Ecological Realism

“Science,” we were promised, would solve all our ecological problems.

Armando Alvarez

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Economic growth, which was supposed to ensure the affluence and well-being of everyone, has created needs more quickly than it could satisfy them, and has led to a series of dead ends that are not solely economic in character: Capitalist growth is in crisis not only because it is capitalist but also because it is encountering physical limits.

It is impossible to imagine palliatives for one or another of the problems that have given rise to the present crisis. But its distinctive character is that it will inevitably be aggravated by each of the successive and partial apparent solutions to its problems.

While it has all the characteristics of a classical crisis of overproduction, the current crisis also possesses a number of new dimensions that Marxists, with rare exceptions, have not foreseen and that what has until now been understood as “socialism” does not adequately address. It is a crisis in the relation between the individual and the economic sphere as such; a crisis in the character of work; a crisis in our relations with nature, with our bodies, with our sexuality, with society, with future generations, with history; a crisis of urban life, of habitat, of medical practice, of education, of science.

We know that our present mode of life is without future; that the children we will bring into the world will use neither oil nor a number of now-familiar metals during their adult lives; that if current nuclear programs are implemented, uranium reserves will be exhausted by then.

We know that our world is ending; that if we go on as before, the oceans and the rivers will be sterile, the soil infertile, the air unbreathable in the cities and life a privilege reserved for the selected specimens of a new race of human, adapted by chemical conditioning and genetic programming to survive in a new ecological niche, carved out and sustained by biological engineering.

We know that for a hundred and fifty years industrial society has developed through the accelerated looting of reserves whose creation required tens of millions of years and we know that until very recently all economists, whether classical or Marxist, have rejected as irrelevant or “reactionary” all questions concerning the longer-term future – that of the planet, that of the biosphere, that of civilizations. “In the long run we shall all be dead,” said Keynes, wryly asserting that the temporal horizon of the economist should not exceed the next 10 or 20 years. “Science,” we were assured, would find new paths; engineering would discover new processes undreamed of today.

But science and technology have ended up making this central discovery: All productive activity depends on borrowing from the finite resources of the planet and on organizing a set of exchanges within a fragile system of multiple equilibriums.

The point is not to deify nature or to “go back” to it, but to take account of a simple fact: Human activity finds in the natural world its external limits. Disregarding these limits sets off a backlash whose effects we are already experiencing in specific though still widely misunderstood ways: new diseases and new forms of dis-ease, maladjusted children (but maladjusted to what?), decreasing life expectancy, decreasing physical yields and economic pay-offs and a decreasing quality of life despite increasing levels of material consumption.

The response of economists up to now has essentially consisted of dismissing as “utopian” or “irresponsible” those who have focused attention on these symptoms of a crisis in our fundamental relation to the natural world, a relation in which all economic activity is grounded. The boldest concept which modern political economy dared envisage was that of “zero growth” in physical consumption. Only one economist, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, has had the common sense to point out that, even at zero growth, the continued consumption of scarce resources will inevitably result in exhausting them completely. The point is not to refrain from consuming more and more, but to consume less and less – there is no other way of conserving the available reserves for future generations.

This is what ecological realism is about.

The standard objection is that any effort to arrest or reserve the process of growth will perpetuate or even worsen existing inequalities and result in deterioration in the material conditions of those who are already poor. But the idea that growth reduces inequality is a faulty one – statistics show that, on the contrary, the reverse is true. It may be objected that these statistics apply only to capitalist countries and that socialism would produce greater social justice; but why then should it be necessary to produce more things? Would it not be more rational to improve the conditions and the quality of life by making more efficient use of available resources; by producing different things differently; by eliminating waste; and by refusing to produce socially those goods that are so expensive as to never be available to all or that are so cumbersome or polluting that their costs outweigh their benefits as soon as they become accessible to the majority?

Radicals who refuse to examine the question of equality without growth merely demonstrate that “socialism,” for them, is nothing but the continuation of capitalism by other means – an extension of middle class values, lifestyles and social patterns that the more enlightened members of that class, under pressure from their daughters and sons, are already beginning to reject.

Today a lack of realism no longer consists in advocating greater well-being through the inversion of growth and the subversion of the prevailing way of life. Lack of realism consists in imagining that economic growth can still bring about increased human welfare – and indeed that it is still physically possible.

André Gorz, from Ecology as Politics. Gorz, a French philosopher and journalist, refused to oppose the deployment of missiles by the United States into West Germany in 1983, rebuking the pacifist movements he had been previously aligned with.