Societat Catalana d'Economia

Ahir 25 de novembre vàrem poder gaudir de la conferència “Límites. Por qué Maltus se equivocó?”, a càrrec de Giorgos Kallis, professor ICREA a l’ICTA-UAB. Ell mateix resumeix el contingut en el següent article:

Self-limitation is not about constraining, but about defining collectively as societies our limits.

Political ecology ‘has made strong arguments against natural limits’ and is in friction with ‘degrowth’s .. urgency of less’, writes Paul Robbins. Indeed, political ecologists developed the field as a response to 1970s neo-Malthusianism. Nancy Peluso, Lyla Mehta or Betsy Hartmann have exposed the racist, classist and patriarchal underpinnings of neo-Malthusian discourses of environmental degradation, overpopulation, or scarcity.

I am a political ecologist. I have studied these books. How do I square then this with my defense of limits and degrowth?

We should distinguish, I always felt, reactionary notions of limits, like the ‘coming anarchy’ of prophets of doom like Robert Kaplan or Garett Hardin; and limits like those defended from activists at places like Standing Rock – the ‘blockadia’ to use a term coined by Naomi Klein, who as the Environmental Justice Atlas illustrates, are at the forefront of opposing the limitless expansion of extractive economies. Lumping all defences of limits as Malthusian is analytically sloppy and politically wrong.

Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population is one of those classic works that academics feel comfortable citing without taking the trouble to read. I followed a lead from an essay by Gareth Dale on Malthus and Smith, which argued that ecological economics has nothing to do with Malthus, and I sat down and read Malthus’s eassy again – line by line. And what I found was quite surprising.

First, Malthus was not a Malthusian, he was an economist (I will explain what I mean by this). Second, radical environmentalism has always been romantic – and romantics were the fiercest critics of Malthus.

I show in my new book, Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, that Malthus did not predict, much less call for limits. Malthus, like neoclassical economists today. invoked the specter of limits and scarcity to advocate for growth. And in the name of growth, he rejected redistribution, defending class society against French revolutionaries. Without inequality the poor will get lazy, Malthus argued. And if they are lazy, they won’t produce enough.

Malthus worried that without hard work to produce more food, population will not grow. For Malthus, like his mentor at Cambridge William Paley, population growth was the ultimate good. Malthus and Paley were clerics, and for them clerics god wants us to multiply and populate the Earth. Assuming a god-given command to have as many children as possible, Malthus concluded that the world is and will always be scarce. Against scarcity the only thing we can do, save for tyranny, is to stay disciplined, forget revolutions and produce more, Malthus concluded.

Scholars who have studied Malthus seriously, such as Robert Mayhew or Frank Elwell, also say that Malthus was not a Malthusian. Malthus claimed in the Essay that there are no limits to resources, or even food. He left no doubt that he was against birth control. Not for moral reasons but, as he explained, because limits to population would “remove a stimulus to industry”.

Malthus was not only a cleric, but also an economist, the first with a University chair. Economics inherited from Malthus the theological assumption of a drive to expand without limit. If wants are unlimited, as economists assume they are, then the world is scarce by definition – a scarcity that can be confronted only by more work and growth. Growth promises everyone more tomorrow; but at the same time, there is never ‘enough for everyone to have a decent share’, as Malthus put it.

Engels and socialists after Engels challenged Malthus on the basis that socialism will develop technology and produce enough for everyone – just, tomorrow. This played in Malthus’s terrain of scarcity and progress, accepting his premise that there is not enough today.

The romantics instead mocked Malthus for thinking that what people want is more and more children. The romantics praised free love. We can both limit and enjoy ourselves – have sex without having children, the most radicals among them dared say. Malthus could never accept something like that – not only because he was a cleric, but also because if he did, then indeed there could be enough for everyone. And a classless society would be possible.

In my book I show how such romantic (and related socialist, feminist and anarchist) ideas articulate a notion of limits as a source of freedom and abundance. Likewise, those who defend degrowth today do not call for limits because the world is running out of stuff. The problem is not that growth might come to an end – it would be good actually if growth was to stop its catastrophic and meaningless path, despoiling the abundance of this planet.

To put it differently: environmentalists’s role should not be that of warning of limits. Environmentalists should want and welcome limits. Limits in order to stop ecological and social destruction. Limits to stop in its tracks a growth system that knows no limits and is exploitative. Limits to leave space for others, human and non-human.

Limits bring freedom, I argue in the book. A pianist can make infinite music with a limited keyboard. Give the pianist an infinite keyboard, and she or he would paralyze. Limitless choice is debilitating. Capital’s limitless and senseless pursuit of more is not freedom – it is slavery.

The call for ‘self-limitation’ is different from (neo)Malthusian views of limits as a natural property of the world. The atmosphere is not a limited ‘sink’ (what a terrible way to think of the sky) – it is we who should limit emissions so as not to screw the climate. The limit is on us, not the sky. There are no ‘natural limits’ that force us to do this or that. There is an ethical and political imperative not to: not to do everything that can be done, not to despoil the beauty we have inherited.

Self-limitation the way I see it is not about constraining, but about defining collectively as societies our limits. Collective self-limitation is the essence of democracy.

Granted, capitalism limits the poor. A narrative of limits faces today, as it did in Malthus’s time, an uphill battle to inspire those who live with less than enough. But those who have little, want enough – it is those who feel they might have less than others that want ever more (and in a capitalist society everyone has less than someone else).

A politics of more is what capitalism has always sold to people – to the dispossessed and the propertied alike. Ever since Malthus, limits to few have been justified in the name of more for everyone. Austerity was never implemented for the sake of ecological limits or international solidarity. Austerity is pursued in the name of growth.

A wisdom of self-limitation has featured in Eastern and Western civilizations throughout the ages. Can a powerful politics be constructed around this common sense of enough?”

El 8 de juny de 2021 es va dur a terme la conferència “L’economia no és circular; és entròpica 50 anys de la publicació de Nicholas Georgescu”, a càrrec del Dr. Joan Martínez-Alier, professor de la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona i de l’Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA), persona de reconegut prestigi en aquest àmbit. Ha estat també cofundador de la Societat Internacional d’Economia Ecològica i ha rebut el Premi Leontief, atorgat pel Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) de Massachusetts el 2017 i també el Premi Balzan 2020 a les respostes de les ciències socials i les humanitats als reptes ambientals.

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