“Degrowth”: A Revolution by Any Other Name

In a discussion of the overwhelming influence Big Oil has in Canada’s delinquent response to the climate emergency, a friend suggested I read Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, by the economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel (Penguin 2022).

Hickel’s argument is that excessive growth and accompanying extractivism, pursued to the exclusion of other social priorities, is at the root of our climate emergency. The only solution is to cut our ties to growth – degrowth – and the capitalist framework that demands it.

It’s a good read, accessible and persuasive, and I recommend it. For progressive economists, there isn’t a lot here you haven’t already encountered or thought about, but its historical/anthropological take from outside the strict profession is refreshing.

Hickel does a masterful job of mapping the origins of capitalism’s love affair with growth, the key role it plays in destructive extractivist accumulation, and the burial of a viable, sustainable option based on use value, social solidarity and equality.

With roots in the enclosure movements of the 16th century, capitalism’s assault on the commonweal has grown to the point today that it threatens not only our survival, but that of much of the rest of the natural world. This is “path dependence” of a catastrophic sort.

Hickel proposes a new path, an economy structured around “use value” and distributive equality, to replace the capitalist economy built around “exchange value”, wasteful production and private accumulation. He calls for a return to recognizing our resources are indeed part of our commons.  He advocates overturning what amounts to a modern “enclosure” movement that dispossesses us. He also deftly disposes of the non-solution of “green growth” as capitalist green-washing.

Hickel’s assumption that the economy we endure is a matter of choice, not inevitability, is both accurate and yet rarely acknowledged in analyses of our current predicament. Not surprising, faced as we are with a political discourse dominated by corporate money and power and a flawed democracy that leaves legitimate choices off the table. Our capacity for collective forgetfulness also plays a role.

What’s worse, and a case in point, no one in our government, or with a remote prospect of governing, is talking frankly about winding down fossil-based energy. We have been robbed of our right to name our predicament. The political agents of the fossil fuel industry and their media sycophants, have made even the idea of “just transition” unspeakable.

Alberta’s embarrassingly feckless Premier, Danielle Smith, sounds shocked when she states the obvious, that a “just transition” implies the wind-down of the dirty energy sector. Duh! And the federal Liberals play right along, dishonestly pretending otherwise while abandoning the term so as not to offend!

Hickel rightly identifies the crucial role colonialism plays in the fundamental capitalist dynamic of accumulation, but he underplays the implications.

He recognizes that colonialism is not simply a relationship between North and South, have and have-not, but actually permeates our own culture and colours and limits our choices. Yet, he underestimates what that means for our ability choose an alternate path to development, one not reliant on continued growth and extraction of diminishing resources.

Putting it slightly differently, the journalist and social critic, Rebecca Solnit, says we desperately need what she calls “new stories about climate”;

Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis. This is as true of climate chaos as anything else. We are hemmed in by stories that prevent us from seeing, or believing in, or acting on the possibilities for change. Some are habits of mind, some are industry propaganda. Sometimes, the situation has changed but the stories haven’t, and people follow the old versions, like outdated maps, into dead ends.”

Solnit goes on to add that

we also need to become better critics and listeners, more careful about what we take in and who’s telling it, and what we believe and repeat, because stories can give power – or they can take it away. (emphasis mine)

Hickel’s book tells an important story, a story that could empower those who seek to decolonize the public discourse. But decolonization is no small task. The barriers to change run very deep.

Who could argue today that inadequate evidence or data explain our inaction in the face of a climate emergency that could end in our annihilation? This is a book that pulls together a lot of what we know, the scientific evidence – and it’s more than enough to convince the rational mind. And yet,…………..

Our inability to act is indicative of our failure to think straight, to think critically, to take our democracy and our democratic rights and responsibilities as citizens seriously. That is what is means to be colonized. It is a social pathology that involves the loss (theft) of our agency, our ability to articulate and describe our experience in our own terms, rather than those of a corporate colonial hegemony. Decolonization requires overthrowing that hegemony, nothing less.

The challenge of decolonization cannot be underestimated. Describing a desirable alternate future, as Hickel does so ably, is scratching the surface. Educating and fostering an active citizenry to seize control over our economy and turn it into one that serves our needs, not those of a wealthy and powerful few, is a challenge as big as, or bigger than, the technical one of addressing the climate emergency.

Solnit, one more time;

To change our relationship to the physical worldto end an era of profligate consumption by the few that has consequences for the many – means changing how we think about pretty much everything: wealth, power, joy, time, space, nature, value, what constitutes a good life, what matters, how change itself happens.”

The call to “degrowth” is one we all need to hear. But it is also a call to a social revolution. Nothing less.

By Peter Puxley

Hi, I'm Peter Puxley, an economist, geographer and urban planner by academic training, and a political organizer/activist, development educator, journalist, policy wonk, researcher and political staffer by practice. I have tried my hand at poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, some of which has been published.

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