All the technologies the world needs to prevent climate catastrophe are already available and already expanding, but global emissions are yet to peak. A rate of decline in emissions that would keep global warming within 2 degrees looks unlikely, and 1.5 degrees borders on impossible. One of the main reasons why it’s so hard to imagine a fast enough decline is economic growth – we keep expanding the economy at the same time as cutting emissions, meaning it’s constantly two steps forward, one step back.
“Our insistence on perpetual growth is making our task much more difficult than it needs to be” writes Jason Hickel. “It’s as though we’ve chosen to fight this life-or-death battle facing uphill, blindfolded, with our hands tied behind our backs. We are knowingly stacking the odds against ourselves.”
In his new book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, Hickel explains the role that growth plays in driving ecological breakdown and crippling inequality. And on the flipside, the new possibilities that would open up if politics were to drop the idea of growth as a primary measure of progress.
Degrowth is a tricky word, because for mainstream economists, the first connotation is recession. Hickel takes a much broader view, emphasising the things that could counter and disarm the growth imperative, and the greedy colonialism that underpins it. Justice is an antidote to growth. So is abundance.
In a passage that resonates with the call of Joy in Enough, Hickel argues that “abundance is revealed to be the antidote to growth… degrowth calls for abundance in order to render growth unnecessary. If we are to avert climate breakdown, the environmentalism of the twenty-first century must articulate a new demand: a demand for radical abundance.”
This is a paradox, as Hickel acknowledges, but the key is that abundance lies in shared wellbeing and the joy of enough, while growth is reserved for private acquisition and runs on dissatisfaction. In order to keep growth going, consumers have to be dissatisfied, always looking to the next thing. The idea of enough, of contentment, would kill economic growth dead if enough people started thinking that way.
Growth relies on manufactured scarcity to keep undermining contentment. Wait, you were happy with your three-bladed razor? Look, this one has four. How are you enjoying your HD television now that your neighbour has 4K? Endless growth needs endless dissatisfaction, endless wanting, endless broken promises.
“In a growth-oriented system, the objective is not to satisfy human needs, but to avoid satisfying human needs” says Hickel. “It is irrational and ecologically violent.”
This nothing new. “Whoever loves money never has enough”, as the wise man of Ecclesiastes noted some 2,300 years ago. “Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”
What is new is the scale of the destruction necessary to keep the show on the road, to the point that climate change and ecological collapse are devastating the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people today, and ultimately threaten humanity’s very future. As a recent Oxfam report highlighted, it has been the demands of the richest that have driven climate change – the demand for more from those who already have so much. What could be more meaningless than destroying the world for more when we already had enough?
This is why degrowth matters.
Without the need for growth, people are free to appreciate what they already have. They are free from the need to compete, and to prove themselves through their possessions. They are free to share, to seek happiness in community instead of personal acquisition. That’s where abundance is found, hiding in plain sight.
This gets political when we start to think about how to create a society around abundance, rather than just a personal choice to resist consumerism. Abundance lies in generous public services, in commons approaches to resource stewardship, in better definitions of wealth that reward us with time rather than money. When people feel safe, feel that they belong, they can relax and enjoy the wealth we already possess.
The writer of Ecclesiastes saw this too, noting the difference between being rich and being able to appreciate it. “When God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.”