Transcript: Degrowth and Ecosocialism
This week's interview with Jason Hickel, available to everyone
[00:02:29] Rachel Donald: First of all, thank you so much for making time for me and for Planet Critical. It's a real honor to have you on the show.
[00:02:34] Jason Hickel: Yeah, my pleasure. Yeah, I'm looking forward to it.
[00:02:36] Rachel Donald: I hope to do your work justice. So you are kind of one of the leaders in de-growth. Um. You've written a book about it. You've written a couple of books about it, and you're extremely sort of active on Twitter about the policies that need to be implemented, about the dangers of capitalism. And I read through a couple of your pieces, um, last night and this morning, I haven't had a chance to read your book yet by the way, and I do apologize for that. Um. And I mean, I kind of want to start with, like, if you could give an introduction to de-growth for anyone that might not have heard it, and then we'll sort of go from there and swing into fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
[00:03:15] Jason Hickel: So de-growth is a, it's a pretty straightforward idea. The idea basically is first to recognize that we live in an era of ecological crisis driven by excessive levels of energy and resource use. And the reason that high levels of energy use are a problem is because it makes it more difficult for us to decarbonize the economy in time to stay under 1.5 degrees.
And the reason the resource use, the excess resource use, is a problem is because it's driving all sorts of other ecological pressures, such as deforestation and biodiversity collapse, et cetera, et cetera. Effectively, the other planetary boundaries aside from climate change are being affected by excess resource use. And the key thing to recognize is that rich countries are overwhelmingly responsible for driving this crisis. They have extremely high levels of per capita energy use, extremely high levels of per capita resource use, vastly in excess of what is required to meet human needs, even at a high standard.
So effectively, in light of this, what de-growth calls for is for rich countries to actively scale down their use of the planet's energy and resources in order to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a safe, just and equitable way. And it's very straight forward actually in terms of practical application.
Basically in our existing economy we assume that all sectors of the economy must grow every year, all the time, regardless of whether or not we actually need them to. And what degrowth scholarship simply points out is that we should have a more rational approach to thinking about economic production.
So let's think about what sectors we actually need to expand or improve things like renewable energy capacity or public transportation networks or public health care access, things like that. And then what sectors of the economy are clearly too big, destructive, socially less necessary and should be scaled down. So things like production of SUVs and private jets and fast fashion, arms, the practice of planned obsolescence where products are built basically in a way that's designed to break down so that you have to buy new ones and increase product turnover and corporate profits and so on.
Basically there are a huge chunks of the economy that are organized, not around human need or around human wellbeing, but rather around maximizing corporate profits and corporate power and elite accumulation. And so the observation here is that with a discriminating approach to how the economy works, we can scale down excess production. And the power of that is that it dramatically reduces energy use, which is important because the less energy we use, the faster we can transition to renewables and decarbonize the economy to stay under 1.5 degrees.
And scaling down production also obviously reduces resource use, which removes pressure from all other planetary boundaries and allows ecosystems to regenerate. So it's very powerful, and the exciting thing here is that we know from empirical research and modeling that we can do this while at the same time improving people's lives, improving social indicators. So it's possible to improve social outcomes in rich countries while at the same time quite dramatically scaling down resource and energy use. We know that if we were to organize the economy around human needs and provisioning and livelihoods, rather than around elite accumulation, we can meet human needs at a very high standard with a fraction of the energy and resources that high-income nations presently use.
So it's extremely exciting as a research field, it's extremely exciting in terms of the policy options, and in terms of what can be achieved in terms of ecological, um, objectives and regeneration.
[00:07:19] Rachel Donald: Let's get into the renewables part of it, because obviously at the moment the main call around the world is for economies or nations to green their economy and to switch to renewables. But of course the problem with renewables is a) they require much more in terms of minerals and materials to build the stations necessary, like wind turbine plants and solar panels, et cetera, et cetera.And also the fact that they simply do not generate enough energy. They cannot compete with fossil fuels in terms of output.
I think it was Nate Hagens I had on the show who said one barrel of oil equates to the work of a single man over four years. And that's why we've seen this huge explosive growth in the economy since we found the dinosaur bones in the earth. And that's why the economy is a thousand times bigger than it was 500 years ago.
So my concern when I see, how do I put this, the conversation about renewables, is that very often the necessity of decreasing energy consumption is not pointed out at the same time—obviously in de-growth scholars—but you're kind of seeing,I mean, at COP26, essentially, the belief that's being peddled is that you can just switch to renewables and we can continue business as usual.
How do we adequately bring energy consumption into the conversation politically and internationally without frightening people that they're essentially going to be plunged back into the dark ages? Because, I mean, surely what we're going to see if we don't sort of dismantle capitalism is the global south being raped for their minerals and metals in the same way that they've been raped for their fossil fuels and for their forests for the past 100 years? Unless we start to, as you say, restructure the economy as well, how do we push all those things forward at the same time so that it doesn't become just as harmful as it is today, but green?
[00:09:22] Jason Hickel: Yeah, no, this is such an important question. And there's actually several issues that should be dealt with here. I mean, of course I think Nate is right. There's some significant questions about the extent to which our existing economy could be powered with the same patterns of accumulation and expansion, et cetera, with renewable energy.
But, to me, this is actually a lesser interesting part of the story. So for me, the key issue here is that the more we grow the economy, we know that there is a close relationship between energy and economic growth. Right? The more you grow the economy the more energy you use. Now, this is a problem because as we pursue economic growth and grow energy use at the same time, this makes it more difficult for us to achieve de-carbonization of the economy. It's more difficult to decarbonize a bigger energy system than it is to decarbonize a smaller one.
So, for rich countries to continue to pursue growth while at the same time trying to decarbonize, it makes the task more difficult, right. It’s like trying to shovel sand into a hole that keeps getting bigger, or to run down an escalator or something like that. It makes the task more difficult. And so in terms of the sheer speed that is required for de-carbonization to stay within carbon budgets for 1.5 or 2 degrees, it's essential that rich nations reduce energy demands.
And, you know what? The thing is, this was recognized very widely in climate modeling. The IPCC reports themselves are very clear about this fact. If you start from the assumption that rich nations should continue to grow as usual, then the only way to square that with the Paris agreements is to bet on a mass deployment of speculative negative emissions technologies to get us out of trouble.
And more and more politicians are basically relying on that assumption to square this contradiction between growth and de-carbonization. So if you scale down your assumptions about what can be achieved with negative emissions technology more in line with what scientists deem to be feasible and safe, then you're looking at the necessity of actively reducing energy demand in high income countries. And that's just kind of the fact we have to face up to. And right now that's just not part of the discourse in rich nations.
Now, crucially here, when we talk about reducing energy use, I'm not talking about like, let's switch to LEDs, et cetera, right? Clearly that is important and it does make a difference. But the vast majority of the energy that's used in our economy is not household consumption issues. It's production. It's the capitalist production system, which just devours energy for extraction and production and transportation of material goods, processing them as waste, et cetera, et cetera. It's an energy sucking machine. And so the less of the unnecessary production we do, the less energy we use and the more quickly we can decarbonize. That's the first thing.
Now, even if we assume that problem away, right, which is a big assumption, you're still left with another issue, which you alluded to, which is that renewable energy does not come out of thin air. Of course, the sun and the winds are low impact in and of themselves clearly, but the materials required to capture and transform solar and wind power into usable energy for us is materially intensive. It requires an extraordinary amount of material extraction. Now, that's fine. Clearly we have to transition to renewables as quickly as possible, but given the material impacts of this transition, it is vital to abandon the assumption that we should continue to increase energy use at the same time, because that's just going to increase material use, which is already having negative social and ecological effects around the world.
Material use is the major driver of biodiversity collapse, and obviously the supply chains in the global south, under multinational corporations, are deeply unjust and deeply destructive. Already the hunt for lithium is an ecological disaster. So, the key principle here is simply that, on that front, too, yes, we need renewable energy, but, crucially, we also just need to consume less energy. And this is, this is precisely the points that de-growth focuses on and elaborates.
[00:13:45] Rachel Donald: I've had a couple of system scientists on the show say that talking about phasing out fossil fuels is a little bit disingenuous and dangerous because of the requisite fossil fuels that we need in order to create a grid of renewable energy around the world. And I had Alice Friedemann say that even calling renewables "renewable" is misleading because obviously whilst sun and wind is renewable, the machines that we need in order to generate electricity from those natural processes require materials. And she says that we need to call them therefore “rebuildables”.
I read one of your articles, and I noticed that you quoted a world bank report that modeled the increase in material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and wind utilities up until 2050, which would be half of the world's energy, and then you presumed, okay, if we increase to 2100, et cetera, et cetera, we would need a 1000% increase in metals for energy storage, for example. And I skimmed through that report, and so I have a question for you, because I'm hoping that maybe you'll have the answer, because I couldn't find it: In that model, were they modeling the fact that those wind turbine plants and solar energy stations would need to be rebuilt every 20 years or not?
[00:15:17] Jason Hickel: Oh, Rachel, that's a good question. I'm not actually sure. I'm not sure. And I know that the world bank model is one among several models that have explored these questions more recently. And so the world bank one, I think that's from 2018, so, we'd have to take a look at more recent models and see. But you raise an important point here, which is that there's a lot of energy and materials required in sort of continually regenerating the renewable grid, as it were, that has to be taken into account. And I'm not sure of the figures on that, unfortunately, but that's certainly an issue to pay attention to.
[00:15:54] Rachel Donald: I'll tweet it out and see if anybody can get back to us on that. Or maybe just read through the report with a fine tooth comb.
Right, let's get into eco socialism, really, because I'm really interested in the work that you've done that is about social justice. And you write a lot about climate job guarantees and about increasing quality of life, which is also there for reducing precarity, which despite how privileged we are in the west is a huge problem for working classes and increasingly middle classes.
So, how could we restructure the economy in a way that would provide people with a purpose and with access to what they need through a pro-ecological economy?
[00:16:34] Jason Hickel: This is so important. And this is really kind of the crux of de-growth scholarship, actually, because obviously what de-growth is calling for is a planned reduction of excess energy and resources—in other words, the parts of the economy that are not necessary for human flourishing—therefore to focus instead on kind of the human centered economy instead.
In this respect, it's fundamentally different from a recession and I cannot emphasize this enough. We have different words for these things because they're fundamentally different phenomenon, right? So, a recession is what happens when a growth addicted capitalist economy, like our own, fails to achieve sufficient growth and basically things fall apart as a consequence. It's a very dangerous machine where if it doesn't get enough growth, things start to collapse and it's extremely destructive. It ruins people's lives, poverty rates shoot up, hunger goes up, homelessness goes up, inequality rockets, et cetera, et cetera. So it's a catastrophe.
Recognizing that, de-growth calls for a shift to a different kind of economy, one that can deliver high levels of human wellbeing without the need for additional growth, while scaling down excess resource and energy use. How is that possible?
The key principle here is this: One of the reasons that we presently cannot talk about scaling down unnecessary forms of production, even if we agree—we could scale down commercial air travel, we could scale down SUVs or industrial beef or whatever it might be, we might be able to achieve consensus on that—and yet we'll still be worried about it because as you scale down that kind of production, what about jobs? People are gonna lose their jobs, unemployment will rise, et cetera. So de-growth scholarship proposes a very simple solution to this, which actually has been proposed by progressive economist economists for more than 100 years, which is simply to shorten the working week and distribute necessary labor more evenly.
So as our economy requires less labor to produce the things that we actually need, then you distribute that remaining necessary labor more evenly by shortening the working week. And as part of this, we can introduce something like a climate job guarantee. And I call for this simply because it's a way of mobilizing labor around the crucial, collective projects that we need in order to transition to an ecological economy. So, installing renewable energy capacity, retrofitting homes, regenerating ecosystems, et cetera, et cetera. A climate job guarantee would allow anyone who wants to, to train and participate in those collective projects with a dignified living wage, doing crucial, socially useful work. And that's very powerful.
And these two policies together, this idea of a shorter working week and the climate job guarantee, would immediately end unemployment permanently. And that's important because that clears up the political log jam. Once employment and livelihoods is off the table, it allows us to have a conversation about what sectors of the economy we can scale down without worrying about how that might affect livelihoods and employment and so on.
[00:19:49] Rachel Donald: Can I jump in here quickly and ask, because obviously it was Henry Ford who introduced the five day working week because he figured out if people have more time off than they're going to spend more money and i.e. buy his cars. What is the model between if we reduce the working week, and then the impact that that would have on consumption? Because surely that's another thing where it has to be double pronged, right? Where you're already in the process of decarbonizing the economy and shifting the values of the economy, rather than just giving people more time off essentially immediately.
[00:20:19] Jason Hickel: Right. No. Of course people only consume what is being produced, right? And this is actually why I think it's important, in the de-growth scholarship, there has been this shift from traditional environmentalist thought, which focuses on con consumption of individuals, to a more systemic analysis, which focuses on the production system. And so by scaling down excess forms of production, socially less necessary forms of production, you deal with that problem already. And so that's really important. It's not like we are taking more time off in the existing economy where we're spending the same amount of money on the same kinds of products that are out there, right? There's a change. We're no longer buying SUVs, we're no longer subject to the arbitrariness of planned obsolescence. Our products last longer, et cetera, et cetera.
So, what happens in this kind of situation is that the additional time is not deployed in consumption. It's expended in conviviality, in care, in relationships, in creativity, in learning, in maintenance, and so on. And what's interesting also is that we have really strong empirical evidence actually on this from economists like Juliet Schor who point out that a shorter working week dramatically improves things like wellbeing, mental health outcomes, physical health outcomes, gender equality, while at the same time reducing emissions and also reducing consumption, which is remarkable.
When people have more time, they actually, it turns out, even in the existing economy, consume less. And that's a remarkable finding. And the reason basically is because when we lead these kind of frenetic work oriented lives, we have very little time to, say, cook for our families or maintain something that could be fixed. Instead we go for cheaper fixes, like ordering food in, or getting rid of the bookshelf and buying a new one, et cetera, et cetera. And so, some really interesting positive effects emerge from shortening the working week. So it's this powerful win-win policy that is quite central to de-growth thinking.
[00:22:37] Rachel Donald: It's fascinating. Oh, God, you know, I'm having one of those moments, which happens in every single interview, which is like, oh, so it's already been modeled, it's already been figured out. Why aren't we implementing it? Why isn't this happening already? If we can do good for the planet and increase mental health and wellbeing, we have win-win situations. What is going on? Why is it not in process? Who are we up against?
[00:23:06] Jason Hickel: Well, this is interesting because there are several other de-growth policies that are key in the space,which I'd like to discuss. And then we can talk about why people are against it or why elites are against it, effectively. The other crucial one in addition to a shorter working week in a climate job guarantee is universal basic services.
So the observation that de-growth scholarship makes is that by decommodifying the core social sector of the economy—healthcare, education, housing, transportation, energy, water, internet, the things that people need in order to live decent, dignified lives—by decommodifying those things you enable people to access the resources they need to live well without needing high levels of GDP in order to do so.
So, think about it: If you're living on $30,000 in the USA then you're poor because you cannot afford medical care, you cannot afford to send your kids to university, there's no public transportation, and so you're probably having to buy a car and commute. If you're living on that same amount of money in a place where healthcare, housing, education are decommodified, then your welfare purchasing power is much higher.
And so you can improve people's lives without growth simply by decommodifying the core social goods that people need, thereby improving the welfare purchasing power of existing income. And this is extremely powerful. And furthermore, we know that when it comes to the determinants of social wellbeing and social indicators, what matters is not GDP, as such, but rather people's access to these core social goods. That is the main determinants of human wellbeing. And that's what we should focus our economies on.And so what this all amounts to is the enclosure of the commons, if you will.
So if you look at the history of capitalism, it's all organized around enclosing the commons, producing an artificial scarcity of access to employment and livelihoods and resources so that people have no choice but to work in a competitive economy, producing value and profits for capital in order to eke by. And that's basically the engine of perpetual expansion and accumulation. If you decommodify that core economy and take the question of unemployment off the table, then suddenly you're liberated from that constant pressure to produce and expand solely for the sake of capital accumulation. And that's an extremely powerful antidote to the irrational, headlong rush of our existing economy toward destruction.
So what's exciting is that these policies—a shorter working week, climate job guarantee, universal basic services, living wages, et cetera—are all extremely popular everywhere that they've been polled in high-income countries. People want these things, strong majorities, 70 plus percent. And that's interesting. So these core de-growth policies are wildly popular.
The obstacle to achieving a kind of transition to ecosocialism is not ordinary people, contrary to the dominant discourse of, oh no one's going to accept this, rather it is simply the elites, who benefit so prodigiously from the existing structure of the economy, will fight us with everything they have. And the key weapon in their arsenal is this claim they peddle every day, which is that economic growth is necessary for human wellbeing. We know that's not true. We know that we can have an economy that delivers human wellbeing without growth, and it's essential to attack that ideology.
[00:27:11] Rachel Donald: Yeah, it’s such a bizarre claim. You would think that they would have come up with a better claim, a better slogan, because it's just so untrue. You quoted the wellbeing, or the quality of life in Costa Rica, Cuba, these kinds of places. Cuba is a great one because it's communist, so there's no impetus on growth, and yet they are just as well—if not better—off than the United States which is the most growth-dominant and obsessed nation, arguably in the world. So, you would think that they would have come up with something a little bit more imaginative and inventive by now. And yet I think it shows that the power that they have in the discourse to keep peddling out utter falsities and to not be challenged, and that just one challenge doesn't sort of shatter their whole illusion immediately.
[00:28:04] Jason Hickel: Yeah, it's interesting. So you can point to Costa Rica and Cuba and so on, but if you want to stay closer to home, then you can also look at countries like Spain. So if you look at the U.S. versus Spain, just for an example, the U.S, of course, one of the richest countries in the world, GDP per capita of $65,000. Compare that to Spain. Spain has 55% less GDP per capita, right? So less than half now, and yet it outperforms the U.S on every key social indicator. With life expectancy, it is more than five years longer, one of the highest in the world. So this is extraordinary. How is it possible that this could be achieved?
The answer is quite simple: because Spain has a universal healthcare system, is less commodified than the USA, and so people have access to the things they need to live decent lives, income is shared more fairly. So it's quite straightforward, actually, the recipe is straightforward. And Spain is not an outlier. There are 40 countries that outperform the USA with significantly less GDP per capita. And that should be a strong reminder to us of what is possible.
But I think the reason that the growth narrative is so, so powerful is simply because of the framing, right? Growth just sounds so good. It sounds so natural. Children grow, plants grow, we grow in knowledge and maturity, et cetera. And so by tapping into that idea, into that framing, into that narrative, then they're able to sell anything that generates growth as good. And they will stand at the podium every day and defend whatever project is going on the grounds that it produces growth, and they will assume that all of us will buy into the idea that growth will always be good for us.
This is an ideological terrain, ultimately, and it's important to be able to challenge that core ideological claim, and that's effectively what de-growth does.
[00:30:13] Rachel Donald: Can we talk a little bit more about the historical ideology of it, because, obviously, the first word that comes to mind when discussing these disastrous policies of constant growth and expansion is capitalism. And yet, arguably, we do have a long history of yes, collaboration, but also expansion and growth. So what is it in our social organization that engenders systems such as capitalism to become dominant, and what can we do about it to minimize that as we look to degrow and decarbonize the economy.
[00:30:51] Jason Hickel: So I think that the key thing for most people to understand is to have a clear idea of what capitalism actually is, right? Most people, when they hear capitalism, they think, oh, that is a system of markets and trade, maybe even businesses, et cetera. And that all sounds innocent enough on the face of it—what could possibly be wrong with markets and trade? But in reality, markets and trade, of course, existed for thousands of years before capitalism, right? Capitalism is only 500 years old..
So what distinguishes capitalism from all other economic systems is that it is a system that is organized around and dependent on perpetual expansion. And the point of perpetual expansion is not in order to meet some concrete human need or use value, but rather to generate and accumulate profits, or what Marx called exchange value. Effectively, profit emerges from exchange value transactions.
So, in order to do that, in order to have, um, a perpetually increasing accumulation of profits, and the perpetual expansion of this exchange value system, the only way to do this is to cheapen labor and nature as much as possible, to depress the prices of labor in nature. And so it should come as no surprise that a system that is organized around perpetually depressing the prices and cheapening labor and nature generates ecological crises and inequality, right? It is literally baked into our system, so when left to its own devices, that will always be the result.
And we're in the throws of this crisis right now with extraordinary levels of global inequality and an ecological crisis unfolding around us. And we have to be able to point to the fundamental driver of this, which is the capitalist economy. And it means we have to be able to imagine our way to a post capitalist economy, one that is, again, very simply, focused on meeting human needs within planetary boundaries, rather than focused on perpetual expansion and accumulation for the sake of profits. It's quite simple.
[00:33:09] Rachel Donald: It seems to me that one of the – and we can go back, we can go back and discuss the capitalists that are blocking the de-growth progress – but it seems to me, one of the most insidious ways in which they're managing that is by talking about how to make an economy green without talking about limiting growth. And in that green economy, we're essentially seeing the commodification of climate change. Which is shocking, I think, to anybody with a half a mind.
You know, Shell, for example, is peddling out its nature based solutions and talking about buying up pieces of rainforest around the world in order to protect it which—most people aren't aware of this—if a forest is going to be protected by a multinational corporation, it means that no indigenous people can be on that land already because therefore it's not a credit to the green economy. So there's massive fears amongst the indigenous communities all around the world that this is going to be used as another land grab.
What other ways are you seeing this push to a green economy take away from the de-growth method or system?
[00:34:20] Jason Hickel: There's so many ways this manifests, let's talk briefly about, about negative emissions. This is the sacred technology that everybody is hoping will sort of yank us out of trouble just in time. And if you look at what is proposed, it's extraordinary actually.
So the main negative emissions technology is called BECS, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, and the idea here is that we will grow massive biofuel plantations three times the size of India, and these biofuel plantations will suck carbon out of the atmosphere as the plants grow. We'll harvest them for energy stations, we'll burn them for power, and then we'll capture the carbon that comes out of the stacks effectively and store it underground, right? Voila. You have a negative emissions technology.
Now, there’s several problems here. One of course is that this technology has never been scaled, there's no evidence that it is viable at scale. It relies on massive monoculture plantations, which will drive further biodiversity collapse, further deforestation, will take away from food crops, et cetera, et cetera.
But let me point to this issue, which is that, where is that land going to come from? I guarantee you, it's not going to come from Southern England, it's not going to come from Belgium. No, this is land that is going to be appropriated from the land mass of the global south. Already, that is the assumption in the existing models.
And this is extraordinary. The idea is that there will be an imperial appropriation of land from the Global South for the sake of maintaining the North's energy privilege—again, levels of per capita energy that are wildly in excess of what is required to meet human needs. And, this is a totally untenable, deeply morally problematic assumption. And yet, it is the main assumption right now, and most people are not aware of this. And it's, it's just important that we be able to point that out.
[00:36:44] Rachel Donald: Where is it being discussed? In which rooms with which people?
[00:36:48] Jason Hickel: Well, so, for example, if you pay attention to John Kerry's discourse — he showed up in London a few months ago, after Biden's inauguration, and he was asked about the U.S climate plan because they have these big ambitious pledges to bring emissions down to zero on this particular date, in the middle of the century. And he was very candid, and on TV, in response to an interviewer who asked him, how do you plan to do that? He said, look, the majority of these emissions reductions will come from technology that does not yet exist.
And this was a very candid acknowledgement of the fact that they don't have a plan for bringing emissions down as fast as they need to go. They're relying on literally fairytale technology that does not exist, and which, if implemented, would be quite destructive. This is important because if, for whatever reason, that technology fails to materialize in the way and to the scale expected, then we are stuck in a hot house trajectory from which it will be impossible to escape.
Once we overshoot these climate budgets there's no pulling that back down on civilizational timescales. So we're in trouble for a very long time. And this is why climate scientists routinely say this is an extremely risky gamble with the future of humanity and with all of life on earth and should not be tolerated.
Effectively, all of it is a ruse to avoid the hard question, which is that we have to reduce emissions very, very quickly in rich countries, reaching zero by around 2030 or 2035. Nobody is presently planning for that kind of decarbonisation, and the only way to achieve decarbonization with that kind of speed is with de-growth. And it's, it's crucial that we start having that conversation, otherwise we'll be stuck in this kind of fairytale land until it's just too late.
[00:38:57] Rachel Donald: There seems to be a just pure fantasy around the mainstream discourse, which is either that technology is going to save us—techno optimism—or that we are going to plunge back into the dark ages, which Boris Johnson said on television when he was in Rome just before COP26.
Do you have figures on how we could reduce emissions and energy consumption to still live with dignity, that will provide people with perhaps a sense of ease or comfort that they are not going to have to learn to farm in a decade's time? That there is a happy medium?
[00:39:35] Jason Hickel: Yeah, definitely, definitely. This is really important. Immediately when you propose let's reduce energy, people will say, oh, you're basically asking us to go back to the caves.This is utterly ridiculous. And again, the key observation here is that most of the excess energy that is used in the economy is used for the sake of corporate expansion and elite accumulation. So, we need to focus on cutting that energy so that we can focus energy on what's needed for human well-being and livelihoods and flourishing.
Now importantly, we have strong, empirical evidence on this. Recent research by Julia Steinberger, a professor, she was at Leeds when she did this research with her team there, she’s a lead author of the IPCC. Her team found that we can provide energy sufficient to meet human needs at a high standard for a global population of 10 billion people, so, much more than we presently have, with 60% less energy than the world economy presently uses.
So this is a scenario where you eradicate energy poverty permanently around the world, where everyone has access to high quality healthcare, education, housing, heating, cooling, refrigeration, transportation, et cetera, et cetera, with a fraction of the energy that we presently use.
This is the power of a shift towards an economy that provisions for human needs rather than diverting energy to capital accumulation. So it's very exciting what can be achieved, actually, with such a shift, and it does not inspire fear at all. Rather, it's quite clear that we can improve.
Again, most people would be better off in such a scenario. The people that will lose out are elites who enjoy such extraordinary energy privilege right now. They're clearly going to have to have quite fundamental changes to the way that they live in the world, and that's okay. We don't want to live in a world with such extraordinary inequality. It is corrosive and destructive for all sorts of reasons anyway.
[00:41:51] Rachel Donald: That's amazing. So essentially you're saying that we could have a better quality of life with people—and not everybody having to farm, people would still be able to have access to food without having to grow it in their new backyard, which is, I don't know, the nearest forest that they found and hunkered down in—but at the same time in nations that are typically crippled by poverty and inequality, they would for the first time have access to those same human dignities as well.
[00:42:20] Jason Hickel: Yes, that's right, exactly. For me, what I take from this kind of research is simply that the existing economy is extremely wasteful in its use of energy. So little is actually devoted to meeting human needs. We live in a world where something like 60% of the world's population cannot meet basic human needs. I mean, this is wild. This is the result of 500 years of capitalism where we've had extraordinary growth and extraordinarily productive economy, and yet more than half of the world's population lives in conditions of poverty. It's wild. And it's not because there's not enough, it's because what there is is appropriated at the top.
And so this is the pattern of distribution that we must challenge ultimately. Again, this is a core to degrowth scholarship. It's basically a call for energy justice, for resource justice.
[00:43:22] Rachel Donald: That's fantastic. I've said a couple of times on the show that I think the climate crisis has a marketing problem because of this fantasy of either technology is going to save us, or we're going to slide back into the dark ages. Not enough is being discussed in mainstream discourse — of course, this is a whole field and you and your colleagues are working on this day in day out — but people don't recognize that reductions and social transformation could inherently be beneficial for them. And I wonder if it is because of that, the 500 years of capitalist ideology—essentially, growth is the American dream, isn't it?
It says to each individual that you might be lucky. You might be the one that gets everything that you want. And I think that may be, I don't know, I have not read any data on, but that may be why so many laymen of the world, myself included, are prone to hang on to the idea of growth. Not just because change is uncomfortable, I think — I hate when people say that because all humanity does all the time is change — but because it's that last vestige of individuality upon which we have built our Western culture, and shifting to something more social, that's the difficult change in which maybe people feel that they will disappear. I'm getting philosophical here now, I do apologize.
[00:44:42] Jason Hickel: Yeah, that's interesting. I think that's quite possible. I think it's also possible that people on some level recognize the extent to which dependencies on growth that permeate our existing economy do make them vulnerable, in the sense of, people are aware that if the economy stops growing, then unemployment goes up and they don't want to be stuck in that kind of situation, which is why you get labor unions, for example, which will line up with capital calling for more growth, because they see this as the only way to achieve decent employment and decent wages and so on. And that's why it's so important to point out that growth is not necessary to achieve those objectives. We can achieve those objectives right now by shortening the working week, introducing living wage policy, distributing income more fairly, and establishing universal basic services. Those are the things that actually matter, right?
For too long, we've just bought this narrative that we must kind of align with capital’s call for growth for our own good, somehow. Even though, in opinion polls people routinely say that they prioritize human wellbeing and ecological stability over growth, or even at the expense of growth. If any other trajectory threatens their livelihoods, they will turn against it for good reason. And this is why it's so important to secure the question of livelihoods. This is why a just transition has to be at the very core of what we're talking about here.
And this brings me to a point that I want to raise, which is that people will often ask me: Will there be enough income in a de-growth scenario to meet everyone's needs? And the answer to that is yes, literally by definition. And this is quite an exciting point.
So what people should understand is that income is simply the obverse of all of the prices in the economy. So it's literally an accounting identity. So GDP as income is simply the obverse of the total prices of the products produced in the economy.
Now what that means is that there's always exactly enough money, exactly enough income, to buy the things that the economy produces. If we were to scale down sectors of the economy that we all agree we do not need. Again, let's say SUVs and private jets, okay? We scale that down. There will still, by definition, be exactly as much income as is necessary to buy all of the other things the economy does produce and which we do need.
And so there's never a shortage of income by definition. The only question is how is the income distributed. As long as the income is distributed fairly, then everybody will have access to the purchasing power they need to buy everything that they require, literally by definition. And so this idea that we will somehow be poor in a de-growth scenario is precisely the fallacy, right? As long as you can imagine an economy that has public transportation instead of SUVs, then you're imagining a de-growth economy where you can access your need for transit without the need for the income required to buy SUVs on a population level. So it's quite encouraging, really. It's quite liberating to think of the economy that way. What actually matters is what we are producing, whether those things meet human needs, and whether people have access to those things. That's it.
[00:48:21] Rachel Donald: Right. Well, I mean, I'm sold, so what's next? What do we do? Who are the politicians that are talking about this? Who can we look to? Who should we be voting in? Should we be calling for referendums? How do we actually enact this? Because obviously there are huge power structures in place that are trying to stop it.
[00:48:36] Jason Hickel: Yeah, look, there's quite a lot of interest in this among certain progressive political factions in Europe and even a little bit in the United States. So, that's exciting. I mean, clearly it's not mainstream in political circles. And as a result, crucially, what’s going to be required here is building the social movements necessary to force political incumbents to change course, or to unseat them and replace them with the kinds of political formations that we require, right?
Now, how do we get there? This is going to require more than the environmentalist movement alone. So de-growth thinking has taken off in the environmentalist movement. But here's the thing, is that that movement is not strong enough. It may be strong enough to change discourse about climate, for example, which it has successfully done over the past couple of years. But while they can shut down bridges in central London, they cannot mobilize the kind of political power that's necessary to force politicians to change course on fundamental policy measures, or to unseat incumbents. The only way to do that is to build alliances with the labor movement, and with working class formations. And this is what I mean, my message to every environmentalist or climate activist is that this is the crucial step for 2022, 2023, and going forward this decade. Without that kind of alliance between environmentalists and labor there's just no way that the movement will be strong enough to win the transition we need. And that kind of alliance will not happen on its own. It requires door to door organizing. It requires building solidarities. It requires hard conversations. It requires also a fundamental shift in the labor movements away from their existing growthism, as I described before, towards core ecosocial demands.
And with that in place, you get the environmentalist movement backing the demands of the labor movement and the labor movement backing the demands of the environmentalist movement, and you win. That's the recipe, I think. And that's what we'll need to pursue in the coming years.
[00:50:59] Rachel Donald: Good luck. I mean, I'm on board. It sounds obvious when you say it, but obviously the environmentalist movement comes under a lot of flack for its middle-classism. And part of that, I think, is comparing the global precarity of ecological breakdown with the individual precarity of the working classes, with laborers who don't have time, typically, or security to think about these things. So, as you said, there's going to have to be a whole other language construed in order to be able to meet each other halfway and recognize that the goals are the same, and we can meet them together.
[00:51:42] Jason Hickel: Yeah, absolutely. It's true – the environmentalist movement totally alienates working class people. And the reason is, one of the reasons is, because they have this discourse around, consumption around individual behavior and so on. And there's just no way the working class communities can relate to that. They're trying to make ends meet, right? A huge proportion of the population in the U.S and the UK literally live in poverty. So a discourse on consuming less is not going to fly with them.
What we need is, and this is what de-growth brings to the table, is a direct attack on the production system. We have a production system that's organized around elite accumulation, and that's what we need to change. That's that's the system that's driving both inequality, impoverishment, and ecological breakdown, and we need all forces on board to change that. And I think that's the kind of narrative that the environmentalist movement needs to shift to or otherwise, honestly, risk irrelevance. If justice is not part of their conversation then we lose, it's as simple as that.
[00:52:47] Rachel Donald: Is the social justice movement interested in de-growth? It would seem like a no-brainer, right?
[00:52:52] Jason Hickel: Yeah, I think, I think so. Uh. I mean, you'll see this discourse in, you know, DM25, also in Democratic Socialists of America, and so on. So that's very exciting. Crucially, also, I should mention, and this is just so important, is that de-growth has a strong anti-imperialist orientation, right?
In fact de-growth thinking emerges from the anti-colonial movements in the global south in the 1950s and 60s where they recognized that growthism in the global north was a major driver of immiseration and appropriation in the global south. And so the demand for de-growth has always been on the lips of social movements in the Global South. And you can see this, for example, in the people's agreement of Cochabamba which I encourage your listeners to read.
So, here again, I think that it's crucial that we build these transnational alliances as well, uniting with social movements in the global south that have been calling for this kind of shift as part of a broader demand for decolonization. So these are the sort of constellations and alliances that need to emerge.
[00:54:06] Rachel Donald: I think it's really interesting because the fracturing of the left is, I think, one of the main reasons that very little progress is being made on the ground, because the agendas put on the table seem so disparate that people can't meet together to recognize that the goals are the same. So I think it's fascinating for one, that this kind of research, or this kind of discourse, as you say, started in the fifties and sixties, and that should be a warning to everybody of the power structures in play trying to keep this discourse out of the mainstream and to block awareness.
Even, you know, I just realized the other day that Limits To Growth, the book, was published in the seventies – and it's half a century later. It should be self-evident by now. But I think the left needs to unify and the left needs a good marketing strategy and to bring the environmentalist movement, the social justice movement, climate reparations, labor, all of that together. I mean, that would seem to me as the quickest way to dismantle the system of elite power, because, ultimately, we are the majority and it is mad that we are the majority and we are so terribly squeezed by such a small percentage of the population.
[00:55:24] Jason Hickel: It's extraordinary, actually, right? And I think that, I think you're absolutely right. The key is to recognize that all forms of oppression and exploitation are connected, and that should be the basis of our organizing, and realizing that is extremely powerful.
[00:55:40] Rachel Donald: Yeah. What a fantastic note to end on. Jason, my final question for you then would be: who would you like to platform?
[00:55:49] Jason Hickel: Ah, so, there's three people I'd recommend, one of whom I mentioned actually in our discussion, which is professor Julia Steinberger, if you haven't had her yet.
[00:56:00] Rachel Donald: Julia, I've been trying to get you for a while. I think you're the third person to platform her, and we — last time I spoke to her she said she was under magma, and I believe her.
[00:56:10] Jason Hickel: Oh, gosh. Another person is Vandana Shiva who has been a key proponent of many of these ideas from her work in India. I would also recommend Giorgos Kallis, who was the person who introduced de-growth scholarship to the English speaking world, and he's a colleague of mine. And then also Max Ajl who is a de-growth fellow traveler and who brings a really powerful, anti-imperialist perspective to his work on social and ecological justice and de-growth. I've listed four now, not three, so, I hope you're able to find at least one of them.
[00:56:54] Rachel Donald: Brilliant. Jason, thank you so much for your time. This was absolutely fascinating and crucial. I really appreciate it.
[00:57:00] Jason Hickel: My pleasure. Thanks, Rachel.