Noxious deindustrialisation: Connecting precarity and the ecological crisis


Last year, world leaders got together at COP26 to discuss how to fight climate change, within capitalism of course. Speaking of which, only 23 miles away from Glasgow – in Grangemouth – lies INEOS’s refinery and petrochemical complex, owned by self-made businessman Jim Ratcliffe. One of the richest men in the UK with a net worth of $15 billion, the self-styled “alchemist” does not shy away from controversy. His vocal patriotism did not stop him from moving his tax residence to Monaco, nor did his much vaunted working-class background prevent him from crushing the unions in a 2013 dispute in Grangemouth itself. The COP26 policymakers – focused as they were on attempts to “unleash the trillions in private finance” – might have known that INEOS is also by far the biggest industrial carbon emitter in Scotland, and that Ratcliffe led the charge to clear the way for fracking in the UK.

According to the industry, the reason why the egregious inequalities and environmental damage exemplified by INEOS should be accepted is the jobs. Industrial jobs, more precisely, as evidenced by Ratcliffe’s promises to “put the factories back”. Indeed, large-scale industry is both an ideal-typical provider of secure, well-paid jobs and an ill-famed environmental felon. The result is the so-called “jobs versus environment dilemma”, the notion that, if something is to be gained in terms of good jobs, something must be lost on the side of health and the environment. The understanding of the jobs versus environment dilemma as a zero-sum game has been criticised as too pessimistic by the advocates of just transitions, a positive-sum game in which industry is transformed to be sustainable and provide good jobs at the same time (although the political transformations necessary for this are often underestimated). In a way, however, the zero-sum game position is also too optimistic. This is because it fails to consider the reality of what I call “noxious deindustrialisation”: the negative-sum game in which industrial job losses and environmental degradation progress simultaneously.

Noxiousness refers to production-induced damage against both human and non-human life and goes beyond pollution and accidents to encompass the hazards for mental and physical health engendered by rising inequality, precarious work patterns, loosening community ties, and other social phenomena resulting from how production is organised. I understand noxious deindustrialisation as employment deindustrialisation in areas where significantly noxious industries are still operating. Deindustrialisation thus defined can well coexist with continuing or even growing industrial production.

Noxious deindustrialisation, global and local

As employment deindustrialisation is measured by the share of manufacturing in total employment in a given area, noxious deindustrialisation is a scalable concept: it can be applied to local communities as well as to the national, regional, and global levels. The intersection of employment deindustrialisation and cumulative noxiousness on a global scale can be assessed by comparing statistics on manufacturing employment and CO2 emissions. The latter is an admittedly simplistic proxy for noxiousness, as it is possible to imagine a situation of noxious deindustrialisation in which CO2 emissions are brought to net zero but the ecological crisis persists due to other forms of noxiousness. Even so, there are interesting observations to be made.

ILOSTAT estimates on the global share of manufacturing employment are available from 1991 only. They report the figure to have slowly declined from 16.4% in 1991 to 13% in 2020. Over the same period, total yearly CO2 emissions increased from 23 to 36 billion tonnes, according to the Global Carbon Project. Additionally, between 1991 and 2018, yearly CO2 emissions generated by industrial production directly rose from 4.4 to 7.6 billion tonnes, according to Climate Analysis Indicators Tool.

In sum, since the dawn of capitalism, the global share of manufacturing employment and CO2 emissions have long increased in tandem. However, at some point of the second half of the 20th century there has been a decoupling between the two historical series: the share of manufacturing employment peaked while yearly CO2 emissions continued to soar despite improvements in the environmental performance of industry, mainly due to the (slow) rise in global output over this period.

This global trend is iterated in extremely different ways across countries, depending on the timing and scale of national-level industrialisation. In an early industrialiser such as the USA, employment deindustrialisation had already begun in the 1950s. In a late industrialiser like Italy, it only started in the 1980s. In a “very late” industrialiser such as China, it has probably surfaced in the past decade. Where industrialisation attempts never really came to fruition, for example in Morocco, manufacturing employment peaked before the country could be said to have industrialised at all, deindustrialisation was “imported” together with cheap manufactured products.

Locally, noxious deindustrialisation eroded the post-WWII community-industry social contract in many sites where such compromise used to exist. Grangemouth is a dramatic example of local noxious deindustrialisation. In Scotland’s petrochemical capital, the steep fall in the quantity and quality of industrial jobs available to the locals – coupled with a decline in tax revenues – unfolded in the shadow of the uninterrupted operations of its smokestacks. According to Scotland’s Census data for Grangemouth, in 1961 manufacturing in total employment stood at 55%, with “chemicals and allied industries” constituting a staggering 44.5% of total employment. Fifty years later, manufacturing in total employment had been dashed to 13%. The combination of automation, rising qualification barriers and associated long-range recruiting, and outsourcing to a partially itinerant workforce led to the current situation of noxious deindustrialisation, in which the Grangemouth community no longer significantly benefits from the industry in terms of jobs and public services, but is still exposed to its socioenvironmental noxiousness.

Employment deindustrialisation and cumulative noxiousness

Many argue that threats to employment levels are due to the prowess of digital technologies. However, Aaron Benanav has convincingly shown that profit-driven technological change led to global employment deindustrialisation and growing underemployment in recent decades not because of exceptionally high productivity gains but because of exceptionally low output growth. In other words, global economic growth is so slow that even modest productivity gains are faster, and thus impact upon employment. In Benanav’s account, slow growth results from overcapacity in industry and the causal chain stops there. Nonetheless, as Alexis Moraitis and Jack Copley note, capitalist automation and slow growth are best seen as interrelated, as the race to produce more goods with less labour time lowers prices and thus puts a pressure on profit rates. In turn, weak profitability leads to sputtering investment and ultimately to the economic stagnation we see today.

In such a context of stagnation, the erosion of jobs affected by technological change advances more rapidly than the creation of new employment elsewhere at similar relative wages and conditions. As most people still need to work for a living, the outcome – rather than mass unemployment – is a relative decrease in the share of secure, core workers and increasing precarity and outsourcing in countries and sectors that used to guarantee certain levels of job security to parts of their workforces. Additionally, as shown by Phoebe Moore, digitalisation enabled a new leap forward in worker surveillance.

Technological change in large-scale industry also transformed the skills composition of its workforce. In fact, the codified knowledge required to operate highly automated systems must be acquired through formal education rather than learning-by-doing on the job. Consequently, fewer local community members can make inroads in the core workforce because the fewer jobs available there are awarded not based on geographical convenience and informal, localised mechanisms of skills transfer, but according to rankings in deterritorialised educational proficiency. The disembedding of the workforce from local communities lowers the latter’s incentives to overlook industrial noxiousness and – combined with the general increase of public environmental awareness – enhances the likelihood of community-industry tensions.

Indeed, large-scale industry has increasingly been targeted over greenhouse gases and persistent pollutants impacting on the global environment and industrial hazards and toxic emissions threatening petrochemical workers and fenceline communities locally. In recent decades, overall health and environmental standards have improved due to growing regulation. However, green techno-fixes have been offset by output growth and the cumulative nature of environmental degradation. It is the accumulation of noxiousness that led to today’s planetary ecological crisis, with its well-known predicaments including global heating, biodiversity loss, soil depletion, plastic pollution, etc. As greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, dioxins pile up in food chains, desertification, and deforestation march on, plastics are amassed in the oceans, moderate improvements in the environmental performance of large-scale industry are insufficient to tackle the ecological crisis. This contributes to explain the apparent contradiction that environmental sensibility is more widespread today than when industry was in fact more polluting.

Green capitalism is not the answer

Local community concerns vis-à-vis major industrial installations are often dismissed as selfish and in contradiction with the general interest. Yet the dystopian picture of steep inequality, employment precarity, cumulative environmental degradation, and weakening community ties painted by noxious deindustrialisation is something one can be forgiven to be worried about. More so because, if the combination of automation and slow economic growth spurs employment deindustrialisation onwards, which is a very real possibility on a global level, noxious deindustrialisation will deepen. In the current ecological crisis, local criticisms of highly polluting sites can become more aligned with the “general interest” – always an open and contested notion – than their defence.

While many long for a return to a romanticised golden age of industrial capitalism, this is both impossible and undesirable because the output growth necessary to re-industrialise employment would be incompatible with the sustained reproduction of life on the planet. However, the capitalist alternative to smokestack nostalgia, the green private investment strategy that is hegemonising mainstream policy circles such as COP26, is also unlikely to help.

The heart of the matter is that the capitalist economy is driven by profit: money is invested only if a gain on the initial sum is expected. Endless GDP growth is necessary for jobs to be created and maintained, regardless of the environmental consequences. Furthermore, the profitability of a firm does not result from efficiency only, but also from the ability to produce things that people will buy. However, choosing what to consume on the market is not the same as doing it via democratic planning. Market choices are intrinsically individualist and short-term, while democratic planning is collective and potentially far-sighted. In sum, the profit motive makes capitalist development quantitatively unbound while market-based choices make it qualitatively blind to environmental degradation.

To keep the economy moving, profitability must be safeguarded by cutting costs, yet even limited job security guarantees and health and environmental regulations are dear. Alas, costs have not declined rapidly enough, therefore stagnation and employment deindustrialisation continue, leading to a vicious circle of more precarisation and noxiousness to revive profitability. Employment precarisation and cumulative noxiousness are far from incompatible, they both result from the capitalist imperative to economise while producing evermore commodities.

Just like the extraction of hydrocarbons in a planet where the best reserves are depleted and the atmosphere is packed with CO2 can only happen at the cost of even more destructive practices such as fracking, the extraction of profits in a society where it takes so little labour time to produce enormous amounts of wealth can only happen at the cost of further employment precarisation and environmental destruction. Rather than incentives to private investment, a way forward is mass mobilisation reclaiming wealth redistribution (including reparations to the Global South), shorter working hours (diminishing the need for job creation in the first place), and a just transformation of production and consumption towards sustainability and decommodification (driven by public and social investment). Global wealth redistribution is necessary to make working less – and better –socially sustainable, as transitional steps towards a world where production and consumption are driven by a democratic vision encompassing the ecologies that we are part of.