The Capitalocene is upon us

In his latest book “Less Is More. How Degrowth Will Save The World”, anthropologist Jason Hickel indicts the growth imperative of capitalism as the ultimate culprit of the climate crisis and makes recommendations how to re-organize our economy.

De-fund, de-grow, de-ny

In 2020, “Defund the police” became a popular rallying cry among progressive forces in American politics – and an invitation for conservatives to criticizes their naivety and delusion: Exploiting the broad meaning of the word “defund”, they cast their political opponents as anarchist who undermine public safety by cheering for ill-equipped police forces – when in reality they want to re-allocate some police funding to more effective non-police safety measures. Proponents of “degrowth” face the same problem: A furious backlash from parts of the establishment who point out that economic degrowth is not a viable social option for a world of demographic growth.

The problem is the “-ism”

However, advocates of degrowth, such as Jason Hickel, do not dismiss growth outright or altogether – just as advocates of “Defund the police” do not have a problem with public safety in general. They simply dismiss the wrong kind of growth and growth as an end in itself. They decry the ideology of growthism and its ill-fated conclusion that more is always better.

For Mr. Hickel, the imperative to grow stems from an vicious circle that the capitalist logic creates: Capital must be re-invested not to serve an overarching need but to produce more capital, which in turn must produce more capital, and so on.

In short: “The choice is stark: grow or die.”

Blame it on Descartes!

Mr. Hickel singles out French philosopher René Descartes for legitimizing capitalism and his inherent growthism. His dualism of mind and matter has instilled a dualism of (wo)men and nature, which in turn helped construct a world in which it is perfectly ethical for human beings to exploit their environment as an external resource and to take more than they give back.

“[T]his is the core principle of capitalism: that the world is not really alive, and it is not certainly our kin, but rather just stuff to be extracted and discarded – and that includes most of the human beings living here too. From its very first principles, capitalism has set itself at war against life itself.”

The sleepwalkers

Under the spell of this capitalist growth imperative, policymakers frantically maximize GDP and assume that somehow more growth automatically translates into more social progress. Mr. Hickel claims that it does not: GDP growth disproportionally benefits the affluent and further increases inequality.

Despite, the rise of the service sector and renewable energies, it has also driven our carbon emissions well beyond sustainable levels. Far from being in the midst of an energy transition, we are witnessing an “energy addition” with catastrophic ecological consequences: “We are sleepwalking into a mass extinction event – (…) the first to be caused by human economic activity.”

We’ll always have Paris, hu?

Our current efforts to decarbonize the economy are not nearly enough to avoid this fate. Mr. Hickel contends that to have a decent shot at the 1.5°C goal, we need to go far beyond the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement and cut emissions in half by 2030 and get to zero before 2050.

And there is no silver bullet to do so, only pieces that might add up to a solution when combined: new technologies, investments in green infrastructure, circularity, clean energy, maybe even a bit geo-engineering. Mr. Hickel is skeptical of carbon taxes or mandating carbon certificates, since, in his view, they are incompatible with the exploitative logic of capitalism.


Mr. Hickel argues that ultimately, we need to renounce growthism and capitalism as the root cause of our peril to live within our planetary boundaries. His straightforward thought experiment to drive home his point:

If we grow the economy every year by 2.5 percent (which is less then the average annual growth over the past decade), we will double the world economy before we reach 2050. Given the trouble we find ourselves in to decarbonize one world economy, how could we possibly handle two? Therefore, what really matters is decoupling human progress from GDP instead of decoupling GDP from our material resources.

Restrict the rich

For Mr. Hickel, degrowth must start with developed countries. He admonishes them to stop the “process of atmospheric colonialisation” which leaves an ever-shrinking carbon budget for developing countries. First, they are responsible for most of the carbon emissions that have been emitted so far – a total of 92% of today’s overshot emissions come from global North.

Second, the developing countries disproportionally bear the cost as most of the damage from ecological degradation. Third, they will also need most of the minimal growth budget the world has left to raise their rather low living standards and feed their growing population.

Drop the GDP

However, in his view that should not be a problem as the marginal utility of GDP for welfare declines after it has passed a certain threshold and material wealth, a point developed countries have long passed. Beyond this threshold, social (a robust welfare system) and immaterial wealth (a sense of meaning) become more important for human happiness.

Therefore, governments need to prioritize social objectives over creating the best conditions for capitalism. As GDP is only a measure of the welfare of capitalism, it needs to be replaced with concepts that better reflect human progress, such as Sustainable Economic Welfare or the Genuine Progress Indicator.

From private wealth to public goods

Finally, Mr. Hickel lays out several recommendations how to organize the economy around the needs of humans and the ecology instead of the other way round. Among others, he proposes to end “planned obsolescence” (i.e. the production of goods that are designed to have short-live cycles), end food waste, shift the society from ownership to usership, scale down ecologically destructive industries, shorten the working weak (as it offers a “triple dividend to society: reduced unemployment, increased quality of life, and reduced environmental pressures”), invest in public goods, cancel debt for poor countries, and expand democracy.

The GED take

While I agree with Mr. Hickel that transitioning the global economy towards a more sustainable path requires a cultural transition (and not only technical fixes), I am not yet convinced that this implies the need to overcome capitalism altogether.

Just as public pensions or social insurance systems helped start a transformation of capitalism into a social market economy from the 1880s onwards, carbon pricing, cap-and-trade or environmental trust systems could help it evolve into a sustainable social market economy in the wake of the corona crisis. But make no mistake: This will require just as much effort as the transition described by Mr. Hickel.