The environmental movement deserves credit for getting us beyond denial, at least at the highest levels of public discourse. However, while “system change, not climate change” has become a common slogan for climate activists, there is an elephant in the room that the movement has been reluctant to blame: capitalism. As Jason Moore observes, capitalism is not just an economic or social system, but also a system that helps produce nature. And though the earth has gone through drastic transformations since the advent of capitalism, three to four centuries ago, we are altering it at a speed and scale never seen before in history, resulting in our current ecological crisis. The parallel between the advance of capitalism and the rise of the Anthropocene is well documented—some simply call it the Capitalocene—and yet, despite occasional critiques, few or none of the mainstream environmentalist organizations call for the overthrow of the capitalist system. Do they think that capitalism can be greened?
Into this deadlock, the idea of degrowth is making waves into environmental and political consciousness. The term originated with French philosopher André Gorz in the 1970s, who asked if achieving some level of balance with the earth would require a “degrowth” of material production. But given the explosion in resource and energy use since Gorz first posed the question, his passing remark has since gained more mainstream attention, attracting lauders and critics alike. With mixed (or no) evidence for green growth, leading to increasing skepticism that ecological sustainability can be achieved through technological means, degrowth has become more and more attractive as a transition narrative for influential scientific bodies like the IPCC and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
To put it as simply as possible: degrowth means an equitable downscaling of aggregate production and consumption, especially aimed at high-consuming (rich) nations and the globally wealthy, with the goal of bringing the economy back into balance with the earth and to thereby achieve well-being for all people. Reducing energy and material throughput is a means of developing an economy not based on growth and profit, but providing a sufficient standard of living for all people through universal public services, increased free time, and economic democracy, among other efforts.
As degrowth has become a more influential concept in scientific thought, it has begun breaking through in left political circles. In one of the most highly anticipated books of 2023, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, Japanese Marxist Kohei Saito argues for a reconceptualization of Marxism to become more ecological, using Marx himself as an early proponent of “degrowth communism” to do so. Saito’s newest book comes after another recent publication of his that provided him with international fame. Having sold over 500,000 copies in Japan, Saito’s 2020 book Capital in the Anthropocene—a more accessible read than the academic Marx in the Anthropocene—burgeoned at an unexpected time: during an economic recession caused by a zoonotic disease that resulted in a worldwide pandemic.
Unlike other degrowth arguments, Saito’s contribution puts forth the argument that Marx was an early “degrowther” who began to articulate a form of degrowth communism. But beyond the academic argument for recharacterizing Marx, Saito’s intentions are fundamentally about bringing “Greens” and “Reds” together for intellectual cross-pollination and political movement building. To form what Saito calls “a new Front Populaire in defence of the planet in the Anthropocene,” Saito challenges each group to reconsider their assumptions, their purpose, and their target of blame for our deadlock:
As environmentalists learn to unequivocally problematize the irrationality of the current economic system, Marxism now has a chance of revival if it can contribute to enriching debates and social movements by providing not only a thorough critique of the capitalist mode of production but also a concrete vision of post-capitalist society. However, this revival has not taken place so far, and persistent doubts remain about the usefulness of having recourse to the Marxian legacy in the 21st century.
Both environmentalists and Marxists have legitimate critiques of one another. Over the long 20th century, mainstream Marxism tended to neglect ecology, if not been downright hostile towards it. From Marx and Engels’s belief in the progressive nature of technological development under capitalism to the extractivist zeal of the Soviet Union, the mainstream of the Marxist historical tradition would seem to make for unlikely environmentalists. In a famous passage from his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), Marx argues that, for example,
after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, [it is then that] the narrow horizon of bourgeois right [can] be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
The logic seems clear: if technological development under capitalism is inherently progressive—by his own account, a “historical necessity”—and if humans need to dominate nature in order to bring about “a higher phase of communist society,” then the critique from environmentalists is certainly warranted.
Saito pins this “ecomodern” Marxism back to the idea that technological development under capitalism is a necessary and progressive stage in history—a precondition for emancipation as capitalism falls under the weight of its own contradictions. But when Marx wrote those words, it was at least reasonable to suggest that productive capacity was premature for the advent of socialism. It is harder to say that now: in terms of aggregate capacity, we produce enough food to end world hunger, generate enough energy for everyone to use a sufficient amount, and have enough wealth to end poverty. And yet, 150 years after Marx penned Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, we are no closer to global socialism than when our collective productive capacity was a fraction of what it is today. There, too, we are deadlocked.
In fact, as Andreas Malm has argued in Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (2016), or Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (2013), the transition from hydropower to fossil fuels or coal to oil was a means of concentrating power in the hands of capitalists, concrete evidence that a transition from an “older” technology to a newer one does not, as such, represent definitive historical progress (especially when that technology threatens to undermine earth’s life-supporting systems or functions to intensify power over workers and the rest of nature). Too many Marxists still suffer from the same scarcity mindset, believing we lack the productive capacity and resources to provide everyone a good life within the means of the planet. But while we can’t fault Marx and Engels for not knowing more about climate change—or for not having the kind of ecological consciousness the 21st century has gifted us with—today’s ecomodern Marxists have no such excuse.
In contrast with a traditionally Marxist optimism for technology’s progressive capacity, Saito’s skepticism that technology can solve fundamentally socioecological problems parts company with both ecomodern Marxists and the “green capitalists,” strange bedfellows who believe, for example, that we can replace dirty machines with “clean” ones by developing technological accessories to allow us to have our fossil fuels without the emissions.
These kinds of techno-fetishized “solutions” and green growth narratives have rightly been called out as billionaire greenwashing, but pinning the blame on capitalism, specifically, as the cause of our ecological crisis has been a bridge too far for many environmentalists. For one thing, the environmental movement is composed of NGOs that rely on billionaire foundations to ensure that their organizations survive. For another, if environmentalists started blaming capitalism as the problem, this could isolate them from developing the kinds of relationships with politicians, businesses, and the larger public that compose so much of what the movement has accomplished. Alongside the pragmatism, however, it may also simply be that environmentalists don’t believe we need to overthrow capitalism to reduce planetary pressures. As a result, mainstream environmentalism seems to believe capitalism can be “greened.”
Can it? It isn’t happening now, and there’s no evidence it is even possible. As the planetary boundaries framework helps us understand, we are transgressing crucial limit points all the more. Fossil fuel companies are set to increase production in the name of profits and growth, and even the solutions green capitalists have promoted are not working at the scale or speed required, be they carbon capture, biodiversity offsets, or green growth. As of 2023, “green capitalist solutions” have now entered into the for-profit stage of solar geoengineering, which represents how green capitalists will try to profit off technologies that are both unproven and potentially more harmful than beneficial. Fundamentally, green capitalists seek to make nature into a marketplace for exchange value.
Environmentalists may, for pragmatic reasons, focus on electing climate-conscious politicians, writing policy, and mobilizing people to vote, protest, and learn, rather than advocating the end of capitalism. None of these things are wrong; perhaps they are all necessary. But are they furthering “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”? No. Politicians promising change are instead helping to facilitate planetary destruction: no country that has committed to a 1.5 degrees Celsius target is on pace to reach the goal. Even the Green New Deal, a rallying cry for combating climate change, has demonstrated its inadequacies as a resolution to solve our ecological emergency, from its neglect of agriculture and biodiversity and its vague policy prescriptions (including an appeal to corporate America) to its Euro-American centrism.
To bring Red and Green together, therefore, Marx in the Anthropocene directs attention first at environmentalists, then at Marxists, and concludes with a synthesis, making the case for degrowth communism. Throughout the text, the central figure is Marx himself, whom Saito recasts as a deeply ecological thinker and one who argues that destroying the environment is an inherent feature of capitalism. While drawing on familiar texts such as Capital and Critique of the Gotha Program, Saito’s most original contribution to the ecological Marx is to uncover what he calls Marx’s “ecological notebooks”—largely compiled after the publication of Capital—documenting his particular attention to the natural sciences, the idea of a steady-state metabolism, and non-Western societies. Saito argues that Marx was on his way to developing a theory towards degrowth communism and away from the more productivist and Promethean Marx that has been the more popular conception of Marx and Marxism.
Reconceptualizing Marx as a degrowth communist begins with a renewed attention to the concept of metabolism. For Marx, “social metabolism” signified the way in which a particular form of production produces its own logic of extraction, production, consumption, and waste-generation; labor, in Marx’s words, is the “process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” Since humans rely on a natural substratum to work with our labor, some kind of metabolic exchange between the social and the natural is inevitable under all forms of social and economic relations, capitalist or otherwise.
What is unique about capitalism, according to Marx, is the rift it creates between human and natural systems, undermining the conditions for human and nonhuman flourishing. “Capitalist production,” he argues, “only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” In short, capitalism develops and maintains its productive technologies by also draining life on earth: human and otherwise.
Saito expands on this concept to describe three distinct rifts. First, there is the disruption of natural cyclical processes whereby capitalism disregards the environment’s natural flows—for example, by introducing large amounts of novel chemicals to a natural system that had developed over millennia without them. Capitalism seeks to break natural cyclic processes when those processes do not align with capital’s incessant need for profits and accumulation, demanding nature’s bounty but simultaneously doing everything in its power to exhaust it. The second rift is spatial (as when an urbanized population becomes reliant on agricultural production across great distances), while the final rift is temporal, as when capitalism demands more production on a quicker timescale than natural systems are accustomed to.
Capitalism cannot repair these rifts since it fundamentally depends on the mechanisms that cause them. Instead, it buys itself time by shifting the discontinuity between other humans, ecosystems, and geographies. Saito, drawing on Marx, adds three more dimensions of what he calls capitalism’s “metabolic shift.” First, it develops new technologies to rob nature more efficiently (what is essentially the Jevons paradox); second, it produces geographic displacement by shifting ecological impacts to vulnerable populations, thereby creating a form of eco-imperialism; and, finally, capital buys itself time before a crisis emerges by exploiting nature’s “elasticity,” testing the limits of nature’s capacity to absorb shocks, waste, and other “externalities.”
At the root of Saito’s metabolic Marx is capitalism’s desire to transcend nature, an irreducible conflict in timescales. Nature works through complex and geographically specific ecologies, developing processes over thousands of years; capitalism seeks increased production at a rapid pace, simplifies diverse ecologies by stripping them of their natural wealth, and destroys nature’s cycles to align with the circuit of capital accumulation. In this sense, Saito suggests that ecosocialist degrowth represents the rational regulation of the metabolic exchange between humans and the rest of nature.
Saito’s Marx developed this precocious form of degrowth as his guiding ecological philosophy not only from studying the natural sciences, but also from observing non-Western societies with more interest and approval than is often recognized: far from reducing historical development to the idea that Western societies would usher in socialism (or that non-Westerners had to go through the phase of capitalism), Saito’s Marx came to understand that many colonized and rural societies (India, Ireland, Russia, etc.) could provide their own form of socialist revolution outside the confines of a reductive historical materialism. Precisely by abandoning (or at least becoming more critical of) a Eurocentric productivism, and by focusing his studies on the natural sciences and a steady-state metabolic exchange, “Marx’s call for a ‘return’ to non-capitalist society demands that any serious attempt at overcoming capitalism in Western society needs to learn from non-Western societies and integrate the new principle of a steady-state economy.”
Walter Benjamin once argued that while Marx saw revolutions as the “locomotives of world history,” they might be better understood as “an attempt by the passengers on the train […] to activate the emergency brake.” As Saito connects the dots, degrowth is that emergency brake. There is no shortage of things we could pull the emergency brake on that would allow us to halt ecological destruction with more speed than current capitalist interventions. As Saito and other degrowth thinkers have made clear, that might include the military, SUVs, private jets and car-centricity, industrial animal products, fast fashion, planned obsolescence, fossil fuels, single-use plastics, and more. Degrowth in these sectors would allow us to reduce our use of energy and materials and concentrate our focus on parts of the economy that provide well-being for people and the planet: renewable energy, plant-based foods, healthcare and education, democratic participation, and free time for friends, family, and nature. In this sense, Saito goes beyond Benjamin: more than the emergency brake, degrowth is a collective resting brake, a rest from capitalism, in which we finally slow down our impacts on the earth and each other. The care economy is a model for this rest, as Saito puts it: “The more society shifts towards essential work that produces basic use-value, the slower the entire economy is likely to become.” A combination of care, rest, and ecology is the future.
Marxist scholars may take issue with Saito’s characterization of Marx; some may accuse him of greenwashing Marx. For me, the question that lingered was, Why should we even care if Marx was a precocious degrowther? The philosophers may interpret Marx, but the point is to change the world. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence for the connection between increased growth and economic damage, the preponderance of unequal ecological exchange between the Global North and South, or the way the gains of growth have been captured by the capitalist class, does it make a difference whether Marx was or was not beginning to formulate the idea himself? Even Saito only argues that Marx began developing ideas towards degrowth communism, rather than fully comprehending it. Thus, while Saito may liven debate within Marxist circles—and his objective of bringing Green and Red closer together has direct political consequences—does his book make it clear how we begin the transition, or who the revolutionary agent is to bring about the necessary socioecological change required? Or is too much of the book focused on Marx and his beliefs, rather than the political terrain we face today?
Saito is not a political organizer or strategist, so perhaps this is only to be expected. But the ecology movement needs more than new interpretations of influential political figures. The ecological crisis may be capitalism’s greatest contradiction, and we need new ways to understand our historical moment and take advantage of the crisis, ushering in an era of postcapitalist ecological transformation and moving beyond the Cold War theory that economic growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats (or that continuing capitalist productive forces will liberate us towards socialist revolution). This will mean Marxists embracing degrowth and environmentalists embracing postcapitalism. The era of economic growth is coming to an end. We can either plan for it by developing an ecological civilization, or let the capitalist class steer us towards permanent economic and ecological recession.
Andrew Ahern is an ecological organizer and freelance writer based in Massachusetts.