For How Long Must the Economy Grow?
By Edward CarverNovember 13, 2020
Less Is More by Jason Hickel
Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues that the inaction is due to our attachment to economic growth. “Growthism,” he writes, is “one of the most hegemonic ideologies in modern history,” embraced across the political spectrum. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish campaigner, told delegates at the United Nations climate summit last year.
The “degrowth” movement emerged in Europe in the late 2000s, its principles based on research from ecological economics and environmental studies. Degrowthers argue that economic growth — currently, a central aim of most governments — is inextricably linked with energy and resource use, and the more these go up, the more difficult it becomes to reduce carbon emissions; “green growth” is thus a contradiction in terms. More production and consumption means more emissions, and there is no way, even with rapid technological improvements or investments in renewable energy, to maintain the planet’s ecosystems and stabilize the climate in a growth-oriented economy, they say.
Hickel’s new book, Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, is one of the first books on the subject from a non-academic publisher and for a general audience. The title is misleading. The book provides not a how-to manual but a brief history of “growthism” and an explanation of why it’s incompatible with climate and ecological stability.
The modern concept of “economic growth” comes from the late 1930s, a period of rising industrial production and cheap fossil fuels, when the United States was emerging from the Great Depression. Simon Kuznets, a government economist, led the development of a new metric that measured all economic activity — that is, the value of the production of all goods and services. This tally, a precursor to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was useful for tracking the country’s recovery and its preparation for wartime production. Its theoretical underpinning was an economy that could grow forever, with more and more exchanges of goods and services, and no thought of planetary boundaries.
By the 1940s, most industrialized countries and international bodies were using it as the primary measure of economic progress. Yet Kuznets himself had warned Congress not to use the metric to measure the nation’s welfare. “Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what,” he said.
Kuznets’s warning was overlooked for decades, but many economists now question the wisdom of targeting GDP growth above all else. Hickel provides a tidy summary of the metric’s weaknesses:
If you cut down a forest for timber, GDP goes up. If you extend the working day and push back the retirement age, GDP goes up. If pollution causes hospital visits to rise, GDP goes up. But GDP includes no cost accounting. It says nothing about the loss of the forest as habitat for wildlife, or as a sink for emissions. It says nothing about the toll that too much work and pollution takes on people’s bodies and minds. And not only does it leave out what is bad, it also leaves out much of what is good: it doesn’t count non-monetised economic activities, even when they are essential to human life and well-being. If you grow your own food, clean your own house or care for your ageing parents, GDP says nothing.
The global economy grows by about three percent per year, which means doubling in size every quarter century. Human well-being does not double alongside it, especially not in rich countries. For example, the United States has a significantly higher per capita GDP than the European Union and yet a lower life expectancy and worse marks on almost every indicator of human welfare.
The word “growth” has such positive connotations that we seldom stop to consider its economic implications. Humans and animals grow, yes, but they don’t grow forever: they reach maturity, and they maintain a steady size thereafter, Hickel points out. “It is astonishing, when you think about it, that the dominant belief in economics holds that no matter how rich a country has become, their GDP should keep rising, year after year, with no identifiable end point,” Hickel writes.
Assuming for a moment that degrowth advocates are correct, could governments solve the problem by adopting new economic metrics? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. Governments’ GDP targets are only part of the issue. The underlying problem, Hickel argues, is rooted in centuries of economic and philosophical thought designed to justify elite exploitation.
Many non-experts today might assume that capitalism replaced feudalism in a sort of unbroken run of elite economic dominance. Not so, says Hickel: there was a progressive interval following the Black Death. The period from 1350 to 1500 was what historian Fernand Braudel called “the golden age of the European proletariat,” in which workers had decent pay and incredible amounts of leisure time (read: festivals galore).
This arrangement did not sit well with the elite. The nobles, the church, and the bourgeoisie bemoaned the licentious and lazy underclasses and worked together to undo the gains that workers had made. They turned the commons — fields, forests, rivers — into private property. This process of “enclosure” led to some of the worst famines in European history in the 1500s. Huge numbers of people lost access to food supplies and were evicted from their homes. Life expectancy in England dropped from 43 in the 1500s to the low 30s in the 1700s, and real wages in Western Europe declined up to 70 percent over the same period. Early capitalism was so tough on commoners that it led to ontological pessimism, Hickel writes:
We all know that famous quote by Thomas Hobbes, where he says that life in the “state of nature” was “nasty, brutish and short”. He wrote those words in 1651. We read Hobbes as describing a putative condition of misery that existed before capitalism; a problem that capitalism was supposed to solve. But exactly the opposite is true. The misery he described was created by the rise of capitalism itself.
Capitalism was a brutal response to progressivism. In 1531, King Henry VIII unveiled the Vagabonds Act to punish “idleness,” often by death — to decline to work for the owning classes was to put one’s life at risk. Meanwhile, parishes across Britain set up “workhouses” that taught discipline; they were part factory, part cultural re-education camp. The “principles of homo economicus that we assume to be engraved in human nature were instituted during the enclosure process,” Hickel writes. Elites sowed the seeds of “growthism” during this period. They justified enclosure by saying that it allowed for more efficient agricultural yields and more output.
Two early 17th-century thinkers, Francis Bacon and René Descartes, were key to the appropriation effort. Their work, whatever its overall merits, divided humans and nature and created a clear hierarchy between the two: it was our job to “conquer” nature and make it our “slave,” to “torture” it. This division is now so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we barely recognize it. Descartes established a similar separation between body and mind, with the body subservient. (Alas, his most famous quote was not, “I breathe through my lungs, therefore I am.”) This conception made it easier to justify the exploitation of labor and the control, or partial control, of human bodies — by states, landowners, slave traders, joint stock companies, colonialists, men. The body and the land were there to be extracted. More holistic ideas about the relationship between human beings and nature were rooted out.
In spite of his worldview, Hickel comes across not as a hippie but rather as an anthropologist steeped in knowledge of indigenous cultures — an academic committed to Western science, even as he critiques some of its founders. He shows how wrong Bacon and Descartes were on certain counts — they didn’t think that nonhuman species were alive — and makes a compelling case that the interconnectedness of all life on Earth is not just a yoga cliché but also a well-supported fact, one that we ignore at our peril.
There are, however, a few places in the book when Hickel and his publisher seem naïve, most notably on the front cover. “Save the world” sounds like something from a 1980s telethon and may turn off highbrow readers. Confusingly, the publisher has also pasted on the cover the name of Extinction Rebellion, an activist group that started in Britain in 2018 and quickly rose to prominence. Two members of the group wrote the preface, which does not match the quality of Hickel’s work (i.e., skip the preface).
Though he lays out the ugly history of capitalism, Hickel doesn’t carry the venom of a full-throated polemicist. He doesn’t attack “green growth” advocates or disparage the Green New Deal, which, in some of its proposed forms, attracts the ire of degrowthers. Hickel calls for a Green New Deal without growth.
The idea that we can keep using the same amounts of energy (or even more) and simply replace the source is, to degrowthers, a fantasy that serves the global elite, who burn through much of it. They argue that reducing emissions is not possible at the speed required to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown if we continue to pursue GDP growth.
While “green growth” centers on technological progress, degrowth advocates argue that improved technology and energy efficiency, while necessary, won’t be enough to stabilize the climate. Infinite energy can’t be squeezed from one “unit” of nature, they say. Renewables require the extraction of metals, and there are physical limits to how much energy efficiency can be improved.
At the moment, renewables add to the energy mix rather than replacing dirty energy. This is partly because efficiency leads to greater consumption. When flying becomes more fuel-efficient (and cheap), people do more of it. When a high-efficiency refrigerator hits the market, middle-class consumers buy it and keep running their old fridge in the basement or the garage. And so, in our current economic system, even green technologies can speed up the appropriation of nature. Degrowthers note that climate change itself is the result of past technological advances, put to work for capital.
The word “degrowth” scares many people, calling to mind a recession. However, degrowthers are pushing for a managed and gradual reordering of the economy in such a way that growth is not needed for prosperity. Hickel is at pains to explain that degrowth is about abundance, rather than limits. He envisions an egalitarian world in which global imbalances are rectified, with societies that are more democratic and less consumerist, with fewer billionaires and debtors. The obsession with growth is a key obstacle to change, he writes in an online debate:
Think of all the regressive things that politicians and corporations do in the name of growth: weakening labour standards, slashing environmental protections, liberalizing markets, deregulating banks, cutting social spending. To the extent that the progressive Left operates within the growth frame, we play into the hands of neoliberals and make it much easier for them to justify these measures.
His central proposal, pulled from the ecological economics literature, is to put a cap on global energy and resource use, and bring down the cap gradually until we are within planetary boundaries.  It’s hard to assess the plausibility of Hickel’s proposed cap because he leaves the mechanics and politics unexamined. This isn’t a book for policy wonks, and that’s okay, but he needs to do more to show readers how degrowth policies would work. For one, he does not discuss the international cooperation that would be required to institute such a cap. He also fails to investigate the impact that this transition would have on, for example, public health care and education: where are tax receipts coming from in a world with less cash flow?
Hickel has more to say about jobs, and one needn’t be a degrowth advocate to find his ideas compelling. He proposes universal basic incomes, job guarantees, retraining programs, and more bargaining power for workers. One of the crucial elements of his plan — of any degrowth plan — is shortening the working week to 20 or 30 hours. This would reduce unemployment, distribute income more widely, improve well-being, and allow more time for care work.
Obviously, there are questions as to whether degrowth is politically viable. It could be that degrowthers are right on the technical questions — there’s no chance of stabilizing the planet so long as growth is king — but wrong to try to build a broad movement out of such a countercultural concept.
On its face, a pro-growth Green New Deal is a lot more plausible, as it requires less of a societal transformation. In theory, it allows everyone, rich and poor, to increase their incomes. Indeed, it’s a way of diffusing class tensions — the working class at least gets a few extra crumbs as the pie expands. As Henry Wallich, a 20th-century economist and longtime governor of the Federal Reserve, once said: “So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.” Hickel wants to reverse Wallich’s substitution so that we have more equality and less growth. But would the working class, whose support is essential for any climate movement to succeed, rally around this vision? “Degrowth” might sound too much like austerity, despite Hickel’s insistence that it’s about abundance.
Both sides agree that countries in the Global South should be allowed to grow their economies and increase their energy and resource use. Degrowth advocates say that the changes in material consumption need to come in the Global North. The degrowth movement, though largely white and European, calls for fairness to low-income countries. For example, under degrowth, Americans and Indians would eventually use similar amounts of energy.
Green growth advocates argue that this is not realistic. Their programs, such as the 2015 Paris Accord, “grandfather in” global inequities, as Sharachchandra Lele, an India-based environmental policy expert and critic of the growth paradigm, points out. Degrowth presents a much more direct challenge to the existing global order. 
Degrowthers regard climate change as just one in a larger suite of ecological problems — the most prominent boundary crossing. “Clean energy might help deal with emissions, but it does nothing to reverse deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion and mass extinction,” Hickel writes. “A growth-obsessed economy powered by clean energy will still tip us into ecological disaster.”
Hickel believes that we need a profound societal shift to heal a rift that we’ve made with nature, to undo 500 years of cultural programming. And so his book, a short and engaging synthesis of economic and environmental thought, is not just a call for radical policies but also a radical rethink of our relationship with nature. It should be required high school reading.
Edward Carver is a journalist based in London.
 A few critics of degrowth have called it neo-Malthusian, but that’s not quite right. Malthus was a conservative economist and clergyman interested in immorality and overpopulation. Degrowthers have an opposing political orientation and do not generally talk much about population.
Hickel dedicates only two paragraphs of Less Is More to the issue of population. Like most degrowthers, he considers the contours of the global economic system, and not overpopulation, to be the main cause of environmental degradation.
Many degrowthers come from the field of political ecology, one of the founding principles of which is an opposition to neo-Malthusianism. That is, political ecologists analyze the power relations that lead to environmental degradation and are seldom keen to blame it on consumers or human populations. Giorgos Kallis, a political ecologist and leading degrowth advocate, recently wrote a book called Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care.
 Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and leading green growth advocate, has criticized degrowthers’ calls for global equity: “There is a solid ethical case for such measures,” he wrote in New Left Review, a British journal. “But there is absolutely no chance that they will be implemented. Given the climate-stabilization imperative facing the global economy, we do not have the luxury to waste time on huge global efforts fighting for unattainable goals.” In response, Sharachachandra Lele, the India-based expert, wrote that it was “surprising from a Southern perspective” that “Pollin calls his strategy ‘egalitarian green growth’.” Lele called Pollin’s willingness to ignore global justice “a hallmark of green growth thinking.”
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