Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

Less is More – How Degrowth Will Save the World

Less is more Jacket

Hickel, J. (2020). Less is more: How degrowth will save the world. Random House

Less is more jacket

Hickel is a masterful storyteller – this is probably the nearest thing you’ll find to a page turner in the economic literature! The introduction would stand on its own as a powerful essay on the history of capitalism and it’s bedfellow growthism, the damage wrought by them and an overview of the concept of degrowth together with the promise it holds for the future.

If you are a naturalist or an ecologist, you will be drawn in by Hickel’s deep connection with the natural world and, simultaneously, the clarity of his high-level vision of how economics exploits nature, including us. Whilst not entirely new to me, his accounts of the enclosure of the commons, colonialism and the overthrow in the West of the world view of animism by that of dualism, brought home to me that they have all been marshalled by capitalism to drive the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a small minority.

At the same time as he debunks a number of myths about capitalism (e.g. that it was responsible for boosting life expectancy from diabolically low levels in the 19th century – in fact, that was the result of improved public sanitation), he acknowledges the role that economic growth has played in advanced economies (and still needs to play in under-developed economies) by lifting people out of poverty and into a decent standard of living. Advanced economies have long since passed the point where we have enough wealth to give everyone a good life – that we still have poverty is a failure of wealth distribution and of an equitable reward for labour. Hickel graphically describes how the further pursuance of GDP growth in these advanced economies is both degrading earth’s life-support systems and damaging the wellbeing of people. He also exposes green growth as a comfort blanket for business as usual economic thinkers – a concept that does not address the fundamental problem that we cannot support infinite exponential growth on a finite planet, however ‘green’ that growth is.

But this is, above all, a book that lays out a vision – degrowth – to get us out of the bind that the pursuance of GDP growth beyond the point where it is useful has has placed us in. Advanced growth-dependent economies that just stop growing (as most are beginning to do) are a disaster. We call this recession and, typically, it results in unemployment, inequality and misery. Hickel shows that recessions happen because our economic, political and social structures have evolved to be growth-dependent. Degrowth is about restructuring to break this dependency on growth. Degrowth is not recession: its the idea that we can flourish under conditions of zero growth or even negative growth and banish recession. Furthermore, degrowth does not imply an impoverished way of living, rather it would take humankind’s foot off the neck of nature and pave the way for a world of radical abundance.

Some of the ideas he discusses that could move us towards a flourishing degrowth economy include:

  • Ending planned obsolesence
  • Cutting advertising
  • Shifting from ownership to usership
  • Ending food waste
  • Scaling down ecologically destructive industries
  • Shortening the working week
  • Introducing a job guarantee
  • Introducing a living wage
  • Taxing wealth (e.g. 10% on anything over $1 billion)
  • Cancelling iniquitous debt
  • Expanding public goods
  • Introducing universal basic services

As Hickel acknowledges, it won’t be simple! We don’t have all the answers yet, but does anyone really believe that mainstream economists have all the answers required to get the current failing system working (even if the planet could support it) – despite trying for 70 years to make it work? There is no certainty that politicians and economists will open their minds to the concepts of degrowth in time to prevent a precipitous universal fall into deeply damaging and prolonged recessions and all the social and geopolitical upheaval that will entail. But the more we discuss and research the concepts of degrowth, the better prepared we will be to turn our world around when they are finally ready, or forced, to do so.

I rate this book as the most important I have ever read. Over the course of a couple of decades leading up to reading Less is More I was increasingly despondent about the future for my children (and latterly grandchild). Given society’s apparent helplessness in the face of the deepening environmental crises unfolding around us, I found it almost impossible to imagine the kind of future I want from them. After reading Less is More I have more clarity of thought about our situation and what can be done, in general, to remedy it. It has given me hope for the future.

(For a great companion book to Less is More, consider reading The Future is Degrowth.)