The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy, Takis Fotopoulos (2005)

Chapter 7:

The ecological failure of the growth economy


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The end of the growth ideology


The idea of progress, on which the growth ideology was based, constituted not only the core of the Enlightenment but also (as we saw in the previous chapters) a basic element of the two ideologies that were born out of it and have dominated since then all forms of modernity: liberalism and socialism. The fundamental principle of the Enlightenment was that the rational human being’s aims are determined by themselves rather than by some “sacred” scripts and are summed up by the triptych “knowledge-freedom-prosperity”. It was the successful application of scientific knowledge in technology ―a knowledge derived through rational methods (reason, experiment etc) rather than through “intuition”, feeling and other irrational methods― that created the myth of the continuous (linear or dialectic) progress. The fact that the idea of progress was embraced by the privileged social groups of the emerging market economy and soon became the core of the liberal ideology is not, of course, surprising, given that the dynamics of the market economy, namely economic growth, was perfectly compatible with the idea of progress. What is surprising is the fact that the same idea was embraced by the non privileged social groups which were fighting liberal modernity and also by radical theory. Thus, the idea of progress was adopted not only by the  socialist ideology and particularly Marxism which identified it with the development of productive forces,[1] but also by eco-anarchist theory, in an effort to show a dialectical process synthesising natural with social evolution within the context of a “directionality” towards an emancipatory post-scarcity society.[2]


However, in the last quarter of the twentieth century the growth ideology, particularly the association of progress with growth, were severely criticised by thinkers in the democratic tradition[3] and later by postmodernists, as a result of a series of changes, both “subjective” and “objective”. The “subjective” factors  refer to the shift in the scientific paradigm from the “certainty” and “objectivity” of the mechanistic Newtonian model to the uncertainty and inter-subjectivity which characterises today’s probabilistic models and the theory of chaos and complexity the first victim of this shift being the “objective truth” that scientific theories (liberal or Marxist) were supposed to express about social and economic development.[4] The “objective” factors refer to the fact that the dynamic of the market economy led, not only to a very uneven economic development characterised by a huge economic inequality and concentration of wealth between and within countries (particularly manifested by the demise of “development” in the South), but also to a massive damage to the environment that surpassed the damage to it over the entire human History before modernity.


As a result of these trends, there has been a shift in advanced market economies from the modernity belief in inexhaustible resources to the present realization of scarcity and the need for an ethic of conservation, “sustainable development” and “environment-friendly” technology. It is therefore obvious that the myth of a science-based growth as the realisation of the idea of progress, which characterised the previous forms of modernity, has been replaced today by the new myth of a science-based “sustainable development” (minus progress). This is not surprising in view of the fact that supporters of sustainable development take for granted not only the present structures of concentration of power and particularly the market economy but even the supposed neutrality of science and technology. But, as I attempted to show elsewhere,[5] if the neutrality hypothesis is challenged, then, the entire idea of a “green” techno-science, let alone that of a “green” capitalism, becomes another fantasy! Still, the end of the myth of progress does not mean, as postmodernists of all persuasions seem to believe, that we should resort to a kind of “political agnosticism” according to which all historical periods and previous societies are of equal value. What it does mean is that we have to redefine the problem of development, as I will attempt to do in this chapter.


But, let us see first the twin crises of the growth economy, in terms of its ecological implications and its failure to be successfully implanted in the South.


The ecological failure of the growth economy


A major component of the present multidimensional crisis is the ecological crisis, which refers to our interaction, as social individuals, with the environment. The upsetting of ecological systems, the widespread pollution, the gradual exhaustion of natural resources, the fact that half of the world's tropical forests, home to a third of the world’s plants and animals, have disappeared in this century alone and that recently this process has accelerated, and, in general, the rapid downgrading of the environment and the quality of life have made the limits of economic growth manifestly apparent in the last half century or so. This was not of course unexpected given that the ideology binding together the new form of the market economy is consumerism, (a derivative of the growth ideology), and also that the effects of globalisation on the environment were undoubtedly negative.


Thus, despite the efforts of “eco-realists[6] to give a rosy picture of the growth economy, it cannot be denied that carbon dioxide concentrations (the main contributor to the greenhouse effect) which have remained almost stable for the entire millennium up to the emergence of the market economy, have since then taken off, increasing by almost 30 percent.[7] As a result, it is now widely accepted that the greenhouse effect, which is the main symptom of the ecological crisis today, is already leading to catastrophic climatic consequences.[8] However, contrary to the reformist Left/orthodox Green mythology, it is not simply the resistance of some powerful corporate interests that prevents the implementation of effective measures to deal with the problem. In fact, effective action against the greenhouse effect would require a complete change in today’s’ pattern of living. This pattern has been determined by the dynamic of the market economy and the concentration of income and wealth between and within countries and the consequent urban concentration, as well as by the consumerism culture in general and the car culture in particular. A by product of the same concentration process is industrial farming, which has already led not only to the elimination of small farmers and the need to industrialise farming further through genetic engineering (supposedly to solve the food crisis that is looming because of the growth in population), but also to the spreading of diseases like the “mad cows” disease (with possible catastrophic implications on human life itself), the foot and mouth epidemic and so on. It is therefore clear that the environmental effects of globalisation are due to systemic causes, which refer to the system of concentration of power that is institutionalised by market economy and representative “democracy”, rather than to “bad” economic policies and practices.   


The realisation of the ecological implications of the growth economy has led, particularly in the last quarter of the century, to the development of various “ecological” approaches. One way of classifying these approaches is by distinguishing between ecocentric approaches, i.e approaches which see humans as “part of the web of life” (e.g. the Deep Ecology approach) and anthropocentric approaches, i.e. those which see humans “on top of life” (e.g. eco-socialism). However, this way of classifying ecological approaches s problematic given the interrelationships between the two types of approaches, for instance, in social ecology.


I would therefore prefer to classify the ecological approaches on the basis of whether they explicitly attempt or not a synthesis between, on the one hand, an analysis of the ecological implications of growth and, on the other, the classical traditions which dealt with the marketisation element of the market economy, i.e. liberalism and socialism. On the basis of the latter criterion we may distinguish between the following ecological approaches:

  • liberal environmentalism,[9] which is in fact a synthesis of liberal economic theory and environmental analysis,

  • eco-socialism,[10] which emphasises the significance of production relations and production conditions in the analysis of environmental problems and as such represents a synthesis of Marxist economic theory and environmental analysis and

  • social ecology,[11]  which sees the causes of the present ecological crisis in terms of the hierarchical structures of domination and exploitation in capitalist  society and as such represents an explicit attempt for a synthesis of libertarian socialism or anarchism with environmental analysis.

As regards the other approaches which do not aim, at least explicitly, to a synthesis with other traditions, what we may call the “pure” ecological approaches, the case par excellence is of course the “deep ecology approach which focuses almost exclusively on the ecological implications of the growth economy, although the “appropriate development and “sustainable development approaches may also be classified in this category.[12] 


But, let us see in a bit more detail the “sustainable development” approach which is the approach adopted also by parts of the transnational elite today, as we have seen above. This approach, which was promoted by the Brundtland Report,[13] and embraced by the Green “realos” all over the world, aims at achieving sustainable development, which is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.[14]


The Report is founded on three fundamental principles, according to which:

  • economic growth is the key to social justice, since it can eliminate povertysomething that, as this book attempts to show, is a fantasy;

  • growth is the key to environmental protection —another fantasy based on the hypothesis of a “green capitalism”, which ignores the fundamental contradiction that exists between the logic and dynamic of the growth economy, on the one hand, and the attempt to condition this dynamic with qualitative criteria (“social justice” in the past, or “sustainability” now) and

  • growth “could be environmentally sustainable, if industrialised nations can continue the recent shifts in the content of their growth towards less material and energy-intensive activities and the improvement of their efficiency in using materials and energy”[15]  yet one more fantasy as far as the major ecological problems is concerned which seem to be continually worsening (greenhouse effect, acid rain, salinity, ozone depletion, forest loss, desertification, soil loss and so on).[16]

Still, every self-respecting director of a multinational nowadays gives lectures about “sustainability”, the institutions controlled by the transnational elite (World Bank, EU’s bureaucracy etc) produce dozens of corresponding reports, organise conferences and subsidise research on sustainable development and conservation, whereas postmodern scientists theorise about the role of postmodern science, within the context of a nonexploitative relationship to nature and other human beings a so-called process of “re-enchanting nature”.[17] Furthermore, “sustainable development” is being promoted by Green politicians and organisations (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc), which are directly or indirectly sponsored by TNCs[18] and, given that mainstream green parties already share government positions in several European countries, it is not surprising  that the paradigm of sustainable development has already taken the form of a “dominant social paradigm”.


All this, despite the obvious fact that a “sustainable development”, within the existing system of the internationalised market economy, is a contradiction in terms. Thus, as Serge Latouche[19] aptly pointed out:

the concept of sustainable development is but the latest attempt to allay the “bad” sides of economic growth. The integration of environmental elements into economic calculating does not modify the nature of market economy nor the logic of the modernity.

One may therefore conclude that the fact that the sustainable development approach ignores the phenomenon of the concentration of power, as a fundamental consequence and a precondition of growth, is not irrelevant to the solutions proposed by it: more growth, more effort and better policies, laws and institutions, as well as increasing efficiency of energy and resource use. It is therefore obvious that the real aim of this approach is not to propose ways to achieve sustainable development but, instead, ways to create an “eco-friendly” market/growth economyan obvious contradiction in terms.


The ecological dimension of “development”


In the 1980s, the appearance of the ecological crisis at the forefront added a new dimension to the development debate a debate which up to then was just focused on the feasibility of reproducing the growth economy of the North in the South. The question of the ecological implications of development and implicitly the desirability of the growth economy itself became crucial.


For orthodox economists, the issue is whether “development” is the cause of environmental damage, or whether it is the lack of development that is causing environmental problems. The World Bank has decided that some problems are associated with the lack of economic development; it specifically mentions inadequate sanitation and clean water, as well as indoor air pollution from biomass burning and many types of land degradation in the South, as having poverty as their root cause. On the other hand, the same source argues, “many other problems are exacerbated by the growth of economic activity: industrial and energy-related pollution (local and global), deforestation caused by commercial logging and overuse of water.”[20]


Not surprisingly the solutions suggested by the World Bank for both types of problems are consistent with the aim of maintaining and reproducing the existing institutional framework of the market economy. Thus, the proposed solution to the environmental problems was “more development”, but of a type that will not fail to “take into account the value of the environment”, so that a better trade-off between development and environmental quality is achieved. So, the environment is assumed to be something that can be “valued” (even if it is in the form of an imputed value), in a similar way that everything else is assigned a value within the market economy, so that the effects of growth onto it are “internalised”, either through the creation of new profitable “green” business activities, or through “corrective” state action on the workings of the market mechanism!


However, apart from the fact that there is no way to put an “objective” value on most of the elements that constitute the environment (since they affect a subjective par excellence factor, i.e., the quality of life), the solution suggested, in effect, implies the extension of the marketisation process to the environment itself. Thus, not only is it conveniently ignored that it is the market mechanism itself which is the problem, because from the moment it incorporated an important part of the environment landit initiated the eco-damaging process, but it is also recommended that the marketisation process has to be extended to the other parts of the environment (air, water, etc.) as well! The outcome of such a process is easily predictable: the environment will either be put under the control of the economic elites that control the market economy (in case an actual market value can be assigned to it) or the state (in case only “imputing” a value is feasible). In either case, not only the arrest of the ecological damage is at least doubtful, but, also, the control over Nature by elites who aim to dominate it using “green” prescriptions this timeis perpetuated.


The World Bank ignores of course the strong evidence suggesting  that it is, mainly, poverty as development (i.e., poverty caused by development) which is causing the environmental degradation and not poverty as underdevelopment. This is particularly so, if we allow for the fact that it is the consumerist lifestyles of the rich that are causing environmental degradation rather than those of the poor. Thus, the high income countries, where 15 percent of the world population live, was the cause of  49 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 and over 50 percent in 1997.[21] Still, the World Bank finds nothing wrong with the lifestyles of the rich and argues that:

[F]or natural resources that are non-renewable, increases in consumption necessarily imply a reduction in the available stock. The evidence, however, gives no support to the hypothesis that marketed non-renewable resources such as metals, minerals and energy are becoming scarcer in the economic sense. This is because potential or actual shortages are reflected in rising market prices, which in turn have induced new discoveries, improvements in efficiency, possibilities for substitution, and technological innovations.[22]

It is clear that the World Bank implicitly adopts the hypothesis we made in ch2 that concentration is not only a consequence but also a fundamental precondition for the reproduction of the growth economy. Thus, in the transitional period, “rising market prices” would simply function as crude rationing devices which would benefit the privileged social groups. Furthermore, even if rising market prices are followed by technological innovations etc, it is at least doubtful whether the non-privileged social groups will be in a position to exploit them. It is therefore obvious that the World Bank simply celebrates the “allocation by the wallet” of those global resources that are becoming scarce because of growth. On top of this, there is no evidence that the new technologies, which are “induced by higher prices”, lead to some kind of “sustainable growth”. In fact, the opposite might be the case. For example, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states that “low-input production is probably the most environmentally-friendly system and has been practised since time immemorial; still, during the development process, every country has abandoned this practice because of its low productivity and its inability to meet the food requirements of an ever increasing population.”[23] Inevitably, the abandonment of this practice has made farmers dependent on chemical companies, as well as on export crops, so that they can finance the purchase of chemicals, usually produced by transnationals.




[1] TID, pp. 62-67.

[2] See Murray Bookchin’s work, TID, pp. 328-340.

[3] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, Ch. 9.

[4] TID, Ch. 8.

[5] See Takis Fotopoulos, “Towards a democratic conception of science and technology”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1998), pp 54-86.

[6] See, for instance, Greg Easterbrook, A Moment of the Earth (New York, 1995).

[7] Carbon dioxide concentrations, measured in parts per million by volume (taken from ice-core samples) were at the level of about 280 for the period 1,000-1,750 but at the end of the millenium have reached the level of 361 (1996); Paul Brown, The Guardian (13 July 1996). 

[8] See, for instance the UN report on global warming (Shanghai, Jan. 2001 conference), Tim Radford and Paul Brown, The Guardian (31 January 2001).

[9] See e.g. Michael Common, Environmental and Resource Economics (London: Longman, 1988).

[10] See e.g. David Pepper, Eco-Socialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice (London: Routledge, 1993), and Modern Environmentalism (London: Routledge, 1996).

[11] See the works of Bookchin, Remaking Society, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, From Urbanization to Cities.

[12] For a discussion of all these ecological approaches see TID, Ch. 4.

[13] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (United Nations, 1987).

[14] Ibid. p. 87.

[15] Ibid. p. 87.

[16] Ted Trainer, “A Rejection of the Brundtland Report,” IFDA Dossier 77 (May-June 1990), p. 74.

[17] I. Prigogine & I. Stengers, Order out of chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 36 (quoted by Steven Best & Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, p. 267).

[18] Sklair, The Transnational Capitalist Class, p. 207.

[19] Serge Latouche “The paradox of ecological economics and sustainable development”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 1999), pp. 501-510.

[20] World Bank, Development and the Environment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 7.

[21] Data calculated on the basis of the World Development Report 2000/2001, Table 10.

[22] World Bank, Development and the Environment, p. 37.

[23] UNFAO, Sustainable Crop Production and Protection: Background Document (UNFAO: 1991), p. 2.