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Degrow or die?

John Bellamy Foster opens a debate on ‘degrowth’, climate crisis and capitalism
November 2010

In the opening paragraph to his 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen, the leading US climatologist and the world’s foremost scientific authority on global warming, declared: ‘Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril . . . The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought.’

In making this declaration, however, Hansen was only speaking of a part of the global environmental crisis currently threatening the planet: namely, climate change. Recently, leading scientists (including Hansen) have proposed nine planetary boundaries, which mark the safe operating space for the planet. Three of these boundaries (climate change, biodiversity, and the nitrogen cycle) have already been crossed, while others, such as fresh water use and ocean accidification, are emerging planetary rifts. In ecological terms, the economy has now grown to such a scale and intrusiveness that it is both overshooting planetary boundaries and tearing apart the biogeochemical cycles of the planet.

Hence, almost four decades after the Club of Rome raised the issue of ‘the limits to growth’, the economic growth idol of modern society is again facing a formidable challenge. What is known as ‘degrowth economics’, associated with the work of Serge Latouche in particular, emerged as a major European intellectual movement with the historic conference on ‘economic de-growth for ecological sustainability and social equity’ in Paris in 2008, and has since inspired a revival of radical green thought, as epitomised by the ‘Degrowth Declaration’ in Barcelona in 2010.

Ironically, the meteoric rise of degrowth (décroissance in French) as a concept has coincided over the last three years with the reappearance of economic crisis and stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The degrowth concept therefore forces us to confront the question of whether degrowth is feasible in a capitalist grow-or-die society – and if not, what it says about the transition to a new society.

According to the website of the European degrowth project (, ‘Degrowth carries the idea of a voluntary reduction of the size of the economic system, which implies a reduction of the GDP.’ ‘Voluntary’ here points to the emphasis on voluntaristic solutions – though not as individualistic and unplanned in the European conception as the ‘voluntary simplicity’ movement in the US, where individuals (usually well-to-do) simply choose to opt out of the high-consumption market model. For Latouche the concept of degrowth signifies a major social change: a radical shift from growth as the main objective of the modern economy, towards its opposite (contraction, downshifting).

False promise

An underlying premise of this movement is that in the face of a planetary ecological emergency the promise of green technology has proven false. This can be attributed to the ‘Jevons paradox’, according to which greater efficiency in the use of energy and resources leads not to conservation but to greater economic growth, and hence more pressure on the environment.

The unavoidable conclusion – associated with a wide variety of political-economic and environmental thinkers, not just those connected directly to the European degrowth project – is that there needs to be a drastic alteration in the economic trends operative since the industrial revolution. As the US Marxist economist Paul Sweezy put it more than two decades ago: ‘Since there is no way to increase the capacity of the environment to bear the [economic and population] burdens placed on it, it follows that the adjustment must come entirely from the other side of the equation. And since the disequilibrium has already reached dangerous proportions, it also follows that what is essential for success is a reversal, not merely a slowing down, of the underlying trends of the last few centuries.’

Given that wealthy countries are already characterised by ecological overshoot, it is becoming more and more apparent there is indeed no alternative, as Sweezy emphasised, to a reversal in the demands placed on the environment by the economy. This is consistent with the argument of ecological economist Herman Daly, who has long insisted on the need for a steady-state economy. Daly traces this perspective to John Stuart Mill’s famous discussion of the ‘stationary state’ in his Principles of Political Economy, which argued that if economic expansion was to level off (as the classical economists expected), the economic goal of society could then be shifted to the qualitative aspects of existence, rather than mere quantitative expansion.

A century after Mill, Lewis Mumford insisted in his Condition of Man, first published in 1944, that not only was a stationary state in Mill’s sense ecologically necessary, but that it should be linked to a concept of ‘basic communism . . . applying to the whole community the standards of the household’ and distributing ‘benefits according to need’ (a view that drew upon Marx).

Today this recognition of the need to bring economic growth in the overdeveloped economies to a halt, and even to shrink these economies, is seen as rooted theoretically in Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, which established the basis of modern ecological economics.

Degrowth as such is not viewed, even by its proponents, as a stable solution, but one aimed at reducing the size of the economy to a level of output that can be maintained at a steady-state perpetually. This might mean shrinking the rich economies by as much a third from today’s levels by a process that would amount to negative investment (since not only would net investment cease but also not all worn-out capital stock would be replaced).

A steady-state economy, in contrast, would carry out replacement investment but would stop short of new net investment. As Daly defines it ‘a steady-state economy’ is ‘an economy with constant stocks of people and artefacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance “throughput” – that, is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy’.

Beset with contradictions

Needless to say, none of this would come easily given the existence of today’s capitalist economy. In particular, Latouche’s work, which can be viewed as exemplary of the European degrowth project, is beset with contradictions, resulting not from the concept of degrowth per se, but from his attempt to skirt the question of capitalism. This can be seen in his 2006 article, ‘The Globe Downshifted,’ where he argues in convoluted form:

‘For some on the far left, the stock answer is that capitalism is the problem, leaving us stuck in a rut and powerless to move towards a better society. Is economic contraction compatible with capitalism? This is a key question, but one that it is important to answer without resort to dogma, if the real obstacles are to be understood . . .

‘Eco-compatible capitalism is conceivable in theory, but unrealistic in practice. Capitalism would require a high level of regulation to bring about the reduction of our ecological footprint. The market system, dominated by huge multinational corporations, will never set off down the virtuous path of eco-capitalism of its own accord . . .

‘Mechanisms for countering power with power, as existed under the Keynes-Fordist regulations of the social-democratic era, are conceivable and desirable. But the class struggle seems to have broken down. The problem is: capital won . . .

‘A society based on economic contraction cannot exist under capitalism. But capitalism is a deceptively simple word for a long, complex history. Getting rid of the capitalists and banning wage labour, currency and private ownership of the means of production would plunge society into chaos. It would bring large-scale terrorism . . . We need to find another way out of development, economism (a belief in the primacy of economic causes and factors) and growth: one that does not mean forsaking the social institutions that have been annexed by the economy (currency, markets, even wages) but reframes them according to different principles.’

In this seemingly pragmatic, non-dogmatic fashion, Latouche tries to draw a distinction between the degrowth project and the socialist critique of capitalism by: (1) declaring that ‘eco-compatible capitalism is conceivable’, at least in theory; (2) suggesting that Keynesian and so-called ‘Fordist’ approaches to regulation, associated with social democracy, could – if still feasible – tame capitalism, pushing it down ‘the virtuous path of eco-capitalism’; and (3) insisting that degrowth is not aimed at breaking the dialectic of capital-wage labour or interfering with private ownership of the means of production. In other writings, Latouche makes it clear that he sees the degrowth project as compatible with continued valorisation (i.e. augmentation of capitalist value relations) and that anything approaching substantive equality is considered beyond reach.

What Latouche advocates most explicitly in relation to the environmental problem is the adoption of what he refers to as ‘reformist measures, whose principles [of welfare economics] were outlined in the early 20th century by the liberal economist Arthur Cecil Pigou [and] would bring about a revolution’ by internalising the environmental externalities of the capitalist economy. Ironically, this stance is identical with that of neoclassical environmental economics – while distinguished from the more radical critique often promoted by ecological economics, where the notion that environmental costs can simply be internalised within the present-day capitalist economy is sharply attacked.

Class implications

‘The ecological crisis itself is mentioned’ in the current degrowth project, as Greek philosopher Takis Fotopoulos has critically observed, ‘in terms of a common problem that “humanity” faces because of the degradation of the environment, with no mention at all of the differentiated class implications of this crisis, i.e. of the fact that the economic and social implications of the ecological crisis are primarily paid in terms of the destruction of lives and livelihood of the lower social groups – either in Bangladesh or in New Orleans – and much less in terms of those of the elites and the middle classes.’

Given that it makes the abstract concept of economic growth its target rather than the concrete reality of capital accumulation, degrowth theory – in the influential form articulated by Latouche and others – naturally finds it difficult to confront today’s reality of economic crisis/stagnation, which has produced unemployment levels and economic devastation greater than at any time since the 1930s.

Latouche himself wrote in 2003 that ‘there would be nothing worse than a growth economy without growth.’ But faced with a capitalist economy caught in a deep structural crisis, European degrowth analysts have little to say. The Degrowth Declaration, released in Barcelona in March 2010, simply pronounced: ‘So-called anti-crisis measures that seek to boost economic growth will worsen inequalities and environmental conditions in the long-run.’ Neither wishing to advocate growth, nor to break with the institutions of capital – nor, indeed, to align themselves with workers, whose greatest need at present is employment – leading degrowth theorists remain strangely silent in the face of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

To be sure, when faced with ‘actual degrowth’ in the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and the need for a transition to ‘sustainable degrowth’, the noted ecological economist Joan Martinez-Alier, who has recently embraced the degrowth banner, offered the palliative of ‘a short-run green Keynesianism or a green new deal’. The goal, he stated, was to promote economic growth and ‘contain the rise in unemployment’ through public investment in green technology and infrastructure.

This was viewed as consistent with the degrowth project, as long as such green Keynesianism did ‘not become a doctrine of continuous economic growth’. Yet how working people were to fit into this largely technological strategy (predicated on ideas of energy efficiency that degrowth analysts generally reject) was left uncertain.

Indeed, rather than dealing with the unemployment problem directly – through a radical programme that would give people jobs aimed at the creation of genuine use values in ways compatible with a more sustainable society – degrowth theorists prefer to emphasise shorter working hours and separating ‘the right to receive remuneration from the fact of being employed’ (by means of the promotion of a universal basic income). Such changes are supposed to allow the economic system to shrink and at the same time guarantee income to families – all the while keeping the underlying structure of capital accumulation and markets intact.

Yet, looked at from a more critical standpoint, it is hard to see the viability of shorter work hours and basic income guarantees on the scale suggested other than as elements in a transition to a post-capitalist (indeed socialist) society. As Marx said, the rule for capital is: ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!’

To break with the institutional basis of the ‘law of value’ of capitalism or to question the underlying structure underpinning the exploitation of labour (both of which would be threatened by a sharp reduction of working hours and substantial income guarantees) is to raise larger questions of system change – ones that leading degrowth theorists seem unwilling to acknowledge at present. Moreover, a meaningful approach to the creation of a new society would have to provide not merely income and leisure, but address the human need for useful, creative, non-alienated work.

Degrowth and the South

Even more problematic is the attitude of much of current degrowth theory toward the global South. ‘Degrowth,’ Latouche writes, ‘must apply to the South as much as to the North if there is to be any chance to stop Southern societies from rushing up the blind alley of growth economics. Where there is still time, they should aim not for development but for disentanglement – removing the obstacles that prevent them from developing differently . . . Southern countries need to escape their economic and cultural dependence on the North and rediscover their own histories.’

Lacking an adequate theory of imperialism, and failing to address the vast chasm of inequality separating the richest from the poorest nations, Latouche thus reduces the whole immense problem of underdevelopment to one of cultural autonomy and subjection to a westernised growth fetish.

This can be compared to the much more reasoned response of Herman Daly, who writes: ‘It is absolutely a waste of time as well as morally backward to preach steady-state doctrines to underdeveloped countries before the overdeveloped countries have taken any measure to reduce either their own population growth or the growth of their per-capita resource consumption. Therefore, the steady-state paradigm must first be applied in the overdeveloped countries . . . One of the major forces necessary to push the overdeveloped countries toward a . . . steady-state paradigm must be third world outrage at their overconsumption . . . The starting point in development economics should be the “impossibility theorem” . . . that a US-style high mass consumption economy for a world of four billion people [this was in 1975] is impossible, and even if by some miracle it could be achieved, it would certainly be short-lived.’

The notion that degrowth as a concept can be applied in essentially the same way to both the wealthy countries of the centre and the poor countries of the periphery represents a category mistake resulting from the crude imposition of an abstraction (degrowth) to a context in which it is essentially meaningless, such as Haiti, Mali, or even in many ways India. The real problem in the global periphery is overcoming imperial linkages, transforming the existing mode of production, and creating sustainable-egalitarian productive possibilities.

It is clear that many countries in the South with very low per capita incomes cannot afford degrowth but need a kind of sustainable development, directed at real needs such as access to water, food, health care, education, etc. This requires a radical shift in social structure away from the relations of production of capitalism/imperialism. It is telling that in Latouche’s widely circulated articles there is virtually no mention of those countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, where concrete struggles are being waged to shift social priorities from profit to social needs. Cuba, as the Living Planet Report has indicated, is the only country on earth with high human development and a sustainable ecological footprint.


It is undeniable today that economic growth is the main driver of planetary ecological degradation. But to pin one’s whole analysis on overturning an abstract ‘growth society’ is to lose all historical perspective and discard centuries of social science. As valuable as the degrowth concept is in an ecological sense, it can only take on genuine meaning as part of a critique of capital accumulation, and part of the transition to a sustainable, egalitarian, communal order – one in which the associated producers govern the metabolic relation between nature and society in the interest of successive generations and the earth itself (socialism/communism as Marx defined it).

What is needed is a ‘co-revolutionary movement’, to adopt David Harvey’s pregnant term, that will bring together the traditional working-class critique of capital, the critique of imperialism, the critiques of patriarchy and racism, and the critique of ecologically destructive growth (along with the respective mass movements).

In the generalised crisis of our times, such an over-arching, co-revolutionary movement is conceivable. Here the object would be the creation of a new order in which the valorisation of capital would no longer govern society.

‘Socialism is useful,’ E F Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful, precisely because of ‘the possibility it creates for the overcoming of the religion of economics,’ that is, ‘the modern trend towards total quantification at the expense of the appreciation of qualitative differences.’ In a sustainable order, people in the wealthier economies (especially those in the upper income strata) would have to learn to live on ‘less’ in commodity terms in order to lower per capita demands on the environment. At the same time, the satisfaction of genuine human needs and the requirements of ecological sustainability could become the constitutive principles of a new, more communal order aimed at human reciprocity, allowing for qualitative improvement, even plenitude.

Such a strategy is consistent with providing people with worthwhile work not dominated by blind productivism. The ecological struggle, understood in these terms, must aim not merely for degrowth in the abstract but more concretely for deaccumulation – in the sense of a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end. In its place it should put a new co-revolutionary society, dedicated to the common needs of humanity and the earth.

Read a response to this essay: 'A constructive dialogue for change' by Ted Benton

John Bellamy FosterJohn Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and author of a number of books on Marxism and ecology, most recently (with Brett Clark and Richard York) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War with the Planet


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Tom Walker 5 December 2010, 19.33

I’ve participated in and presented at de-growth conferences in Barcelona and Vancouver and read extensively in the literature. I welcome John Bellamy Foster’s call for an overarching strategy but I have reservations about the suggestion that such a strategy would necessarily emerge from a “fusion”, so to speak, of environmentalist, anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-racist and traditional working-class critiques.

Those critiques are certainly compatible with the strategic direction I would envision, but they do not constitute it. What I see as strategically vital is a counter-mentality that redirects the irresistible momentum of technological development toward other ends.

Werner Sombart described the concept of capital as something that “did not exist before double-entry bookkeeping.” “Capital,” he wrote, “can be defined as that amount of wealth which is used in making profits and which enters into the accounts.” Rob Bryer has written of a capitalist mentality that consists of using accounting information to control the labor process “by holding the collective worker accountable for the rate of return on capital.” Such control by the bottom line is central, not incidental, to both the domination of the labor process by capital and the evolution of the ways that domination has been implemented through successive forms of technology. Any alternative to that domination requires the development of a counter-mentality that “turns the capitalist development of calculation and accountability to other ends.”

Bryer referred to that counter-mentality as a “socialist mentality” but I would amend that to a “social accounting mentality” to both enlist and implicate an incumbent social accounting tradition as well as to distance the alternative mentality from advocacy of state socialism. Ownership of the means of production may be beside the point or it may be more eclectic than traditional socialism assumes. It is not private ownership per se that is onerous but the domination over the labor process that a one-dimensional accounting mentality enforces. Social accounting is simply the kind of accounting that has to be done when two or more accounting entities are being aggregated. It differs from the accounting of a single enterprise in the way that transactions between the constituent parts are treated. Great care needs to be taken in defining the boundaries between parties to avoid errors such as “double counting.” It is, in effect, the systematic double counting of the returns due to capital that maintains the social domination of capital and obstructs social justice.

For a fuller outline of this “social accounting mentality” at its historical grounding see “Time on the Ledger: Social Accounting for the Good Society”

joan martinez-alier 3 January 2011, 20.50

There is much to say about J B Foster’s style of arguing. There is on point that I do not want to let pass, and this is that according to JB Foster the we, proponents of Degrowth, want to apply the medicine to Haiti, Mali etc. This is not so. While these countries would do well to foget about a uniform path to Development (as Latouche, Escobar, Esteva, W. Sachs, S. Marglin… have long argued), nevertheless their average level of use of energy and materials could and must increase. At least this is what Degrowth activists always say. However, the general strategy for Africa, Latin American, S.E Asian countries should not be based on cheap exports of commodities. On the contrary, there is a possibility of an alliance between the Environmental Justice movements of the South and their networks, and the small Degrowth movement in some northern countries, as I argued in a paper at the conference on the Revival of Political Economy at the CES, Coimbra, October 2010 available in the web. jma

joan martinez-alier 3 January 2011, 21.59

A second comment. In another misrepresentation, J B Foster writes that I sponsor Green Keynesianism. He quotes my paper in Herman Daly’s Festschrift, available in the web. Anybody can check this. I have a section in that paper with the title “Green Keynesianism or Sustainable Degrowth?”. I explain why Keynesianism resurrected in 2008, I criticize the idea of green economic growth, I also point out the difficulties with degrowth as regards unemployment, and I finally clearly choose Sustainable Degrowth over Green Keynesianism by concluding this section with the following phrases: “Who will pay the mountain of debts, mortgages and other debt if the economy does not grow? The answer must be that no-one will pay. We can not force the economy to grow at the rate of compound interest at which debts accumulate. The financial system must have rules different from today. In the United States and Europe what is new is not, therefore, Keynesianism, not even Green Keynesianism. What is new is a growing social movement for sustainable degrowth. The crisis opens up opportunities for new institutions and social habits”.

joan martinez-alier 7 January 2011, 18.05

Further, it is not true that Latouche preaches Degrowth to southern poor countries. J.B. Foster could easily check this. According to Latouche (L’Invention de l’Economie, 2005:64) it is reasonable that Africans with small ecological footprints “be given an unquestionable right to increase it in order to have a certain kind of growth, in the form of increasing consumption and production, within a more equitable approach to the global share of resources” (own translation). There are many other similar statements by Latouche who anyway can speak for himself is he feels like it. jma

Anandi Sharan 2 December 2011, 05.17

Continuing with some solutions from political economy theory.

The political economy of climate change: possibilities for a post-Anthropocene

Equity and survival for human beings and other living species are contained within the overriding aim of returning the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 270 ppm from the present 389 ppm. Let us say we are in the Anthropocene [2] now, and a post-Anthropocene is where human labour has a positive effect on the geology and atmosphere of the planet and thus allows life to continue, but only if humans keep working at it. Thus the production base of the post-Anthropocene is entirely farming, tree planting and forestry to in the final instance sequester carbon dioxide.

Seen from this perspective, the present global financial crisis of speculative finance and excessive government debt and the unwillingness of borrowers to borrow in the USA and Europe, is an aspect of the process of adjustment to a post-petroleum post-coal, post-nuclear world. The crisis is thus the end of consumerism and the question of the possibility of a “post-Anthropocene”.

In market capitalism various elements of the economic system including corporations and the cost of money i.e. interest rates, cannot be controlled or tinkered with, without beyond a certain point upsetting capitalism itself. So once people are concerned that exploiting more hydrocarbons will lead to escalating climate change, they can only influence the rate of exploitation by consuming less. In other words consumer democracy has only the indirect mechanisms of lowering consumption available to it for reducing emissions.And indeed, consumer spending is contracting rapidly in all the developed economies.

The effect in market capitalism of this very desirable reduction in consumption and therefore in greenhouse gas emissions in relation to conserving a possibility of life on earth as we know it, is that the lower consumption results in lower trade, lower profits for business, lower taxes, and thus if governments want to keep up their welfare payments, higher government debts. Seen from this perspective, it is inevitable that governments have to do something; but what?

If the consumers, i.e. people benefiting from hydrocarbons but not sequestering carbon dioxide, in this world – around one third of the world’s inhabitants-, want to have the opportunity of a post-Anthropocene rather than auto-genocide, i.e. if they want to switch to a life where they can produce their lives sustainably, they have to switch from being emitters of carbon dioxide to being agents of sequestration. Once the task is formulated in this way, in terms of the need for new production systems that allow people to sequester carbon dioxide, then the direction which the new form of political economy has to take is clearer. Access to land is an urgent critical necessity: this entails land redistribution and access to land. And secondly, localisation of exchange and trade is needed, to reduce the need for transport. There is also a need for local economic trading systems to be independent of the demands of capital for labour, and the demand of capital for exploitation of materials of one region for global production and consumption systems. The best way to ensure this is to create local currencies in addition to new national currency based not on debt but on free currencies spent into circulation by national and local governments. Systems of altruism, reciprocity, and redistribution through festivals will become more central again as they were before political economy, and political economy can be properly acknowledged as the servant not the master of social and personal life and the servant of earth logic. [3]

These ‘consumer’ signals and the national solutions need to be translated into action at inter-government level too. But governments themselves need to be fed the new ideas, because they are all stuck in outmoded ways of thinking. During the debates on money conducted by those who thought the laws governing the production and distribution of commodities could be discovered, between the second half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 19th century, it had been decided that the solution to the problem of sovereigns using currency to their ends, was to have commodity money. Gold (and silver for the periphery) was the new commodity money subject to the laws of value, and the amount in circulation was in theory to be determined strictly by the needs of trade. This discovery, that the international currency should be based on the scarcest commodity, was the occasion for us to ask what the scarcest commodity today is, and the answer is climate stability. By monetising the remaining emission space, giving permits to every individual on earth, and letting them sell permits to hydrocarbon producers trading in an ever declining quantity of emission backed currency units [4], the world can equitably manage the transition to a post-hydrocarbon and post nuclear world.

Whilst all nations need to be involved in the discussion and all their populations will receive permits and indeed thus will have emission backed currency units (ebcu) to trade with according to the size of their population, the global money system to get out of hydrocarbons and nuclear energy needs to be operationalised mainly by around 50 largest hydrocarbon producing countries who will be most affected by the need to purchase permits in order to be permitted to continue to exploit hydrocarbons and nuclear, albeit at a steeply declining rate down to zero by 2030, 40 or 50.

The value of an ebcu will be 1 tCO2e but it will fluctuate across the year and brought back into line regularly by the ebcu authority. The quantity of money for global trade denominated in ebcus willd decline as the number of permits issued declines every year. This is discussed more below. The ebcu will be centrally managed and finally buried once emission space is considered used up within safe limits. From this perspective, the most important question is the willingness to take common actions of the 20-odd petroleum and gas producer countries around the world with around 470 GT of carbon dioxide emissions that are waiting to be emitted from their known hydrocarbon reserves (including China Seas) over the next 50 years – which is how long these reserves are expected to last at present rates of consumption; plus the actions of the 20 odd largest producers of coal, who may if they sell their coal to electricity producers be responsible for emitting another 1000 GT of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the next 100 years, which is how long coal reserves are expected to last.

We know that in the period 2000 to 2050 we should only emit 800 GT, and we have already emitted around 300 GT in the period 2000 to 2011. [5] It is for this reason that the International Energy Agency has said that unless the world does something before 2017, the earth as we know it is doomed and temperature rise of 7 degrees Celsius will be a certainty. Earth is already convulsing under the accumulation of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The ebcu can manage the end of the exploitation of hydrocarbons and nuclear energy by stopping production at source. Of course the US Congress and Todd Stern reject equity. This position is understandable when one sees the volume of USD circulating in relation to the equitable allocation of permits to the USA on the basis of population that would happen under the emission backed currency unit regime using capping and sharing system to allocate permits. But we should also hope. Everyone should get on with things at home but in parallel push a sensible solution globally.

Home for me is India. India (though indeed any country that is both a big polluter and a country with millions of people desperate for democracy, localisation, adaptation, survival) can lead the way for this vision of a post-Anthropocene because it has large numbers of people desirous to lead an agricultural and forestry life.

Today India is run by the same Washington consensus as the consumer democracies. But whereas consumers in the West are reducing consumption and forcing market capitalism into a corner, China and India and the BRICS countries are continuing to promote consumerism as a form of production model. The nationalism of Government of India’s climate politics and economics are in fact genocidal to Indians and to the rest of the world. By insisting on the ‘right to development’ the Government of India is indeed killing its own people. The policy needs to be reversed through more democracy and localisation. And green market capitalism in any case cannot address the need for jobs of 500 million adult Indians as we are seeing today. India is experiencing jobless growth and revolution is only contained by caste and civilisation. On the other hand, if the Indian government realises that in fact the entire world is moving towards jobs only in sequestration, i.e. in farming, forestry and tree planting, Indians might just get the chance to contribute to allowing human life to continue into a kind of post-Anthropocene.

The first step for India is to immediately call a meeting of the hydrocarbon producing nations and see how the emission backed currency unit based on capping and sharing the remaining atmospheric common space can be operationalised. This is the system of emission backed currency unit as the currency of international trade for the period until all permits for hydrocarbon extraction and use are used up, after having been distributed to all human beings on earth in an equitable and sustainable manner taking into account climate science. Thereafter life will be localised and democratic and there will be no hydrocarbon energy or nuclear energy being used.

The second step is to reduce the installed MW capacity of coal electricity to 20’000 MW in India, to be used only for water pumping for agriculture in dry areas and for minimal domestic needs; and to impose an immediate total moratorium on the import and exploitation of hydrocarbons unless and until an agreement for an emission backed currency system based on cap and share is reached. And as part of this put all so-called ‘foreign relations’ efforts into getting this emission backed currency unit agreement based on capping and sharing the remaining small atmospheric emission space.

The third action needs to be to redistribute land and de-urbanise, i.e. to require urban consumers to use 100% renewable energy and to sequester more carbon dioxide than they emit by moving back to farming and forestry.

The fourth is to abandon debt-based money, engage in deficit easing to cancel all state debts, to make states smaller, and to give states and districts the powers to issue money directly into people’s pockets so that they have local currency to use as they go about the business of sequestering carbon dioxide by planting food and trees.

If we want an analogy from earlier political economy, the international emission backed currency unit will be gold, the Rupee, dollar, dirham etc will be silver, and local currencies will be paisa, copper or shells. The purpose of the emission backed currency unit and localisation is purely negative to regulate political economy until life is totally localised and hydrocarbons and nuclear energy are a thing of the past latest by 2050.

The last point concerns the size of the global economy and national economies, and their relative sizes, under the emission backed currency regime.

The permits will decline at the rate of about 1.5 billion tCO2e emissions annually, from 30 billion permits/ tCO2e this year. If one ebcu is valued at 1 tCO2e, the size of the global economy will be 30 billion ebcu in 2012, declining to zero in 2030. In other words, in 2030 there will be no more hydrocarbon or nuclear energy exploitation and international trade would be back to being done in local (national ) currencies, with the difference that international trade would be the icing on the cake for regions or countries or localities, rather than the mainstay of the political economy.

The question as to the exchange rate between the ebcu and national currencies needs to be understood. It culd be mistakenly assumed if the ebcu system is not understood, that because 3 barrels of oil cause the emissions of around 1 tCO2e, and there is a price of oil of 100 USD, the exchange rate to USD would be around 33 USD to 1 ebcu. But in actual fact this kind of statement is meaningless given that the US economy has to shift completely from being based on hydrocarbons to being based on farming, forestry and tree planting. Under the ebcu system, the USD, Euro and Yen cease to be global trading currencies. The exchange rate between the USD and the ebcu is determined solely by the ability of the US economy to generate USD based on farming, tree planting and forestry, to buy ebcus in order to get the required quantum of hydrocarbons.

The ebcu monetary authority may allow the ebcu to float slightly vis a vis the underlying value of tonnes of carbon dioxide, depending on the pressure during the year for permits. But the monetary authority would regularly bring the value back to the 1 tCO2e parity in order to ensure that ebcu meets its purpose, viz. to phase out hydrocarbons and nuclear energy. If the central monetary authority were to allow ebcus to spiral out of control by giving up control of issuance of ebcus to banks and so on, the entire purpose of this monetary instrument to control hydrocarbons and nuclear energy would be defeated.

Thus as I said, the exchange rate of national currencies to the ebcu will be determined by the relation between permits and hydrocarbon energy and nuclear energy requirements in any country. Permits, which can only be bought with ebcus, are distributed according to population on a declining basis. So to get hold of one ebcu, with which to buy oil, the USA may have to pay much more because it has fewer permits in its hands than it needs. Conversely, India with a surplus of permits in the initial years, will have a much stronger currency in relation to the ebcu. It could thus earn ebcus to the extent that it does not need permits for extracting petroleum and coal, and these ebcus could be sold at very high prices to those who are presently overconsuming hydrocarbons and nuclear energy and are finding it difficult to reduce consumption.

It is seen thus that whether contraction and convergence of the global economy is handled in an orderly manner by organising the exit from fossil fuels through the emission backed currency unit; or whether it is just done in an haphazard way through changes in consumer behaviour in market capitalism, the process of the drastic contraction of the consumption of hydrocarbon and nuclear energy and the localisation of national economies and regional and local economies to allow the production base of the earth’s political economy to shift to sequestration activities in the form of farming, tree planting and forestry, is already well under way. But it has to be said that handled in an orderly manner we may just have the chance of a post-Anthropocene. Under market capitalism another 1500 GT of greenhouse gases could easily be emitted causing most of life as we know it to cease. .

[1] Anandi Sharan is an independent scholar working in the field of the political economy of climate change since 1985. She was a co-founder of the Global Commons Insititute, a founder of Women for Sustainable Development, and a co-founder of the the Green Party of India 2010.

[2] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” IGBP [International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41 (2000): 17

[3] Sharan, Anandi Social, economic and political aspects of Climate Change, in Social, Economic and Political Elements of Climate Change, ed. Walter Leal, Springer Verlag, 2010., pp. 779 – 793.

[4] Douthwaite, Richard the Ecology of Money, Green Books, 2008

[5] PRIMAP, Malte Meinshausen et al; Potsdam Climate Research Institute, IPCC AR4 2009, CoP submission, accessed 1 December 2011:

Anandi Sharan 2 December 2011, 05.25

@jma: the model of emission backed currency unit (ebcu) puts the right to development question in a climate change mitigation and adaptation framework: if countries have permits according to population they have ebcus for the global trade and can buy renewable energy systems from the developed countries during the transition period. But in market capitalism most of these systems will be coming from China which is acting as the unilateral driver of the transition if not to the sequestration based post-Anthropocene at least of the renewable energy transition today. Under market capitalism USA and China unilaterally decide the rate of contraction and convergence, the former through war, the latter through trade.

radfax 9 January 2012, 15.18

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Pierre C. 24 April 2012, 16.24

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