Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 27, 2019

Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:35 pm


In the recently published “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care,” Giorgos Kallis tackles weighty and expansive topics in merely 156 pages. One cannot help but wonder if his brevity (the soul of wit, after all) was in keeping with the book’s theme—how humanity can live an abundant life within material limits.

Kallis is a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), who has made both theoretical and practical contributions to environmentalism. In addition to writing articles in defense of “degrowth,” he worked for the European Parliament’s Science and Technological Options Assessment Unit for the preparation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

“Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong” is a critique of Malthusianism, as put forward in the 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” It also refutes the “neo-Malthusian” writings of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. Since the Club of Rome issued a report titled “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, one has to wonder why a degrowth advocate would be its critic. The answer is that Malthus and neo-Malthusianism are entirely different animals.

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  1. I found this article timely today in light of an article published on Counterpunch by members of the Green Party. The article is an argument intended to dissuade party members from identification with eco-socialism, and puts the responsibility for our declining eco-system on cultural norms such as patriarchal behavior, while leaving open the possibility of private enterprise. Since so much of what we call growth seems to me simply exploitative use of private property, it’s hard to see how we can accomplish degrowth leaving the framework of private property rights intact.

    Comment by Wayne Turner — December 27, 2019 @ 8:05 pm

  2. This review as all over the place – the pronouns were hard to track, the positions dizzying to locate, the specific critiques lost amid the epithets.What, did Paul Ehrlich piss on your shoes?
    Sure, we’ll all keep on enjoying our steaks as we “degrow” to a eco-happy abstemious egalitarianism – that’s what the data show, right?

    Comment by notabilia — December 27, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

  3. Sure, we’ll all keep on enjoying our steaks as we “degrow” to a eco-happy abstemious egalitarianism – that’s what the data show, right?

    Yeah, that’s what the data show [sic]. I’d recommend some articles to you but it would be like recommending chess openings to a chimpanzee.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 27, 2019 @ 10:33 pm

  4. “Sic” what?
    Here’s a new book full of data for you, as you and Kallis sit down to enjoy your anti-Limits to Growth steaks: Christopher O. Clugston’s “Blip: Humanity’s 300 year self-terminating experiment with industrialism.”
    I can’t imagine what whizbang articles you had in mind for us non chess-playing chimps – perhaps the Pope? Dick Cheney? Leigh Phillips? Christopher Hedges?

    Comment by notabilia — December 28, 2019 @ 11:22 am

  5. What worries me, however, about the degrowth literature in totality is its usefulness to a revolutionary movement. Unlike the Green New Deal, what are the political implications of degrowth? What is a possible slogan? Stop building new factories? Or ground all Boeing 737’s, Max or not?”

    I don’t know if this helps answer your questions, but Kallis and Hickel apparently were involved in coming up with policy recommendations for DiEM25’s Green New Deal for Europe project (primarily the Green Public Works section from my understanding, but that may be incorrect). Among the suggested policy demands are:

    – Establish the Green Public Works, a public investment agency that will channel Europe’s resources into green transition projects around the continent

    – Guaranteeing decent jobs for all

    – Less time on the job: A three day weekend or four-day working week with lower overall working hours

    – Democratising the economy and society across workplaces and communities

    – Implement a Care Income to compensate activities like care for people, the urban environment, and the natural world (seems to be inspired by the Wages for Housework movement)

    – Provide distinct lines of funding within the GPW for experimentation in increasing public participation in investment decision making.

    – Refurbishing and retrofitting existing housing stock for sustainability through large scale participatory and integrated, neighbourhood-level initiatives to ensure every home is well insulated and in good repair.

    – Ensure that all municipal public transport around the continent is free at the point of use or available at a low cost that incentivises its use.

    – Develop a fleet of public taxis and car-pooling services that ensure maximum mobility for all Europeans.

    – Focus investment on worker cooperatives and community-led projects based on municipal or local ownership.

    – Establish the European Health and Care Standard, a minimum standard for public healthcare across the continent, and GPW funding to parts of Europe that fall below it.

    Silvia Federici has provided a broad and relatively simple definition of ‘degrowth’ that I find useful when discussing the concept with others: “‘Degrowth’ for many signifies a variety of initiatives proposing an alternative to capitalist accumulation and the reconstruction of our reproduction on more cooperative terms.” I think there are a number of initiatives or policy proposals that would contribute to the “reconstruction of our reproduction on more cooperative terms” and could lend themselves to a slogan of some sort as well (especially a shorter work week imo).

    Comment by matt.pappalardo — December 28, 2019 @ 10:12 pm

  6. I just snookered myself into buying a new mid-range NIkon camera–a bucket list item that, when achieved, only murmurs like the slave in the chariot of a Roman triumphator, “Remember that you are mortal.”

    It’s a beautiful, weighty object and will be a paperweight inside of two years. I love taking pictures with the thing, but I also have (and never use) an Olympus film camera more than forty years old that still works perfectly and weighs less than half as much. For years I got by with a series of cheapie Lumix bridge cameras that cost less than a single lens for my Nikon. They all broke within two years but who cares? My beautiful, expensive DSLR is already becoming junk.

    People talk about “technology” as though it were a pure substance, elemental.

    It isn’t. It’s an aggregate like concrete or asphalt paving–and the need to make expensive things that will be thrown away in a tiny fraction of the appropriate usable life IMO isn’t driven by scientific elves who just love to “innovate.” It’s driven by the tendency of the rate of profit to decline and the consequent need to multiply wants to keep on selling crap.
    Crap is a necessary ingredient of all products on the glorious “free market”–it’s the necessary binder in the aggregate of technology under capitalism.

    We’re choking on crap.

    We have to arrive at a state of society in which production is for use, not for the profits of the ruling classes.

    We have to achieve socialism if we want to put an end to this and rescue the environment.

    Even that won’t be forever, but we can push the end of humanity far into the future if we take appropriate action now.

    People say, “How will you pay for that?” and “You can’t change human nature.” But the “wealth of nations” by right belongs to everyone and will suffice. As to “human nature,” there are limits, like intrinsic mortality and the ultimate carrying capacity of the globe, but there is nonetheless an indefinitely large and unexplored space of human potential to be realized–and as this progresses, many of the limits will change. Human nature isn’t like a jar of different-colored layers of sand that’s all filled up and immutable.

    I’m getting old now and I have to simplify things in order to understand them.

    Now I need a nice cup of covfefe. I’ll skip the hamberder.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 30, 2019 @ 10:28 am

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