Keen On Jason Hickel: How Degrowth Will Save the World
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
Economic "growth" is not a necessity. It's actually killing us (and the planet).
I do not love the interviewer here (lots of cutting off, bringing in relatively immaterial asides, just generally not a great conversational flow) but the subject is amazing and is talking a whole lot of sense about the gravity of the problem at hand, what addressing it could look like, and what will definitely *not* work.
"What if we recognized our interdependence with the rest of the living world? What if we refused any fundamental distinction between humans and nature? What if we designed an economy around mutual flourishing and regeneration rather than around exploitation and domination? I think these are the ideas we need to draw on and we imagine the economy for the 21st century."
I've been following Jason Hickel on Twitter since the spring and it's consistently rewarding. He's a much needed critic of capitalism and the absurdity of placing "The Economy" over basic humanity who's very clearly passionate but who also always comes with a cogent easily-explainable argument with the receipts to back it up. Here's an article from this summer where he breaks town (and unarguably refutes IMO) the myth of "green growth" (i.e. that by increasing efficiencies in resource extraction and manufacturing we can get out of our climate crisis without having to reduce consumption or scale back the economy).
What about technological innovation? McAfee argues that efficiency improvements will cut resource use. And in theory, that’s true, all else being equal. But in growth-oriented economies, savings from efficiency improvements are typically reinvested to expand the process of production and consumption, which ends up causing aggregate resource use to rise. For instance, if a soda company finds ways to use less metal in its cans, it will immediately invest any savings into expanding the business by, say, pumping out advertising to get people to buy more soda.
The only fail-safe strategy is to impose legally binding caps on resource use and gradually ratchet it back down to safe levels. Ecological economists have been calling for this for decades. In a way, this is an elegant solution to the long-standing debate about green growth. If McAfee and others really believe that GDP will keep growing despite active reductions in material use, then this shouldn’t worry them one bit. In fact, they should welcome such a move—it will give them a chance to prove once and for all that they are right.
But is it true? The evidence suggests otherwise. Let’s take the United States, for example. The United States has had extraordinary GDP growth over the past four decades. But, oddly, enough, real wages are lower today than they were in the 1970s, and poverty rates are higher. Why? Because virtually all of the gains from growth have gone to those who are already rich. The incomes of the richest 1 percent have more than tripled since 1980, soaring to an average of $1.5 million per person. In other words, we’ve all been pressing on the accelerator of growth, with devastating consequences for the living world, all to make rich people richer.
When you look at it this way, it becomes clear that the United States doesn’t need more growth in order to improve people’s lives. We can do it right now, without any growth at all, simply by sharing what we already have more fairly. Equity is the antidote to growth—and a much saner way to achieve our social goals.