15 August 2023

Nuclear power, Degrowth and the Working class

By David Schwartzman

The emphasis in Matt Huber’s Climate Change is Class War on the critical role of the working class for achieving climate security and just future, both in the US and globally is very welcome. But I am compelled to respond to what I disagree with in his book, recognizing its valuable contribution to defeating fossil capital.

First I will address Matt’s support for nuclear fission power, which is made clear again in his second polemic responding to Levien.[1] Huber makes this case, pointing to the present role of the organized working class in this industry, indeed utilities in general.[2] Public utilities are now common in the US, and organising to municipalise them is ongoing and the role of this sector of the organised working class is important.

But I submit that the only nuclear power we need is found in the Sun’s core, its fusion reactor, supplying abundant energy to Earth. Building more nuclear fission reactors and the huge investment into on-site nuclear fusion are unwelcome diversions from accelerating the creation of global wind/solar energy supplies.[3] Further, significant expansion of nuclear fission power will add incremental heat to the Earth’s surface which could contribute to exceeding the 1.5 deg C warming target.

The fossil fuel/nuclear industry highlights the obstacle of intermittency/baseload challenge for a wind/solar energy transition, but energy storage technology is already available, with its need greatly reduced in a 100% renewable energy transition driven by the complementarity of wind/photovoltaics/Concentrated Solar Power.[4]

The role of this unionised sector in the big near future challenge in decommissioning a large number of US and global reactors should be considered[5] in a just transition to 100 percent wind/solar. This could be a way to win their support for this transition which is imperative with the rapidly fading chances for keeping warming below 1.5 deg C. Industrial/energy workers will get a lot a work in an unfolding Green New Deal by creating a 100% renewable energy infrastructure, modernising the grid, creating energy storage backup, retrofitting buildings, repairing infrastructure and decommissioning nuclear reactors now past their “safe” lifetime, instead of building new reactors, an unwelcome alternative on many grounds. For example, wind/solar power goes up much faster and cheaper than nuclear reactors for the same power delivery, as climate science tells us the faster the better coupled with rapid termination of fossil fuels. I disagree with Matt’s boosting the Princeton University report on the alleged big land requirement for renewables. Their land area requirements for wind/solar are highly exaggerated, since wind farms on land (they should mainly be offshore) allow coexisting agriculture and photovoltaics can be sited mainly on rooftops and floating platforms. And, rather than simply substituting electric for gasoline cars, I hope Matt would support electrified public transit as the main alternative.

Levien is right to point to the importance of the climate justice struggles of indigenous people. A key potential ally of the global working class are indigenous communities which are disproportionately impacted by extractivism, driven increasingly by green capital generating metals for the renewable energy transition. While Matt recognises “extractive capital’ referring to fossil fuels, the extractivism challenge is not adequately discussed in Matt’s book and must be confronted by ecosocialists, in particular since this challenge is pointed to by degrowthers as a barrier to the renewable energy transition.

In addition to the very relevant deconstruction of the degrowth movement provided in Matt’s book, my long-standing critique from a thermodynamic perspective can add a needed foundation.[6] I speculate that Matt omitted this critique because he is not convinced a global 100 percent renewable energy is possible, given his continued support for nuclear fission power development.

The degrowthers have commonly invoked the misleading spectre of entropy, in particular, Georgescu-Roegen’s thermodynamics as foundational to their discourse. But should Georgescu- Roegen’s thermodynamics be our guide? His interpretation of the entropy law is still widely cited by degrowthers (e.g., Latouche, Bonaiuti, Kallis, and most recently Vansintjan et al.[7]

Georgescu-Roegen claimed to have discovered a fourth law of thermodynamics: “A. Unavailable matter cannot be recycled. B. A closed system (i.e., a system that cannot exchange matter with the environment) cannot perform work indefinitely at a constant rate”.[8] Georgescu-Roegen’s fallacy is his conflation of isolated and closed systems. The biosphere is essentially closed to transfer of matter, but not isolated with respect to energy flux, particularly solar energy.

The Earth’s surface is open to energy transfer to and from space but is effectively closed to mass transfer. Hence the use of fossil fuels and nuclear fission power to drive the economy can be transcended in our open Earth system by sufficient creation of a high-efficiency collection of the solar flux to Earth. Global solar power will then pay its ‘‘entropic debt’’ to space as non-incremental waste heat, without driving us to tipping points towards catastrophic climate change, while facilitating recycling and industrial ecologies phasing out extractivism.[9]

His fallacious 4th law is at the root of Georgescu-Roegen’s pessimism regarding solar energy replacing fossil fuels:

Georgescu-Roegen viewed the technology of the direct collection of solar radiation as “feasible” but not “viable”- possible to construct and operate, but only by continuing to rely on fossil fuel energy inputs: “All solar recipes known at are of the current and present parasites technologies therefore will cease to be applicable when their host is no longer alive (1981, 70-71)”[10]

Degrowthers’ prescription for global reduction in energy and material throughput is that:

The global material and energy “throughput” has to degrow, starting with those nations that are ecologically indebted to the rest. Energy and material throughput have to degrow because the materials extracted from the earth cause huge damage to ecosystems and to the people that depend on them.[11]

With respect to material throughput, we argue that it should increase globally with the complete phasing out of the military-industrial complex, thereby liberating vast quantities of materials, especially metals, for the creation of a global wind and solar power infrastructure powering a circular economy.[12] Likewise, a global renewable energy supply with greater capacity than now will be needed to confront the threat of dangerous climate change, as well as to eliminate the energy poverty now afflicting most of humanity.

To summarise, what should grow and what should degrow?

The history of discussing growth from a socio-ecological point of view goes back at least 30 years. Walter Hollitscher, an Austrian materialist philosopher maintained, in discussions occurring in the late 1970s, that the only thing which should definitely grow is the satisfaction of needs. Basically, from a socio-ecological point of view the question of growth or de-growth is simple: there cannot be a yes or no answer. Some flows, stock, and activities should grow; others should not grow but decrease, for example, the production of weapons. It does not seem useful to use “de-growth” without indicating what should decrease, because the general use of the notion “de-growth” easily can easily also be understood as an undifferentiated attack on the standard of living and livelihood of many groups of people, especially broad low-income sectors of society.[13]

Hence Matt’s critique of degrowth should be taken very seriously by the left given their recent enthusiasm for this brand, with the “Planned Degrowth” July/August issue of Monthly Review and Kohei Saito’s degrowth communism an example.[14]

[1]Huber, Matthew T. 2023, “Climate Politics is Not Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables – a reply to Michael Levien”,….

[2]See as well: Huber, Matt T. and Fred Stafford, 2023, “Socialist Politics and the Electricity Grid”, Catalyst 6 (4): 59-89.

[3]Schwartzman, David. 2019. Monbiot’s Muddle, Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2019.1670905; Mosko, S. 2021. ‘More Nuclear Is No Solution to Climate Crisis’,E magazine, August 19,; Jaczko, Gregory, Wolfgang Renneberg, Bernard Laponche, Paul Dorfman 2022. Nuclear Consulting Group, Communiqué – Statement – January 6,….

[4]Schwartzman, Peter, and David Schwartzman. 2019. The Earth is Not for Sale: A Path Out of Fossil Capitalism to the Other World That is Still Possible. Singapore: World Scientific.

[5]Marino, G. 2021. ‘The world’s nuclear fleet is aging — how do you recycle a nuclear power plant?’Green Biz, May 13,….

[6]Schwartzman, David. 1996. Solar Communism. Science & Society 60 (3): 307–331; Schwartzman, David. 2008. The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory.Science & Society 72 (1): 43–62.

[7]Vansintjan, A., Vetter, A., and M. Schmelzer (2022) The Future is Degrowth: A Guide to a World Beyond Capitalism, London: Verso.

[8]p. 304, Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1989. ‘Afterword’, in Rifkin, J., Entropy. Revised edition Bantam Books, New York, pp. 261–269.

[9]Schwartzman, David. 2022. ‘A critique of degrowth’, Climate & Capitalism, January 5,

[10]p. 320, Schwartzman, David. 1996. Solar Communism. Science & Society 60 (3): 307–331; Schwartzman, David. 2008. The Limits to Entropy: Continuing Misuse of Thermodynamics in Environmental and Marxist Theory.Science & Society 72 (1): 43–62.

[11]p. 192, Kallis, G. 2019. Socialism Without Growth. Capitalism Nature Socialism 30 (2): 188–206.

[12]Schwartzman, David and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro. 2019. A Response to Giorgios Kallis’ Notions of Socialism and Growth. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 30 (3): 40-51.

[13]p.33-34, Baum, Josef. 2011. In Search for a (New) Compass – How to Measure Social Progress, Wealth and Sustainability? In: The Left Between Growth and De-Growth Discussion Papers, Edited and introduced by Teppo Eskelinen, pp. 33-45,transform! European journal for alternative thinking and political dialogue, Hamburg. I developed a critique of degrowth from a similar position: Schwartzman, David. 2012. A Critique of Degrowth and Its Politics,Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23, 1: 119–25.

[14]Saito, Kohei. 2023. Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards a theory of degrowth communism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.See my critique at….