From the archives – my early statements on the need for degrowth and the resistance they received from progressives

As part of a another current project, which I will have more to say about soon, I was trawling through early Internet archives of the Post Keynesian Thought (PKT) listserv archives and was reminded that I began my degrowth journey many years ago. Going back in time and coming across things that one has written is an interesting experience. In this case, I reflected on my changing narrative style, my naivety in places, and the continuity of my thinking over the course of my academic career. The following discussion is the product of my archival research for another project of the Post Keynesian Thought (PKT) discussion list archives. It has been an interesting exercise and brought back interactions, personalities and the like that I have forgotten about. Many on that list have since died (sadly). But what is established is that 30 or more years ago there was widespread resistance still within the progressive economics community to the idea that the destruction of the planet would require major systemic change. This resistance bears on the debates now between the dominant ‘green growth’ group who think capitalism aided by global financial capital can achieve the changes necessary to meet the climate challenge and the degrowth camp who want fundamental system and behavioural change. My writings in 1995 placed me firmly in the latter cohort.

The Post Keynesian Thought (PKT) discussion list, which was an E-mail listserv in the very early days of the Internet which brought together heterodox economists from all around the world.

PKT aimed to bring together the work of economists and others interested in Post Keynesian economics and the social, historical, and political questions that have long been a part of the Post Keynesian tradition. The objective of PKT was to support an electronic community of scholars interested in going beyond conventional neoclassical economic analysis and moving forward in the tradition of Keynes, Kalecki, Robinson, and Sraffa.

It was started by Ric Holt and Don Roper in March, 1993. PKT began as an E-mail discussion list. but diversified into running a virtual seminar format.

While by today’s standards of social media, the technology supporting the PKT list was primitive to say the least, at the time it represented a breakthrough in the ability of academics and others all around the world to communicate in almost real time.

Previously communication was via the normal postal service and/or at regular but infrequent conferences.

Sometimes the turnaround in letters might take 3 months and so the pace of interaction was much slower.

With the advent of E-mail discussion lists text-based conversations were almost instantaneous and that massively changed the way academic work was undertaken.

I joined in 1993, not long after the listserv was up and running and received the growing number of E-mails each day from all around the world.

For a young academic in Australia operating in the non-mainstream tradition, the PKT list was an absolute gem.

It soon became obvious that there was quite a gap between the traditional post keynesians, who traced their roots back to Keynes and his 1936 General Theory and other progressive economists who started their journey in classical Marxian writings through to Kalecki and others (I was in that camp obviously).

Even among the latter group there was significant differences of viewpoint and in the context of today’s blog post those differences were evident when it came to discussing matters ‘green’.

As you will see today, the green growth agenda that dominates progressive thinking today was already very evident in the PKT discussions.

And you will also see that the degrowth agenda that I was pushing back then was in a very small minority (of about 1 or 2 economists on the list).

Not much has changed seemingly since then despite the evidence telling us that the situation is now very alarming, even though it was showing up back then more than 30 years ago.

Here is a little traverse through the (edited) archives of PKT starting with a post I made on January 10, 1995.

Herbert Gintis who in his early career was a radical economist to look up to (his work on Schooling with Samuel Bowles was exceptional) but who shifted towards a much more neoclassical position later on had posted on the topic of job creation and said:

Public jobs programs are a joke. Forget about it. They are a waste of money. Publicly FUNDED child care is not publicly PROVIDED child care–let the gov’t pay for, but let the private sector run it–with employment subsidies.

His view was common among so-called ‘progressives’ that had shifted away from public service delivery within government and towards supporting the neoliberals tools of user pays, outsourcing, privatisation etc.

It was a very disappointing trend, which today you can see accounts for why so-called social democratic politicians sound more like neoliberal conservatives than they do progressive.

I replied (January 10, 1995) to that statement by Gintis in this way:

Well which particular public job programs. My understanding of the evidence is that they are rather successful. 1) they guarantee a job which can be set at some desired training/skill level. 2) they can be targetted to overcome disadvantage 3) while they are more expensive than an employment subsidy in outlay terms, the returns are much higher. 4) they stimulate aggregate demand and multiplier effects 5) they give workers who get them the chance to become part of the primary labour market – via internal promotion ladders. 6) MOST IMPORTANTLY: the future of work in the capitalist sphere is surely limited. while i agree with Paul D. about the role of global demand in employment creation in the capitalist sphere, I disagree that the world in an environmental sense can stand up to the types of production outcomes implied under current resource uses.

Public sector job creation can direct employment into green areas which do not “make anything” … but which rather put back into the natural system. there are so many projects in OZ that can be done w.r.t. soil degradation, forest regeneration, reclaiming areas which have been dammed up and now the hydro electric capacity is unwarranted, and also community services – helping old people with their lives etc, helping disadvantaged children learn, and also recreational services – teaching and playing music, sport’s skills).

these jobs would not be created by the cappos b/c they are not “profitable”. but to the world and nature and the community they are ultimately profitable. so one has to measure the cost of public job schemes in terms of accounting conventions totally removed from the normal capitalist employment decision. 7) and i reject outright the notion that public sector jobs are not real jobs. they can be productive and meaningful if designed properly. productive of-course is not anything to do with capitalist measures which involve surplus value.

Gintis challenged me a few days later to produce the ‘evidence’ that I referred to above and on January 16, 1995, I provided the PKT list with several research studies that demonstrated how effective public sector job creation programs had been when properly designed and implemented.

Gintis also claimed that:

The government has been a major source of environmental degradation around the world. Why should it do any better at cleaning up the environment? I understand why the government must PAY to have the work done, but a competitive environment for the delivery of cleanup services should outperform a government monopoly.

Confirming his shift towards neoliberalism in the 1990s.

I pointed out that (and provided) evidence where well organised and regulated public enterprises had outperformed their private sector counterparts and then noted that:

… all institutions locked into the capitalist system have been major sources of environmental degradation for sure. But we have to look to the future not the past. The citizenry cannot take over private capitalist firms who will always pollute if not tightly controlled. But we can over time take over the government and it has to represent the changing views or not remain in power. The green generation is my own and our children to come. We are now in the position where we can influence and control the destiny of social policy. our parents were racist, sexist and couldn’t care about the environment. all three due to ignorance. We have the benefit of much better access to information and i suspect freer thinking. So Herb, we can control the govt and use to be a green machine and break with the past.

Naive optimism as it turns out but the genus of my later work on Reclaiming the State, which manifested in 2017 book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) and projects that are still to reach the publication stage.

Further, the scepticism about public sector job creation permeated the list and was evident in later discussions on the list about the buffer stock employment model I proposed (and Warren Mosler’s ELR model – which was equivalent).

But that is another topic again.

On January 23, 1995, in reply to claims that ‘working people do real work’ (a hint that job creation programs are not real work) I wrote:

… I also ask you to think about the future of work in a green world where capitalism is dead. you might be a surfer down at bondi, i might be an arboreal appreciation expert wandering through freshly planted forests, and neither of us would produce a thing (in the sense you in your _naive_ state defines a thing), and neither of us would replicate any of the “real work that working people do”.

quite simply, the planet cannot survive if we all “do real work”. i prefer everything to have a dignified access to the distributional mechanism, and to feel part of a complete world, but i cannot see us all doing ‘real’ work into the next century.

And on January 25, 1995, after some challenges to my position, I responded:

i might imagine a lot of things, but the natural world does not imagine the brutal rape that the capitalist system is daily dishing to it. yes it has fought hard to regenerate, but we know that process is finite. economists who put down alternative economists who both understand capitalist workings (like the former) but who have a broader feeling for the whole interactions are missing the point …

I would no longer use the word ‘rape’ in this context, given its actual context.

But there was no widespread or even marginal support on PKT at that time for these degrowth ideas (only one list member responded favourably).

The topic then went quiet until September 1995 on the list while the members discussed all sorts of interesting topics and tried to work out how to get rid of the Austrian libertarians that had invaded the list and were pumping out ‘free market’ doctrine every day.

Then in September 1995 someone noted that progressives were talking about a Goal 2002 where full employment would be the aspiration.

I wrote (September 3, 1995):

… in most cases i would agree with the political failure line (blind pursuit of low inflation and a belief in some rigid NAIRU constraint) as to why “full employment” is not likely.

But i think these sort of discussions put us at least 20 years in the past.

What is full employment mean in a world where capitalist production is unsustainable from a natural resource/quality of environment (natural and social) perspective?

I really no longer believe in Keynesian Expansion of the sort i was taught about as a student in the 1970s. I also don’t believe that such expansion delivers jobs that should be part of a future world. I also don’t believe that these jobs produce products that should be part of a future world. I have a paper on this topic which will be published soon if anyone is interested.

I am working, in part, on system designs, which will involve a redefinition of work, and hence full employment. The concept of full employment within the “gainful employment” framework dates back to early in this century. I don’t think it is relevant anymore. I also think governments might not be able to get the appropriate activities happening (which probably are going to have to be based on smaller community activities and production modes) through “keynesian” measures. Unless we count massive increases in public education emphasising environmental concerns, tolerance of ethnic minorities, and reduced material aspirations, as keynesian measures. they are clearly not in the counter stabilisation genre.

This is not what you have been talking about in the 2002 goal context. I thus think a lot of the discussion has missed the mark.

Again, a degrowth emphasis that was running counter to almost all the PKT group who were also not necessarily even in the ‘green growth’ camp yet.

Paul Davidson, who by any stretch is a pioneer of post keynesian economics and deserves a place in the citadel, was rather critical and reasserted his view that the market through growth can provide the means to deal with the environmental damage that the growth produces.

Others made jokes about me in my “new attire, wrapping himself in a green flag, a true patriot for apple pie and mother Gaia” – demonstrating the overwhelming American-centricity that pervaded the PKT list.

One critic also claimed that my interest in “saving the planet” was really a disguise for advancing a “collectivized economy” by which the writer meant an authoritarian, planned socialism.

He asked when Marxists turned green, was “the argument against industrialization, or against an exchange economy”.

On September 11, 1995, I responded to those pushbacks:

My new attire, a green flag? Well i guess you were not there in the late 60s … i was and we were the start of what has become the green position. we were the start of the broad based anti-consumerism, vegetarian, introspective generation. no flags b/c we seek to be inclusive not exclusive.

I also noted in the same response that:

… there was a big shift in marxist thinking … in the late 60s and into the 70s. what our red parents had told us about revolution and change was wrong. what my generation of marxists realised that a change in the economic mode was not sufficient to achieve the goals of liberation. we just had to look to the soviet union. sure women were working and managing and doing economic things. but their sexist pig husbands still waited at night for them to cook, clean and etc. and you just had to take a trip through leipzig or down the danube into romania to see that natural resources were being degraded by socialism as fast as capitalism.

At that point I did consider system change was necessary but not sufficient.

Social change had to also occur as well as a total new approach to production and consumption.

I went on:

… changing the economic mode was only a necessary condition. marx did not develop a theory about social change – liberating gender stereotypes, scaling down our material aspirations and making less demands on the natural world, about understanding our role as a oneness with the land and sky and sea rather than seeing it as a resource to be exploited for our material wealth. for the 70s real marxist, the revolution had to be green, it had to fight gender divisions, it had to fight racial prejudice and it had to crush and undermine capitalist hegemony in the economic sphere …

the middle class might have suddenly adopted greenness. that is just b/c they are bored with their mobile phones. its a fashion. deprive them of their lentils for a day and they will be queing up in macdonalds like the rest of them.

what i have been on about on this list and pen-l since i began participating and what i have been on about since i was 18 years old or younger is that the only realistic sustainable economic system has to be one where collectivism and planet saving are complements. not alternatives. you cannot seek collectivism and then encourage further capitalist style production of k mart items. you can also not try to save the planet with individualism … [a model] … based on unfettered material production…. [will not save the planet] … that model has failed to even achieve a satisfactory standard of security and living for all people anyway. it as certainly not helped the natural world.

i talked about green things in the context of achieving full employment by the year 2002. i said – who would want to – given current definitions of employment and the current mode of production. while i don’t believe the capitalists would allow it without a revived profit grab and stagflation (a la Kalecki’s political aspect of full employment ideas), the extrapolation of resource usage implied at more or less current capital to labour ratios (to employ all the LF) would be catastrophic for the rivers, forests, the frogs, birds, wild flowers, air quality and our souls … there a lot of people out here in the real world who would also like jobs in the full employment scheme by 2002. it would simpy be catastrophic to follow paul davidson keynesian expansion. but before the catastrophe would come the greed of the captains of industry and the rising unemployment and inflation.

i no longer advocate expansion as a cure for unemployment. it will not cure unemployment b/c the latter is rooted in the capitalist conflict. but what it will do is further promote the deterioration of the planet. without the earth we die too.

also the role of governments that we traditionally develop in pkt is really only prolonging the inevitable and allowing the cappos more room to exhibit their greed.

what i now am trying to think about is how communities can become non-material supportive entities with the help of government fiscal and monetary policy. how we can engender a change in the gainful employment approach to LF classification. to how we can turn the distribution system around to reward “non-work” and penalise “work”, to how we create as much “unemployment” as possible. we don’t need to “work” or be “employed” as much as we do. the goal has to be to work less, to consume less, and in my late 60s mode, to love more.

On the issue of whether I was against ‘exchange’, I wrote (September 12, 1995)

… i want to talk the green-expansion conflict issue in relation to full employment concepts first. it is not a topic about whether we should have markets or whether we should have decentralised production and whether we should post prices. it is prior to that.

This debate, by the way, was just before Warren Mosler entered the list and we agreed that a buffer stock employment approach was superior, more about which another day.

In another exchange that questioned this viewpoint, I questioned that the “environment is not infinitely susbstitutable for production”, which was a dominant PKT viewpoint at the time – and in plain words, means that we can trade-off pollution and environmental degradation with increased material output and the price system (markets) would deliver the ‘optimal’ balance.

That is the sort of reasoning that sits behind carbon pricing systems, which even Green politicians seem to proffer.

I have never believed that these trade-off systems regulated by some ‘carbon price’ will suffice.

Natural systems die and if any of you like gardening you will have observed your trees occassionally just giving up on life.

Suddenly and without warning.

That is the crisis we are now facing.

Economists have no way of knowing when the tipping point between life and death of a natural system is reached.

The market system cannot reveal that information.

Anyway, on September 13, 1995, I addressed those type of issues:

… my arguments are not so much about when we run out of things. i don’t know about that. but it is about the point of no return. when the ozone hole is very large over the south pole. it gets bigger by the year. we cannot close it. the children in schools in australia now have to wear hats each day. it will come a time when they will have to stay inside. the ozone hole is directly attributable to production levels – somewhere which nature cannot support or adapt. it is striking back with rapid increases in carcenomas in OZ, for example. that is an example of a non infinitely substitutable resource.

in australia because of pathetic farming techniques the top soil is being lost. it will not come back. the soil is very eroded and the streams get choked with
silt. it is very difficult if not impossible to undo this damage and continue farming in the way they have been.

in africa now the spiral viruses are being found more regularly (ebola being a strain). these viruses are being brought into more settled areas by animals whose habitats have been destroyed by excessive clearing, often to graze animals to feed the carnivores around the place. the viruses are a sort of potential big bang. aids has nothing on them. it is nature striking back as it dies.

in our large cities, sewerage and outflows into waterways are killing the life within them. once it dies it is dead. economists say life is renewable. but
that is just b/c they are locked into continuous substitution models driven by relative prices. i am not. i think that before we run out of things nature will
exhibit signs of being unable to continue – and maybe the manifestation will be in plagues like we saw recently in zaire.

the evidence is there for all to see.

I also questioned the growth paradigm in the same response:

[Capitalism] … is a system which assesses its performance on material measures – more production, more profit, more accumulation and counts its aggregates principally in private terms …

so now we have some questions to ask …

so we need more demand. what will we produce?

how will we consume more boats and tennis outfits and surf boards and golf sticks and bikes etc, when the ozone hole keeps getting bigger so as to stop us
going out side when it shines?

already we know that the ozone hole (as one example) is a function of production. who is going to stop it getting bigger and how and when?

so to farming. are we going to keep farming the same way? when will the top soil run out? when will the soil become so salinated from the methods employed around the world so as to be unusable. we know that both erosion and salination increase with output.


the point is clear. i don’t think we can have full employment (as defined in the current LF framework approach) for all the people in the world. we have to
redefine what we mean by full employment …

I received some support from my good friend (now sadly deceased) Michael Perelman on that day, when he wrote:

Isn’t it sad? Bill’s point should be unobjectionable. We are killing the environment.

Yes, we need jobs to survive as well, but why are markets incapable of providing good jobs that provide good things that do not do harm.

If we just want jobs, we can just declare a bunch of wars. That usually works. Our war on the environment is an undeclared war, but the sort of
jobs it provides do little good for anyone except the collectors of surplus value.


I guess the only post keynesian theme I get from this is that in the long run we are all dead.

The debate simmered for a while.

Then Warren Mosler came onto the PKT list with his ideas and the two of us found much common ground and that commonality was the beginning of what we now refer to as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

That topic will be rehearsed in another publication coming soon.


It was rather extraordinary how much push back the ‘green’ ideas I was introducing to the PKT list received.

And it is no surprise to me that many progressives have now transitted into ‘green growth’ advocates within a capitalist economic structure funded by global financial capital.

The worst combination that one could think of.

For me, degrowth is the way forward – and from reading the PKT archives over the last week, it is clear I formed that view quite early on.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2024 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. For 99% of the population, degrowth began a long time ago.
    The remaining 1% of the population took the oportunity and is growing fatter and fatter, on the expense of the 99%.
    It’s there that we have to make things “greener” (sorry for the platitude)-
    Any other way will fail, unless they come up with another “final solution” (sort of what is happening in Gaza).

  2. Bill, In 1994 had you read any of Herman Daly’s or Kenneth Boulding’s research work ? Daly’s contribution to Ecological Economics was enormous. I know he was no socialist but he understood early on in his career that continued economic growth would destroy the planet. If not Daly did you read any of Bruno Latour’s work?

  3. “Bill, In 1994 had you read any of Herman Daly’s or Kenneth Boulding’s research work ?”

    Or The Limits to Growth (1972) by Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens.

    Just north of Tarbert on the Island of Harris in the Scottish Hebrides, are the ruins of the old whaling station, founded in 1904 by a Norwegian family firm. In the first decade of operations, it removed from the waters around St Kilda probably over half of what remained of an iconic whale species, the north-eastern Atlantic population of the North Atlantic right whale, which had been hunted by generations of Basque whalers off the coasts of Portugal, Spain and France since the 11th century. In 1904 this remnant population was on the point of recovery, but it is now critically endangered and probably extinct, as a result of the operations from this one whaling station.

    In The Limits to Growth (P151) the authors discuss the whaling industry during last century.

    “ While technology can change rapidly, political and social institutions generally change very slowly. Furthermore, they almost never change in anticipation of a social need, but only in response to one.

    Most delays, physical or social, reduce the stability of the world system and increase the likelihood of the overshoot mode.”

    “The basic choice that faces the whaling industry is the same one that faces any society trying to overcome a natural limit with a new new technology. Is it better to try to live within that limit by accepting a self-imposed restriction on growth? Or is it preferable to go on growing until some other natural limit arises, in the hope that at that time another technological leap will allow growth to continue still longer? For the last several hundred years human society has followed the second course so consistently and successfully that the first choice has been all but forgotten.

    There may be much disagreement with the statement that population and capital growth must stop soon. But virtually no one will argue that material growth on this planet can go on forever. At this point in man’s history, the choice posed above is still available in almost every sphere of human activity. Man can still choose his limits and stop when he pleases by weakening some of the strong pressures that cause capital and population growth, or by instituting counterpressures, or both. Such counterpressures will probably not be entirely pleasant. They will certainly involve profound changes in the social and economic structures that have been deeply impressed into human culture by centuries of growth. The alternative is to wait until the price of technology becomes more than society can pay, or until the side-effects of technology suppress growth themselves, or until problems arise that have no technical solutions. At any of those points the choice of limits will be gone. Growth will be stopped by pressures that are not of human choosing, and that, as the world model suggests, may be very much worse than those which society might choose for itself.”

    The ruins remaining today are the most substantial remains of any such whaling station in the northern hemisphere – and are part of an industrial pattern which saw the whalers move from country to country, and later ocean to ocean in pursuit of the whales, without apparently ever questioning whether their own activities were the cause of the growing scarcity of the whales. The Norwegian’s had provided faster, bigger boats, which increased the catch size tremendously – and when local stocks began to fall at the end of WWII, the company was purchased by Lord Leverburgh, who expanded operations to the south Atlantic and Antarctica, until dwindling catches and low cost alternatives to whale oil and meat became available, made the business unviable. Despite the advances in technology. As the authors in Limits to Growth conclude:

    “We have felt it necessary to dwell so long on an analysis of technology here because we have found that technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings from the world model. Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem—the problem of growth in a finite system—and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it.”

  4. Hi Bill

    One issue I have with the framing is the term “degrowth” due to its negative connotations for messaging.

    While I accept that it means we consume less physical resources, my view is that when you change the accounting conventions (as you suggest re measuring the “cost of public job schemes”) you also must change the accounting conventions defining “growth” to factor in the resource cost. So while there must be “degrowth” of human consumption of physical/natural resource, if the accounting convention treats that human consumption as a negative anyway by deducting the destruction of the natural world that accompanies the act of consumption, then the act of consuming is not necessarily an act of “growth” anyway. In this way, you can then define behaviours that consume less as “growth” activities. Indeed, so long as currency/financial assets remain the tools of economic organisation, activities which achieve agreed positive human outcomes while minimising or avoiding natural consumption are the true “growth” activities which should be remunerated more than the destructive activities, thus contributing to the redefined GDP or equivalent measure?

    In this paradigm, you are not asking people to give up economic growth, only to redefine it. I think that is more palatable to the ordinary person/voter.

    Instead of degrowth, could we call this “regrowth”?

  5. Dear Bill, thanks for the latest blog post. Everything you said I agree with, especially on system change (a la Marx) being necessary but not sufficient as we also need social changes along the lines you specify if we are to complete the revolutionary project of creating a better society for all (indeed, a good society in which there can be actual human flourishment).

  6. Hi Bill! Very interesting!

    Please explain your low-growth/de-growth trajectory since 2012, when you wrote a very powerful piece on the “New Economy” and criticized downloading to putatively communitarian schemes, withe Mondragon Cooperative as the example. I have relied on that post on occasion to discuss some of the failures of social finance, Third-Way welfare, micro-finance schemes. Most interesting was your argument that the New Economy cannot flourish with fiscal austerity — you noted:

    “A fully employed sustainable economy will still require real GDP growth rates of say 2-3 per cent (depending on labour productivity and labour force growth). It will still require aggregate demand (spending) to grow. But its employment structures will be very different.”

    I support that view, but noted that what really counted was de-growth in physical throughput, following Peter Victor.

    So where do you stand now?

  7. We were always going to get to this place once the work multiplier of concentrated solar energy in the form of fossil fuels was applied to human productivity. That work multiplier has enabled an explosive growth in human population (from 2.5B to 8B in my lifetime) and life terms through improved hygiene; unimaginable advances in the sciences (no, not economics) and their application to technological products further adding to our capacity for negentropy through the application of ever more energy. All the while ignoring the effects of generated wastes on the biosphere (our closed life support system) from an exponentially growing human consumption. Those wastes are designated by our absurd extractive capitalist economics as an externality to be left out of any consideration that is not scientifically based.

    By ignoring the externalities, capitalism combined with fossil fuel energy has facilitated the rapidity with which humans have approached and exceeded planetary boundaries for life to thrive on earth in a steady state. A boom and bust is typical of any mammalian lifeform and we were always going to get there, subject to an equable environment, even though it would have been somewhere further into the future. Fossil fuels plus capitalism combined with human stupidity has compressed the timeline as we can see looking back from where we are today.

    There probably aren’t many who are not part of the sciences and engineering side of things that actually have a best sense of what is coming at us. While the environmental sciences folks must be apoplectic knowing what they know and watching the masses waffle on about things such as net zero by 2050. And politicians still talking about the financial cost (look at the size of that BIG number) while trying to maintain the continuity of extractive capitalism on behalf of those actually running everything!!!! The war started long ago and we haven’t responded as we needed to.

    More power to your keyboard, Professor.

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