Can exponential economic growth continue forever without devastating ecological costs? Most political and economic elites continue to answer that question in the affirmative. But as climate change wreaks havoc on communities from California to Dhaka, small cracks have appeared in the hegemony of the growth imperative. Greta Thunberg, the most visible leader of a global youth movement for climate justice, traveled to the United Nations General Assembly last year to condemn “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” The environmental scientist Vaclav Smil, one of Bill Gates’s favorite writers, recently published his mammoth tome, Growth, in which he declares that without an end to growth, “the long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured.” Earlier this year, the New Yorker profiled a small but growing movement of academics and activists calling for an economic transformation they call “degrowth.”
In his recent book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, the anthropologist Jason Hickel attempts to translate the main arguments of degrowthers into an accessible manifesto. He insists both that continued global expansion is incompatible with human and ecological flourishing, and that a future beyond growth need not be an austere one. Abundance can persist long after growth ends.
Less is More arrives at a perilous time for those sympathetic to Hickel’s arguments: many readers are likely to associate economic contraction with the ongoing depression caused by the pandemic. But degrowthers, including Hickel, are quick to insist that they do not intend to simply slash GDP in an economy ordered toward GDP growth. Instead, they want to reorder the global economy around goals other than growth (a just distribution of goods; human and ecological flourishing), and, above all, lower the amount of energy and resources our economy uses. Hickel’s dual emphasis on resource-use reduction and his commitment to a just transition provides a tidy definition of the degrowth movement’s aims: “A planned downscaling of energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way.”
Hickel’s first task in Less is More is to explain why exponential growth cannot be allowed to continue. His case contains both an empirical argument about climate projections—to me, a non-expert, the most persuasive part of the book—and a theoretical argument about how capitalism works.
The scientific consensus on what must be done to avoid a climate catastrophe is nearly unanimous: a swift, planetary shift to renewable energy sources. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—an organization of climate experts known for its caution—found that, in lieu of speculative and unproven carbon-capture technologies, keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius will require halving total carbon emissions by 2030 and eliminating them entirely by 2050. This transition would be profoundly difficult even under current levels of energy use. If the global economy continues to grow exponentially in the coming decades, however, it becomes nearly impossible. Because energy use expands exponentially when the economy grows, attempting a transition to renewables while maintaining current growth patterns is like trying to run a footrace where the finish line keeps accelerating ever farther away. For Hickel, the solution is clear: we need to scale down energy use, bringing that finish line closer to us and buying the time to make a full shift to renewables feasible.
Fossil fuels, however, aren’t the only natural resources that merit Hickel’s concern. He also calls for reductions in the total material footprint of the global economy. The extraction of non-fossil fuel natural resources has severe environmental costs, too: deforestation is a climate disaster; overfishing and soil depletion interrupt food supplies; and high-intensity mineral mining causes pollution and requires high levels of (often dirty) energy. Hickel cites research indicating that the global economy is already well above sustainable levels of resource use. Bringing down our material footprint almost certainly means that traditional measures of economic growth, such as GDP, will take a hit—after all, the historical correlation between the increase in our material footprint and the expansion of GDP is almost perfect.
The dominant strain of environmental-policy thinking holds that nations should “dematerialize” their economy, primarily through expanding the service sector and making efficiency gains in production, while continuing to pursue growth. Hickel is skeptical that this is possible. First, as a basic empirical matter, dematerialization simply isn’t happening in places with growing service sectors. Next, he claims that there are limits to an economy’s material efficiency: we cannot create a computer or a yoga studio out of thin air. And finally, when operating under the growth imperative, firms use efficiency gains to ramp up production—and thus extraction—rather than reducing it.
Why not, then, create a cap on the use of raw materials? Couldn’t growth then continue, so long as everyone abided by such limits? Hickel’s answer brings us to his theoretical criticism of capitalism: for him, capitalism is, and always has been, about enclosure, about the accumulation of private wealth through the creation of artificial scarcity. Hickel pinpoints the beginning of the development of capitalism with the Statute of Merton in 1235, which permitted English lords to “enclose” common property that previously was available to all peasants. Without access to the commons, peasants faced a stark choice: work for the lords on the newly privatized land, or starve. They became the first participants in what slowly transformed into a machine for staggering accumulation and growth.
Hickel sees enclosure everywhere: in the selling of protected lands for private development; in colonizers’ demands that subsistence farmers work for wages in factories; in “structural adjustment” policies whereby international financial institutions demand that indebted nations shrink their public sectors. Citing what’s known as the “Lauderdale Paradox,” Hickel argues that private accumulation requires creating artificial scarcity through the demolition of public wealth. Thus, we cannot simply maintain capitalist growth while capping the use of material resources, because capital will always look for another “fix,” another object for cheap appropriation—just like the English aristocracy enclosed the commons. Hickel asserts that the way to combat this tendency is to reverse the Lauderdale Paradox: to make a reduction in private riches humane through the expansion of the commons, and the provision of public services like decommodified health care and the guarantee of material security through a jobs guarantee. “This would liberate humans from the pressures generated by artificial scarcity,” Hickel wrote in a 2019 essay, “neutralizing the juggernaut and releasing the living world from its grip.”
There’s a final, important part of Hickel’s framework worth underscoring: much of his previous work has dealt with economic justice in the Global South. (His intellectual heroes include the postcolonial theorists Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire.) In Less is More, he is quite clear that climate change is primarily a Western crime, for which the Global South will face the most devastating consequences. He also notes that many nations of the Global South are currently living well within planet-protecting boundaries, and could safely grow their economies in the near term. His goal is aggregate reductions in material footprint, not reductions in every single region or country. Hickel observes that appeals to the supposed benefits of economic growth have long been used to suppress redistributive demands, especially in the Global South. But why not replace those often empty promises with actual, material redistribution? Global climate justice, for Hickel, means massive redistribution of wealth within the Global North, as well as between the Global North and the Global South.
If degrowth is necessary, how do we get from the economic status quo to an economic order that will save the planet? Hickel calls for an economic, political, and philosophical transformation that would be the fastest and most drastic in human history. Such a transformation demands nothing less than an ontological shift in how we view the relationship between human beings and nature. His prescription is something akin to a “new animism.” Citing numerous indigenous thinkers, he favors the attribution of personhood to animals, plants, and even rivers and mountains, along with the obliteration of any “hierarchy of being” that cleanly divides human beings from nature, and puts humans on top.
This is when Less is More becomes surprisingly anti-Christian. Hickel argues that an ecologically sound animism was rooted out of Europe by both the Church and proto-capitalist forces, imposing a Cartesian dualism that conceived of nature as lifeless matter, ripe for capitalism domination. For him, the philosophical history of capitalism has ever since been one of “retweeting Descartes.” Alas, very little of this is correct. Descartes had a complex relationship with the Catholic Church, making it impossible to maintain, as Hickel does, that Descartes had “the full backing of the Church and capital.” Nearly all of his major philosophical works, for example, were placed on the Church’s index of prohibited books. Hickel’s case also requires him to paint an idealized picture of pre-capitalist, pre-“disenchanted” Europe, where animist ideas about the grandeur of the world prevailed and daily life was organized around “sufficiency and desire” rather than growth and constant labor. It’s a bizarre point for Hickel to make: these peasants he finds so admirable were almost all Christians. When he favorably cites the frequent celebration of feasts and Saints’ days, he is describing the religious practices of medieval Christians.
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.