When we think of ‘Degrowth’, our initial thoughts land on radicalism and that it is impossible. We can’t possibly go backward, shrinking our economy and halting development right?
However, in the book ‘Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World’, the term degrowth, is used more hopefully. It may even convince and inspire you to “shift from an economy that’s organised around domination and extraction to one that’s rooted in reciprocity with the living world”.
Living in an age of mass extinction
Growthism is one of the most hegemonic ideologies in modern history, yet nobody stops to question it. It is no surprise because we tend to take the idea of growth for granted. After all, it sounds so natural. Hickel questions this ideology, going back to its origins in colonial times and figuring out if growth has any particular purpose or if it’s just growth for its own sake with no identifiable end-point.
Throwback to the time between the ‘end’ of colonialism towards the industrial revolution and Europe’s industrial growth. The truth is, they did not emerge out of nothing. They hinged on commodities that were produced by slaves, on lands stolen from colonised peoples, and processed in factories staffed by European peasants who had been forcibly dispossessed by enclosure. It might be tempting to downplay these moments of violence as mere aberrations in the history of capitalism. But they are not. They are the foundations of it. Growth has always relied on processes of colonisation.
The great separation
The perverted execution of capitalism required a new story about nature — land, soils, the minerals beneath the surface of the earth. The ability to fundamentally distinguish humans and nature, breaking that sacred code of kinship.
These living systems are not “out there”, disconnected from humanity. On the contrary: our fates are intertwined. They are, in a real sense, us.
This system of separation required possession, extraction, commodification, and ever-increasing productivity. In order to exploit something, you must first regard it as an object. Dualism served this purpose beautifully. Humans and nature are cast as objects in a process of thingification. You see, if you start from the premise that all beings are the moral equivalent of persons, then you cannot simply take from them.
Our alienation from the natural world has allowed us to continue on this unsustainable path.
The problem with growth
For decades we’ve been told that we need growth in order to improve people’s lives. But it turns out this isn’t actually true. Beyond a certain point, which high-income countries have long since surpassed, the relationship between GDP and well-being completely breaks down. It’s not growth that matters; it’s how income and resources are distributed.
One reason for the insatiable thirst for growth is artificial scarcity.
Capitalism depended on creating and maintaining conditions of artificial scarcity.
People’s lives were governed by the imperatives of intensifying productivity and maximising output. No longer was production about satisfying needs, no longer about local sufficiency: instead, it was organised around profit. We were able to swallow this fact as this enabled the shift to intensive commercial methods that increased agricultural output, that this was a contribution to the “greater good” of humanity. But dangerously, this same logic was used to justify colonisation and the claims to American lands.
The proponents of capitalism believed it was necessary to impoverish people in order to generate growth.
This means what was once abundant had to be made scarce. Public wealth had to be sacrificed for the sake of private riches; commons were sabotaged for growth.
This is clear when we see an inverse relationship between what we call ‘private riches’ and ‘public wealth’, or commons, such that an increase in the former can only ever come at the expense of the latter.
How do we flourish without growth?
To get one thing straight, growth is not the problem, the problem is with growthism: the pursuit of growth for its own sake.
It seems to me that this current system has only been benefiting a small group of individuals. To put things in perspective, over the past 40 years, 28% of all new income from global GDP growth has gone to the richest 1% (all of whom are millionaires). This is astonishing when you think about it. It means that nearly a third of all the labour we’ve rendered, all the resources we’ve extracted, and all the CO2 we’ve emitted over the past half-century has been done to make rich people richer.
We need a better way to distribute our resources and income. One of the ways we can do it is by increasing shared public goods. That way, we take pressure off people’s need for private income. Additionally, by expanding people’s access to public services and other commons, we can improve the welfare purchasing power of people’s incomes, enabling flourishing lives for all without needing any additional growth. Justice is the antidote to the growth imperative — and the key to solving the climate crisis.
The 300 pages brought me enlightenment more than Hickel could ever imagine.
I don’t hate capitalism, I really don’t — as long as economies were organised around the principle of ‘use-value’ and with true democracy.
However, right now our goal is to produce and sell them for one purpose above all others: to make a profit. In this system the ‘exchange-value’ of things matters, not their use-value.
The goal continues to be to reinvest that profit to expand the production process and generate yet more profit than the year before.
It is a self-reinforcing cycle with no identifiable endpoint to the process of accumulating exchange value. It is fundamentally unhinged from any conception of human need. To continue replicating itself, it will needlessly continue to exploit our world.
What I truly love about this book is how Hickel managed to break down complicated overwhelming topics and give practical solutions to these problems. Touching on topics like debts, planned obsolescence, employee welfare, and public goods.
In a sense, it did give me hope instead of the feeling of doom. He also further added values that need to come with it, never neglecting indigenous wisdom and experiences by diverse individuals.
It taught me, someone, who is raised in capitalist culture, trained in the conceits of dominion and dualism to slowly comprehend why our experience of the living world would be much richer if we regarded it as pulsing with intention and sociality. We have to start by recognising that we are in a relationship of interdependence.
“Earth should have ‘the right to life and to exist, the right to be respected, the right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes”.
The author, Sheri Zuleika, is a systems thinker and publishes interesting articles about Web3.0, sustainability and their connections on her blog called The Chubby Honu. Follow Sheri on her Instagram profile too.