What would happen if we waved goodbye to capitalism and instead focused on nurturing trust? The British economic anthropologist Jason Hickel tells Paulina Wilk that a better world is possible – but we only have 20 years to build it.
Paulina Wilk: In the middle of a pandemic caused by a new virus, you have published a book in which you call for a revolution and set humanity a new challenge that will require not only courage but also imagination. Is it really a good moment for that?
Jason Hickel: On the face of it, I was worried that I chose the worst possible time. Many economies are falling into recession and people think what we need right now is growth and consumption, while I propose the opposite: degrowth. However, what I see is that the crisis has made people eager for alternatives. We need change, we need a different proposition for the world. It is now clear that the way we have been running our economies is exactly what has gotten us into this crisis in the first place. Growth-driven incursions into the natural world triggered the development and the expansion of the virus. Also, in the West the obsession with protecting growth makes it very difficult for politicians to respond in a way that would protect people’s health. People have now realized that we need economies organized around human wellbeing and ecological stability, not around the accumulation of capital. Any attempt to come out of the pandemic through even more excessive growth would be deeply counterproductive because we are facing an even greater problem: the climate crisis. Therefore we ought to respond to two crises at the same time, which requires rethinking the way we’ve organized the economy. The more I talk about it to people from all over the world, the more I feel the eagerness for a change.
Do you find this eagerness among ordinary people, or among politicians and the business elite?
I find it mainly in the interactions during my public lectures, as well as when talking to scientists. Even people from the Deep South of the US – who are overwhelmingly Republican voters – are of the opinion that supporting ecological stability is more important than growth. Surveys show that for Europeans, protecting the ecosystem is necessary even at the expense of economic growth. I think a lot of this emerges from what has happened over the past 10 years, after the global financial crisis. It has become clear that growth only really benefits a small fraction of our societies. We are watching billionaires get richer, and yet wages are stagnating. In the US and the UK, we are witnessing a decline in happiness levels. Growth is not delivering the good lives we were promised it would. And so people are asking: “What’s in it for us?”
You tackled economic inequalities in your previous books. But isn’t the pandemic the great equalizer? Everyone can get sick, even a Hollywood star. Or is it the other way round: maybe it deepens the divide between the privileged elites and the rest of us?
It has very clearly exacerbated the inequalities. US billionaires in the past few months alone have increased their wealth by $600 billion. Meanwhile, since March the debt of the poor has been rising by $5 billion a day. The crisis is pushing hundreds of millions of people into poverty. What becomes obvious is that we need a different kind of recovery – a recovery without growth. The problem is not that GDP is too low. The problem is that people don’t have access to the livelihood they need. We need to answer this directly rather than stimulating the economy in the false hope that the trickle-down effect will magically solve everything, which it virtually never does.
You want us to wave goodbye to the concept of growth on which capitalism is based; to reject the blind faith that growth brings prosperity and wellbeing. Instead, we should focus on actual human needs, not on abstract indexes. It is a lot to ask. Do you consider it a radical idea, or is it in fact a lot easier than one might think?
The concept of degrowth is not radical. It has widespread support from scientists. Just last year, 11,000 scientists signed an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for world governments to abandon GDP growth as a political and economic objective. Now, the reason for that is quite simple. The more we grow the global economy, the more energy it requires and the more difficult it is for us to supply renewable alternatives able to meet the demand. We know we have to reach zero emissions before the mid-century. It is a very short timeline. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that the only way we can accomplish such a rapid transition is to scale down energy demands and unnecessary industrial production.
Right now, we live in a global economy in which the dominant belief is that all industries must grow rapidly all the time. In an era of ecological breakdown, this is irrational and unfeasible. We need an open democratic conversation about what industries we still want to grow (like, for example, renewable energy, public health, public transportation) and which industries are big enough already and we should scale down (maybe SUV production, private jets production, advertising). It would help us solve the climate crisis because this approach takes into account many things: deforestation, soil depletion, fish stock depletion, mass extinction of species. All these things are driven by excessive exploitation of resources. By scaling down industrial production we would take pressure off the living world and bring the economy into balance with it.
What about the losses?
The crucial thing is that all this could be done while improving people’s lives. We’ve been sold the lie that human wellbeing increases with GDP. Actually, the correlation is very low and in time breaks down completely. In high-income nations, additional GDP has nothing to do with wellbeing. Take, for example, the US. The GDP per capita there is $60,000. Now compare that with Portugal, where the GDP per capita is 60% less. And yet Portugal has higher life expectancy and higher happiness levels than the US. How does it accomplish that? By investing in things that matter for human wellbeing – by reducing inequalities, guaranteeing good wages, and investing in robust, universal public services such as education, healthcare and housing. This is the secret to a flourishing society. It can be accomplished in high-income nations without additional growth.
When you say it, it all sounds surprisingly simple.
Because it’s much easier than we think. And it’s a more rational and effective approach to human progress. My proposal is not radical; it is in fact very sensible. The radical idea would be to stick to the status quo and not face any pressing problems.
You want us to change the way we think, especially the way we think about capitalism. But wasn’t capitalism, in its inception, a good and noble idea? It has many apologists who point out that it went wrong only in its late, neoliberal phase.
Let’s take a look at the history of capitalism. The growth of rich countries in Western Europe and North America was possible because of colonization and the slave trade. Europe’s industrialization relied on the appropriation of land, resources and labour from the Global South. Therefore, for hundreds of years capitalism had negative consequences for the indigenous populations in many parts of the world. The crisis was there from the very beginning – just not a crisis for Western Europe. We must put capitalism into perspective. When we say ‘capitalism’ we mean trade, private enterprise, markets, and so on. But those things existed long before capitalism came into being in the 16th century.
What makes capitalism distinctive is that it was the first economic system in history organized around constant growth. That might have been be fine for a while, but you quickly reach a point where you are causing ecological and social problems. For a long time, the West has been exporting those problems to the Global South, but it’s no longer an option – now we’re all facing the climate crisis. So when I call for a transition to a post-growth economy, I mean essentially a post-capitalist economy. We shouldn’t confuse this with a command economy, like in the communist states of the 20th century. We simply need a new order that isn’t organized around constant expansion and is in balance with the living world.
You’ve brought up the spectre of communism, so let me ask you a question from the perspective of someone who grew up in a socialist economy. For the first 10 years of my life, I did not know growth – only scarcity. I remember borrowing, fixing, exchanging things. I remember not having the things I wanted. Then a shock doctrine was employed to effect the transition to a new capitalist economy; people in Poland paid a steep price for the so-called ‘transformation’ and for the free market. Some, for example, lost all their savings. Can you assure me that degrowth will occur without this kind of turbulence?
If we do nothing, we’ll end up in a crisis anyway, simply because of climate change. Around the world right now, we see many tragedies. People are losing their homes and resources, communities are being destroyed. Nigeria has just lost 25% of its crops due to flooding. We need to change our path. I’m calling for a transition that is focused on ensuring stability and human wellbeing. The crisis that happened in Poland was very destructive for many people, though some benefited tremendously. But I’m arguing for something that is exactly the opposite. The new transition will have to be organized around protecting and benefiting the lives of the majority of people.
The experience of socialism also brought us the ability to exchange and to share resources. Can these skills and social practices serve as tools for building a new future? Can the change come from societies that are able to imagine new and different ways of organizing economies?
Poland is an interesting example. I’ve talked to a lot of Polish people on this issue and I found that they are very divided. Some of them are in ideological lockdown and defend free-market capitalism because they still fear the past. So the answer to your question is: yes and no. There are people who can draw on knowledge about different economies in the past and imagine different economies in the future. This is a powerful intellectual resource. But at the same time, the kind of economy that Poland had throughout much of the 20th century is not what I’m calling for. It wouldn’t solve any current problems. After all, the Soviet model was also organized around growth – it competed with the US and wanted to expand as much as possible. Which led to catastrophe, because the Soviet economy was exploiting human and natural resources just like the American economy was, only in a different way. All in all, the 20th century doesn’t provide us with a solution. We need to evolve an entirely new system fit for the realities of the 21st century.
That said, there are many promising ideas emerging in the Global South. We see it in Indigenous philosophies, in movements like La Via Campesina – namely the movements of peasants working towards food sovereignty. We see it in the Indian concept of ecological flourish. But there are also some interesting developments in the Global North. Just last year, New Zealand decided to abandon GDP as an objective in their next budget, which inspired the leaders of Scotland and Iceland. I think we are witnessing the birth of a global alliance of countries – although at the moment only small ones – that are keen on developing new economic models.
When thinking about degrowth, you take inspiration from the past. You write about the animalists who don’t distinguish between the human world and the natural world, you write about Indigenous people who utilize natural resources with care. And you call for going back to an economy that is rooted in actual needs instead of artificially-manufactured desires. Was there a period in history that you consider especially inspiring and hopeful?
I guess one of the problems we are facing is that degrowth has never been attempted. This is a totally new challenge. But let’s take a look at the history of Europe. Feudalism was, of course, a very bad and destructive system. It broke down because of the peasant revolutions against the feudal class in the mid-15th century. The peasants demanded access to the commons, forests and lands for their own use. And they succeeded – between 1450 and 1500 there was a flourishing of revolutionary society, deeply democratic and deeply egalitarian. Wages went up, various indicators of human wellbeing improved, nutrition improved. At the same time, the natural landscape of Europe was regenerating. Why? Because democratic egalitarian societies are intrinsically more ecological. You can focus on human needs rather than on generating a surplus that will then be extracted from you by the elites. Of course, it was all later dismantled by the enclosure movement, which kicked peasants off the lands in order to drive wages down and make labour cheaper for the nascent capitalist class, for the plantations and factories. But there remains this inspiring period in Europe’s history that we can look back on and be hopeful about the kind of society we can create.
Looking for positive inspiration in past experiences is certainly helpful, but in order to forge a new and different future, we need imagination. Meanwhile, at least since the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing a deficit of imagination. The present is so intense and overwhelming that there’s not much space left for thinking about alternate scenarios. How should we nurture the power of imagination?
It’s a fascinating question. When you tell people that capitalism is, let’s say, problematic, and we need a new system, they immediately shut down. “No, it has to be capitalism.” This idea was entrenched in the 1980s by people like Margaret Thatcher, who literally thought there was no alternative. But it strikes me as very odd because we live in a culture that is totally enamoured of innovation and creativity – those are among our highest values. You’d never look at a smartphone and say: “This is the best smartphone that’s ever been produced, it shall never be surpassed, and we shouldn’t even try to do that.” And yet, for some reason, when it comes to our economic operating system, we routinely say it is the best possible one. We need to take a much more innovative and creative approach to the economy. I believe we’re perfectly capable of doing that.
Perhaps what hinders our imagination is the ‘kidnapping’ of language. In your book Less is More you suggest abandoning or changing some words and concepts. For example, you say that instead of the Anthropocene we should be using the word ‘Capitalocene’. But what interests me the most is the concept of abundance. It brings to mind nature, the pulsating diversity of life, the Amazon rainforest. How do you define abundance, and what part does it have to play in the future of civilization? Can we create abundance?
Capitalism is a system predicated on scarcity. It’s difficult to grasp because we look at capitalism as something that produces an incredible amount of goods. Look at all the stuff in the shops, look at the adverts. But in reality, capitalism has always been creating the illusion of scarcity in order to compel people to work and to consume. Advertising itself is a process of creating artificial scarcity. It makes us believe that whatever we have is not enough and we should want more so that capitalism can keep growing. We can solve the problem of scarcity by switching to an economy organized around abundance. When people have access to everything they need to lead flourishing lives, they no longer need high levels of personal income. Therefore we can reverse the pattern of artificial scarcity by introducing organized abundance.
What would it look like?
Like a fair distribution of existing income. There is no actual scarcity of income in the global economy. However, we experience artificial scarcity at the bottom, because much of the income is captured by the people at the top. A fair distribution of existing incomes and opportunities would enable people to lead good lives. The same goes for public goods, like healthcare, education and housing. The more access people have to robust universal public goods, the happier they are, the more healthy, the better their wellbeing, relationships, gender equality, etc. That is the secret to a flourishing community. If we can guarantee this public abundance, there will be a lot less pressure to continue with the scarcity-driven private consumption that today is the primary feature of the capitalist economy.
But governments are struggling, we see how poor the quality of political leadership has become, and huge multinational corporations are getting stronger. The pandemic only exacerbates all those problems: Big Tech is the primary beneficiary of COVID-19. How do we solve this? How do we rebuild trust in the power of the state and make people believe in a good public sector?
Yes, public trust in government is at a crazy all-time low. And the reason is the exploding inequalities we’ve seen in the last few decades. Those processes are insane and extreme. For example, the richest 1% in the world captures nearly a quarter of total global GDP. And money isn’t the only unequally divided resource. Rich people control political processes; political power is also being captured. We have our media systems overtaken by corporate elites. Hence the erosion of trust in social solidarity. Distrust takes the form of right-wing conspiracy theories, of neo-fascist movements, of riots in the streets. Our institutions are collapsing precisely because our political system has been made to serve growth at all costs. People realize that this is a disaster for them and they’re desperate for alternatives. We need credible, democratic alternatives on the table, not some pseudo-solutions shot out by media monopolies. Until the imagination lockdown is broken, political polarization will increase.
Let’s talk about how to make change happen. Which brick should we remove first in order to dismantle the whole structure and make space for something truly new?
I’m not a political strategist, but I can point to some promising examples – movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement. They are calling for a transition to a post-growth economy that would be organized around the principles of justice, not just nationally but globally. I find that very exciting. The more pressure that we can exert on politicians, the better. Then there’s another approach. My book Less is More is primarily organized around policy ideas that could be implemented by our governments. On the face of it, I’m talking about small reforms, but they are actually revolutionary, because they effectively reorganize the way capitalism works. I set out some blueprints for progressive governments – Costa Rica can carry it out, and so can Scotland, New Zealand or Nicaragua. But as far as global change is concerned, I believe mass social movements will have to carry us there.
Of course, this means going into battle with those who benefit from the status quo. It won’t be easy. The global elite will not simply get together at Davos and adopt post-growth principles. Two things will have to come together: robust organized political movements and a powerful alternative vision. And let me emphasize: we don’t have centuries to do this. We have two decades at the most to make this transition happen. The key thing right now is to have conversations, to find the courage to confront the old guard, and talk about how the new system could look. My purpose is to open up imaginations and start conversations.
You also point out a new scientific consensus. Experts from different fields want us to see the world as one interconnected system and to get rid of the whole concept of man as separate from nature. Is this now a part of the mainstream? Has the opening up of imaginations already started?
I do feel hopeful, I think that the conversation is changing. To give you an example: you must have heard of the European Green Deal. It sets out various objectives, such as zero emissions of greenhouse gasses by 2050. And it also represents precisely the wrong kind of response. You can summarize its approach this way: “Let’s use the transition to renewable energy sources as an opportunity to accelerate growth.” I explain in my book why that’s not feasible. But there’s already one alternative on the table, proposed by DiEM25 [Democracy in Europe Movement 2025], a democratic movement established by Yanis Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky. Their idea is refreshing. They call for global justice and a post-growth economy. It is clear that the younger generation, people of my age and younger, are eager for such alternatives. And, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re also seeing some innovative national-level policies, for example in Iceland or Costa Rica, where governments are deciding to prioritize wellbeing. I think that’s very promising.
And yet you take some hope away – as well as a sense of agency – when you write that individualism is a myth and that changing our individual attitudes barely matters. Are you telling me recycling or using energy-saving lightbulbs is not important? And if not, what should we do?
For too long, environmentalists have been focusing on the idea of individual behaviour change. It becomes very blame-oriented. “You should do that or this, you should give up this or that.” And of course, people react badly, asking: “Why are you blaming me?” We need to recognize that individuals are victims of the growth-oriented system. We have been made consumers because we live in an economic system that requires perpetual growth and consumption. Individuals can try their best to consume less, but it won’t solve our problems.
Therefore we need to change our mindset and organize collective support for a different kind of economy. Think of the civil rights movement in the US. If you were a white person in the US South during segregation, it wouldn’t be enough to just sit in your home and say to yourself: “I’ll do my best not to be a racist.” That wouldn’t change the system. You’d need to go outside, meet your neighbours, join a social movement, organize collectively to fundamentally change an unjust system. And that’s the kind of political action we need today.
What will the role of technology be in all this? You’ve dismantled the promise of a digital economy, pointing out that it is surprisingly not virtual, meaning it still requires lots of material resources. Can we make better use of technology?
The technologies we have are actually quite remarkable and they keep getting better. Because of this constant improvement, we assumed that they would reduce our ecological impact. But they don’t. Under capitalism, efficiency improvements aren’t there to enable us to do the same amount with less – they only enable us to do more. A simple example is the chainsaw. It allows us to cut trees more quickly, and so we cut more and more of them. Technology is merely a tool. If we switch to a different economic system, it will serve new, different goals.
According to you, growth is our obsession. Even planetary boundaries – the Earth’s capacity to endure our expansion and aggression, the number of catastrophes, including the current pandemic – are not stopping us. We can’t count on any external forces; we’ll have to consciously choose a better world.
That’s right. In the 1970s, we thought that there were limits to growth, because once we depleted resources, the economy would crash. What we realize now is that there are no limits. The economy will find ways to grow. We have to make a conscious decision to limit growth ourselves before we reach ecological tipping points. Scientists have already told us what the climate crisis will be like – we cannot plead ignorance.
Does this decision have to be made by a well-informed majority? That would be more difficult, especially as there isn’t much time. As an economic anthropologist, what conclusions do you draw from the history of revolutions and rebellions? Can a minority bring change?
No, you don’t need to convince everybody – you just need a very vocal and active minority. The way social change works is: a new idea emerges, enough people are convinced by it, they talk about it, and suddenly it becomes thinkable. If it’s robust and persuasive, a consensus is born. The idea enters into policy discussions without the need to convince everybody one by one. On the other hand, we know there’s already a democratic majority that is in favour of the ideas of post-growth. It may not express it that way, but polls show us that people want a different kind of economy, one that is organized around ecology and wellbeing. So the question becomes: if we live in a democracy and a majority of people are calling for a change, why isn’t it happening? The reason is that the voices of elites in our media and our political system matter much more than the voices of ordinary people. The solution is, in fact, democracy. If we can have a democratic conversation about post-capitalist alternatives, people will come through for this new kind of approach. But thus far, we’ve not had this conversation.
Many critics will point out that democracy and capitalism don’t really work without one another. In Poland, we got them both at once.
There is a common idea that capitalism and democracy go together. I argue that in many ways they are opposites. Capitalism requires extraction and exploitation in order to perpetuate growth, and therefore it is at odds with democratic sensibilities. You can see this in all sorts of scientific experiments – when people have democratic control over economic processes and resource allocation, they make decisions built on principles of sustainability. They save resources for future generations rather than sabotaging ecology for the sake of immediate financial gain. Democratic choice means making post-growth decisions.
You were born in Eswatini, a small African country with an absolute monarchy. Don’t you ever wonder whether an enlightened king would deal with all those necessary changes faster and better?
I get why people fantasize about some efficient dictatorship that would bring about changes. But I really think that democracy is a more promising avenue. The problem is that we don’t have real democracies. We need proper democratic reform – to get big money out of politics, to break up media monopolies. That’s a precondition for the conversation we must have. Once we have this democratic conversation, all the evidence suggests that we will choose the post-growth alternative. There is no reason to abandon hopes for democracy.
Allow me to end on a practical note. If we reject GDP as an index of wellbeing, what measure should we choose instead?
There are lots of different alternatives. If you want a single indicator, then there’s one called Genuine Progress Indicator. It starts with GDP and then subtracts negative social and ecological outcomes, which gives you a much more holistic idea about the shape of the economy. Using this indicator is also useful if we want to change people’s perception of the global economy. However, even better is to have a conversation about what we want our economy to deliver – be that better wages, universal healthcare, zero emissions – and make those the explicit priority. Let’s achieve those goals directly rather than just pursue GDP growth in the vain hope that it will solve any problem.
Introduction and biography translated from the Polish by Jan Dziergowski