Dr. Jason Hickel, economist and specialist on inequalities, published in 2020 Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. He examines propositions for a post-capitalist economy in the context of an exit from the Covid-19 crisis, which includes decolonizing nature and recovering the commons. Second instalment of a two-part piece.
How to plan degrowth?
The Covid-19 crisis has taught us an important lesson. We now know that it’s possible to slow down or even stop huge parts of the economy in order to protect people’s lives, at the touch of a button. Of course, the problem with the Covid-19 crisis is that it has forced us to shut down socially necessary sectors, like schools, cafes, recreation facilities, public transportation, things that are important to our well-being. But what if we used this power instead to shut down socially unnecessary sectors?
It’s also crucial to work toward dis-accumulating capital. The problem with accumulated capital is that it flails around in desperate search of new outlets for additional accumulation, be it in extractivism, debt, wars, fossil fuels, gentrification, land grabs, whatever. Dis-accumulating capital – say, with a maximum income or a wealth tax – would deflate this tendency, remove pressure from the system, and allow us to focus on production that’s organized around well-being rather than around accumulation.
Ultimately, however, we need to monitor national-level energy and resource use, and set clear annual targets for scaling these down to sustainable levels. It’s important to do this while at the same time decommodifying and expanding public goods, so that everyone has access to the resources they need to live flourishing lives.
How governments can avoid growth while investing in healthcare and education?
People worry about how to pay for this, but there are three things worth pointing out. First, public goods are almost always more cost-effective and resource-efficient than private goods. The US healthcare system, for example, is three times more expensive and more resource intensive than the British healthcare system. Yet, it delivers worse health outcomes. If the US shifted to a public healthcare model, it would most likely be cheaper while at the same time improving people’s lives. Second, tax policy has become extremely regressive over the past few decades, under neoliberalism– so we can fix that. And third, modern monetary theory has pointed out that we can fund social spending directly, by expanding the balance sheet. Although, of course, this can only be an option for countries that control their own currency.
Don't you think growth could address the climate emergency thanks to green innovations?
“Green growth” narratives have been around for some 50 years now. The promise is that efficiency improvements will allow GDP to absolutely decouple from energy and resource use, so that incomes continue to grow exponentially while resource use falls. Unfortunately, it hasn’t panned out that way. We’ve seen dramatic efficiency improvements over the past few decades, but they have not led to absolute decoupling. On the contrary, resource and energy use continues to rise. This happens because, in the context of a growth-oriented economy, efficiency improvements are immediately leveraged to expand and speed up the process of production and consumption, triggering a “rebound effect” that wipes out any absolute gains. Over the past few years, there have been a number of major academic reviews finding that sufficient absolute decoupling has never been demonstrated and is not feasible to achieve. The problem is not our technology. The problem is growthism, which is wiping out our efficiency improvements. In a post-growth economy, efficiency improvements would work as we hope: they would serve to reduce total resource and energy use, and allow us to achieve our ecological goals.
Don't you think growth could address the climate emergency thanks to green innovations?
Yes of course, this is a major part of the solution. We need rapid deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries to replace fossil fuels. But we know that renewable energy deployment cannot happen fast enough so long as high-income nations continue to pursue growth. Again, this is because growth drives energy demand up, making the task too difficult to achieve in the short time we have left . We need to be doing the opposite of what’s currently happening. We need to be actively scaling down excess energy use. Let’s just consider this simple question: does it really make sense to use energy producing SUVs, fast fashion, Pringles and Barbie Dolls in the middle of a climate emergency? No, it does not.
There’s another problem here worth pointing to. We have to keep in mind that clean energy does not come out of thin air. It requires material extraction to build solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. Ever-rising levels of energy use will require ever-rising levels of material extraction. And those materials will be appropriated mostly from the global South, under conditions that are already ecologically and socially exploitative. Therefore, the less energy we use, the less extraction will be required to supply it with renewable sources, and the less pressure there will be on the communities where this extraction takes place. This is a more ecologically coherent and socially just approach.
Can degrowth address inequalities?
It’s important to clarify that degrowth is a critique that’s focused on the global North. Low-income countries, by contrast, clearly need to increase resource and energy use in order to meet human needs. The problem right now is that resources and productive capacity in the global South are mobilized in large part around servicing excessive Northern consumption (producing fast fashion and disposable tech for export), rather than around meeting human needs. This is in large part a consequence of World Bank and IMF policy over the past few decades, which has pushed countries into pursuing export-oriented production.
Ecological economists propose a very different approach, where excess throughout declines in rich nations while necessary throughput increases in poor nations. This would ensure that global South countries can mobilize their economic capacity around meeting human needs and that throughput converges at a level that is consistent with human well-being, ecological regeneration and rapid decarbonization. This is the path we need to take for a just, equitable and sustainable world.
Reduce consumption, give up private car and tech... How to make degrowth acceptable in the global North?
In Less is More, I demonstrate that post-growth ideas already have very strong support in opinion surveys in industrialized nations. Large majorities of people are in favor of prioritizing ecological stability and human well-being over GDP growth. Large majorities are in favor of policies like shortening the working week, a public job guarantee and decommodifying public goods. So, we need to lead with the positive vision that we’re after: an economy that’s organized around human well-being rather than around capital accumulation. An economy that’s more caring and more just, that allows us to thrive in balance with the living world. This is possible to achieve, but not until we free ourselves from the constraints of growthism.
Do you think Covid-19 crisis can accelerate the movement to fundamental reforms?
Clearly Covid-19 has opened a window of opportunity. People are acutely aware of how destructive our economy has become. They are aware of how unjust it is, with billionaires profiteering during a pandemic. So, in terms of public opinion, yes there has been a shift. The problem we face now is that governments are trying to accomplish a recovery from the economic crisis by stepping on the accelerator of growth. This would make it all the more difficult for us to accomplish our ecological goals. We need to be pointing out that GDP growth is in fact not necessary for recovery. Going out of the crisis, we can have a recovery without growth.
The main problem we face right now is unemployment. If we want to solve that problem with growth, it means trying to expand industries that we don’t actually need to expand. This is basically make-work. Instead, we can address unemployment directly, by introducing a public job guarantee with a living wage. The idea is that anyone who wants to can get a job doing meaningful, socially necessary work that contributes to the ecological transition: installing solar panels, retrofitting houses, restoring ecosystems, regenerative farming, etc. This would simultaneously end unemployment, ensure good livelihoods for all and enable people to participate in the most important collective project of our generation.
Interview by Aurélie Darbouret
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.