Written by Sara
Abraham and first published at Jamhoor
illuminating key debates, Jason Hickel’s recent case for degrowth falls short
of its global objective – with not enough to offer regions like South
refrain on growth, more growth, and expansion is found globally in public and
policy economic discourse and is a truism of capitalist common sense. South
Asian countries are no exceptions to the obsession with growth, for one
assumption is that the bottom rises with growth.
all, even if unequally, is the expectation. And even if there isn’t this
assumption, since many at the bottom appear so obviously locked in spiralling
poverty and early death, an expanding middle class sitting on the rump of
growth is still considered huge progress. It equals the spread of modernity and
democracy to larger numbers of people. Further, growth is “natural”, keeps up
with expanding populations and allows all to enjoy more, enriches our lives
with newer products, technologies and lifestyles, and allows for extra income
and wealth (to be then redistributed).
This is the
hegemonic view of growth in the world and it makes ideas around “degrowth”
deeply contrarian. Degrowth or any related idea, like controlling carbon
emissions or stopping mining, is quickly castigated by many in South Asia as a
Western import to keep developing countries poor.
Yet the immense
power of the narrative of growth begs the need for critical theory that
advances new paradigms within which equitable economic development can be
conceived. If degrowth is a paradigm which can offer a reduction in poverty and
inequality while saving the planet, then it deserves our keen attention.
degrowth paradigm claims to envision an economy that is richer, more expansive
and pro-nature than capitalism, for it puts life, not exploitation, at the
centre of the economic system. For this reason, the paradigm has been
cautiously praised by progressives. Michael Lowy, for instance, has argued that eco-socialism
and the degrowth movement are the two most powerful currents of the ecological
new book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World,
therefore comes at an opportune moment. It is his ambitious attempt to make the
case for why degrowth will save the world. However, I found the book
theoretically muddled on multiple levels and unfortunately blind to much of the
Part One of the
book is a competent general statement on the scale of ecological downslide, the
rapacious nature of capitalism and the core contradiction between the drive to
growth and rising GDP, on the one hand, and the immediate need for ecological
conservation and cutbacks in resource-use and waste, on the other. Its
accessible prose makes it an excellent primer for the new reader.
the drive to profit with the need for growth. He discusses the high scale of
growth that global capitalism requires every year, and how the OECD in 1960 was
mandated to follow policies that generated the highest rates of growth. He
shows how neoliberal policies chasing growth basically entrapped all governments,
be it in the global South or North, in “growth without development.”
quibbles with states being proxies for companies in Hickel’s characterization
of the nature of geopolitical competition, and growth being an awkward proxy
for profit, his statements are largely true. He then goes on to show how
capitalist driven “growth” is no longer ecologically sustainable, for it has
drained the earth, heated the oceans, and polluted the air. This, too, is
Having laid out
the basic problem in empirical terms, Part Two of the book traverses, though
far too briefly, across a range of contemporary radical ideas on reorganizing
the economy away from capitalist imperatives and growth-ism. It suggests that
the ideas of the commons, cooperation, and reduced luxury consumption are core
pillars of a degrowth economy.
Public goods of
sanitation and rent control are examples of urban commons and Hickel shows that
such public goods, rather than “growth”, are what have led to longer lifespans
and richer lives. People across the world in areas of good public health and
educational infrastructure have much better lives than many deprived sectors in
the core capitalist West, especially the United States.
In a trenchant
criticism of wasteful consumption, Hickel claims that a drastic cut in the
disposable income of the rich (through taxation) can only have significant
ecological benefits. This argument also undermines any claim about the
beneficial, redistributive power of wealth.
distillations of older research findings challenge assumptions that aggregate
growth and wealth lead to general prosperity or have any beneficial value. Yet
in this discussion, Hickel does not explain the financial basis for public
goods in the West or elsewhere, be it taxation (of profits generated by
growth?) or the redirection of surplus (from growth?) into public programs. His
larger point is that high levels of human development have occurred with low
GDP per capita. Countries should not be chasing GDP. They should be
reorganizing internally, redistributing wealth and building their public
So is degrowth
then a process towards equitable austerity, which requires us to cut back on
consumption and live simply? Yes to the latter, but no to the fear of
austerity. Rather, Hickel asserts that with the “commons” comes “abundance”.
For him, degrowth is liberating precisely because it is linked to abundance,
In fact, a core
argument of his book is that it is capitalist forms of growth that have led to
the imposition of austerity in major parts of the world. Degrowth (after
providing for a certain minimum standard of living which need not be low)
allows for flourishing through an abundance of social relationships, leisure,
and culture, and a renewed relationship with nature. The go-slow wisdom of
today would be an aspect of degrowth.
But here one
comes up against a wall. Firstly, abundance is at no point in the book
explained properly, or grounded in any social or economic theory. Is it linked
to material abundance primarily, or is it linked to (a non-material freedom),
and if so how? Is it, as Linsey
McGoey defines it, “the surfeit of goods, energy, desires, actors,
interests and information that characterize modern life” – in which case, is it
not partly the antithesis of degrowth? Hickel needs to elaborate with
particularity how he understands “abundance” if he wants to convince readers
that degrowth, and not overproduction, will lead to it.
penetration of vision is also so important as all readers are not located
similarly. That academia has lately been entranced by the idea of abundance
while there have been a surfeit of sheer death, dead time, dead rivers,
violence, and so forth, doesn’t help. I wanted to know what “abundance” could mean
for our present times in terms of a program to mitigate pain.
strand of economic theory seems to offer a program in relation to abundance
which Hickel might have in mind. For example, as Yanis Varoufakis has
advocated, of the billions of dollars handed over to banks in 2020-21, a small
fraction could have been used to vaccinate the world’s population, or to clean
the world’s rivers, or any number of things.
chooses to mention in passing that governments found the power to make debts
disappear with the pandemic, thereby pointing to the speculative basis for much
of financial “wealth” as well as the un-exerted power lying latently with
governments. But when and where did this disappearing act happen? He offers no
explanation. Was it an act of abundance, or was it a reversible reform? Hickel
merely gestures. And does the occasional redistribution of wealth undermine
capitalism or restore it? This question needs no recourse to the terms growth
or degrowth and is not addressed in the book at all.
Degrowth as a
core concept in Hickel’s book is also heavily undertheorized. It seems little
more than an unspecified consequence of decommodification, deprivatization,
decapitalization, the cancellation of debt and interest, redistribution of
wealth into public projects, and so forth. These concepts are older, practical
and have offered programs of action and resistance which have challenged
capitalism, if not blocked it. “Degrowth” does not do the work in explaining
why these programs are important, and neither does “decolonization”, which
Hickel comes to later in the text.
Even as Hickel
marveled at governments’ unused power to make debts disappear, I asked myself,
what would enable ordinary people to find their power to make imposed (even if
elected) governments disappear? Posing this question to myself made me realize
that this book doesn’t go there. It mostly plods on UK radical policy ground.
Hickel is interested in governments implementing radical economic reforms of
the types he mentions, but what balance of forces, what struggles, would be
needed for governments to pursue these policies in the first place? Hickel
doesn’t tell us.
He mentions the
“exciting” news that fewer work hours in the global North have great ecological
benefits. But Hickel does not consider at all how this idea of “less work” can
be translated for the global South – that is, again, to the most of the world,
where unemployment is so dire a problem.
growing misgiving that the UK and parts of the West is really his wicket,
Hickel is sure he wants the whole world to be his lab for the paradigm of
degrowth. He praises certain countries for their equitable development and
creation of public goods – namely, Sri Lanka, Kerala, Costa Rica, and Cuba.
raised again for me strong misgivings on his style of argument and limited
width of canvas. Academics and lawyers are trained to marshal evidence on the
side of their frequently pre-conceived arguments, and it is for the opposing side
to debunk the claims. However, these are heuristics, and fail to capture the
texture of social life, political contradictions or the deep penetration of
capitalism into all of it. Hickel does not guide us through the mess of what is
really going on in each of these countries.
The choice of
naming Sri Lanka, in particular, got my attention, as surely it is better
understood as an authoritarian-militarized political economy that was produced
in the aftermath of a decades-long, vicious civil war. Could all this really
disappear into the remote computer screen surveying its development indicators?
What about the non-existent sewerage systems and entrenched patriarchy of
Kerala? Could a capitalist outpost like Costa Rica be put in the same sentence
as Cuba? Maybe, but the work is not done to flesh out when, why and how much
revolution and struggle went into winning a better standard of living. Without
that, we are left with very false equivalences.
I also wonder
why Hickel has not explicitly drawn on feminist scholarship on the uncounted
value and wealth produced by women’s unwaged labour. This body of theory and
politics, associated with people like Selma James and Silvia Federici, is tied
closely to a critique of conventional measures of GDP and growth. Feminists
sought to calculate the value of women’s work and their contribution to the
GDP, which long ago began melting its ties to capitalist needs.
critique is just the latest on the block to attack capitalism and its props and
measures. Why does Hickel find it superior to any earlier thrust of critique?
He eventually does mention “caring” for a full paragraph, but only as an
economic arena that will gain attention once degrowth is on the cards, rather
than an active site of struggle for a politics of degrowth.
But I really
want to come to my own pet peeves: that, despite what the book’s title
proclaims, there is no application of degrowth thinking to the large,
agricultural labour-intensive economies of parts of South Asia, where a
dangerous dismantling of the public distribution system and a centralization of
regional and local agricultural markets is ongoing, without recourse to ideas
of growth but with every interest in profit. And there is equally no reflection
in the book on countries which have already witnessed large scale devastation
of public infrastructure and indebtedness such as in parts of Africa. Is it
sufficient to say that these trends need to be reversed?
As this is most
of the world, it is safe to say that Hickel really does not prove his case that
degrowth will save the world.
A Romance with
Part 3 of the
book leaves the urban and rural worlds altogether and moves to describe
Indigenous conceptions of living within nature as natural beings, and in
relationships of exchange. He views these forms of living as shaped by
valorizations of use value over exchange value, and understandably praises
these processes. An old but still important implication from his discussion is
how organized religions are pillars upholding dualistic forms of thought,
separating man from nature and how this must be surpassed.
to surpass modernist ways of being, and he says the struggle is over our very
way of being. For this transition, we need new sources of hope, new wellsprings
of possibility. We need to regain real ecological intelligence, which is
invested in integration rather than expansion.
what gives him this hope: it is the thrilling experience of seeing like a
shaman who mediates between the human and the natural world. It is through
animism, which does not distinguish between humans and other living beings,
that one can find connection and even radical empathy. Hickel here attempts to
catapult his readers into a deeper spiritual appreciation of the world around
them; that only a cultural revolution at this deep level will create the ground
for radical struggles against capitalism.
reflection, Hickel basically concedes argument to faith and fantasy. Hickel
presents decontextualized snippets of Indigenous and ecological thought at face
value. For instance, I found Hickel’s celebration of the fact that the Ganga
river was granted legal rights quite unconvincing. How can this
recognition mean absolutely anything in the current political-economic and
ecological condition of India?
gracious and sacred river, given legal rights which can never match the ancient
spiritual role it has had in people’s lives, currently has thousands of corpses
floating in it as people can no longer find the tree branches needed to build
funeral pyres. Should the river assert its rights and demand that the earth
absorb the bodies? What about the earth’s rights? Can a river have greater
rights than the people of the land, who have next to none? The only genre for
this whole discussion is satire, or, at best, science fiction, as it compresses
multiple time periods into one space.
does the long history of third-world based movements against dams, overfishing,
pollution, dirty mining, water privatization, the peasants’ movements and so
forth find no place in this text which is concerned with asserting the commons
in the face of capital? Why is that only Indigenous “ways of being”
matter, but not their material struggles?
I find Hickel’s
thoughts, tweets and blogs fresh and provocative, and a good counterpoint to
mainstream thinking. He is actively rethinking economic myths and can gesture
to new directions. The degrowth current on the ecological Left is important,
even if thus far only a placeholder for the conceptual journey that must be
made. It will force greater thinking by socialists and other
radicals. However, degrowth is still a slogan it seems, and not a
program for development.
is a lawyer and researcher based in Chennai, India.