Book Review – Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World

Book cover

“Degrowth the economy” has a ring of “defund the police” about it. It sounds bad, counter-intuitive and a threat to security. Surely, if we degrow, we become poorer and less able to provide services that society needs?

These are obvious questions, the answer probably starts with the issue of notions of rich and poor. As much of my most recent reading has highlighted, for as long as wealth is measured in terms of money and its exchange value; i.e. the amount of stuff we can buy with it, the poorer we become as a species. But that is largely what GDP is, a measure of value in terms of the quantified and expressed in units, usually a currency, that are convertible and comparable with other currencies.

Hickel’s final chapter is thought provoking. He’s an anthropologist, not an economist; it is that multi-disciplinarity that is so helpful in debates about economies and climate change. Hickel takes us into the disappearing world of indigenous peoples living in the forests of South America and Asia. These people live in very close proximity to nature, are reliant on it and are deeply conscious that over-exploitation will lead to shortages. Take too many fish and they will not reproduce in sustainable numbers. Sustainable here means the same for the fish as those who rely on them for food.

These indigenous people do this by viewing the natural world not as “other”; in our “developed-world terms, as objects to be exploited. Rather, the natural world is full of subjects that, for some indigenous peoples, have souls. Having a soul (note that is not humans granting other living things a soul, rather other things having immanent souls). Hickel (below right) is not just talking about higher mammals; this stretches to plants (way more sophisticated than we give them credit for) and (even the) micro-organisms that digest our food and manufacture the nutrients that make us work.

Of course, if we have a view of the world where other living things have souls – though that does not make them the same as us – then it necessitates a less exploitative relationship with “other”. As we have seen so often in the developed human world, if we ascribe other living things object status rather than subject status, they become eminently exploitable. And in any way that the exploiter sees fit. We do this to the indigenous people (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil seeks to exterminate indigenous Amazonian people to exploit their lands); but our favourite economic system – capitalism – was based on subject-object distinctions. Colonialisation is a case in point. Indigenous people find themselves objects even if they themselves had seen the colonialists as subjects (albeit with weapons). 

If anyone thinks that it is not possible to ascribe subject status to things that are not human, one does not have to go much further than the US Supreme Court that interpreted the Constitution to include corporations as having the same liberties as individuals – at the time, of course, white males with property. That said, that decision was much to the chagrin of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who could see the dangers (Mintzberg, 2015).

And so to capitalism. Capitalism is a system dependent on unsustainable exploitation of resources. Our measure of GDP does this for us. It is the measure that tells us that we are in growth, recession or depression; but perversely, we can increase it by wrecking a ship full of oil because GDP measures the “clean-up” operation but not the damage done by the oil on the landscape, the wildlife and the eco-system more generally. 

Governments revel at levels of 3 per cent growth and we are amazed and envious when countries achieve 8 per cent and more. We must process what that means. At a rate of 3 per cent per year, an economy will effectively double in 30 years. That is double the resource extraction, too. As we now know, this is unsustainable. We need, argues, Hickel, to degrow.

Capitalism extracts from us more and more work. We once thought that technology would enable us to spend less time working. But it has not proved to be the case. The machines, like the one I am using now, makes it possible for me to do things that my predecessors would have given to others to do. In my work at a university, I am an imperfect IT technician as well as a lecturer. I do administration, too, all facilitated by technology and all displacing work from – and for – others who are not rewarded with more leisure time, but rather with unemployment and poverty. The excess goes to owners and executives.

Hickel reports that if we have more time, we use it not to consume more, but to spend time with family and friends. We also volunteer more. We are healthier. And we emit less greenhouse gas. Actually, we take more short flights when we work long hours as we seek, through the logic of capitalism, to “make the most” of the free time that we have. That has become synonymous with consumption. And what’s more “…nearly a third of all labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half century has been done to make rich people richer.” (p29) That stays with me as a thought.

This is what degrowth means that:

  • we work less but are more productive in the process; remove the scarcity of jobs that leads to people working longer and for lower wages. There is actually no scarcity of work in modern economies; 
  • we should advertise less and reduce the creation of wants over needs;
  • built-in obsolescence in products is ended – everything is repairable;
  • we share more (shift from ownership to usership). Equally, expand the commons – land, in particular. 
  • ecologically damaging industries are scaled back (e.g. red meat production);
  • we invest in meaningful jobs and guarantee them (in line with Stephanie Kelton’s thinking
  • we reduce inequality – more equal societies consume less and are less wasteful. The people are happier;
  • debt is cancelled for poor countries (so-called Jubilee). In order to pay the debt, countries exploit natural resources unsustainably;
  • we end debt-based currency – banks create currency from every loan they make. Compound interest is also ended;
  • we broaden democracy and participation, end lobbying/political advertising. Elite control of news media is ended. Industrial democracy becomes the norm in firms. Monopolies are broken up;
  • the power structures in key global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are flattened.

Degrowth book coverLike all of the books I review, there is much more to them than the contents of this blog post. Hickel has a style that is satisfying. As an academic, he eschews too much anecdote and comprehensively gives citations and endnotes. This contrasts with Rutger Bergmann who is equally erudite, but less academically rigorous. However, it is annoying that Hickel’s book does not have an index, but that is labour-intensive, I know. My next task is to backtrack a little on degrowth with D’Alisa et al (left). 

Hickel photo – Goldsmiths College

Mintzberg, H (2015), Rebalancing Society.

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