This is all unfortunate. Hickel misses the strains in the Christian tradition that are deeply conscious of ecological realities. The Catholic historian (and frequent contributor to this magazine) Eugene McCarraher, for example, has criticized the organization of modern economic inquiry around the assumption of scarcity; on the contrary, he argues, “God has created a world of abundance.” In doing so he borrows from Christian Romantics such as John Ruskin, putting forth a call to understanding creation sacramentally—in McCarraher’s account, the natural world is charged with life, and creation itself mediates the love of God. That vision is not an eccentric one; it was affirmed by Pope Francis in Laudato si’, his encyclical dedicated to environmental concerns. In that document, he writes, “Creation is of the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things.” All this is entirely congenial to Hickel’s degrowth project, and it presents an opportunity for dialogue between ecological thinkers of various philosophical and religious traditions. That makes it all the more baffling that Hickel would alienate climate-conscious Christians this way. There are a lot of Christians out there, and they might be useful allies in Hickel’s effort to fundamentally transform the global economy in just a few decades.
Hickel’s treatment of the Christian tradition is just one example of a broader strategic naiveté. In his chapter on “Pathways to a Post-Capitalist World,” he cites numerous policy proposals—from the decommodification of public goods to a wealth tax—that he says could facilitate degrowth. Most of these proposals are wise, but they all presume that forces sympathetic to degrowth hold political power across the globe. He says very little about questions of political strategy, how degrowth ideas could become hegemonic. This is odd, since he describes the United States as a plutocracy, entirely captured by capitalist interests, and then, as a remedy, suggests policy reforms to “expand democracy wherever possible.” If the United States is a plutocracy, currently beset by a severe democratic deficit, by what mechanism could necessary reforms even be enacted?
Hickel ends up spouting Obama-esque platitudes, obscuring the lack of a real strategy for change with calls for “a movement.” When describing the political prospects for degrowth, he writes, with the faux-wisdom of a fortune cookie, “Whispers can build into winds, and take the world by storm.” He’s an idealist, and that’s to his credit. History’s great leaders have been moral prophets—but the most effective of them were also brilliant students of power. They studied the forces arrayed against them, assessed the ways in which that power was vulnerable, and considered how to most efficiently exploit those vulnerabilities. A savvier degrowth strategist would wrestle with such questions as: What global constituencies are most naturally sympathetic to degrowth? In what way are the capitalists who oppose degrowth vulnerable? Would a “degrowth in one country” strategy provide a model for other nations—or would it simply lead to capital flight and economic devastation? And so on, and so on.
Hickel does admit that he is “not a political strategist.” Fair enough. But I worry that his refusal to engage with basic strategic questions betrays a kind of climate moralism, a view that if one is right, one’s righteousness will, on its own, facilitate mass persuasion and political victory. That tendency is, unfortunately, all too common in certain quarters of the climate-justice movement. Hickel’s book features a preface by two leaders of the climate group Extinction Rebellion UK, which frequently uses the slogan “Beyond Politics.” Its website states, “We must move beyond ideology, to unity; beyond division to collaboration.” This is climate moralism at its worst: ecological sustainability faces real and powerful enemies, and those enemies have no incentive right now to change course. Creating societies organized around the common good will require the defeat of these enemies, pure and simple. Capitalism is based on antagonism and strife; the question we face is not “Unity or division?” but rather “Which side are you on?”
I hope my strategic concerns are read for what they truly are: concerned pleas from a someone deeply sympathetic to the degrowth movement. I think Hickel is basically right about the climate science, about the inner logic of capitalism, and about what justice will require in the coming decades. But if he wants to win—if we want to win—it will take more than hoping that our whispers inevitably take the world by storm.
Less Is More
How Degrowth Will Save the World
$16.98 | 336 pp.