Contribution to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Giorgos Kallis

Michael Löwy gives an excellent and concise presentation of the ecosocialist vision. I am sympathetic to ecosocialism and do not need much convincing. I am perhaps more indifferent than Löwy to what type of “ism” (or if any type of “ism,” rather than a pluriverse of alternatives) should replace capitalism, but I agree with Löwy that capitalism, in any meaningful sense of the term, is ecologically unsustainable. Given the re-emergence of democratic socialism as a powerful political force in the US and the UK, and in my view as the only real progressive alternative to the two poles of neoliberalism and populist authoritarianism, I think it is important to make sure that democratic socialists are “eco” and not “accelerationists.” Löwy's efforts in this direction are to be applauded.

Löwy’s text, as any text with such a grand vision, opens more questions than it answers. For instance, the content and procedural details of "democratic ecological planning" are underspecified. What would the democratic councils decide? Everything, including the production of each and every commodity? If mostly everything, how much time would we need to dedicate to them? I just finished reading a Greek translation of Polanyi’s unpublished last writings on classical Athens’s market economy. Citizens spent most of their day in assemblies and juries. Compared to ours, Athens was a simple and non-specialized economy. Still, people had to eat before they debated. Who was producing the food if everyone spent most of their time debating in the agora or being in charge of a public function? Securing grains for a population that left the fields for the polis, Polanyi argues, was the cause behind Athens’s imperial adventures, and eventually over-reach and collapse. To feed its citizens, Athens extracted tribute from vassal cities. I do not mean this as an argument against democracy or democratic planning, but this link between democracy and colonialism as an example invites us to think harder about the metabolic implications and feasibility of our proposals (and I mean this also for myself and those who argue for degrowth).

Moreover, Löwy argues that the issue is not quantity, but quality. Ecosocialism will not produce less, but differently. Again, this may evade some of the tough questions we should be asking. Will a country like the US consume the same amount of energy as it does now under democratic ecosocialism, or reduce it to between 20 and 30% of its current level, closer to a more sustainable world average? If energy use is not to be reduced, only cleaned, how feasible is this, what environmental implications would it have, what impacts and unequal exchanges with other parts of the world from where the materials for renewable energies would come from, and how is this different, as far as the technical content is concerned, from the capitalist ecomodernist vision? If energy use is to be reduced, as I think it should, how would democratic ecosocialism do it, and how will it sustain a popular appeal pushing a transformation that will challenge the core of American lifestyles?

Finally, Löwy starts the section on democratic planning with the argument that some sectors of the economy, such as fossil fuels, “must” be suppressed. This “must,” with which I agree, does not sound very democratic. What if people convene in democratic assemblies and decide that they “must not” (and one can think of democratic socialists in Saudi Arabia or Russia deciding that they want to extract and sell more fossil fuels)? Why would the citizens of a single country decide democratically to limit certain sectors of their economy?

Given that climate change is a global collective action problem, this hints to democratic ecological planning at a global scale. How feasible is this, and how would it work? The “socialism in one country” problem is accentuated by global problems such as climate change. There are few incentives for democratic socialists in any single country to limit themselves while capitalists in others keep consuming out of the global commons as much as possible.

Giorgos Kallis
Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, ICREA Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona, and author of Limits and The Case for Degrowth.

Cite as Giorgos Kallis, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Do Red and Green Mix?," Great Transition Initiative (December 2018),

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