Transcending capitalism’s growth imperative

February 18, 2021
Hickel has pinned his hope for a pathway to a post-capitalist world in the degrowth paradigm.

Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World
By Jason Hickel
William Heinemann, 2020
318 pages

In Less is More, Jason Hickel, an anthropologist based at the University of London, has written a readable book that seeks to promote hope rather than doom in the era of the Anthropocene or, more appropriately, the Capitolocene.

As a fellow anthropologist, there is much in his book with which I agree and points with which I disagree, in part due to the fact that I am a historical materialist and an ecosocialist, and he an idealist and a proponent of the relatively recent degrowth framework.

Nevertheless, I am pleased that Hickel is willing to make global-local linkages and grapple with the burning issues such as capitalism, corporate power, resource extraction, social inequality, ecological devastation and climate change.

Hickel grapples with “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”.

He argues that to reverse the trend toward mass extinction, humanity needs to mobilise a rapid rollout of renewable energy as part of a global Green New Deal that will reduce world greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and to zero by 2050. However, this will require transcending capitalism with its growth imperative toward a global post-capitalist economy.

Hickel’s degrowth message is targeted primarily at people in high- and middle-income countries. It would entail systematic downscaling of energy and resource use to create an economy that is in “balance with the living world in a safe and equitable way”.

Hickel maintains that capitalism relies upon dualist thinking stemming back to philosophers such as Plato and Descartes, which in essence destroyed more holistic world views, particularly characteristic of animistic indigenous societies.

An annoying section of the book is Hickel’s appropriation of Marx’s classical formulas in which C represents commodity and M represents money, thus creating profit or surplus value, without crediting the developer of these formulas. Conversely, in his acknowledgements, he mentions having had conversations with ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster and Patrick Bond.

In reality, I suspect theoretically Hickel is an eclectic of sorts who has been inspired by the work of a wide assortment of progressive thinkers. Despite this shortcoming, Less is More makes for worthwhile reading, particularly given that it grapples with the need to transcend capitalism with a more socially just, democratic and environmentally sustainable economy.

In contrast to Indigenous societies, Hickel argues that the principle of dominion became entrenched during the Axial Age with the ascendancy of “transcendental philosophies and religions across major Euroasian civilisations”. As many others have, he argues that the Industrial Revolution relied on commodities produced by labour expropriated from slaves on colonised lands and European peasants forced into cities by enclosure acts. While capitalism has generated tremendous material productivity, it has done so by extracting resources from nature as cheaply as possible.

Hickel argues that, particularly with the rise of neoliberalism, Western governments have fully embraced the creed of “growthism”, a mandate that the gross domestic product needs to continually increase. Neoliberal policies, particularly structural adjustment, during the 1980s and 1990s depressed growth rates in much of the Global South. China, however, was an exception.

Hickel argues that the extraction of fossil fuels relied on mountaintop removal, offshore drilling, digging into tar sands and other destructive processes, all contributing to carbon emissions and climate change along with ocean acidification. While he maintains that the growing shift to renewable energy is laudable, it does not constitute a panacea, given that renewable energy is being added on top of dirty energies.

Hickel highlights large disparities in the “material footprints” of nations, with low income countries consuming about two tons of material stuff per person per year in contrast to lower-middle-income countries consuming about four tons, upper-middle income countries about 12 tons, and high-income countries about 28 tons.

Furthermore, high-income countries have outsourced much of their industrial production to the Global South. The Global North has engaged in atmospheric colonisation by which a small number of high-income countries have appropriated most of the atmospheric commons. While climate change will adversely impact the Global North, Hickel argues that 2°C of warming will be a “death sentence for much of the global South”.

Fortunately, Hickel argues the 2008 Global Financial Crisis damaged faith in neoliberal capitalism.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre developed the notion of nine planetary boundaries that humanity should not cross. Some of them have already been crossed, particularly the atmospheric carbon concentration.

Conversely, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported repeatedly about the severity of the climate crisis, it has not dared to challenge the growth imperative. Instead it has embraced various dubious techno-fixes, particularly bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).

BECCS proposes the creation of large tree plantations around the world that would sequester carbon dioxide, followed by the harvesting of trees, turning them into pellets to be burned in power plants for energy, with the emissions being captured and stored underground.

Hickel has pinned his hope for a pathway to a post-capitalist world in the degrowth paradigm, which proposes “reducing the material and energy throughput of the economy to bring it back into balance with the living world, while distributing income and resources more fairly, liberating people from needless work, and investing in the public goods that people need to thrive”.

To achieve a global post-capitalist economy, he notes a need to democratise the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization; a debt jubilee freeing poor countries to invest in needed services; ending corporate land grabs; distributing land back to small farmers; and reforming regimes that provide high-income countries an unfair advantage in the global agricultural industry.

Other steps that Hickel suggests for  moving humanity to an “ecological civilisation” include: ending planned obsolescence; cutting advertising; shifting from ownership to usership; eradicating food waste; scaling down ecologically destructive industries; shortening the work week; eliminating “unnecessary” jobs and shifting workers to jobs in renewable energy production, public services, maintenance, etc.; capping wage disparities; and expanding the commons.

Hickel cites a study that he conducted with colleagues indicating that it is possible for Global South countries to achieve strong outcomes on every human development indicator. He argues that various countries, such as Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Thailand, China, Cuba and Bangladesh, as well as states such as Kerala in India, have managed to achieve high levels of human welfare with relatively little GDP per capita.

There is much food for thought in Hickel’s book, although it is not clear what role he see for anti-systemic movements and new left parties in making the shift to a post-capitalist world. He seems not to be conversant with the burgeoning literature on ecosocialism. Bearing this in mind, I suggest a greater dialogue among various proponents of a post-capitalist world system, including degrowth advocates, ecoanarchists and ecosocialists.

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