Less is More is a book with an ambitious subtitle: How Degrowth Will Save the World. That’s a big claim, but this is by Jason Hickel, one of the most thoughtful proponents of postgrowth thinking, and author of The Divide, one of my favourite books of 2018. He has a better chance than most at backing that up.
Degrowth is often used as a confrontational word, but here it is used more hopefully. There is a nuanced view of what the world needs less of and what it needs more of, creating an inspiringly holistic vision for “how we can shift from an economy that’s organised around domination and extraction to one that’s rooted in reciprocity with the living world”.
Just as The Divide looked to history to account for global inequality, Less is More looks back to trace the origins of ‘growthism’. It digs back through climate change to fossil fuels, to economic growth and to capitalism. Capitalism “has a kind of totalitarian logic to it: every industry, every sector, every national economy must grow, all the time, with no identifiable end-point.” A central principle of capitalism is to take more than you give. Historically, that process has driven empire and slavery, and today it drives climate change and ecological breakdown. Wealthier countries take from the global atmosphere in yet another form of colonialism.
Obviously talking about capitalism is anything other than glowing deference is a kind of heresy. But Hickel has little time for this, and says that shutting down the conversation about capitalism is to be naive about the power of human creativity. Besides, young people are not afraid of this conversation. If adults won’t have it, the next generation will, and aging capitalists will have to sulkily put up with the better world they create despite them.
One of the most damaging things about capitalism is that it is “fundamentally unhinged from any conception of human need.” It piles its rewards onto the wealthiest first. The more dire the poverty, the more invisible it is to capital. And it takes no account of what it destroys in the process of turning things into money.
Instead, we should find ways to prioritise what matters most. More, in already wealthy countries, is not something that matters – something that Katherine Trebeck and I describe in our book The Economics of Arrival. Hickel calculates that with better distribution and investment in public goods, the US economy could be 65% smaller with no loss in wellbeing. Good lives are grounded in community, meaningful work, in societies that cooperate rather than compete. People and planet are being pushed to breaking point to no good end, says Hickel. “The excess GDP that characterises the richest nations wins them nothing when it comes to what really matters.”
As the book moves into its solutions, a series of antidotes to growth are revealed. Justice is one of them. Abundance is another – growth actually relies on people being unsatisfied or even deprived. An abundant public affluence defuses the growth imperative. Commons approaches and regenerative development feature. These sorts of ideas hint at much more interesting possibilities for a post-capitalist future – well beyond the knee-jerk cliches of either a centrally planned economy or a life of primitive simplicity.
“For 500 years,” Hickel writes, “capitalist growth has been a process of enclosure and dispossession. Degrowth represents a reversal of this process. It represents release. It represents an opportunity for healing, recovery and repair.”
This is an elegant evolution of degrowth ideas, expanding what the term can mean. “Degrowth begins as a process of taking less. But in the end it opens up whole vistas of possibility. It moves us from scarcity to abundance, from extraction to regeneration, from dominion to reciprocity, and from loneliness and separation to connection with a world that’s fizzing with life.”
Hard to argue with that. Perhaps degrowth will save the world.