An obscure Japanese philosophy professor produces a surprise best seller, urging the world to slow down and shrink consumption via economic “degrowth.” Population Institute Canada’s president provides a critical overview.

by Madeline Weld

Until his book “Slow down: The Degrowth Manifesto” recently hit the market and became a surprise bestseller in Japan, I had never heard of Japanese philosophy professor Kohei Saito. That may not be surprising because I don’t travel in philosophy circles. But I’m given to understand that Kohei Saito was not a household name even in philosophy departments.

So why is a book he wrote making a splash even beyond Japan? Why is it getting reviews in widely read publications like the New Yorker and the Guardian?  My guess is that the greater public is becoming more acutely aware of the many global crises we face and is eager to consider any plausible proposal for a solution. Saito’s book purports to offer a path to rescue ourselves.

I have no arguments with Saito’s assessment that humanity is on a path to planetary ruination. A capitalism premised on continuous growth has an insatiable appetite that will not be satisfied until the planet has been fully stripped of any resources that can be bulldozed, mined, or blown out of the oceans. Saito is right that “green capitalism,” that is the use of  “green technology” and “renewable energy” to enable the continuation of our current growth trajectory, is a scam.

He is also absolutely correct and not the first to argue that GDP is a wholly inadequate measure of well-being. (And in fact GDP was never intended by its creators to become the be-all and end-all for measuring economic success.)

Numbers matter

But how are we going to arrive at a sustainable economy? This is where Saito and I part company. While he advocates for a more equal distribution of wealth, Saito has nothing to say about the size of the human population and how we will manage to share a shrinking and ever more ravaged pie with a consumer base growing by one billion people every dozen years or so. And he looks to Karl Marx for solutions.

In an article published on January 9 in Unherd with the title “Green Capitalism is a Con,” Saito writes: “the root cause of climate change is capitalism, and … our current way of life will not only lead to ecological collapse, but in doing so exploit the labour and land of the impoverished Global South.”

Inherent in that excerpt are at least two assumptions:

  1. Climate change is THE BIG PROBLEM, overriding all other problems, and is primarily driven by capitalism.
  2. Our current predicament is all the fault of the rich countries exploiting poor countries.

To whatever extent climate is being impacted by human activities (and there is more scientific debate about this issue than one would glean from the mainstream media), human numbers have a major impact. Those numbers are growing by natural increase only in developing countries, and most rapidly in the least developed countries. Population growth in industrialized Western countries is driven almost entirely by migration from lower-income countries and the newcomers are eager to adopt a higher-consuming lifestyle. New arrivals to Canada and the US on average increase their greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of four over what they were in their country of origin.

In addition, those in lower-income countries who don’t migrate are also eager to consume more, which means using more energy and producing more emissions. It is the combination of rising incomes and population growth in upper middle-income countries (as defined by the UN) that contributed the most to the increase in the total global ecological footprint (EF) between 1961 and 2016. It was “population growth that accounted for ~80% of the increase in the total human EF above what would have accrued had populations remained constant while income/consumption and per capita EFs increased” (Rees 2023, emphasis added).

Given continued rapid population growth in many impoverished countries whose people understandably would like to increase their consumption levels, any proposed path forward that doesn’t address population growth won’t take us to sustainability.

Regarding the second implicit assumption, there is no doubt that ecosystems in developing countries are being devastated in our quest for resources, and that labour, which often includes child labour, is being brutally exploited. The mining for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo is perhaps the most notorious example. But it must be noted that destruction in the quest for resources is not limited to developing countries (think Canada’s tar sands) nor is destruction in developing countries limited to foreign corporations. A burgeoning impoverished population is ripe for exploitation under any system, not just capitalism (consider any pre-capitalist feudal system). Mass immigration from lower-income to Western countries, in which population pressure plays a significant role, has led to wage depression in receiving countries, especially among low-income earners. Furthermore, a burgeoning impoverished population itself impacts the local environment, through deforestation, overfishing, decimation of wildlife through habitat loss and bushmeat hunting, depletion of water resources, and pollution.

A global economy premised on forever-growth can’t help but be a juggernaut of destruction. But neither can a growing human population, a portion of whom already have high consumption levels and a far larger portion of whom would like to join them.

Salvation through Marx’s later writings?

This brings us to the question of how Karl Marx will lead us out of our cycle of environmental destruction and cheap labour exploitation. Saito believes that our salvation lies in Marx’s later writings, many of which were never published. Marx underwent a drastic theoretical shift towards the end of his life, Saito says, and realized that technological progress and productivism were not forces for the common good but destroying the Earth, creating an “irreparable rift” between humans and nature. Capitalism, wrote Marx, disturbed “the metabolic interaction between man and earth” and hindered “the operation of the eternal natural condition for the fertility of the soil.”

Saito disavows a return to the “dark communism of the Soviet Union or 20th century China” where production was nationalized by tyrannical one-party states and which he claims Marx never advocated. Saito advocates for Marx’s concept of “’the commons’ (equality of economic conditions) to steer a third way between the extremes of US-style neoliberalism and Soviet-style nationalism.” He argues that “certain public goods – such as water, electricity, shelter, healthcare, and education – should be managed and shared by every member of society, independent of markets.”

Following the handover of power to the people, per Saito, we would read and apply Marx’s Capital through a degrowth lens, move from an economy based on commodity value to one based on social utility (or use-value), prioritize the production of goods to respond to the “climate crisis” and stop producing unnecessary luxury goods and meaningless junk, all of which would lead to the elimination of “bullshit jobs” such as investment banking, marketing, and consultancy, and of capitalist extravaganzas such as same-day delivery and 24-hour supermarkets. This would liberate people from wage slavery and allow more time to devote to things like caregiving, education and leisure. “In this new system,” says Saito, “fulfilling material needs and improving quality of life will become a far more important measure than GDP.”

Is consumption due to capitalism the sole driver of the global crisis?  Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on Pexels

I agree with Saito that it is past time for GDP to be dethroned as the metric for economic performance and that much of the production under our current system is wasteful and environmentally destructive. But I can’t share his optimism that it will be possible to set up a viable system where all members of the public participate equally in managing water, shelter, healthcare and education. And that this can be done independently of markets – in other words, of the desires of the millions of individuals who make up a society.

How will millions of people who may have radically different views about healthcare and education and the ideal size of a house for a family of four come to an agreement? Who will determine whose vision prevails? And who would decide what is valuable and what is meaningless junk?

Old wine in a new bottle

All in all, Saito’s proposal sounds a bit too much like recycled communism to me. As a system, communism has failed, both in terms of delivering economic goods and valuing the rights and aspirations of individuals, in every single country in which it has been implemented. These failures dim my expectations of success for a communism re-imagined through degrowth.

When the late sociobiologist and myrmecologist, “ant man” E.O. Wilson was asked about communism, he said, “Great idea, wrong species.” Communism assumes a human nature that does not exist. We are not like a colony of ants. The slogan “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” does not account for slackers and cheaters nor for ambitious overachievers. It does not recognize self-interest and individual agency. Nor does it recognize that desires are not limited to material goods but can also be directed to achieving power and control. That is why totalitarianism has been a feature of every communist society so far.

Kohei Saito is right that the growth of the global economy must end and that green capitalism which aims to continue that unsustainable growth through “sustainable” means is a scam. He is right that that we need a metric that measures quality of life rather than the size of the economy. But his entire focus is on climate change when the world’s environmental problems are far more encompassing and the underlying cause of all of them is ultimately the size of the human population, which he ignores. And communism, regardless of how green its costume, is no solution. Therefore Saito fails to identify the problem, which is a human population in overshoot, and proposes a non-viable solution which ignores the reality of human nature.

Saito blames our environmental crisis entirely on capitalism. He is 37 years old (born 1987) which makes him a Millennial. Perhaps that is why his arguments seem little more than a remix of the standard arguments of today’s social justice left. By the same token, this could mean that those arguments will resonate among his global age cohort, which appears to have been indoctrinated to single out capitalism for all the ills in the world. This may even be one of the reasons for the popularity of his book. Unfortunately, the commercial success of this book is no guarantee that it can put humanity on the path to sustainability.

Communism: a system most suitable for ants? Photo by Thang Cao on Pexels

This article was recently published by The Overpopulation Project and the original can be read here: