A critique of the pursuit of economic growth as central to political decision making
Picture a garden. All its flora, fauna, and funga. It is an ecosystem that requires a healthy balance between those different components. The goal of a gardener is not to maximise crop growth – however tempting that might be during tomato shortages with turnip patches at hand! Over-fertilising, over-watering, or over-crowding can lead to imbalances that harm the garden’s long-term health. The best managed garden can provide a diverse and sustainable source of food.
Now apply this logic to the way governments and businesses tend to civil societies. It has become increasingly accepted wisdom that modern capitalism’s relationship with the planet is destructive. Should the goal of economic growth continue to warrant social and ecological imbalances? For the long-term sustainability of our system, no. But how are more equitable and resilient societies grown? The answer may lie in Eterna Book Club’s second read:
Jason Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2020)
Hickel is an economic anthropologist, advocating social justice and ecological sustainability. In his previous book, The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions (2017), Hickel critiqued international development policies and institutions – arguing that they often perpetuate rather than alleviate inequality. In Less is More, ecological sustainability’s intersection with economic growth and social justice is brought to the fore. The work has propelled Hickel as a thought leader, inspiring new interest in alternative political, economic, and social models like degrowth.
Degrowth proposes the transition away from growth-oriented activities and towards well-being maximisation: a steady state operating within ecological limits. Hickel argues that endless economic growth is neither suitable nor possible on a finite planet, failing also to deliver on its promise of an improved quality of life for all – resulting from environmental degradation and social inequality. By reducing individual consumption, sharing our resources equitably, and investing more in socio-ecological needs, we might realise a just system. Like a healthy garden, an ecosystem rooted in the principles of cooperation, community, and resilience.
But this transition depends on the undoing of ingrained industrial thought, as Hickel argues:
“There is nothing natural or innate about the productivist behaviours we associate with homo economicus. That creature is the product of five centuries of cultural re-programming.”
This is no mean feat.
Our main discussion focused on chapter five, Pathways to a Post-Capitalist World, where Hickel proposes five policies:
- End planned obsolescence
- Cut advertising
- Shift from ownership to usuage
- End food waste
- Scale down ecologically destructive industries
The first policy was put forward particularly well. Many goods are not developed to be long-lasting and upgradeable; businesses are intentionally inefficient, but this is rational in terms of maximising profits. It is a strategy in what Hickel calls “artificial scarcity.” Need is intentionally created, maintaining a vicious circle of wasteful production and consumption that economic growth depends on. We valued the solutions that raise business responsibility and sustainability, like extended warranties, a right to repairs, and lease schemes for large appliances. They offer businesses an opportunity to advance and influence a degrowth transition whilst fostering trust.
But as we continued to discuss Hickel’s other four policies, it seemed clear that he believes degrowth must be administered from the top-down. Indeed, those willingly engaged in degrowth activities might look like Turkeys voting for Christmas. Surely governments must mandate these policies to overcome private interests. Then again, failing to fully disclose how these policy outcomes will be realised left us wondering about their unintended consequences. The policy of downscaling ecologically destructive industries, for example, seems riddled with them. Planning the reduction of resource use would likely maximise environmental sustainability and social equality, with more time for reproductive work – “caring” in Hickel’s words. But this assumes that all workers in those industries are merely satisfied to experience unemployment, with enough non- environmentally intensive activities for preoccupation. How just can the degrowth transition be if it is not a grassroots movement?
The challenge was then made that growth is a symptomatic of developmental activities. It is not necessarily a cause, as Hickel maintains throughout Less is More. The role of technology is an important topic. Hickel critiques the idea that technological solutions, such as geoengineering or carbon capture and storage, can solve the problem of climate change. These are untested, risky, and ultimately self-defeating, as he explains in chapter three:
“Even if we had a 100%-clean-energy system, what would we do with it? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, trawl more fish, mine more mountains, build more roads, expand industrial farming, and send more waste to landfill – all of which have ecological consequences our planet can no longer sustain.”
This stands against the green growth agenda, rubbishing that neoliberal concept that destruction can be creative. We struggled to overlook this. It seems unlikely that the focus on reducing global consumption will reduce environmental degradation before technological solutions do. There is good reason for this. Hickel’s critique of growth is rooted in colonialism, a system wherein the global North continues to exploit the global South’s land, labour, capital, and enterprise with disproportionate claims on pollution. Less is More reads as a rallying cry for ideological change than practical handbook. We depend on the undoing of ingrained industrial thought from within. Charge us with fatal optimism, but does technology not facilitate an incremental approach towards degrowth in line with current productivist behaviours? Without facilitation, we cannot expect a redistributive degrowth transition.
Whilst we each found Less is More convincing to different extents, it does make for essential reading on the problem of ecological imbalance caused by unrestraint growth. The degrowth proposition is certainly gaining momentum, shown by its current constituency of activists, researchers, and early practitioners. It should leave governments and businesses with the mindset of a gardener. How best to grow an equitable and resilient society with purposeful and managed economic shrinkage?