books growth

Book review: Less is More, by Jason Hickel

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.

  • Less is More is available from Hive, or from capitalist behemoths Amazon UK / US if strictly necessary.

13 comments

  1. I did not actually use the term ‘degrowth’ in my book “Towards Oikos” but that was what it was all about; that and a World Parliament. I am now on the search for writings that incorporate both concepts – this would include Jeremy your new interest in the interaction of racism and climate change.

  2. Jeremy whether concerning Climate activism or general environmental activism from the large or prominent NGO’s would you say limits to growth has been missing in action?

    1. It’s an interesting one, because the influence of limits to growth is clearly embedded in a lot of environmental thinking, but it is rarely explicitly mentioned. That’s partly because it has been superceded by newer ideas, such as planetary boundaries. Others choose not to mention it as it’s so easily raises red flags for people – even many environmentalists seem to consider it to be ‘debunked’, although you can usually tell if they’ve read the original report or not.

      Hickel mentions them and says that he doesn’t find the framing of limits particularly useful, because it’s not how nature works. Nature is best understood as a network of interconnected relationships, rather than a set of rules or quantifiable limits. I’ll have to look up the exact quote.

      1. Wait what? He writes a book about degrowth and doesn’t see the framing of limits particularly useful? How does he square that circle?

        Anyway, the trouble is the economy as it is now, plus many pushing renewables as the main answer at least regarding Climate change, seem still to think infinite growth on a finite planet is still possible. For instance, I was told Bill McKibben has been talking about degrowth for decades but if you go to 350.org you won’t find it as an important theme. In fact, you have to did to find a passing reference to a youth Degrowth camp in Europe. I fail to see how we do the Doughnut and not address limits to growth by degrowth. & rather than superseding I’d rather say they complement or expand on the original Limites of Growth work.

        1. It’s not a rejection of the Limits to Growth, it’s quite a nuanced discussion of the framing of limits, not the idea of limits itself. It runs over several pages, but to dig out a key passage:

          “The problem with the Limits to Growth report is that it focused only on the finite nature of the resources that we need to keep the economy running. This way of thinking is vulnerable to those who point out that if we can find new reserves, or subsitute new resources for old, and if we develop methods of improving the yields of renewable resources, then we don’t have to worry about those limits…But this isn’t how ecology actually works. The problem with economic growth isn’t just that we might run out of resouces at some point. The problem is that it progressively degrades the integrity of ecosystems.”

          Another bit says:

          “trying to predict when we might bump into the limits to growth is exactly the wrong way to think about it. We will find ourselves plunging into ecological collapse well before we run into the limits to growth. Once we realise this, it completely changes the way we think about the question of limits.”

          1. Framing is another issue granted but I still cannot run with the second one as this is exactly what the Club of Rome was talking about with environemtal/societal collaspe. It wasn’t just about theoretical limits to economic growth separate from the global enviroment it operates in.

            Anyway I will get it later after I’ve read Exploring Degrowth : A Critical Guide by Liegey & Nelson.

  3. The risk with limits is that people think ‘how much can I get away with?’ Like speed limits – just because you can legally do 70MPH doesn’t mean it’s wise.

    No serious environmentalist thinks like that, and neither does the Limits to Growth report. But it’s what industry or politicians do with the idea that can make it risky. The problems with the framing of limits to growth is much more to do with how they can be misused than the legitimacy of the concept itself.

    1. Hmm not sure how you convey why you even need something like a doughnut economy/steady state economy or ecological overshoot if not with a big picture view of limits. Especially so when you have many seeing no limits or that all we need is a energy transition and we can keep growing the global economy. These people will ignore it anyway as many do on CO2 limits.

      & given we don’t know where exactly that limit should be on CO2 even if we know it can only get worse with higher concentrations, would you say this sort of flaw in ‘limits’ thinking also applies there? Or is it limits by stealth, we look to change the thinking but not talk about limits? Good luck with that one.

  4. If someone says we can emit 100 tonnes of waste and that’s the limit, some people will want to emit 99.9 tonnes. If we have 10 years to save the planet, some will plan to act in December 2030. That’s the danger with the framing of limits. It makes people start at the wrong end.

    What we need is questions and framings that re-orient the problem. Not ‘how to avoid making the tiger extinct?’, but ‘how will the tiger thrive?’ Not ‘how much biodiversity can we safely destroy?’, but ‘how can we create regenerative systems that enhance biodiversity?’ Not ‘how much is too much?’ but ‘how much is enough?’

    Limits are real, no question about that. But the way we articulate the problem will shape the solutions, especially with people who are keen to do the absolute minimum.

    But that’s my interpretation, anyway. I’ll let you read the book and decide for yourself!

  5. This book sounds really interesting. It reminds me of some of the ideas about the economy of nature being based on gift exchange, found in the book of Anne Primavesi ‘Making God Laugh.’ More generally, I think insufficient attention is paid to the historic roots of why it is that growth has come to be seen as such a sacred cow – I would point to instrumentalism as a way of viewing and interacting with nature as an important one, and suggest that Christians should remember with humility the part that particular theologies played in the ‘disenchantment’ of nature from the 16th Century onwards.

    1. You’re right, and the book does take a look at those historical roots and how religion legitimised certain approaches to nature and conquest. There’s also some interesting material towards the end that considers less instrumentalist views of nature, and what we might learn from indigenous cultures.

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