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Post Growth:
Life After Capitalism
by tim jackson
polity, 256 pages, $19.95

Less is More:
How Degrowth Will Save the World
by jason hickel
william heinemann, 320 pages, $19.95

In 2014 Britain’s Office for National Statistics revised its GDP methodology to comply with EU standards. It discovered something remarkable: the United Kingdom’s economy was nearly five percent larger and growing faster than previously thought. That is, after accounting for prostitution and illegal drugs.

It would be absurd to celebrate this methodological adjustment as economic growth. Surely socially destructive activities shouldn’t count as prosperity. Yet our public policy debates fixate on measures of growth with seemingly little regard for what is included or excluded. Politicians eagerly await the release of top-line figures. Pundits treat GDP growth as a barometer of economic health and policy success. Aggregate economic growth sometimes appears to be our only virtually unassailable, bipartisan goal.

Growth is good. But as the British example attests, not all “growth” is valuable, nor is every measure a proxy for prosperity. Simon Kuznets, the Nobel prize-winning economist who designed the first ever GDP measure in 1934, cautioned that “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

Some environmentalists go further. In their view, it is not enough to reduce emissions—those are mere symptoms of a deeper problem. The health of the planet has instead been jeopardized by the pursuit of growth itself. We should aim, they argue, to generate prosperity within fixed, even shrinking, output—to de-grow the economy. 

Tim Jackson, a British ecological economist and playwright, has been a leader in this “degrowth” movement. His latest book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism, maintains that the pursuit of growth in the most developed economies has “proved nothing short of disastrous.” Yet Post Growth is less concerned with policy detail than with preparing hearts and minds for a new sense of prosperity in which “balance, not growth, is the essence.”  

For Jackson, economics is a “form of storytelling.” His account takes the form of a tragedy: Capitalism was once a legitimate engine of progress in which rising labor productivity fueled a virtuous cycle of economic growth. But as productivity growth declined and overall growth, in turn, became more elusive, that cycle turned vicious and succumbed to “a catalogue of system errors”: wage stagnation, fiscal austerity, short-termism, and ecological destruction.  

It’s a powerful story—even if it’s scant on details and relies on vignettes where evidence should be. That is not entirely accidental. Jackson asserts that failure to address climate change or to alleviate social ills is not necessarily structural or political or economic, but creedal. We shrug our shoulders at dire ecological projections, he alleges, because of a misplaced, collective faith in a “myth of growth.” Were we only to place our faith in a different conception of prosperity, we might discover that “economic growth is a confidence trick.” Out with the models, in with the metanarrative.  

The de-growth movement doesn’t shy away from hard facts, however. Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, offers a straightforward empirical case against growth in Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. The basic ecological threat posed to the global economy is raw material consumption: biomass, metals, fossil fuels, and so on. Surpass the natural limits of sustainable consumption, and the economy courts ecological disaster. The global economy, according to Hickel’s analysis, broke those thresholds decades ago and exceeds them even more year over year. That’s because economic growth and material consumption are inseparable. 

Trillions have been invested to solve this fundamental problem—to decouple raw material consumption from economic growth by improving efficiency or transitioning to renewable energy and materials. But Hickel has little faith in technological salvation. Emissions have risen even as the world economy has become more energy efficient. Renewable energy offers an alternative to fossil fuels but has yet to replace them at a global scale. For Hickel, the reason is simple: The relentless pace of compounding economic growth “keeps outstripping our best efforts to decarbonize.” Growth is not only the root cause of ecological crisis, but the principal barrier to its solution. 

Like Jackson, however, Hickel maintains that our collective commitment to perpetual growth for its own sake depends fundamentally on certain philosophical priors. Hickel traces our error back to the very origins of modern science, beginning with the thought of Bacon and Descartes. It was their theory of nature, dualism, that created an unbridgeable dichotomy between mind and matter, human beings and the rest of the natural world. They conceived of nature as blank matter and thus rendered moot the ethical constraints and obligations that govern our relation to the natural world of living beings. The natural world was to be appropriated, studied, dominated, and exploited. Science would, in Bacon’s words, “torture Nature’s secrets out of her.” The quest to resolve climate change through “green” technology is thus not merely unfeasible, but unthinkable—the latest manifestation of dualist hubris that abuses our planet. 

Misplaced faith and a problematic ontology do not admit immediate policy remedies. Nor do Jackson and Hickel care to offer them. Both suggest that we might incorporate proxies for human happiness and measures of ecological health into economic statistics. Hickel outlines the dubious merits of the Green New Deal. But the upshot of the de-growth argument is that the world economy should be, in Jackson’s words, “a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”  

Neither Jackson nor Hickel persuasively answer critics of de-growth such as Joel Kotkin, who predicts that the project would plunge American workers into poverty, or Joseph Stiglitz, who argues that “without economic growth, billions of people will remain without adequate food, housing, clothing, education, and medical care.” But the same worries also apply to the economic status quo. Already, growth is slowing and broad-based productivity has stalled. The pace and power of innovation have decelerated, and some analysts suggest that we are approaching a natural limit to technology. Private investment is in decline, and more money flows out of the real economy than into it. Meanwhile, the specter of shrinking populations haunts developed nations as their birth rates fall. De-growth, in other words, may be already on the way.

When sustainable growth becomes elusive, capital looks to extract profit in novel ways—with destructive potential. It may outsource production to locales with weaker protections for workers. Or design products to be discarded and replaced. Or manufacture desire for previously unimagined goods. Or introduce market logic to hitherto unspoiled domains. The result is deepening inequality, ad pollution, hyper-commodification, and stagnant wages. 

Despite their broad brushstrokes and far-fetched prescriptions, Post Growth and Less is More nevertheless offer a valuable corrective to the predominant political-economic thinking of our day. In the last analysis, their concern is not endless growth, but growth without ends—an economy bound by no real limits and committed to no particular purpose. 

Restoring proper ends to economic growth begins by clarifying what counts. It is absurd to include drug and sex trafficking in measures of legitimate economic activity. But would it be so absurd to exclude economic activities of questionable value? Would we not be better off without a readily accessible online marketplace for hardcore pornography? Or entire arenas of speculative non-investment like high-frequency trading? 

To put it another way: Would it be so absurd to elevate non-economic goods as priorities? Should the potential for reduced employment stop us from supporting parents in raising their own children, for instance? These are prudential questions.

The most important four words in politics, George Will once wrote, are “up to a point.” We may accept creative destruction or material consumption or commodification, up to a point. But that is a political choice. We cannot expect markets to respect the same limits. As Jackson and Hickel make clear, capital has little regard for the ecological limits of production. If we fail to enforce those limits, a power beyond our control just might.

Wells King is the research director at American Compass.

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