Can Slowing Down Save the Planet?

There are things you see, walking through the big cities of South Korea, that remind you of the recent but worlds-apart past. Venders of live cuttlefish and quilted hemp linens in the traditional market. An elderly woman on the sidewalk selling small, homegrown quantities of millet and barley. Their customers are few; everyone shops at malls and supermarkets now. I write from Cheonan, where my dad grew up, but the city of his youth has just a few square kilometres and a name in common with this one—a metropolis of nearly seven hundred thousand. There are undeniably good things about the new Cheonan: people are not starving; there are cars and extensive public transit. Who, though, is patronizing all these seafood restaurants and takeout cafés, indoor golf ranges, dermatology clinics, boutiques, and luxury department stores? So much neon and noise, plastic and profligacy—is this what growth looks like?

South Korea, one of the Asian Tigers, is a star of developmental economics. The nation was, as recently as my own childhood, considered a third-world country that first-world countries relied on for labor and raw materials. Now it’s a global leader in tech and pop culture and a regional metropole that draws workers from Africa and the rest of Asia. It also offshores toxic waste and employs thousands of people in factories abroad, including the United States. In a short time, the average South Korean’s life style has become indistinguishable from that of the average North American—what the researchers Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen call the “imperial mode of living.” The phrase is apt in the case of South Korea, whose industrial mentor was also its colonizer: Japan.

In the East, Japan was the forerunner of Western industrialization, but many Japanese now want less of that and more out of life. The 2008 financial crisis made Marxism trendy there; the 2011 disaster at a nuclear plant in Fukushima led to mass introspection over energy use and food supply chains. The imperial mode of living, an advanced-capitalist monoculture, is no longer viable. “Economic growth itself is what is destroying the very basis of what humans need to thrive,” Kohei Saito writes, in his new book, “Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto,” translated by Brian Bergstrom (and first published in Japanese, in 2020, as “Capital in the Anthropocene”).

Saito has made a career of teasing out an eco-theory from the late, unpublished writings of Karl Marx. He earned his doctorate at Humboldt University, in Berlin, and now teaches philosophy at the University of Tokyo. His first book was an English version of his dissertation, titled “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism” (2017), which tracked Marx’s study of the physical world and communal agricultural practices. (Saito is fluent in Japanese, German, and English.) In a second academic book, “Marx in the Anthropocene” (2022), Saito drew on an expanded repertoire of Marx’s unpublished notebooks to argue for a theory of “degrowth communism.” He gained a following, not only in philosophical circles but among a Japanese public facing the contradictions of tsunamis, billionaires, and same-day shipping. “Slow Down” has sold more than half a million copies in Japan and launched Saito into a rare academic celebrity. He appears regularly on Japanese television and aspires to the public-intellectual status of Thomas Piketty, the French economist who had a surprise hit in his 2013 doorstop, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century.”

The key insight, or provocation, of “Slow Down” is to give the lie to we-can-have-it-all green capitalism. Saito highlights the Netherlands Fallacy, named for that country’s illusory attainment of both high living standards and low levels of pollution—a reality achieved by displacing externalities. It’s foolish to believe that “the Global North has solved its environmental problems simply through technological advancements and economic growth,” Saito writes. What the North actually did was off-load the “negative by-products of economic development—resource extraction, waste disposal, and the like” onto the Global South.

If we’re serious about surviving our planetary crisis, Saito argues, then we must abandon capitalism, with its insatiable appetites. We must reject the ever-upward logic of gross domestic product, or G.D.P. (a combination of government spending, imports and exports, investments, and personal consumption). We will not be saved by a “green” economy of electric cars or geo-engineered skies. Slowing down—to a carbon footprint on the level of Europe and the U.S. in the nineteen-seventies—would mean less work and less clutter, he writes. Our kids may not make it, otherwise.

The Japanese version of “Slow Down” features a head shot of Saito on the cover, looking quizzical in a gray sweatshirt. Behind him is a frightening future image of the Earth as seen from space: fire-red continents and pitch-black oceans. The book is identifiable as a shinsho (new book), a pocket paperback designed to explain difficult topics to a general audience. At times it reads like the transcript of a lecture or debate, mired in signposting and repetition. The title “Slow Down” is a command; the “manifesto” of the subtitle underscores the book’s crusading tone. It begins with a declamatory overture—“Ecology Is the Opiate of the Masses!”—followed by several chapters of elaboration. Counter-arguments are tackled and disposed of; examples of degrowth are plucked from Quito and Barcelona.

In Saito’s heterodox reading, there are two Marxes, only one of whom is correct. The first and better-known Marx—of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Capital: Volume I”—focussed on growth. He believed that capitalism, despite its exploitative tendencies, would “bring about innovations through competition that would raise productivity,” Saito explains. The first Marx inspired socialists to commit to industry, on the logic that “a rise in productivity would prepare the conditions for everyone in the future society to enjoy a rich, free lifestyle.” Marxists in Europe felt entitled to become rich and free by stripping their far-off colonies (which was why Edward Said described Marxism as Orientalist). Though early Marx wrote perceptively of the toll of capitalism on (some) human laborers, he neglected the harm involved in extracting coal and minerals, and the damage done to trees, air, and water.

But in Marx’s later years, Saito writes, something changed. Between “Capital: Volume I” and his death, Marx “was engaged the entire time in an intense study of the natural sciences.” The year 1868 was the turning point. Marx became ravenous for research on nature and communal forms of organization. He read Justus von Liebig, who described single-crop, quick-till farming as a “robbery system”—robbery of the soil. Marx learned about mirs, agricultural communes in Russia, and believed that they could be developed into socialism, without passing through capitalism. He also read about “cyclical, steady-state economies” among Indigenous peoples in the Americas, India, and Algeria, and apparently snapped out of his Eurocentrism. “Marx ends up asserting that it’s precisely the steady state of the commune’s economy that allows it not only to resist colonial domination but also to hold within it the possibility of toppling the power of capitalism and achieving communism,” Saito writes. “There is clearly a huge shift here.” This second Marx recognizes capitalism’s limits and nature’s finitude.

That a clunky shinsho about Marx’s late writings would become a best-seller is a sign of our hot, grim times. But there is much in the particulars of Japanese experience that makes Saito’s argument locally resonant. In the nineteen-eighties, Japan’s economy was expanding, its G.D.P. seemingly poised to shoot beyond that of the United States. But, in 1995, Japan’s bubble economy crashed, and never recovered its earlier, fantastical rates of increase. The G.D.P., that pesky index, settled into a modest zigzag. Economists called the ensuing years “the lost decade,” and then “the lost decades.” Starting in 2012, Shinzo Abe, the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister, paired promises of deregulatory growth (“Abenomics”) with aggressive nationalism. As a result of his special economic zones and tax cuts, or just pure chance, the G.D.P. had a couple strong years, then dropped off again. Still, Japan remains the world’s third-largest economy.

For politicians, anything short of constant growth is an affliction. But, as Saito observes, traditional indicators such as G.D.P. fail to accurately measure well-being. Life for many Japanese—and others in the Global North—is too busy, materially excessive, and ecologically untenable. We would all be happier, he argues, by cutting back on work and consumption, and devoting more hours to leisure, family, and sleep.

No sincere reader of a degrowth manifesto believes that neoliberal expansion is the right policy for our times. Yet Saito also wants to dismantle the seemingly virtuous model of green growth. “Slow Down” attacks its public-facing platform: the Green New Deal, which Saito sees as unable to take on climate change.

He means not only the Green New Deal as conceived by progressive Democrats in the U.S. but also a general type of policy. (The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is another example.) Green new deals are in vogue among many liberal and left formations around the world, and tend to be built of similar stuff: money for climate tech and jobs in new energy, solar panels, wind turbines, public transit, and electric cars and school buses. These platforms promise to enlist economic growth in service of the planet, decoupling increased G.D.P. from increased fossil-fuel use. Rather than use less energy, green new dealers propose to replace coal and natural gas with renewables.

Saito argues that it’s impossible to prevent lethal warming without more radical change. “Even if every country abided by the [Paris Agreement],” he writes, global temperatures may still “result in catastrophic damage, especially in the Global South.” The only way out is to abandon the goal of economic growth altogether. Saito’s communist alternative focusses on reordering labor. Less expansion would mean less regimented work. We could shorten our hours and try other kinds of jobs—elder care and child care, for instance—to fit society’s needs. Ownership would be flattened: no more sea-steading C.E.O.s or private jets; in their place, more co-ops and localized forms of exchange. G.D.P. would be discarded as a measure of happiness.

Saito is not the first theorist to propose degrowth as a solution to ecological scarcity. The New Left intellectual André Gorz first used the term in 1972, in a debate over a report by the Club of Rome, which called for “zero growth” amid anxiety over pollution and natural resources. More recently, the economist Tim Jackson and the anthropologist Jason Hickel have considered “post-capitalist” degrowth. The economist Ying Chen has explored the concept’s application to the Global South, to guard against what Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva condemns as “green neocolonialism.”

Alas, none of this is politically attractive. As Matt Huber, a geography professor at Syracuse University and an advocate for the U.S. Green New Deal, has written, “In a capitalist system defined by deprivation, who will support a program centering reduction?” My colleagues John Cassidy and Bill McKibben have similarly observed that degrowth lacks the soothing pragmatism of green growth. On its face, and by the sound of it, degrowth is subtractive, which seems bad. The imperial mode of living has wired us to associate smaller numbers and negative slopes with decay.

But some aspects of degrowth are easier to imagine than others. During the worst of the pandemic, many people in the U.S. and other wealthy nations received something of a universal basic income. (Municipal pilot programs were already in place.) Care work was subsidized in the form of a generous child tax credit, unemployment insurance was extended to all kinds of workers, and eviction moratoriums prevented mass homelessness. These policies were hugely popular.

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