Category Archives: Book Review

Jason Hickel: Degrowth

Jason Hickel’s book ‘Less is More, How Degrowth will Save the World’ is I think the best yet critique of growth and of capitalism. He draws on ecology, economics, history and many other disciplines to chart how this pervasive and destructive ideology came into being and how it spells disaster for humanity. In the light of the Climate and Ecological Emergency the need to rapidly and radically change direction could not be more urgent. Hickel makes only general indications about what a post growth and post capitalist world might look like, but he does give us at least a glimpse of that possible future. (The book I am writing is much more detailed on that front.)

Economic growth, as measured by GDP, is the fundamental goal of nearly all governments. For most of our politicians and media it is taken as a ‘good thing’. It is the bedrock upon which capitalism as a system has been built, and without continuous growth capitalism would collapse. Because capitalism is so ubiquitous it is taken for granted without really being understood as a system and Jason Hickel is particularly strong in outlining exactly what capitalism is and why it is so destructive. People often think of capitalism as the right to trade and to use markets, but trade and markets pre-date capitalism by thousands of years. What emerged about 500 years ago was a system predicated on extracting value from trade to reinvest in ever larger scale trade. Value had to be continually extracted from the natural world and from people in order to have ever larger sums to invest in ever larger enterprises. Profit acquisition for investment replaced the earlier system of trade to acquire things for their usefulness. Stock markets grew and they depended upon profits to pay interest and attract investors in an endless cycle of continuous growth.

Questioning growth as a goal goes back decades, certainly to the early 1970’s, with Herman Daly’s ideas of a ‘Steady State Economy’, Donella Meadow’s ‘Limits to Growth’, ‘Blueprint for Survival’ and many others. Where Jason Hickel is particularly strong is on the insanity of constant growth projected very far into the future, given the impossibility to completely decouple growth from the material through-put of the economy and the associated waste and pollution. He is also very good in his connecting capitalism’s need for growth with its never ending need to colonize and exploit ever more aspects of people’s lives and of the natural world.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years. The hardback edition came out last August and a paperback version is due to be published in a week or so, on 25th February.

There are writers such as Mark E Thomas, of the 99% organisation, who are still in favour of growth as an overall objective, but who distinguish between good growth, growth that is irredeemably bad and growth that can be transformed from bad to good. Other writers, such as Kate Raworth, author of Donut Economics, describe themselves as growth agnostic. What I’d love to see, and to participate in, is a debate between them. I think we would all agree on what sectors of the economy need to contract, which ones still need to grow and which ones can be transformed. The trouble is any discussion of radical economic contraction of any sectors of the economy is still taboo for most politicians and the media. That needs to change, as a matter of extreme urgency. As Greta Thunberg keeps reminding us, we are in a crisis, and it is about time we started treating it as a crisis. The obsession with endless economic growth on a finite and fragile planet is perhaps the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunity. If you are not convinced then do read this excellent book by Jason Hickel and judge for yourself.

British Parliamentary Politics


On this blog I like to focus on the positive. The General Election result was pretty depressing, and George Osborne’s budget was dreadful. Not much can be expected from this government in terms of a more ecologically sustainable or socially just future. Where does hope lie?

Caroline Lucas is the very embodiment of hope. As the sole Green MP she has a very difficult task, but by working to build cross party cooperation on an issue by issue basis she is achieving more than could reasonably be expected of any single MP. At the General Election in her Brighton Pavilion constituency, not only did she hold her seat but she increased her vote from 16,238 to 22,871. In many ways she represents the more than a million people across the country who voted Green. I’ve just read her book ‘Honourable Friends?’ where she reflects on her first five years as an MP. A great book and highly recommended. Her book was written before the 2015 General Election.

Now with the Labour leadership contest underway, the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn winning might increase the possibilities of building a progressive platform that would include the Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. Both the Liberal Democrats and Labour party seem to be split between a more radical, progressive left and a neo-liberal, pro-austerity right. Neither Labour nor the Lib-Dems are likely to be strong enough ever to form a government on their own: it is only through cooperation to build this wider platform that they have any chance of victory. Zac Goldsmith is one of the few Tories I can imagine joining in this kind of collaborative process, and with him a possibility as the next Mayor of London, London could provide a testing ground for this kind of working.

In the meantime, as is so often the case with politics, it’ll be what happens outside Parliament even more than what happens within it that’ll be the main focus in the struggle for a better future. But it is a huge advantage to have an MP such as Caroline Lucas working within Parliament: we could do with more like her!

‘Honourable Friends?’ by Caroline Lucas, Portobello Books, 2015

Latest on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid

Zac Goldsmith profile

‘We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it’

Whole Earth Discipline cover

I’ve just finished reading Stewart Brand’s 2009 book, Whole Earth Discipline. I love the breadth of vision, the passion and the enthusiasm with which he writes, just as back in the 1970s I loved the magazine Co-Evolution Quarterly that he founded and contributed to.

In this book he states: ‘We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it’. Yes, absolutely, I agree. Humanity has unwittingly influenced the biosphere in profound ways, and now it is our responsibility to manage it back to health. It is a system of immense complexity. Nobody has all the answers. We need to carefully and scientifically keep assessing what we do and modify our policies and practices to fit our evolving understanding to the situation.

One of the things I most like about this latest book is that it profoundly challenges a lot of the positions and beliefs I’ve long held. That is good. There are also sections of the book where I think he is less well informed, and I’d like the opportunity to challenge him. I think he might welcome this too. Early in the book he states ‘In keeping with professional forecaster practice, my opinions are strongly stated and loosely held – strongly stated so that clients can get at them to conjure with, loosely held so that facts and the persuasive arguments of others can get at them and change them.’ I like this attitude.

On many issues, and particularly in the USA, things have become so polarized, so ideologically driven that masses of people stubbornly hang on to obsolete understandings of the world. Examples abound. It’s easy to see the mistakes of others: how daft the climate change sceptics refusal to look carefully at the science! I can’t yet see any issues where this book has forced me into a complete u-turn, but quite a few issues where I feel my position become more nuanced, perhaps a little less absolute. Over coming months I’ll explore several of these, from biotechnology and urbanisation where I feel I’ve learnt a lot from Stewart Brand, to renewable energy where I feel I could usefully help educate him!