By Frank Rotering | March 26, 2020
My core message on this website is that only revolutionary change will give humankind a chance to survive the ecological crisis. This assertion applies with particular force to the global young, who will suffer and die in unimaginable numbers unless such fundamental shifts are quickly achieved.
Unfortunately the young are today being guided in their environmental thought and actions by the principles of progressivism. Although these principles are indispensable in the fight for social justice, they are unable to achieve the deep and far-reaching changes required for ecological survival. What the young urgently need is a new social movement to complement progressivism in the struggle for a just and sustainable world.
What would be an appropriate name for this new movement? At this stage humankind's most pressing task is to shift the global economy from its longstanding expansion to rapid contraction. I therefore suggest that the complementary movement be called contractionism. In this post I compare the core principles of progressivism and contractionism.
I must emphasize that I do not dismiss the progressive movement or downplay its significance for human well-being. What I am saying instead is that social justice and ecological survival and are essentially different challenges, and that a single movement cannot effectively address both.
B. PROGRESSIVISM AND CONTRACTIONISM
The table below lists the core principles of each movement and will be used to briefly explain where they overlap and diverge. Several of these topics have already been addressed on this website, as indicated by the links provided in the descriptions. The most significant of those I have largely ignored, such as nonviolence and human nature, will be discussed in future posts.
As stated above, progressivism and contractionism are united in their quest for a just and sustainable world. That is, the goal for both movements is to maximize human well-being within a healthy environment. In the table this is indicated by their shared humane values.
The key distinction between the two is how they contribute to this goal. Progressivism is a social movement that seeks to maximize justice within a society. Contractionism is an economic movement that seeks to maximize sustainable well-being within an economy. Only by combining their efforts can they achieve the shared objective. The key challenge for members of both movements will be to acknowledge this underlying unity while respecting their strategic and tactical differences.
The eight numbered points in the table specify these distinctions. The first six are inescapable based on the movements' separate contributions. The last two are, in my view, errors made by progressivism because of its strong emphasis on social change. Let me briefly describe each of the eight points in turn.
Because progressivism works within the existing social order, it assumes capitalism's continued existence. Although progressives sometimes express strong anti-capitalist sentiments, these typically refer to significant changes within the system rather than its actual replacement. For contractionism, capitalism's historical continuation is untenable because the system's economic logic is ecocidal and thus incompatible with a stable environment. The new movement will therefore seek to transform capitalism into a sustainable economic system. This transformation is discussed in section B1 of my analysis and strategy document.
Central to the progressive strategy is electing sympathetic politicians and pressuring governments to enact humane laws and implement compassionate policies. The movement thus subscribes to electoral politics. For contractionism this approach is unworkable because it seeks to transcend capitalism, and will therefore encounter intense opposition from those who own, control, and support the system. This implies that contractionism must understand the structure of political power and the methods of social control. In particular, it must understand thought control, which has long been used to mystify the ecological crisis and its solutions. These topics, which are untouched by electoral politics, are addressed by deep politics.
The next difference is the most difficult for the environmentally concerned to accept. Whereas progressivism can use the electoral process to reform capitalism, contractionism must use more extreme measures to supersede it. Specifically, contractionism must embrace revolutionary change. This means it must clearly identify society's true leaders, find a way to remove them from power, and then replace them with a group that can achieve the required economic transition. I address this nettlesome topic briefly in the Youth Ecological Manifesto, and in more detail in the document cited above (sections B2 and B3).
Another difference between the two movements is the identity of the agents that will drive the desired changes. For progressivism these are restricted to social movements: the victimized and angry fighting for social progress. In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein is categorical on this point: "... only mass social movements can save us now." (p. 450, italics added) Contractionism cannot afford such restrictions. The task at hand is not the improvement of the existing social order, but its revolutionary transformation. If social movements can help achieve this, their efforts will be gratefully welcomed. But if a segment of the ruling class abandons its ecocidal peers, or if the military decides that its responsibility is to the people rather than the powerful, they too will be invited to join the revolutionary cause. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and revolutionary politics in an existential crisis makes them stranger still.
The next distinction relates to the tactics employed to achieve strategic ends. Progressivism works within the prevailing order and therefore tries to maintain working relationships with its key actors. Extinction Rebellion, for example, cultivates the sympathies of both the public and the police through its commitment to nonviolence. For revolutionary contractionism this stance would be self-defeating. The prevailing order is protected by violence in numerous subtle and brutal ways, and can be overthrown only if countervailing violence is tactically available. Contractionism is therefore a militant rather than a nonviolent movement. This means that, within the constraints of its humane values, it will employ whatever tactics are conducive to the revolutionary end. (For an insightful critique of nonviolence, see this book.)
Progressivism has no need to impose age restrictions because age has little bearing on the fight for social justice. In the struggle for a sustainable world, however, this factor is important because different age groups have different collapse-related motivations. The young will soon experience the horrific consequences of environmental destruction, and are thus viscerally motivated to prevent it. Their elders face a far less painful future. Many will die before conditions become unbearable, and in the rich world most continue to enjoy enviable lifestyles. Thus, by default, the young should reject the older as members of the contractionary movement. However, if an older person convincingly demonstrates his or her commitment to youth ecological survival, this default should be overridden. The young should therefore restrict membership to their own age group and those among the older who, after careful deliberation, they have decided to trust.
As noted earlier, the above differences between progressivism and contractionism are unavoidable based on the movements' distinct contributions to the shared goal. The two differences below, on the other hand, are rooted in progressivism's faulty understanding of some critical issues.
Because progressivism focuses intensely on social conditions, it resists the idea that some human attributes have deep biological roots. This resistance is scientifically unjustified, but it does little damage given the movement's restricted political aims. For contractionism, however, this stance would be disastrous. A sustainable economy will require a comprehensive transformation of humankind's relationship with the Earth. Rich-world consumption, for example, must decrease sharply to achieve a sustainable world. Many people, driven by their innate tendencies, will fiercely oppose such changes. Contractionists must therefore be keenly aware that, because people's biological drives will be severely frustrated, they must enforce consumption constraints and provide various compensations - social solidarity, community activities, personal development, etc. - for the consumption losses.
The term "geoengineering" refers to natural and technical methods for solving global warming by reversing the Earth's growing energy imbalance. This can be achieved by decreasing the energy flowing from the Sun to the Earth (SRM) or by increasing the energy flowing from the Earth into space (GGR). For details see here and here. Reducing emissions is not an alternative to geoengineering because this can only slow the increase in the energy imbalance - it can't reverse it. Klein is therefore unscientific and illogical when she claims that, "... the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves." (This Changes Everything, p. 249) As with human nature, progressivism is misled on this issue by its fixation on social change. Contractionism recognizes that both society and nature must be "fixed" to solve global warming and the broader ecological crisis.
C. CONCLUDING COMMENTS
Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything was cited twice above because the book marks a turning point in the relationship between environmentalism and progressivism. Prior to its publication in 2014 the two movements were largely distinct, and could therefore follow discrete strategic and tactical paths. After Klein realized that the climate crisis could be used as a "galvanizing" and "catalyzing" force for social betterment (p. 7), the two movements were essentially merged. This was an extremely serious mistake because it negated any possibility that environmentalism would adopt the required revolutionary posture as the crisis accelerated.
I have therefore concluded that the young must rectify this error by forming the contractionary movement. Progressivism would return to its roots by conducting non-violent struggles for social justice within the capitalist order, while contractionism would initiate militant struggles for sustainable well-being and a new social order. The two movements would be united by their shared humane values and overall goal: healthy people in a healthy environment. They would be strategically and tactically distinct based on their separate contributions to this goal.