Book Review by Justin H. Vassallo
The window for countries to alter earth’s frightening ecological trajectory is rapidly passing. As climate change has morphed into a climate crisis over the past twenty years, the proposed solutions that would reshape economic life have become more urgent and bold. Especially since legislation for a Green New Deal in the United States was introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in 2019, progressives have made climate justice focal to how we approach employment and innovation, living standards, and social equity. The core principle is that without climate justice, policies to create a more egalitarian society will fall terribly short—and might have no lasting impact at all. Yet as potent as the concept of a green economy is, the radical requirements that climate justice entails expose a rift between reformers and those seeking systemic change, one that has implications for how activists articulate what’s at stake in the crucial decade ahead.
Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World, a new book by London-based economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, confronts that rift, delineating the gulf between “green” growth strategies, on the one hand, and the transition to a post-capitalist economy, on the other. A fundamental problem, according to Hickel, is that “green” growth is a “fantasy” with “no empirical support” that ultimately reinforces the ubiquity of “growthism” in politics. As Hickel reiterates throughout Less Is More, capitalism has put enormous strain on ecological interdependence, bringing us closer to tipping points where earth’s resilience becomes exhausted and intensifying feedback loops precipitate more and more interrelated crises. Hickel argues a Green New Deal will only succeed in arresting our acceleration toward these tipping points if it revolutionizes how governments, economists, and societies themselves think about growth. In short, our whole understanding of political economy must abandon the unsustainable and unethical primacy that has been attached to growth since industrialization.
Through a brisk but vivid history of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Less Is More sketches the concepts and practices that, over time, equated growth with progress, and thus made it a precondition of public policy on a global scale. A slow but critical turning point arrived in Europe during the early modern period, when the gains of successive peasant rebellions were reversed through the enclosure of the commons under the emergent capitalist theory of “improvement.” This practice justified the dispossession of land if it could be put to more productive use under private ownership, thereby prioritizing exchange-value over use-value and extending the commodification of agriculture, petty manufacture, and human labour throughout society. The embryonic nation-state and capitalist class created artificial scarcity for the now propertyless, wage-dependent masses, while extending the logic of improvement to distant colonies that would supply, often through slavery or other comparably brutal methods, many of the raw materials fuelling industrialization.
Across several pithy passages, Hickel takes aim at capitalism’s ontological drive to separate humans from nature, and segment each into different categories of resources. “Improvement,” he writes, “became the alibi for appropriation.” Implicit in Hickel’s analysis is the idea that capitalism’s power to place individuals in direct competition with each other marked a departure from previous forms of social organization and economic activity, as well as prior methods of domination by elites. He argues “those principles of homo economicus that we assume to be engraved in human nature were instituted during the enclosure process;” through the philosophy of “dualism,” the imperative to render as many natural things as possible into commodities superseded human reciprocity with the rest of the natural world.
Hickel’s intent is to guide readers who are new to climate change discourse and want to understand the long arc that has brought us to this pivotal moment in history. Advanced industrialization and two World Wars spread technological modernity throughout North America and Europe while solidifying the power structure between wealthy and poorer countries that would frequently stagnate the latter’s development. At the same time the profession of economics created new standards to measure economic activity, but the way economic performance was measured became overwhelmingly concerned with Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Rather than take a holistic approach to evaluating a country’s economy through indices of public welfare, mainstream economics amplified capital’s constant need to expand. Hickel reminds us that when the postwar Keynesian era and its corresponding anti-colonial struggles came to an end, “growthism” overcame more equitable ideas of state-led development in the Global South while neoliberalism began to shrink the welfare states of the Global North.
“Growthism,” according to Hickel, amounted to an “ideological coup,” because it popularised the false equation of GDP and human progress at an unprecedented level. Just as the environmental movement was picking up steam, expanding global supply chains propped up and spread Western-style consumerism. Meanwhile, structural adjustment programmes from international financial institutions compelled developing countries to privatise their assets and offer extremely lax regulations to lure foreign investors and multinational firms. By the end of the Cold War, the world-view of Western policymakers trumpeting the ceaseless quest for growth remained insular despite clear and mounting evidence that anthropogenic climate change threatened calamity. As with the rationalisation of “improvement” in the past, the ideology of growth as a global social good invariably externalised the costs to habitats and the world’s poor whenever possible.
For those who look to the recent past to understand where capitalism ostensibly went wrong, Hickel’s point is sobering. Even when the modern welfare state reached its now-eulogized apogee, that historically unique period of “shared prosperity” was partly contingent on vast amounts of appropriation that had gone on for centuries. It also excluded millions of people within and without the world’s industrialised “core.” Globalisation promised a future in which all economies would benefit, yet, contrary to its proponents, it hasn’t reduced the challenges of poverty and under-development in most cases. In fact, it has often introduced a particularly aggressive form of income polarisation, all while buttressing patterns of elite consumption that violently test planetary boundaries.
The upshot, for Hickel, is clear: there is no feasible path to revive democratic capitalism, and attempts to do so would deprive us of the precious time needed to devise and implement an approach to global economics based on radical solidarity. Degrowth, in turn, can be seen as a form of global reparations, both through redistribution and the restoration of our commons.
Unfortunately, when discussing obstacles to fighting climate change, many reform-oriented policymakers and politicians limit their focus to the fossil fuel industries, without invoking the broader history Hickel navigates. Nefarious as the big fossil fuel firms are, it has been well within the means of government to resist routine policy capture by them, and effectuate stringent regulations while fostering renewable energy production on a much grander scale. Although we should decry this failure of political will, the emphasis on a few colossal culprits evades a more honest discussion of the costs that the Global North’s wealthiest countries—and their richest echelons—have imposed on the planet. So long that self-described progressive leaders seek to “fix” capitalism and inscribe it with new ways to obtain “shared prosperity” through growth, regulatory power will favour innovative firms over unadaptive behemoths without significantly changing the other nodes of extraction that drive global inequality and climate change.
Hickel warns that an overriding focus on renewables doesn’t disentangle us from the false imperatives of growth. Green growth, moreover, is an oxymoron, because “the transition to renewables is going to require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals” that “will exacerbate an already existing crisis of over-extraction.” To keep the global economy from raising earth’s temperature beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius—a level that would continue the environmental disruption unfolding on every continent, but perhaps prevent the kind of widespread societal collapse that three degrees or more would bring—the transition to renewables must be offset by concerted efforts to reduce the total material footprint of the wealthiest, biggest economies.
Given that globalisation has cemented the idea that modernity and growth are inextricable, Hickel’s post-capitalist prescription, shared by young activists like Greta Thunberg and the members of Extinction Rebellion, radically breaks from normal politics. The crux of Less Is More is that the artificial scarcity demanded of capitalism has led to a growth model that threatens real scarcity, since breaches in planetary boundaries risk destroying the regenerative capacities of our ecosystems. To detractors of degrowth and ecological economics, “less is more” really is Hickel’s point: if compound growth will upend human civilization through irreversible tipping points, the antidote is recognising that we have the means to provide abundance without perpetuating dangerous levels of extraction.
For those who dream of a different global economy, envisioning post-capitalist governance is genuinely exciting, but it presents an almost unfathomable challenge. How do you persuade a few billion people to unlearn modes of being under advanced capitalism and assure them that a new politics of stewardship and redistribution will facilitate both security and a meaningful life? Supposing a majority of the world’s population accepts the science of climate change, how do you catapult the right candidates into legislative majorities that will extinguish major polluters and administer a de-growth agenda in time to make a difference? These are demanding questions, freighted with the knowledge that in countries like the United States, the dominance of capitalist political parties has long made any form of socialism synonymous with impoverishment.
There are partial answers to be found in Less Is More’s post-capitalist framework, some of which have been elaborated more fully in other recent climate change literature, like Ann Pettifor’s The Case For The Green New Deal. Throughout his discussion of the pragmatic changes governments can make, Hickel commends the quality of life furnished through Scandinavia’s capitalist welfare states, but he cites Costa Rica as an ideal approximation of an egalitarian, steady state economy that has achieved strong standards for human development. In general, Hickel is at his most persuasive when he reminds us that high levels of inequality sow unhappiness. From planned obsolescence of modern household goods to the creation (or rebranding) of luxuries, so much of economic life is governed by a spirit of insufficiency, which is made all the more burdensome through the unconscionable scarcity of the actual things that make society cohere: healthcare, education, housing, nutrition, and well-compensated work.
The issue of how to divide labour in a green economy and ensure good wages looms large for degrowth advocates. But, contrary to objections that degrowth amounts to austerity or a formula for economic blight, it can complement demands of the labour movement. At the individual state level, a proper degrowth policy would reassert the importance of labour’s de-commodification through a strong, universal welfare state, and ensure full employment through a shorter work week, allowing more time for family and leisure. By greatly reducing carbon-intensive industries, public policy could strengthen local industry, sustainable agriculture, and care work, granting some expansion in other sectors while advancing wage compression across society. In an ideal world this would facilitate an economic transition that a majority of people could adapt to and embrace.
Degrowth, however, is destined to be a noble failure if only carried out by a few solitary states. While it’s conceivable that a large confederation of social democratic governments might be able to impose significant constraints on hyper-extractive industries, that would only mitigate so much harm without the United States making path-breaking changes. The recent Republican National Convention was a chilling reminder that the swelling confluence of white nationalism and plutocracy within the Republican Party threatens to convulse American society to its breaking point, making the prospect of safeguarded democracy, let alone real leadership on climate change, increasingly remote. Amidst all of its anti-science and nativistic bellowing, the Republican Party’s jeremiads against the “radical left” and the Green New Deal are effective due to the jealous attachments to a way of life that both Republicans and Democrats have energetically cultivated. When Republicans prevaricate about threats to “American values,” they are communicating to their supporters that the modes of consumption that reinforce the country’s racial hierarchy are under attack, and that anything that tries to reform capitalism—never mind break from it will destroy “the American way”.
This fuels a politics of fear and resentment at what could be lost, at the expense of what could be gained—both for society and the world. In turn, the conflation of values with hollow consumerism bodes awfully for any kind of meaningful solidarity with the Global South, and makes a future in which US politics is charged over the plight of domestic climate refugees more imminent with each passing year.
Less Is More demands that we not give in, but it also cautions that a Green New Deal must initiate a real alternative to capitalism in order to succeed. How we get there before we advance beyond 1.5 degrees depends upon an extraordinary array of actions, and may require more militant and dramatic challenges to entrenched economic interests. But perhaps most important is seeding the belief that an ethic of stewardship can redefine the good life—and provide the abundance and security that a fanatical defence of capitalism would destroy.
Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save The World by Jason Hickel
Book Review by Justin H. Vassallo
Published by William Heinemann
Justin H. Vassallo is a writer and researcher from Brooklyn, New York who specializes in party systems and ideology, political economy, American political development, and modern Europe.