine out of the ten biggest companies of the world by revenue are either oil and gas giants, or car giants. Volkswagen is one of them.) They have enormous lobbying power in Brussels, and what they say is don’t demand any fundamental change from us, don’t demand a shift from car use to public transport, instead, use carbon taxes and emission trading systems that make it look as though you’re doing something.
JBK: Do you think the youth movement who propose radical change, are closer to this liberal agenda, or a socialist one?
Gareth Dale: I don’t know whether youth strikers in Romania are liberal. I do think they need to be wary about the environmental programmes coming from the European Union. The young people are the ones who understand, and who should be, and are, taking leadership on this issue. When building movements, they need to be able to connect to ordinary people in ways that make sense… But they’re the ones that give me hope: the climate strikers, Greta Thunberg obviously, but all the school climate strikers… That’s where I see hope.
* The phrase is borrowed from a forthcoming book by David McDermott Hughes. The author’s article on the same subject is available here.