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Not all environmental problems have a simple answer.

Consider the controversy about degrowth. Degrowth is an environmental approach which advocates radical reduction of material production to a level consistent with ecological planetary boundaries as well as extensive redistribution of wealth and economic resources from the rich and high-consuming global north to the global south.

The degrowth approach opposes capitalism as an economic system fundamentally dependent on economic growth, high consumption and escalating economic inequality. It tends to reject all market-based policies such as carbon pricing and to resist all forms of economic growth. Major promoters of degrowth economics include Giorgos Kallis, Giacomo D’Alisa, Jason Hickel, and Joan Martinez-Alier.

Progressive critics of the degrowth approach sympathize with many of its objectives, but question its analysis of global capitalism, comprehension of class dynamics and long-run political feasibility.

For example, Matthew Huber, in his recent book “Climate Change as Class War” (2022), argues that degrowth policies imply an uninviting economics of less. These policies (Huber claims) are actually rooted in the guilt members of the professional-managerial class feel about their excessive consumption. But these policies will have no appeal to people of the global working class who perpetually struggle to make ends meet. Huber opposes the comprehensive opposition to economic growth. Some things like health care, education, clean energy and working-class material security should grow. Other things like military industries, fossil fuel production, and capitalist class power must degrow.

Defenders of degrowth counter that aggregate long-term economic growth is incompatible with human survival on planet Earth. Moreover, once basic needs are met, more consumption does not mean more happiness or a better life.  Close relationships, control over life decisions, social trust and a sense of equality are far more important. Some relatively poor societies produce more human satisfaction than many rich societies. Degrowth advocates often cite Costa Rica as a country with low GDP that achieves good human satisfaction results and minimal environmental pressure with strong social policies.

Getting off the growth treadmill will enable people to enjoy family, recreation, learning, nature, travel and other non-market activities. The United States may be the world’s worst case of excessive consumption with both an astronomical per-capita carbon emissions and a virtual obesity epidemic.

Degrowthers, critics emphasize, wax lyrical about the virtues of an egalitarian post-growth economy but offer no practical advice about how to get there. Huber suggests focusing on production rather than consumption. The working-class movement should endeavor to shift control over investment from profit seeking capitalist hands to the public domain. An initial focus on public control over the production of electricity would be an appropriate strategy.

But degrowthers point out that comprehensive electrification is not a solution to the environmental crisis. Storage of electricity requires lithium and other rare metals mining of which is both hazardous and environmentally devastating.

I can offer no persuasive resolution to this important controversy. However, progressive environmentalists should certainly be aware of the all the contending arguments.