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The Atlantic: Is America Ready for ‘Degrowth Communism’? – ‘Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, & your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays’

The Atlantic - May 28, 2024: By Christopher Beam - Kohei Saito’s theory of how to solve climate change is economically dubious and politically impossible. Why is it so popular?
Excerpt: The crazy idea is “degrowth communism,” a combination of two concepts that are contentious on their own. Degrowth holds that there will always be a correlation between economic output and carbon emissions, so the best way to fight climate change is for wealthy nations to cut back on consumption and reduce the “material throughput” that creates demand for energy and drives GDP.

The degrowth movement has swelled in recent years, particularly in Europe and in academic circles. The theory has dramatic implications. Instead of finding carbon-neutral ways to power our luxurious modern lifestyles, degrowth would require us to surrender some material comforts. One leading proponent suggests imposing a hard cap on total national energy use, which would ratchet down every year. Energy-intensive activities might be banned outright or taxed to near oblivion. (Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, and your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays.) You’d probably be prohibited from setting the thermostat too cold in summer or too warm in winter. To keep frivolous spending down, the government might decide which products are “wasteful” and ban advertising for them. Slower growth would require less labor, so the government would shorten the workweek and guarantee a job for every person.

Saito did not invent degrowth, but he has put his own spin on it by adding the C word. As for what kind of “communism” we’re talking about, Saito tends to emphasize workers’ cooperatives and generous social-welfare policies rather than top-down Leninist state control of the economy. He says he wants democratic change rather than revolution—though he’s fuzzy on how exactly you get people to vote for shrinkage. This message has found an enthusiastic audience. Saito’s 2020 book, Capital in the Anthropocene, sold half a million copies.

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2024/05/kohei-saito-degrowth-communism/678481/

By Christopher Beam

Kohei Saito’s theory of how to solve climate change is economically dubious and politically impossible. Why is it so popular?

The crazy idea is “degrowth communism,” a combination of two concepts that are contentious on their own. Degrowth holds that there will always be a correlation between economic output and carbon emissions, so the best way to fight climate change is for wealthy nations to cut back on consumption and reduce the “material throughput” that creates demand for energy and drives GDP.

The degrowth movement has swelled in recent years, particularly in Europe and in academic circles. The theory has dramatic implications. Instead of finding carbon-neutral ways to power our luxurious modern lifestyles, degrowth would require us to surrender some material comforts. One leading proponent suggests imposing a hard cap on total national energy use, which would ratchet down every year. Energy-intensive activities might be banned outright or taxed to near oblivion. (Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, and your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays.) You’d probably be prohibited from setting the thermostat too cold in summer or too warm in winter. To keep frivolous spending down, the government might decide which products are “wasteful” and ban advertising for them. Slower growth would require less labor, so the government would shorten the workweek and guarantee a job for every person.

Saito did not invent degrowth, but he has put his own spin on it by adding the C word.

As for what kind of “communism” we’re talking about, Saito tends to emphasize workers’ cooperatives and generous social-welfare policies rather than top-down Leninist state control of the economy. He says he wants democratic change rather than revolution—though he’s fuzzy on how exactly you get people to vote for shrinkage.

This message has found an enthusiastic audience. Saito’s 2020 book, Capital in the Anthropocene, sold half a million copies. He took a job at the prestigious University of Tokyo and became a regular commentator on Japanese TV—one of the few far-left talking heads in that country’s conservative media sphere. When we met up in April, he was touring the northeastern U.S. to promote the new English translation of the book, titled Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, and planning to appear on a series of panels at Georgetown University to discuss his ideas. One day during his New York stint, we visited the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University, where a young protester named Tianle Zhang spotted him and waved him over, telling Saito he’s the reason he’s applying to graduate school. They took a selfie together, and Saito posted it on X.

Saito’s haters are just as passionate as his admirers. The right-wing podcaster James Lindsay recently dedicated a three-hour episode to what he called Saito’s “death cult.” Liberals who favor renewable energy and other technologies say Saito’s ideas would lead to stagnation. On the pro-labor left, Jacobin magazine published multiple articles criticizing degrowth in general and Saito in particular, calling his vision a “political disaster” that would hurt the working class. And don’t get the Marxist textualists started; they accuse Saito of distorting the great man’s words in order to portray Marx as the OG degrowth communist.

It’s understandable that Saito provokes so much ire: He rejects the mainstream political consensus that the best way to fight climate change is through innovation, which requires growth. But no matter how many times opponents swat it down, the idea of degrowth refuses to die. Perhaps it survives these detailed, technical refutations because its very implausibility is central to its appeal.

For Saito, the long-term alternative to degrowth communism is not green growth but “climate fascism,” in which countries lock down, hoard their resources, and disregard the collective good. Faced with that prospect, humanity will make the right choice. “As a philosopher,” he said, “I want to believe in the universality of reason.”

Saito does propose a few concrete fixes: Ban private jets. Get rid of advertising for harmful goods and services, such as cosmetic surgery. Enact a four-day workweek. Encourage people to own one car, instead of two or three. Require shopping malls to close on Sundays, to cut down on the time available for excessive consumption. “These things won’t necessarily dismantle capitalism,” he said. “But it’s something we can do over the long term to transform our values and culture.”

Support for this project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Christopher Beam is a writing fellow at The Atlantic.
The Atlantic – May 28, 2024: By Christopher Beam – Kohei Saito’s theory of how to solve climate change is economically dubious and politically impossible. Why is it so popular?
Excerpt: The crazy idea is “degrowth communism,” a combination of two concepts that are contentious on their own. Degrowth holds that there will always be a correlation between economic output and carbon emissions, so the best way to fight climate change is for wealthy nations to cut back on consumption and reduce the “material throughput” that creates demand for energy and drives GDP.

The degrowth movement has swelled in recent years, particularly in Europe and in academic circles. The theory has dramatic implications. Instead of finding carbon-neutral ways to power our luxurious modern lifestyles, degrowth would require us to surrender some material comforts. One leading proponent suggests imposing a hard cap on total national energy use, which would ratchet down every year. Energy-intensive activities might be banned outright or taxed to near oblivion. (Say goodbye, perhaps, to hamburgers, SUVs, and your annual cross-country flight home for the holidays.) You’d probably be prohibited from setting the thermostat too cold in summer or too warm in winter. To keep frivolous spending down, the government might decide which products are “wasteful” and ban advertising for them. Slower growth would require less labor, so the government would shorten the workweek and guarantee a job for every person.

Saito did not invent degrowth, but he has put his own spin on it by adding the C word. As for what kind of “communism” we’re talking about, Saito tends to emphasize workers’ cooperatives and generous social-welfare policies rather than top-down Leninist state control of the economy. He says he wants democratic change rather than revolution—though he’s fuzzy on how exactly you get people to vote for shrinkage. This message has found an enthusiastic audience. Saito’s 2020 book, Capital in the Anthropocene, sold half a million copies.

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