Himalayas from space: “At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside of nature” (Engels)


This is no time for degrowth, green reductionism or confining our ambitions to mere custodianship of nature, argues Daniel Lazare

Monthly Review - a self-proclaimed Marxist journal with Maoist leanings - has a new issue out, which is all about degrowth.1

This is an eyebrow-raiser, since a Marxist brief in favour of economic regression makes as much sense as a materialist brief in favour of philosophical idealism - or, for that matter, a Ku Klux Klan brief in favour of anti-racism. Given that the Communist manifesto calls for the “extension of factories and instruments of production”, while the Critique of the Gotha programme predicts that “the productive forces” will increase under socialism to the point that “all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly”, it is a contradiction in terms that stands Marxism on its head.

Not surprisingly, the issue overflows with tautologies and non-sequiturs. But what particularly stands out is its techno-pessimism - the belief that technology is irrelevant, when it comes to problems like global warming, and that the likelihood of a game-changing technological breakthrough is so minimal that working conditions can only grow tougher and more arduous. As a Monthly Review contributor named Kent A Klitgaard (an economist at Wells College in upstate New York) puts it,

We can neither rely on technology to save us, nor believe that a transition to an economy that lives within nature’s limits can be accomplished by a series of minor reforms. Technologies are built upon fossil fuels and, if there are not sufficient minerals in the earth’s crust to gear up alternatives, the future may include longer hours of physical labor.

Hence, life can only grow nastier, more brutish and perhaps shorter as well due to growing natural constraints. As John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review’s editor, argues in the issue’s lead article, “Price-induced technological solutions, which would allow continued economic growth and the perpetuation of current social relations, do not exist on anything like the required scale and tempo.”

If they do not exist now, they will not exist in the future - such seems to be the MR message. All we can do is reduce technology’s worst environmental effects by scaling back capitalist production, as it presently exists. Never has economics been more dismal.

Unfortunately, Monthly Review is not the only place where techno-pessimism is popping up. It is also on display in somewhat milder form in the Weekly Worker, where Jack Conrad recently devoted 4,000 words to an attack on “techno-fixes” - a term he never fully defines, but which apparently refers to grand technological schemes aimed at tackling the climate crisis within existing capitalist bounds. As he notes, various scientists and engineers are thus proposing to shoot reflective particles into the stratosphere to block out sunlight, to send a 2,000-kilometre-wide sun shield into a near-Earth orbit, or to seed the oceans with iron filings, so as to foster vast algae blooms and draw out atmospheric carbon dioxide.

But after dispatching such schemes with the contempt they deserve, Conrad falls into a techno-conservatism of his own. He quotes the environmental writer, Elizabeth Kolbert, on the so-called fallacy of climate mitigation: “If control is the problem,” she writes dismissively, “then, by the logic of the Anthropocene, still more control must be the solution.” He seconds warnings by Michael and Joyce Huesmann, authors of Techno-fix: why technology won’t save us or the environment, that humans cannot “substantially modify natural world systems without creating unanticipated and undesirable consequences”. He assails the “blind worship of technology” that characterises certain ‘left’ accelerationists such as Nick Land, Mark Fisher, Paul Mason, Nick Smicek and Aaron Bastani - all of whom, in his view, regard technology as a deus ex machina that will somehow save man from himself.

“Either way,” Conrad concludes, “the message is clear: leave behind the dangerous nonsense about humanity being the master of nature. No, we should aspire to being nothing more than good custodians.”2

Good custodians? This will come as news to Friedrich Engels, who, among others, cited “mastery over nature” as humankind’s defining characteristic. Where “the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence,” he wrote, “man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.”3

Is Engels guilty of “dangerous nonsense”? Apparently so. The same goes for Marx, who celebrated mass-produced commodities as “the heavy artillery with which [capitalism] batters down all Chinese walls”. If Conrad is correct, then Marx is also guilty of runaway techno-enthusiasm, since it is technology that has allowed industrial capitalism to produce cheap goods in such capacity.

But Marx is not guilty at all. On the contrary, the guilty party is Conrad, who is going counter to a Marxist tradition that, in championing the industrial proletariat, has championed the industrial technology that gave it rise. Rather than denigrating production, Engels lauded the productive forces that socialism will unleash. As he wrote in Anti-Dühring,

The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action ...4

Instead of scaling back human ambitions, Marxism represents the opposite: ie, say expanding to the point that man realises his true destiny as homo faber - the being whose mission is to build and create. Instead of leaving nature alone, humankind’s goal is to remodel it in his own image, so that man “revolve[s] around himself”.


Needless to say, the question of technology is more and more pressing due to the growing climate emergency. As Eddie Ford recently reminded us, “Our screens have recently been filled with apocalyptic imagery from wildfires burning in at least nine countries across both sides of the Mediterranean.” With flames raging “like a blowtorch” and some 19,000 people forced to flee the Greek island of Rhodes, July may go down as the hottest month in 130,000 years, as some 180 locations around the globe register temperatures of 40°C/104°F or above.5

Something must be done, therefore, and it is more or less inevitable in an era of breakdown and decay that certain deracinated ex-leftists will conclude that scaling back production is it. Thus, Monthly Review urges that we “reject unlimited, exponential economic growth as the definition of human progress”, while Kohei Saito calls for “degrowth communism” in his 2020 best-seller, Capital in the Anthropocene, repackaged in the west as Marx in the Anthropocene: towards the idea of degrowth communism. If growth is the enemy, all we can do is to scale it back it until it finally disappears.

Degrowthers do not have the gumption to follow such neo-Malthusian logic to its ‘deep-ecology’ limits in which mankind, the ultimate invasive species, disappears as well. On the contrary, they want to have their cake and eat it too, by arguing that the great majority will still wind up with more, even if global society as a whole winds up with less. According to Foster, economic shrinkage is only required for “the most opulent sectors of the world population”, while another MR contributor - Jason Hickel, author of Less is more: how degrowth will save the world - contends that it need only apply to certain sectors, such as “sport utility vehicles, private jets, mansions, fast fashion, arms, industrial beef, cruises, commercial air travel, etc”. These are all things that hipsters do not like and thus will have to go. The rest can stay, even while the global economy shrinks overall.

But are fewer burgers really the answer? When Foster says that the “vast majority” can continue to grow, what exactly does he have in mind - the vast majority outside Wall Street or the vast majority outside such advanced economies as the US, the EU, and perhaps China as well? If so, what happens to the billions left inside? Do degrowthers seriously propose to subject them to a programme of economic regression?

The idea is absurd. American, European and other advanced sectors of the international proletariat constitute a vast repository of skills, knowledge and creativity that the rest of the world needs in order to pull itself out of its current predicament. With an estimated 719 million people living on less than $2.15 a day,6 the working class needs more production to provide such populations with more food, housing and schools and also better production, so that diets can become healthier, communities more attractive, and transportation more energy-efficient. Growth must be understood in both quantitative and qualitative terms, so that development can proceed along both lines simultaneously.

While degrowthers insist they are not anti-technology - Foster calls for “steady qualitative advancements in production in mature industrial societies, while eliminating exploitative labor conditions and reducing working hours” - it is hard to see how technology and growth can be detached. Technology leads to enhanced productivity, which leads to stepped-up output, which leads to economic expansion. Degrowth, by contrast, means the opposite: ie, accepting technology as it presently exists and simply reducing it arithmetically. Instead of replacing a global motor-vehicle fleet (currently estimated at 1.6 billion7) with something more advanced, for example, it means leaving it as is, only smaller. This in turn means not only fewer cars, but older cars that break down more frequently, highway potholes that go unfilled, engines that breathe even more exhaust because they are less and less efficient, and so on.

Nasty, brutish and short - that seems to be the ultimate life goal. If anyone wonders what this means, there is no better example than the United States - the country that invented the car culture with the advent of the Model T in 1908 and one that, more than a century later, is suffering more and more of its ill effects.

With mass transit all but nonexistent outside of a few major cities, Americans depend on their cars for everything - to shop, go to work, take their kids to school, etc. Yet costs are zooming out of control. With new cars selling at around $48,000 (a 25% increase since 2020), Americans have no choice but to hold onto old clunkers for longer and longer - for 13.1 years on average as of 2022, versus 10.8 in 2010. They are shelling out 50% more for used cars over the last three years, while spending more and more on repairs, maintenance and insurance.8

It is a treadmill to nowhere. To be sure, fuel is dirt-cheap - roughly half the price of petrol in Britain or France. But it is only cheap because growing costs are shunted onto society as a whole. These include not just the cost of global warming, but of highway construction, highway services, such as traffic cops and ambulances, and highway fatalities - the highway death rate in the US is 4.4 times that of the UK - plus staggering military expenditures in the Middle East in order to maintain control of the region’s vast energy resources. Classical economics tells us that, when a commodity is underpriced, it tends to be overused, which, in a nutshell, is why Americans drive twice as many miles per year as the French or the Germans and 2.23 times more than Brits.9

That is roughly an extra 5,600 miles per capita, which, at an average speed of 30 miles per hour, boils down to an additional 187 hours, compared with other advanced industrial economies. This is what the much-vaunted American lifestyle has come down to - the ‘privilege’ of spending nearly five additional work-weeks behind the wheel per year.

What will degrowthers do about this dreadful situation? Nothing other than pare it back. ‘Internalising the externalities’ - the war cry of those who want to raise fuel charges to cover the full range of environmental, military and infrastructure costs - is no help either, since it invariably leads to political disruptions that liberal capitalism is unable to absorb. As everything from the Yellow Vests riots to ultra-low emissions zones (Ulez) has shown, such measures lead to anger and protests of a distinctly rightwing sort. Since the usual bourgeois-liberal response is to roll back the measures that caused the trouble in the first place, the result is more of the same: ie, more driving, more congestion and pollution, and more militarisation.

What should socialist do instead? Motorists have a point, if, like degrowthers, they assume that technology is static and that raising fuel taxes will therefore accomplish nothing other than make it more expensive to go from point A to point B.

Our response

But socialism offers a way out by pointing to something better - which is to say transport that is more technologically advanced, and more exciting to boot. High-speed rail might fit the bill in the US, where a once-mighty rail system now lies in ruins. But other forms of transportation also beckon: eg, ‘maglev’, in which lightweight trains float inches above a magnetised rail, or ‘vactrains’ that travel at ultra-high velocity through a vacuum tube. Where one can achieve speeds of 300-400 miles per hour, the other can reach 4,000 or more. That means New York to Washington in four minutes, New York to Los Angeles in 42, and Lisbon to Vladivostok in a bit over two hours.

This is not sci-fi fantasy along the lines of time machines and anti-gravity boots, but technology that has already been tested in Germany, Japan, China and the UK, where a low-speed maglev airport shuttle was in operation in Birmingham between 1984 and 1995. A technological leap of this sort is impossible in a capitalist system that has nothing to offer workers other than wage cuts and political decay. But it is eminently feasible in a socialist economic framework that enables workers to see the benefits of tamping down one form of transport in order to shift resources to another that is more scientific and more industrially fertile too.

Engels waxed eloquent on the difference between bourgeois and socialist accounting principles in an 1876 essay:

Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the theoretical expression.

As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers.

The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees - what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!10

It is not a question of internalising the externalities, but of recognising that the very concept of an externality is misleading, since human activity is a totality, in which everything touches on everything else. In assessing any specific act, the fullest range of costs and benefits must be taken into consideration - the consequences for public health, for communal well-being, for labour productivity and, most importantly, for growth, the material basis on which further human development rests. This does not mean spurious growth in the form of McMansions and SUVs, but real growth that leads to real human betterment. Where per-capita GDP more than doubled in the US between 1996 and 2021, for example, life expectancy ended up flat due to a dramatic downturn beginning the mid-2010s.11 So which statistic tells us more about where humanity is really heading? It is a question that only the international working class will be able to determine.

Degrowth is a concern of an increasingly tenuous lower professoriat, as it jostles for jobs and promotions, while touting the latest trendy ideas in a society in retreat - post-modernism one year, intersectionality the next, degrowth the third. But workers are different. Rather than the latest trend, they want real growth that puts human advancement on rock-solid foundations. They want real democracy that enables society to collectively chart a course to a better world.

There is little of this in the Monthly Review, which dismisses technology as an after-thought, denigrates growth, and, while praising the goal of a planned economy, ignores the question of who plans and why.

But there is little of this in comrade Conrad’s article as well. Basically, his piece in the July 27 Weekly Worker is a blast at economic giantism. He is quite good at shooting down orbiting sun shields and the like, but then shifts gear, as he switches to the very different question of the Soviet Union and a series of pharaonic construction projects that the Stalinist leadership embarked on from the 1930s to the 1960s - collectivisation, a ‘virgin lands’ campaign aimed at a vast extension of cultivation and, finally, a Strangelovian plan to detonate 250 nuclear devices in order to divert a dozen rivers flowing “uselessly” into the Arctic Ocean.

As Conrad notes, the results were catastrophic. Not only did the Aral Sea dry up, thanks to all those redirected rivers, but “ploughing, sowing and harvesting the fragile virgin lands of the northern Caucasus, western Siberia and north Kazakhstan saw productivity steadily decline. Soils were quickly exhausted and deserts expanded.” With dust storms so thick by 1963 that motorists had to drive with their lights on in midday, the upshot was a body blow from which the Soviet economy never fully recovered.

This was a tragedy, and Conrad is right to point it out. Yet the problem had less to do with scientific hubris than with plain old Kremlin politics. Nikita Khrushchev faced a problem. Torn between factions favouring an expansion of consumer goods and intensified cultivation of existing farmland versus those calling for a continued build-up of heavy industry, he opted for a bold stroke that would allow him to increase agricultural production in one fell swoop, while also channelling resources into coal, steel and ballistic missiles.

The gambit failed due to political methodologies that, despite deStalinisation, still retained the clumsiness, crudeness and lack of democracy that Stalinism implied. “If the Stalin regime entailed the dominance of the total lie,” Isaac Deutscher remarked, “Khrushchev represents the triumph of the half-truth” - a half-measure that still left him crippled.12 Failure was preordained. By misdiagnosing the problem, Conrad gets Khrushchev wrong and Soviet economic failures wrong as well.

Especially curious is the way Conrad makes the great leap from today’s geoengineers to the Stalinist debacles of the 1930s and after. It is by way of Trotsky - in particular his 1924 book, Literature and revolution, in which he declares:

Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth - if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.13

According to Conrad, this is giantism to the nth degree. Hence, what “Trotsky preached, Joseph Stalin and his successors put into practice - not in order to realise some global artistic grand design: rather, more prosaically, to provide the state (and in due course, its citizens) with more and more use-values.” But Trotsky was not proposing to cut down mountains as a short-term solution to economic problems in the here and now; rather, he was waxing enthusiastic about communism’s prospects after it had reached a high level of economic development.

What is wrong with that? Is Conrad suggesting that Trotsky was wrong to go on about communism’s glorious future? Was he incorrect in proclaiming humanity’s unbounded prospects? Hardly. If we use Copernicus’s On the revolutions of the celestial spheres (1543) as a starting point, science is less than 500 years old. That is five centuries from geo-centrism to gravity waves, from primitive stargazing to the James Webb Space Telescope, from the theory of humours to magnetic resonance imaging. If science has accomplished that much in five centuries, what will it accomplish in five centuries more - or in 50?


Humanity will be in a position to exert control over nature in ways we can barely imagine. Conceivably, the socialist society of the future may want to use its powers to remodel the Himalayas. But, since ever-higher levels of productivity will allow it to produce more and more out of less and less, it may decide instead to set aside vast areas as untouched wilderness. But ‘untouched’ represents a paradox. By setting such areas aside, even as society monitors their progress and studies their workings, it renders them no wilder than a tiger in a circus or zoo. Even though such areas may still brim with mountain goats and the like, they will still represent an intensification of human power. Rather than contracting, human control will increase.

Ironically, Monthly Review’s degrowth issue and Comrade Conrad’s somewhat weaker echo came out at nearly the same time that a pair of South Korean researchers named Sukbae Lee and Ji-Hoon Kim announced that they had achieved room-temperature superconductivity with a substance combining lead and copper known as LK-99. While superconductivity is currently only possible at around -150°F, achieving it at, say, 70°F opens up immense new opportunities. With resistance eliminated, transmission lines would become hyper-efficient, waste would be all but eliminated and, since heavy magnets would no longer be necessary, maglev would become cheaper and more lightweight. With computer chips some 300 times as energy-efficient and 10 times as fast, computers would become more powerful and compact.

This is why physicists and engineers refer to superconductivity as a kind of ‘holy grail’ - because it would revolutionise technology, while slashing carbon-dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. Indeed, superconductivity might also prove useful in generating the powerful magnetic fields needed to achieve controlled fusion - a feat that currently lies beyond science’s reach. If so, the result would be a kind of double whammy in which clean energies sees a dramatic increase, along with the ability to stretch each individual watt infinitely further.

Efforts to replicate such results have so far been mixed, so it is entirely possible that the latest finding may turn out to be a dud just like previous reports. Still, one gets the impression that scientists are closing in on the problem and that “a superconducting golden age might be just over the horizon”, as one physicist recently put it.14 If so, such super-abundance will not simply take shape under its own power. Rather, it will require an immense working class effort to bring it to fruition by re-engineering global production along lines that are new, revolutionary and, above all, carbon-free. While superconductivity will not solve the problem on its own, it could become a vital tool in the hands of the international working class.

As Trotsky noted in a 1926 speech - right around the time that the Stalin-Bukharin faction was tightening its grip - everyday life since the turn of the century “has been invaded by the motor car, the aeroplane, the gramophone, the cinema, radio-telegraphy and radio-telephony”. He continued:

If you remember, only the fact that, according to the hypothetical calculations of scholars, not less than 250,000 years were needed for man to pass from a simple hunter’s way of life to stock-breeding, this little fragment of time - 25 years - appears as a mere nothing. What does this fragment of time show us? That technique has entered a new phase, that its rate of development is getting continually faster and faster.15

Quite right - and another new phase may cause it to accelerate all the more. So this is no time for degrowth, green reductionism or confining our ambitions to mere custodianship of nature. If Marx was correct in stating that society has an obligation to pass the earth on “in an improved state to succeeding generations”, then workers not only have a world to win, but a world to transform.

  1. monthlyreview.org/product/mr-075-03-2023-07.↩︎

  2. ‘Techno-fix delusions’ Weekly Worker July 27: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/techno-fix-delusions.↩︎

  3. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm.↩︎

  4. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm.↩︎

  5. ‘A living nightmare’ Weekly Worker July 27: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1453/a-living-nightmare.↩︎

  6. www.worldvision.org/sponsorship-news-stories/global-poverty-facts.↩︎

  7. www.oica.net/category/vehicles-in-use.↩︎

  8. www.spglobal.com/mobility/en/research-analysis/average-age-of-vehicles-in-the-us-increases-to-122-years.html; www.vox.com/23753949/cars-cost-ownership-economy-repossession.↩︎

  9. frontiergroup.org/resources/fact-file-americans-drive-most.↩︎

  10. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour/index.htm.↩︎

  11. www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/gdp-gross-domestic-product; data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.LE00.IN?locations=US.↩︎

  12. I Deutscher Russia, China and the west New York 1970, p279.↩︎

  13. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm.↩︎

  14. www.nytimes.com/2023/08/12/opinion/lk-99-room-temperature-superconductor.html.↩︎

  15. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1926/03/science.htm.↩︎