The climate breakdown and the ecological collapse are today’s reality. Yet, in order to act, it is not enough to acknowledge this, it is necessary to go to the roots of the phenomenon. In his book Less is More, economic anthropologist Jason Hickel identifies the cause of these crises in the perpetual expansion of capitalism that is devastating the planet. We interviewed the author to better understand this process and his perspective on a post-capitalist world.
In your book Less is More you write that we can trace the cause of the ecological crisis back to Descartes’ dualism, the world divided in two: man is separate from nature. Not only, man has to dominate nature, own it. Can you explain how this mechanism was so deeply interiorized and has, consequently, produced capitalism first, and then the ecological crisis?
For most of human history, people recognized a fundamental interdependence between humans and the rest of the living world. They refused any strict separation between the two. As a result, most civilizations placed cultural and ethical constraints on the exploitation of living ecosystems. This changed around the 1500s, when early capitalists sought to destroy these beliefs in favor of a new ontology, or theory of being, where humans alone are subjects with spirit and agency, while “nature” is mere matter – an object to be exploited and manipulated for human ends. This became known as dualism. These ideas pre-existed Descartes, but Descartes formalized them in his philosophy and they became dominant in Europe during his time.
It is difficult to separate the history of capitalism from the history of dualist philosophy; the two arose together. Dualism was and remains important to capitalism because capitalism needs to treat nature as “external” to itself. The very possibility of “growth” depends on depressing the costs of resource inputs to below the level of the value you actually extract from them. In other words, you have to somehow “cheapen” nature. Dualism is the mechanism for doing this. We even use dualist language explicitly to this day: we talk about “externalizing” costs – an idea that is only possible because we believe, bizarrely, that nature is somehow external to humans. It’s not surprising that such a system would very quickly produce extraordinary ecological crisis.
The issue with capitalism is the “cult of growth,” as you call it, the pursuit of growth as an end in itself. Even the so-called “green growth” is an issue, as it presents a paradox and cannot exist. What is the antidote to the cult of growth?
When people think about capitalism they tend to think of things like markets and trade. But of course, markets and trade existed for thousands of years before capitalism. What makes capitalism distinctive is that it is organized around and dependent on perpetual growth. It is the only economic system in human history that is intrinsically expansionary. The thing about “growth” is that it is a propaganda term. In reality what is usually going on is a process of extraction, enclosure and commodification, which quite often harms human communities and living ecosystems. All of this gets repackaged in the language of “growth,” which sounds so cuddly, so natural, so obviously good. Who in their right mind would be against growth? As a result, we all line up calling for more growth when otherwise we might not. We are not served by this language. It is an obstacle to thought. We need to be clear about things we actually want to achieve: better health outcomes, better education, fairer wages, affordable housing, clean energy. We should pursue these things directly, rather than blindly growing the GDP and hoping that this will somehow magically help us achieve our social goals. We need a more rational approach.
What would you respond to those who say: “But growth got us where we are, growth is the reason for human progress, longer life expectancy, welfare…”?
We know from empirical studies that there is no causal relationship between GDP growth and social outcomes. In fact, past a certain point, which high-income nations have long exceeded, even the correlation breaks down. What actually matters is how resources and income are distributed. The historical record is clear that the main drivers of human progress have been progressive social movements, which have intervened to demand things like universal public sanitation, healthcare, housing, fair wages, clean water – quite often against the interests of the capitalist class.
This is why we see such a discrepancy between GDP and social outcomes around the world. The USA is one of the richest countries on the planet, with a GDP per capita of $65,000. Spain has 55% less income, but it beats the USA on key social indicators, with a life expectancy that’s five years longer. There are many examples like this. Over and over again, we see that it’s possible to achieve very high levels of human development with relatively low levels of GDP. This should not be surprising because, again, GDP is not a metric of social provisioning (use-value) – it is primarily a metric of commodity production (exchange-value). We need to recognize the difference between the two.
You pinpoint a fundamental paradigm of capitalism: growth has always been based on systems of colonization, ergo of oppression. Are today’s processes of “atmospheric colonization” – a small number of high-income nations being responsible for nearly all emissions – and of patriarchy linked to this?
We often think of capitalism and colonialism as separate, but they are not – they arose together in the 1500s as part of the same project. The rise of capitalism in Europe depended completely on appropriation of resources and labor from the global South, including mass enslavement and state-sponsored human trafficking. Colonialism may be officially over, but colonial patterns of plunder continue to this day. Growth in high-income nations relies on a significant net appropriation of resources and embodied labor from the global South. Think of who makes our smartphones and laptops, who grows our coffee and tea and palm oil, who mines the coltan and lithium that’s in our devices, who sews our clothes.
We can see the same thing happening when it comes to climate change. The rich nations of the global North are responsible for 92% of emissions in excess of the safe planetary boundary. They have colonized the atmosphere for their own enrichment. And yet the global South suffers the majority of the consequences. For instance, 98% of the deaths associated with climate breakdown each year occur in the global South. Once again, the South is sacrificed for the sake of Northern growth. If we are not attentive to the colonial dimensions of the ecological crisis, then we are missing the point.
In the history of capitalism that you recount in your book, poverty is necessary. For what? And for whom?
In Europe beginning in the 1500s, early capitalists needed to find a way to get masses of cheap labor. To do this, they enclosed common lands and destroyed subsistence economies, so that people would have no other way to survive but to work for low wages. This produced a crisis of mass poverty in Europe. At the time, elites justified it by saying it is only when people are faced with the threat of hunger that they really work hard, so you have to keep people poor in order to fuel the engines of industrial production. They were explicit about this.
The same thing happened in the global South, under colonialism. Colonizers needed cheap labor, but most people were not willing to do back-breaking work on European plantations because they had their own subsistence economies and small industries. So, colonizers either taxed people in order to compel them to work for wages, or otherwise forced them off their land so they would have no other choice. In other words, an artificial scarcity was produced in order to keep capitalism running.
This is one of the reasons that despite extraordinary economic growth, mass poverty remains a problem. This might seem like a paradox, on the face of it. But it’s because the system actually depends on maintaining much of the world population in poverty, with wages pushed down to the level of subsistence, to provide a steady flow of fast fashion and throwaway gadgets to affluent Northern consumers.
Are capitalism and democracy compatible?
We tend to think of capitalism and democracy as part of the same package. But this easy assumption has been questioned over the past few years. Mountains of research show that when people have democratic control over economic decisions, they choose to allocate income fairly, and they choose to use resources sustainably, maintaining them into the future even if this means foregoing short-term monetary gain. In other words, people make decisions that run against the interests of capitalism.
Why then do our actual economies not look like this? It’s because we don’t have real democracies. Our media landscape is colonized by corporations and oligarchs, which limit the scope of thought and debate, and our political systems are captured by those who finance political campaigns. In this context, capitalism and growth are not allowed to be questioned. Capitalism, in other words, mitigates against real democracy, just as real democracy mitigates against capitalism. I think we need to recognize that these two things are more in conflict than we typically assume.
In your opinion, an energy transition to renewables is necessary, but not enough. What would a more complete pathway entail?
There are several problems with existing green transition scenarios. One is that it’s not possible for us to decarbonize the economy quickly enough to stay under 1.5 or 2 degrees if high-income nations continue to use so much energy. In order to make these targets feasible, high-income nations need to reduce energy demand significantly. And the best way to reduce energy demand is to scale down unnecessary production. That’s what degrowth calls for.
The second thing is that climate change is not the only existential problem we face. We also face a crisis of deforestation, soil depletion and mass extinction – problems that are being driven by excess resource use. Resource use is tightly coupled to economic growth. So even if we can imagine transitioning to 100% renewable energy, this does not deal with other dimensions of ecological breakdown. Here again, high-income nations need to actively scale down excess resource use.
A lot of people are afraid of the mere thought of a world after capitalism. You see a postcapitalist economy as one which does not need growth to survive. How do we get there?
I always find this odd. We are a culture that celebrates innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. But for some reason when it comes to our economic system, we are convinced that capitalism is the only possible option and we shouldn’t even think about alternatives.
Capitalism is a 16th century system that is just not fit for the 21st century. We can and must imagine something better. The basic principle of a post-capitalist economy is that it should be organized around human well-being and ecological stability, rather than around the interests of capital and elite accumulation. This is not so hard, really. In Less is More I lay out concrete, realistic pathways for how to get from here to there. It is utopian, but it is not unrealistic. We can build political movements toward this end.
Ultimately, “the economy” is our material relationship with each other and with the rest of the living world. We have to ask ourselves: do we want that relationship to be based on extraction and exploitation, or do we want it to be based on reciprocity and care? Our survival as a species depends on how we answer this question.
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