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The Eco-Worrier Reviews "Less is More. How Degrowth will Save the World"

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

LESS IS MORE. How Degrowth Will Save the World. Jason Hickel. Pub; William Heinemann, August 2020. 318pp. £14.99 hardback.

With a preface by Extinction Rebellion and its proposals for planetary salvation wrapped inside a cover in the brightest-possible shade of green this book looks radical and certainly lives up to those first impressions.

Hickel firmly identifies the problem as capitalism which began, along with its associated social injustice, ecological destruction and economic inequality, in Europe and especially in England. After centuries of relative economic stability under the control of absolute monarchs and the church, albeit at subsistence level and interrupted by the occasional famine, plague or war, the 16th century brought massive social change. The dissolution of the monasteries saw not only their millions of acres transferred to the ownership of the ruler’s favourites, but the same lords began enclosing the common-land which had previously been a shared resource. This process continued over the coming centuries and proceeded to concentrate land - and wealth - into the hands of a relatively few families who ensured that property rights came to form the basis of both ‘common law’ and ‘democracy’. The rest of the population found themselves either having to pay rent to the owner to use the cropland, pasture and woodland which their forebears had once freely shared, or they had to work for the landowner as wage-labour for much longer hours than in the medieval period when a more relaxed working year had been interspersed with well over a hundred holy-days devoted to various saints.

The ‘age of discovery’ in the 16th-18th centuries saw later generations of wealthy European capitalists investing in expeditions to expand their wealth-gathering activities around the globe. Hickel describes colonisers transferring 100 million kilograms of silver from the Andes to European ports during this period. If invested at ‘going rates’, that wealth, which only benefited a tiny proportion of Europeans, would amount to $165 trillion. The decimation of native populations in these colonies left a huge demand for labour, both for mining raw materials and for growing new crops such as cotton, tobacco and sugar on the land which the wealthy Europeans had seized, leading to another lucrative new market - for African slaves.

Ironically, this exploitation of colonial lands and peoples brought cheap food imports back to Europe, putting further pressure on those working the land at home. Vast numbers of landless labourers struggled for survival until the Industrial Revolution, again starting in England, created opportunities not only for the wealthy to invest in mills, factories, mines and railways, but brought a wave of cheap labour pouring from the countryside into the swelling towns and cities. Coal, a new source of energy, compounded the pressure on wages while transferring wealth at an even faster rate not only to those who owned the mines and factories but also to the traders and ship-owners who sold manufactured goods to the colonies in exchange for their cheap raw materials; a virtuous circle indeed for the owners of capital, but very different for the world’s teeming millions who only had their labour to sell in a competitive wages-race to the bottom.

Hickel delves into the ‘dualistic’ philosophies developed by thinkers of the period such as Descartes and Bacon who essentially divided existence into, on one hand the uniquely rational mind of civilised man; “I think, therefore I am”. On the other side of this great divide was everything else on Earth, including slaves which, according to this logic, had been placed there by providence to further the “betterment” and “progress of man”. “Woman” and the bulk of humanity didn’t seem to get much of a look-in. This book will help the reader understand why libertarians and economists whose families have for generations been indoctrinated into this system of beliefs dreamt up by men in frock-coats just can’t grasp the fact that their frenzied “getting and spending” of the Earth’s bounty has today become a “creed outworn” and unfit for purpose.

We live under a system of GDP maximisation, an objective which, at current levels of consumption and pollution and with modern scientific understanding, is clearly suicidal. Its essential objective is to extract and exploit the Earth’s resources as rapidly as possible and turn them into products for which ever-more bizarre needs have to be created by the advertising industry and which have been designed to quickly become obsolete before being discarded to inevitably pollute the air, soil or oceans. Our croplands are over-exploited not to provide nutrition but, along with the world’s fisheries, to produce whatever provides the highest short-term profit, be it feed for factory-farmed junk-food, tobacco, sugar or shark-fin soup. The resulting crises of obesity and ill-health only add further to the over-arching GDP by boosting market opportunities for medications and hospitals. Why else are US multinationals desperate to get their hands on the NHS?

What would those great Enlightenment thinkers, so proud of their rational thought, make of the greed-driven, irrational myths being promoted in their name? Climatologists are driven to despair as our society defies scientific reason in the face of advertising-driven fantasies which make medieval debates about angels perching on pinheads seem no less rational and certainly much less harmful than clogging streets and crowded motorways with fume-belching SUVs each apparently promising ‘escape’. From - and to - what?

Hickel investigates every supposed technological solution to our crisis and, while far from being a Luddite, he points out all of the drawbacks and the immense risks that some, such as geoengineering pose. He highlights the direct link between the GDP of an individual nation and its associated ecological destructiveness. He favours raising the GDP of poorer countries while drastically cutting back that of the wealthiest nations, with particular emphasis on the world’s richest 1% of individuals.

Some of his proposals are rather arbitrary. One example is that he takes little account of the link between energy consumption and climate. While countries such as Canada and those of Scandinavia use much more energy per head compared with others further south, he doesn’t appear to make the connection with the fundamental need for fuel for heat in a cold northern winter. Another example is his singling out of beef as the meat product which should be avoided, citing the immense area of the world used for grazing. However, if he visited places where those cattle graze, including in Scotland, Hickel would find most of that land unsuitable for cultivation. We certainly eat far too much meat, but suggesting that people should preferably eat chicken and pork fed in vast factory-farms on soya and grain from the world’s most fertile land and cleared rainforest instead of the product of local pastures seems to be a generalisation too far.

Of course the huge question which every reader will ask is: How do we achieve these objectives when we are currently actually accelerating towards the cliff-edge under a political system which is entirely ruled not by democracy but by capitalists, including those who own the media? Bearing in mind that he seeks the complete and rapid reversal of everything from public attitudes to a complete transformation of the global economy, Hickel seems remarkably confident that a global grassroots awakening will save the day. I wish him - and all of us - well.

You may not agree with parts, or indeed any of it, but in these fragile, unstable and unprecedented times Hickel offers a broad and intelligent analysis of much that is wrong, not so much with the world but with how humanity views the world. He provokes us into thinking hard about the fact that the future of our species depends entirely on doing as little harm as possible to the thin film of life-support which surrounds this solitary little planet. Faced with this undeniable reality, the unlimited growth of economies, populations and consumption of resources becomes an impossible nonsensical fantasy. Perhaps the first thing we should do is to challenge the “Naked Emperors” passing off fundamentalist economic ideologies of endless growth which destructively concentrate wealth into ever fewer hands as having anything to do with reason, science or even a future for humanity.

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