The scene is set; if you didn’t know already, human existence is sitting on a knife-edge. We are in the throes of ecological crisis, extreme weather is wreaking havoc worldwide, and the rate of extinction is 1,000 times faster than pre-industrial levels.
“But if you’re reading this book,” writes Jason Hickel, author of Less is more: How degrowth will save the world, “this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, and you’re probably already concerned.”
That’s just as well, as the last thing we need is an onslaught of anxiety inducing statistics about our impending doom. Hickel himself suggests our obsession with horrifying eco-facts borders on PTSD.
No, in fact the economist-author has a different message, one that is both powerful and simple. The pursuit of growth is resulting in an unmitigated environmental catastrophe. But this book, his fifth, isn’t about warnings or resigning ourselves to the inevitable.
Instead it opens up our imagination to the possibilities of what a society could look like if it were based on principles of balance, social justice, care and reciprocity, rather than accumulation, exploitation, and waste.
But wait, isn’t growth necessary? Don’t we need growth to progress as a society and improve people’s lives? Doesn’t growth reduce poverty? Hickel contends that growth has worked against social progress not for it.
Echoing Jeff Daniel’s ‘America is not the greatest country in the world speech’, Hickel uses the US as living proof that growth does not translate into human welfare improvement.
Near the very top of the charts in the GDP per capita, when it comes to life expectancy, the US is only in the top 20th percentile. Many nations with far less GDP means outperform the US. So, if it’s not life expectancy, what about education? Again, countries like Poland with 77 per cent less wealth outgun the US.
Despite a nagging feeling that Hickel cherry-picks cases that support his argument, the logic is hard to counter.
A far cry from dry economic theory, it feels like this could be the next book in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens saga, titled ‘A brief history of capitalism’. In this way, Hickel deconstructs complex ideas into digestible analysis and page-turning storytelling.
He shifts the readers perspective so effortlessly; one starts to question why this isn’t mainstream thought?
Honest about the fact that it will not be an easy transition, Hickel concedes that he is not a political strategist and does not have all the answers. This book is not for that, instead, he declares it is designed to “nourish the imagination”. And in this he is justified.
At times, his slick and refined arguments may escape the messiness of reality and they lack the detail required by actual policymakers and economists. But for the rest of us, this book alters how we see the world and reveals what drives systematic global injustice and exploitation.
His vision, radical and dangerous to some, obvious to others, is underpinned by the principles of ecological stability and human wellbeing. As an author and academic, he makes it seem like it’s within our grasp. It’s up to us to demand it.
A restorative and invigorating read for troubled times, Hickel inspires hope that there is in fact a different way to approach life and society. The global pandemic has made us realise we don’t need to go back to the way it was, and this book offers up a vision of the future that we should aspire to. A must read for anyone sick of the egregious ills of the present day.
Less is more: How degrowth will save the world by Jason Hickel (£14.99, Penguin Random House) is out now.