Review of book “More is less” by Jason Hickel

Preventing climate change while promoting a growth economy with a growing population is incompatible. This is the substance of economic anthropologist Prof. Jason Hickel’s absorbing book.

For 300,000 years our ancestors worked with nature, taking only what they required. Items were traded, but this was not a capitalist society. More recently, during the last five centuries, the concept of capital started to feature. Land and businesses were acquired by a section of the community, forcing the rest to labour for this elite. Entrepreneurs could borrow money to speed development of their ideas, but the lenders or “shareholders”, became the first in the queue to be rewarded from the wealth created. Pay them too little, and they would lend to others rather than you. Suppliers of labour were well down the list of beneficiaries from the growing economy.

The lower the cost of labour, the quicker wealth could accumulate. Slavery, colonisation, mechanisation, automation, unemployment all kept labour costs low. Growing profit rather than just the payment of labour and some reinvestment costs became the aim. The availability of capital enabled companies to become juggernauts or monsters, which could gobble up other companies, in part to prevent they themselves from being gobbled up in turn.

In this process, it is not just labour that is exploited but the planet too. Relentless growth is accompanied by mining, construction, destruction of nature and pollution.

As Hickel says, “clean energy might help deal with emissions, but it does nothing to reverse deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion, and mass extinction. A growth-obsessed economy powered by clean energy will still tip us into ecological disaster”.

“What is required is “degrowth” – a planned reduction of excess energy and resource use to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe just and equitable way”.

With the technology and scientific understanding that we now have, we can move to a degrowth society “while at the same time ending poverty, improving human wellbeing, and ensuring good lives for all”.

We liberate people from the toil of unnecessary products, and shorten the working week to maintain full employment, and expand access to key public services like universal healthcare education and housing.

To preserve the planet, nine potentially destabilising processes must be kept under control; climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, land-use change, nitrogen and phosphorous loading, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosol loading, chemical pollution and ozone depletion.

A capitalist growth economy always wants to take more; more resources, more labour, more energy, producing “stuff “, we neither realise we want or need. Degrowth transitions our efforts into things that we do need, a cooler climate, more biodiversity, healthcare, social equality, and less disparity in income. Truly, “Less is More”.

Bob Pringle