Less is More, by Jason Hickel

“Degrowth” does not imply having less but more. More through a better pre-distribution of the economic outcome and more through expanding the boundaries of human community and consciousness.

This post belongs to a reading series of Less is More by Jason Hickel. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

INTRODUCTION: Welcome to the Anthropocene

In late 2017, a team of scientists reported that three-quarters of flying insects in Germany had vanished over the course of 25 years. The collapse was likely caused, according to their conclusion, by the conversion of forests to farmland and the intensive use of agricultural chemicals. The study went viral. One of the scientists declared, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. . . . If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.”1

In regard to the unraveling of the biosphere, insects are like the canaries in the coal mine. They signal the breakdown of nature’s interconnected systems—systems upon which human beings are fundamentally dependent.

This book, however, is not about doom but hope. “It’s about 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.”

Living in an age of mass extinction

In 2019, a task force set up by the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), published its first comprehensive report, drawing on 15,000 studies from around the world and representing the consensus of hundreds of scientists.2 Simply put, the rate of extinction is now 1,000 times faster than before the Industrial Revolution. “We are currently, in a systematic manner, exterminating all non-human living beings,” said Anne Larigauderie, the IPBES executive secretary.

The industrialization of agriculture, or the “Green Revolution” which started in the middle of the twentieth century has been anything but green. Complex ecological systems were reduced to a single dimension for the sake of greater yields and profits. As a result, 40% of the planet’s soils are now seriously degraded. As of now, agricultural soil is still being lost more than 100 times faster than it is being formed with the worms, grubs, insects, fungus, and millions of microorganisms it needs to avoid turning into lifeless dirt. This is why crop yields are now declining on a fifth of the world’s farmland.3 It is calculated that, at that rate, the Earth will be able to support only another sixty years of harvests.4

Just as with agriculture, corporations have turned fishing into an act of warfare, leaving lifeless ocean plains behind them. Farming chemicals and consumers’ plastics end up in the sea, further endangering its fragile ecosystems. Climate change, of course, only worsens the situation. As oceans heat up, nutrient cycles are being disrupted, leading vast stretches of marine habitat to die off. At the same time, carbon emissions are causing oceans to become more acidic. When ocean pH dropped by 0.25 66 million years ago, 75% of marine species were wiped out. On our present trajectory, the pH will have dropped by 0.4 at the end of the century. Marine animals are already disappearing at twice the rate that land animals are.5

Nature works as a complex whole; it is thus impossible to adequately understand our ecological crisis with the same reductive and mechanistic type of thinking that caused it in the first place. Climate change is a case in point. The phenomenon has started to get real to many people because extreme weather events happen more frequently, but its most dangerous aspects are barely acknowledged. As Jason Hickel states, “Ecosystems are complex networks. They can be remarkably resilient under stress, but when certain key nodes begin to fail, knock-on effects reverberate through the web of life. This is how mass extinction events unfolded in the past. It’s not the external shock that does it – the meteor or the volcano: it’s the cascade of internal failures that follows. . . . This is what makes climate breakdown so concerning.” In other words, climate change engineers its own feedback loops, such as the albedo effect, the release of methane previously caught in permafrost, the dying of forests, etc.—all completely irrespective of human emissions. Above 2°C of global warming, the phenomenon could very well spiral out of control.6

Behind the eco-fact

“Even though we have known for nearly half a century that human civilisation itself is at stake, says the author, there has been no progress in arresting ecological breakdown. None.” Fossil fuels companies and the politicians they buy undeniably bear significant responsibility for that inertia. The antics of the fossil industry, however, are just a symptom of a deeper problem. It ultimately resides in the economic system that has come to dominate the planet over the past few centuries: capitalism.

An important distinction needs to be made to understand why capitalism is the issue: “Markets and trade were around for thousands of years before capitalism, and they are innocent enough on their own. What makes capitalism different from most other economic systems in history is that it’s organised around the imperative of constant expansion, or ‘growth’: ever-increasing levels of industrial extraction, production and consumption, which we have come to measure in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Growth is the prime directive of capital. Not growth for any particular purpose, mind you, but growth for its own sake. And it 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.”

In nature, organisms grow to a point of maturity and then maintain a state of healthy equilibrium. Under capitalism, by contrast, large firms need to grow their profits indefinitely in order to remain competitive. As a “healthy” GDP growth is assumed to be between 2% and 3% per year to avoid the risk of recession, it is no wonder that the earth’s recycling capacities are exceeded further year after year.7 This means that we are steadily engineering our own demise as a civilization and, quite likely, as a species. Not all countries exceed their fair share of planetary boundaries, of course. The global ecological breakdown is being driven almost entirely by high-income countries in a growth race that has become totally unhinged from actual human needs.8

Bringing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, for one thing, is technically doable in the short time span we have left to keep the rise of global temperatures below 1.5°C. But it is indeed impossible if the “growth” imperative keeps energy demand rising at the same time. Besides, even when the world has 100% clean energy, what are we going to do with it? Unless we change how our economy works, we’ll keep plundering the planet at an ever-increasing rate. We will have solved the emissions issue but done nothing to reverse deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion, and the overall collapse of the biosphere.

Degrowth

“Degrowth” is the bad word that turns most decision-makers apoplectic. Capitalism is all we know. Even the Soviets were predicated on growth, their model simply relying on state capitalism instead of private ownership of means of production. Still, what makes us think, in the 21st century, that the unquestioned economic pattern Europe started to follow in the sixteenth century is all there is to the future of mankind?

The question is not only philosophical. “As evidence about the relationship between GDP growth and ecological breakdown continues to mount, scientists around the world are shifting their approach. In 2018, 238 scientists called on the European Commission to abandon GDP growth and focus on human well-being and ecological stability instead.9 The following year, more than 11,000 scientists from over 150 countries published an article calling on the world’s governments ‘to shift from pursuing GDP growth and affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving well-being.’”10 Not to forget, also, that “the richest 1% (all of whom are millionaires) capture some $19 trillion in income every year, which represents nearly a quarter of global GDP. This is astonishing, when you think about it. It means that a quarter of all the labour we render, all the resources we extract, and all the CO2 we emit is done to make rich people richer.”

It is not that hard to figure out a planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a just and equitable way. Beyond all technical aspects, most importantly, it is about giving the economy a goal. Under capitalism, it has none. Growth for the sake of growth is assumed to be the goal by default, but growth for the sake of growth is utter stupidity. Ignoring the necessity of a guiding and regulating principle, this mantra fails to provide an ending to poverty, improve human well-being, and ensure flourishing lives for all.

As Simon Kuznets—the economist who created the concept of GDP—clearly stated, “Objectives should be explicit: goals for ‘more’ growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”11 Some sectors of the economy might need to grow, such as clean energy or regenerative agriculture, and some others to drastically degrow, such as fossil fuels or the armament industry. Some regions of the world need economic growth overall, others less so. Getting out of the treadmill of growth for the sake of growth would also be prioritizing public goods like universal healthcare, education, and affordable housing, which are essential for a thriving economy. In other words, the economy does not need growth; it needs to know where it is going and why. Instead of endless capital accumulation, the engine of the economy could and should be human enrichment.12

Why did we take the other road then? At the core of the capitalist mindset is the deeply ingrained belief that mankind is superior to “nature” and that we can, consequently, dispose of it as we please. This is also why conventional economics considers the non-marketable consequences of economic activity as “externalities.” More fundamentally, since extracting and exploiting resources is what man was supposedly put on earth to do, it is assumed that doing so can only make things better. We detached ourselves from the world around and inside of us, and capitalism became our pilgrim’s staff on that hallucinated path.

And yet, what the Western world has professed for so long is totally at odds with human beings’ position in the web of life. All scientific findings in various fields today, be it biology, psychiatry, ecology, or physics, confirm that we inter-are. There is no distance between us and nature or us and others but a constant and deep interconnecting process. In that light, considering our surroundings as a resource to be plundered at will is the epitome of ignorance.

To many, “degrowth” is negatively associated with imposing limits. The exact opposite is true. Degrowth is not against growth but growthism. The notion itself of limits puts us on the wrong foot since it derives from the dualistic frame of thinking that got the world into its present trouble in the first place. Our destiny is not about limits but interconnectedness. Degrowth, therefore, is not at all about having less but more. More through a better pre-distribution of the economic outcome and more through expanding the boundaries of human community and consciousness.

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Footnotes

  1. Warning of ‘ecological Armageddon’ after dramatic plunge in insect numbers, by Damian Carrington. The Guardian, Wed 18, Oct 2017
  2. IPBES, Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, 2019. See also, Gerardo Ceballos et al., Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(30), 2017.
  3. See The New Climate Economy 2018 Report, section 3.
  4. Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues, Scientific American, December 5, 2014
  5. Ocean acidification can cause mass extinctions, fossils reveal. Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Mon 21, Oct 2019. See also, Malin Pinsky et al., Greater vulnerability to warming of marine versus terrestrial ectotherms, Nature 569(7754), 2019, pp. 108–111.
  6. Will Steffen et al., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115(33), 2018, p. 8252–8259.
  7. See Mathias Binswanger, The growth imperative revisited: a rejoinder to Gilányi and Johnson, Journal of Post Keynesian Economics 37(4), 2015, pp. 648–660.
  8. See the interactive comparison country by country made available by the University of Leeds, in England, as well as the Climate Equity Reference Calculator of the Climate Equity Reference Project.
  9. The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth, The Guardian, Sun 16, Sep 2018
  10. William Ripple et al., World scientists warn of a climate emergency, BioScience, 2019.
  11. (Kuznets, S. (1962) ‘How to judge quality’, in Croly, H. (ed.), The New Republic, 147: 16, p. 29.)
  12. For a history and overview of degrowth, see Kallis, The Case for Degrowth; for global South perspectives, see Arturo Escobar, Degrowth, postdevelopment, and transitions: a preliminary conversation, Sustainability Science, 2015.
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