October 19th, 2020
Less Is More - How Degrowth Will Save The World (Jason Hickel, 2020)
Jason Hickel is an economic anthropologist originally from Swaziland, who has previously written about social injustice in "The Divide" (2017). In this book, "Less Is More", he argues that capitalism is systemically designed to destroy human civilization on the planet, and a paradigm shift is needed to avoid this. The book contains of two parts, "More Is Less", and "Less Is More".
More Is Less
In this first part, Hickel explores the origins of capitalism and its consequences for today's world.
He says that the distinguishing feature of Capitalism is requiring growth to keep it going. The need for growth comes from replacing use-value by exchange-value: Goods are not produced in order to satisfy needs, but to create a profit. There is never a state of "enough" by this definition. Hickel describes a process that is more than 500 years in the making, roughly starting with enclosure. With access to land being restricted, those who owned it didn't farm it in order to satisfy a need, but to turn a profit.
As compound profits describe an exponential curve, there comes a time when profits are no longer made easily, and "fixes" are needed. Hickel mentions serfdom, colonisation, slave trade or the western expansion of the United States. These "fixes" are always violent and exploitative, and become more intense as finite resources are depleted. In the end, it's only a minority who profits from this system, we are now at a point where a handful of individuals own more than billions of the poorest people.
All this is powered by a mindset that separates humans from nature - humans are in a way special, divine and god-like, while nature is merely the backdrop, the scenery in which human life plays out. This mindset was later articulated in the age of enlightenment by Descartes' "I think therefore I am". In this dualist mindset, nature is merely an object, something to be dominated, tamed and exploited. This is radically different from the animism of indigenous people, who attribute a soul to rivers, mountains, trees and animals.
The increasing exploitation of nature consumes lots of "raw materials", and destabilizes ecosystems, ultimately bringing them to tipping points where radical shifts make human life on earth extremely difficult. Hickel describes several critical tipping points, of which a few have already been passed.
Also, Hickel explains how the Paris Agreement on Climate Change relies on future emissions being compensated by technologies that are not really available, and ultimately not scalable (BECCS). And the fact that the global south has to suffer from the consequences of global warming caused by the global north is yet another incarnation of colonisation.
It is a very bleak and depressing outlook indeed, as people are hardly able to influence these developments, as democracies are eroding more and more turning into plutocracies or even dictatorships. It feels like jumping from an aeroplane without a parachute, hoping someone on the ground will figure out a way to land safely.
Less Is More
Hickel argues that growth is not needed for a good life, and he turns towards countries that have a high life-expectancy and happiness index despite having low GDP metrics. There are few things that are important, like getting sanitation, education and public health care right, which would not be that expensive. He says that capitalism at some point causes more "illth" than wealth - stress, depression, pollution, diabetes, obesity and so on.
To get there, it requires an enormous reduction in energy consumption, extraction of raw materials and waste production. Concepts like planned obsolescence in consumer goods need to be eliminated. Advertising needs to be radically cut down. We would need a shift from ownership towards usership, a sharing economy, and a focus on common goods. We would need to stop wasting food. To prevent people from drifting into poverty, job sharing and part-time work would be in order.
Degrowth would also require to radically democratize institutions like the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation or the International Monetary Fund, who at the moment are totally biased towards Northern interests. For a start, debts could be eliminated. The media would also have to allow a real dialogue about these topics - they are now in the hands of the people who profit from the growth paradigm.
All in all, we again need to adopt a mindset of holism - not seeing us as separate from nature, but a part of it, similar to indigenous tribes. Not exploiting nature, but understanding the underlying systems, and only take what is sustainable. Live a life that is slower and more in harmony with the planet.
For me it's not easy being optimistic about the future. Everything seems to be taking a turn for the worse recently. I stopped following the news, it's simply too depressing, and I feel helpless. However, I want to contribute as much as I can to help reverse the current trends.
For a start, I do not own a car, I hardly ever fly, my family lives in a smallish flat, I only spend little on clothing or electronics, I prefer to buy used stuff, and repair broken stuff whenever possible.
I'm fully aware of our privileges, but I think we live a comparatively modest, happy life. And this book has refreshed my energy to not stop there. If you're interested in starting a dialogue on these topics, please contact me.