Less is more

| January 20, 2021

Of the many disconcerting paradoxes of our time, perhaps the most jarring is the idea that as our understanding of the causes and possible consequences of climate change improves, politicians are often unwilling to connect the dots and design policies to avert a catastrophe.

This is a catastrophe that is rapidly unfolding before our very eyes. However else the political class may justify their inaction, they won’t be able to claim they weren’t warned.

Indeed, one of the few encouraging features of our looming date with a climatic apocalypse is a growing literature that is by turns terrifying, but also surprisingly full of ideas about what we might do before even the pluckiest of optimists will be forced to concede it is game over.

Jason Hickel’s Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World is a landmark contribution to this growing body of work that really ought to be the proverbial “must read” for policymakers and analysts. If history is any guide, however, it will be studiously ignored.

That’s a pity, to put it mildly. But even in the unlikely event that the leaders of our government (or any other) actually read Hickel’s book, they may find some of the claims literally incomprehensible. The entire book is a withering—and very persuasive—indictment of capitalism’s generally pernicious impact on, firstly, human society, and, more recently, on the natural environment on which we all ultimately depend.

One of Hickel’s central claims, which he details in the first part of the book, is that “there is nothing natural or innate about the productivist behaviour we associate with homo economicus.

That creature is the product of five centuries of cultural re-programming.” In other words, we’ve been encouraged, even compelled at times, to behave in ways that are arguably not good for us as social beings, but which are unambiguously implicated in the quickening destruction of the biosphere.

Whatever you think of these sorts of claims, there is little doubt that we are collectively having an unsustainable impact on the natural world. It’s also apparent that some of us are much more responsible than others.

As Hickel points out, not only has the “dematerialisation” of the economy failed to occur — even service sector jobs require huge amounts of material inputs — but some people consume and appropriate gargantuan amounts of resources and wealth. Inequality is one of the more significant and intentional by-products of capitalist expansion, and one of the most insurmountable that will have to be addressed.

Two radical conclusions flow from this. First, “any policy that reduces the incomes of the very rich will have positive ecological benefit.” Second, “justice is the antidote to the growth imperative – and key to solving the climate crisis.” Perhaps such ideas are not as fanciful or unrealisable as they seem, as we are currently being given a reminder of what states can do when they feel they must.

Scaling such responses up is not easy, though. The one positive development that we might have expected to come from the climate crisis is the widespread recognition that we really all are in this together. No country is an island – not even Australia. Recognising the nature of the problems — that there really are limits to growth after all, and that collective effort and sacrifice has to be part of the new economic and social order — is the first step.

This book provides the most persuasive and comprehensive argument in favour of “degrowth” that I’ve read. The central idea underpinning degrowth is for 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.”

It sounds like precisely the sort of action we collectively need to undertake at this critical moment in history. It is rather encouraging that there are people in the world who actually understand the problems we face, and who have credible ideas about what might be done.

But then you think of the current generation of world leaders who would be charged with understanding the need for, much less implementing, such totally alien and unimaginable policies, and any fleeting optimism tends to dissipate.

Hickel’s conclusion about the enormity of the intellectual transition that is required makes it clear how difficult this will be in the rapidly closing window of opportunity available to us. He writes how “the struggle before us is more than just a struggle over economics. It is a struggle over our very theory of being. It requires decolonizing not only lands and forests and peoples, but decolonising our minds.”

For what it’s worth, I think he’s exactly right about capitalism’s unsustainability, and even about possible ways we might try to reconfigure economic and social relations. Will it happen? The chances are not good, I fear. But they are well-nigh impossible if people do not understand the underlying forces that got us into this cataclysmic mess. If you’re even vaguely interested in the past and future of the planet, you ought to read this book.

This review of Jason Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, (Penguin Books, 2020) was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.