He once believed it too: we can grow the economy and make it more sustainable. But this week Jason Hickel (40), economist-anthropologist and professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, was in parliament to warn politicians about what he now sees as a myth.
Hickel is the most prominent degrowther of the moment, a school of thinkers that warns that rich countries must let go of economic growth to escape a climate catastrophe. In his book Less is more from 2020, he substantiates how economies immediately use up the energy saved through sustainability and smart inventions through economic growth. “Our economy is organized around the infinite increase of production. And that is madness. Or, in normal times, it would be madness. In this ecological emergency, it is extra crazy.”
Hickel, whose ideas are also embraced by the Extinction Rebellion protest movement, was invited by GroenLinks to the House of Representatives on Wednesday. In addition to left-wing parties, all coalition parties also came to listen to him. NRC spoke to him a day before the meeting.
What would you like to say first to the Dutch politicians?
“That it is very clear that we are not on our way to achieving climate goals. Not by a long shot. This also applies to the ‘climate-progressive’ Netherlands.”
“There is also a growing consensus among scientists that if we continue to pursue economic growth, we will simply never be able to achieve the Paris climate targets. The more the economy grows, the more energy the economy requires, and the more difficult it becomes to reduce our CO2emissions.”
What are the big misconceptions about growth and capitalism?
“First of all, when people use the word ‘growth’, they pretend it’s something magical. As if it stands for innovation, progress and well-being. But it’s none of that. The gross domestic product [de totale waarde van goederen en diensten in een bepaalde periode] is an indicator of total production, measured in terms of market prices. Tear gas worth 1,000 euros has the same value as 1,000 euros worth of healthcare. What matters in practice, of course, is what we produce. An increase in private jet production has no positive meaning for society, while it is positive for GDP. So we have to ask ourselves: growth of what?”
The term GDP includes not only manufacturing, but also services.
“But services are often also production. For example, the hotel industry, the cruise ship industry, the aviation industry – these are also services, but they require a lot of materials and energy.”
In your book you use the term ‘growthism’. What is that?
“Growth is simply an increase in production. Growth of renewable energy, or public transport, is fine! But the real problem of our times is growthism: the mindless and endless pursuit of growth in all sectors – regardless of whether we need it or not. In our economy there is a turbulent flow of capital that is constantly looking for a way to more profit, which puts enormous pressure on companies to keep growing. We need to move to a more sensible system.”
You write in your book that your own point of view has changed. How and when did that happen?
“About ten years ago. I also thought that we needed constant economic growth to keep the economy stable. But a few things made me change my mind.
“First of all, research into social indicators. Take the US for example – one of the richest countries in the world, in terms of GDP per capita. But they do not score very well on social indicators. Spain has less than half the GDP per capita, but scores much better. For example, people live an average of five years longer. Americans have to work hard to pay for health care or to send their children to a good university. So you can improve people’s lives with less GDP, by giving them good access to health care, public transport, education and housing.
“I also took a good look at research into CO2emissions and material consumption. Economic growth has always led to increased demand for energy. And with data you can see how the growth of global GDP, and material consumption, have always gone up parallel to each other. I started looking at the economy more rationally. Which sectors do we need to improve, and which are not needed, and can we scale down?”
Economic contraction would mean losing jobs. And that could be unfavorable for support for far-reaching climate policy.
“If climate action is at the expense of the livelihoods of the working class, then that is a problem. But it is not an insoluble problem. It can be easily tackled through better management from the government. If we scale down unnecessary production, less labor is needed. We can then look at shortening the working week. Some people think that we will consume more if we have more free time. Surprisingly, studies show the opposite: people with little time are more on the road and rely on delivery meals and impulse purchases.
We can also train people to participate in important collective projects of our time. There is a lot of work to be done in rapidly scaling up renewable energy, insulating houses, improving public transport. In short: organizing the production we really need, and not around the profits of companies like McDonald’s.
“It is actually madness how we talk about the need to create jobs without specifying which jobs. Now it’s about: it doesn’t matter what kind of job, we just need a job.”
When the economy shrinks, there is a risk that companies will cut back on their research departments and we will innovate less.
“We really need innovation for the climate problem. The funny thing is: there is zero empirical evidence that innovation increases with growth, and decreases without growth. The most important innovation came about through public funds. Think of the internet, a lot of technology in our mobile phones, life-saving medicines. The government then simply pays directly to funds for research. That, and the targeted raising of capital for innovation, is a much better solution than okay: let’s grow an entire economy – including more SUVs, more cruise ships – so that we have more innovation in what is really needed: clean energy. That’s irrational.”
Many people, for example the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, say: economic growth is good, as long as it is ‘green growth’.
“It is very clear that this view is not supported by science. Your prime minister then means: growth of the total economy, but why do we need that?
“Green growth scenarios rely on biofuels and technology to capture CO2 and store it underground. Then the world would need land three times the size of India to produce all those biofuels. That means: massive deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
Chasing total GDP growth comes with such problems. Even if you magically control the growing CO2emissions, you still have the problem of material use. Green growth is a myth. A fantasy.”
During the pandemic, we saw a kind of degrowth: the economy contracted. Poor countries that depend on Western tourism, or consumption, suffered a lot from this.
“I have to correct you there. What happened during the pandemic was not degrowth, but a conventional recession. Recession is completely different, then an economy that depends on growth can no longer grow. Then a crisis arises: unemployment, homelessness, and a debt crisis. Degrowth is a planned transition to move away from dependence on economic growth. It avoids such problems through social policies. We can both shrink and improve people’s social standards by investing in social services as a government.
“It is true that recessions in the rich north always have a negative effect on poorer countries that have been made dependent on exports to northern countries. But if you look closely, you see that growth in rich countries relies heavily on the massive appropriation of labour, raw materials and land from the global south. For example, vast amounts of land are used for cotton for brands such as Zara and H&M, and jungle is cleared to grow feed for our beef. We must let go of the idea that we are eternally trapped in an imperialist economy and recognize that alternatives are possible.”
Journalists often write about GDP growth. When a company like H&M grows, they describe it as a ‘positive year’. How do you view how economics is written about?
Journalists play an important role. I recently spoke to someone who was researching the coverage of The New York Times. He looked at how often they used the term ‘economic growth’. The journalistic obsession with growth turned out to be relatively new. In the 1930s, economic growth was rarely mentioned in articles, and much more often now. Media have therefore started to repeat the discourse enormously. Instead of using the term ‘economic growth’, they should better explain what is growing. Is it a growth in affordable housing or fast fashion? And is that good or bad?
“Remember Simon Kuznets’ warning [Amerikaans econoom], the man who introduced GDP in the 1930s. When he gave a briefing on GDP to the US Congress, he warned very explicitly that we should never use the measure as an indicator of social progress. In addition, ecological costs are not counted. Destroying an entire mountain range for coal will increase GDP without taking into account the cost of habitat loss and pollution.
“There are already all kinds of alternatives to GDP that do take into account biodiversity, soil health, wages. Such standards should be on the front pages.”
How do you think politicians should get to work?
“Some interventions can be simple. With stricter rules about longer warranties, Apple will make phones that end their lifespan not after two years, but after ten years. Despite all the innovation, the lifespan of appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators has not increased, but decreased. Companies want you to replace them so they can make more profit. We must ensure that products last a long time and are easy to repair.
“Another thing that politicians have to work with: politicians can impose much stiffer taxes on the rich. The richest 10 percent of people are responsible for more than half of the world’s total CO2emissions since 1990.
“Furthermore, politicians can focus on improving public services. For example, it is good for the planet if more people use public transport.
“And finally: we need to have a democratic conversation about scaling down unnecessary industry, think of heavy cars, industrial meat, private jets, disposable products. We have to let go of the idea that everything has to grow, to infinity.”
A version of this article also appeared in
the newspaper of March 11, 2023