Commentary social climate policy: leftists in the growth trap

More and more for everyone – that has long been the premise of socially just economic policy. The climate crisis now shows just how high the price is for this.

Does Germany really need hundreds of new bypasses every year? Photo: dpa/Bernd Georg

Since climate protection has become increasingly important to the population, the SPD and also the Left Party have been losing more and more votes to the Greens. Now the Social Democrats want to pay more attention to climate protection, says interim parliamentary group leader Rolf Mutzenich. But the new commitments do not sound very resolute.

The Left Party has climate protection in its program, but there is no talk of an offensive socio-ecological strategy. In the Brandenburg state government, the Left Party even defends lignite mining. And from the industrial unions, one hears almost nothing at all about climate protection. When in doubt, they join the car and energy companies in protecting old production structures against environmentalists, as in the diesel crisis or the coal phase-out.

There is a reason why social democrats, trade unions, leftists and even many left-oriented economists have no answer to the climate question: They are at least as deeply stuck in the growth trap as conservatives or liberals.

For decades, leftist movements have relied on a radical concept of growth from the last century, or even the century before last, in their important struggle for more social justice. Whether Marxist-inspired or not, they want to develop the productive forces of the economy as far as possible so that it generates the highest possible returns. They want to distribute these yields as fairly as possible to as many people as possible.

Mass production was perfected

To this end, trade unions are calling for higher wages so that profits are not left to entrepreneurs alone. Social democrats advocate higher social benefits, such as the current basic pension, to improve the living standards of the little people. And especially in times of crisis, leftists advocate additional state investment, especially in education and health, but also in infrastructure, roads and railways.

The democratization of consumption is no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem

Produce more, work more, buy more – and everything will be fine. This dream of "more and more for everyone" is also the dream of most social democrats and trade unionists. Their vision of social justice also includes democratizing consumption as much as possible: As many people as possible should be able to afford as much as possible.

And their policies have been quite successful. Even if poverty and unemployment could not be avoided entirely, this strategy has given people in industrialized countries like Germany a constantly rising standard of living. Mass production has been perfected and globalized to such an extent that technical devices in particular are constantly becoming cheaper – and thus available to more people.

But today everyone realizes how high the price is for this growth policy. All studies on the causes of global warming make it clear that the constant striving for more has been hitting ecological limits for years. Regular wage increases drive the cycle of mass consumption and mass production and, in this way, the constant overuse of resources that heat up the climate.

Investments do not per se improve climate protection

When asked about this, left-wing politicians and economists repeatedly rely on the magic word "investment." But investments do not per se improve climate protection. There is nothing to be said against more money for schools, daycare centers, hospitals and nursing homes. And there is certainly nothing to be said against more money for renewable energies in terms of climate policy. But does Germany really need 39 airports and hundreds of new bypasses and industrial parks every year? Which then generate even more traffic and new appetites for bypasses.

Does Germany really need more and more disposable goods, the constant replacement of technical devices with a new one? Does this rich country still need more investment in factory farming, even though food is being thrown away on the other side? These questions show: Meanwhile, goals such as democratizing consumption and increasing productive forces are no longer part of the solution, but part of the problem. And the left is stuck in the growth trap.

So that there are no misunderstandings: The left-wing demands for more social justice remain important, especially for climate policy. Otherwise, the poor pay the bill for climate protection, while the rich continue to consume as before. But a blanket policy of "more and more for everyone," as is currently still being pursued and propagated, is not sustainable.

On the contrary. Sustainable climate protection requires less of some things: less burning of oil, coal and gas; fewer cars; fewer airplanes, less throwaway consumption; less transportation; less meat, fewer global products with high transportation costs.

Renovate more instead of tearing down

On the other hand, there can be much more of some things than there is today: more sharing of goods, such as car sharing; more repairing instead of throwing away; more renovating instead of tearing down; more durable goods instead of throwaway products; more time through shorter working hours instead of higher wages; more bike paths, trains and buses; more regional products with less transport effort.

Climate change is not compatible with conventional ideas of maximum growth. It requires fundamental changes in the way we do business and live. However, these changes will only be accepted if people feel they are being treated fairly. Who else should guarantee this justice if not the left? But they cannot fulfill this task as long as they do not design a social-ecological economic strategy and simply cling to the growth dogmas of the last century.