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Before COP26, Prince Charles revealed his eco credentials, stating that his Aston Martin is fine because it runs on cheese and wine – surely a climate Marie Antoinette moment?

Suspiciously absent from the COP26 talking shop was the word degrowth. But unless you’re actively talking about degrowth, you’re just peddling corporate, political and billionaire propaganda.

To discuss degrowth and its implications for society, host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Economic Anthropologist and Author, Jason Hickel.

To grow, or not to grow: that is the question,
Whether ’tis nobler on Earth to suffer
The filth and waste of outrageous production
Or to take arms against a toxic sea of troubles,
and by opposing, end them?

Hamlets Ode to the 21st Century.

(By courtesy of Guy Dauncey).

Multinational corporations would have us believe that they are the modern version of a medieval marketplace. “But in fact the image … of small shops in farmers’ markets and souks has nothing to do with capitalism,” writes Jason Hickel in his latest book, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World.

Unlike those markets, “the whole point of capital is that it must be reinvested to produce more capital.” And that need for growth fuels inequality, environmental disaster, and modern forms of colonialism. Growth is not necessary for us to all have comfortable lives. In fact, it’s getting in the way, explains Hickel.

What is degrowth?

Hickel defines degrowth as a planned reduction of resource and energy throughout high income nations conducted in a safe, just and equitable way that improves social outcomes.

At its most distilled, the term refers to a process of reducing the material impact of the economy on the world’s many endangered ecological systems and abandoning GDP as a measurement of well-being.

Hickel explains that the word is intended to be challenging in the sense that it goes to the very core of our deepest assumptions about how the economy should work.

According to many of its detractors, degrowth is nothing more than a ploy to strip people of their hard earned material possessions and return to a foraging-based economy.

Although the concept of placing limits to economic growth is not new (having been articulated most famously by the Club of Rome in 1972), for some commentators and academics the word degrowth is problematic and appears to have some kind of Pavlovian affect on them.

The Keynesian economist, Paul Krugman, has come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is necessary to address climate change. The message seems to be simplistic in the Manichean narrative sense of the ‘you are either for capitalism or a Luddite’.

By contrast, the linguist, Noam Chomsky, agrees with degrowth principles but takes issue with the term itself claiming that it frightens people into believing that they are destined for a poorer future.

One of the most common criticisms is the claim that degrowth prevents poor countries from growing. But actually the term is explicitly premised on a demand for reducing resource use and energy use in rich countries thereby highlighting that growth-ism in rich countries relies on forms of imperialist appropriation from the global south.

Broader context

Hickel dispels these and other myths and misunderstandings by situating the arguments for a post-growth and degrowth economy in the context of the broader history of capitalism, uniting consciousness about the environmental crisis with consciousness about how capitalism works.

The academic also considers the deeper philosophical questions that underpin our relationship with nature and how capitalism has affected that. Hickel says he offers a pathway of solutions toward a kind of post-capitalism that forces us into a reckoning with growth dependency and the policies required to scale down destructive parts of the economy, while at the same time ensuring robust, high quality public provisioning for all.

Hickel argues that commodity production and provision within a market framework can, and should, continue but in a non-capitalist way:

“Markets and trade were around for thousands of years before capitalism which is distinguished from all other economic systems in history in that it’s organised around the enclosure of the means of survival. This not only includes land but now [under the banner of privatisation in the modern economy] encompasses energy, water, healthcare, transportation etc”, says Hickel.

The academic continues:

“When you have a growth addicted capitalist economy that must perpetuate capital accumulation, then you have to sabotage, privatise and enclose. We, therefore, end up with a system where production is organised, not around meeting human needs, but where these needs are subordinated to the interests of capital. Degrowth calls for the opposite. It calls for a kind of radical abundance where we all have access to what’s necessary for a flourishing life.”

Hickel suggests that degrowth is not only concomitant with the principle of natural law, but is antithetical to the empirically false narrative which claims that progress is handed down to us by capitalism. It’s only through struggle that human beings can claim their inalienable right to nature that’s been demonstrably stolen from them.

Reclaiming nature

In order for communities to successfully reclaim nature, future battles will have to be strategically fought against an intransigent elite class who have no intention of voluntarily surrendering their very significant material interests.

Hickel says that the best strategies we have are those proposed by the environmentalist movements but notes that their critique of the capitalist system that drives the problem is insufficiently robust:

“We have to understand that ultimately the crisis we face in the system is the drive towards over-production which then has to find a way to absorb it to maintain value”, says Hickel.

The Anthropologist notes that it’s important to recognise that growth is a deeply ideological term. From a capitalistic point of view, for example, the positive linking of growth to progress is its biggest ‘selling point’. And yet, there is often a disjuncture between GDP growth and the provisioning of well-being.

The problem with GDP is that it’s not a measure of use value, provisioning or well-being, but rather, a metric of commodity production as measured in terms of prices that does not take into account the social or ecological externalities involved in this method of production.

Hickel writes:

“We should always be asking, what is being produced, who has access to it and how is the income from that being distributed? We need to focus on producing things that we actually need and can have access to rather than enclosing and privatising them. We also need to ensure that the income generated from commodity production is shared fairly. But right now, the existing [irrational] plan, such as it is, is to grow all sectors of the economy, all the time, regardless of whether or not we actually need them, indefinitely.”

Hickel notes that destructive and socially unnecessary sectors need to be actively scaled down while the provisioning of those sectors beneficial to human well-being need to be expanded and improved so that the justice side and the ecology side come hand-in-hand:

“The direction for progressive movements in the 21st century is there’s no ecology without justice, and there is no justice without ecology”, says Hickel.

Post-capitalist society

Hickel’s vision of a post-capitalist society is one in which high quality universal public services of all kinds will be available to everyone so that people will be encouraged to lead flourishing lives. Hickel adds that because we would have scaled down the parts of the economy we don’t actually need, we will have a shorter working week.

“Let us direct our labour towards that, rather than towards producing trinkets that are designed ultimately to enhance the accumulation of the capitalist class”, says Hickel.

This will not only be liberating for people, but will distribute necessary labour more evenly and introduce a public job guarantee so that everybody who wants to work has access to the training necessary to contribute to the most important collective projects of our generation. These include renewable energy, housing refits, ecological regeneration, regenerative farming and other aspects that require a tremendous amount of labour that we know we need to accomplish this decade.

Ultimately, we will have more free time and more meaningful work. Insecurity of unemployment, poverty and homelessness will be eradicated. Society will also be significantly less unequal because the engines of capital accumulation at this point, would have been eradicated through the process of what Hickel calls, disclosure.

The academic says the system will be slimmed down in terms of our resource and energy use and yet we will live better lives. We will have delinked our well-being and our welfare from the imperative of perpetual expansion under capitalism and we will have a more rational approach to our social objectives. Our policies will be more focused, our system more efficient and our technology will be liberated from the constraints of capitalist growth-ism. “That’s the vision that we fight for”, says Hickel.

Watch the full episode now

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