Produce less. Distribute it fairly. Create a greener world for all.

A Review Essay of Jason Hickel’s Less is More:  How Degrowth Will Save the World

Looking through the lens of climate change, Jason Hickel’s 2020 book is a powerful indictment of capitalism.  Finished in 2019, and after quickly reviewing the deleterious changes taking place across the planet, he writes, “the only rational response is to do everything possible to keep warming to 1.5 degrees (Celsius).  And that means cutting global…

Written by

Kim Scipes


Originally Published in

Green Social Thought

Looking through the lens of climate change, Jason Hickel’s 2020 book is a powerful indictment of capitalism.  Finished in 2019, and after quickly reviewing the deleterious changes taking place across the planet, he writes, “the only rational response is to do everything possible to keep warming to 1.5 degrees (Celsius).  And that means cutting global [greenhouse gas] emissions to zero, much faster than anyone is currently planning.”  It is a sign of clarity and the need for action:  “What’s ultimately at stake is the economic system that has come to dominate more or less the entire planet over the past few centuries:  capitalism.”

He lays the groundwork for a profound understanding of capitalism, surpassing just the economic aspect of it:  “it’s organized around the imperative of constant expansion, or ‘growth”:  ever-increasing levels of industrial expansion and consumption” (emphasis added).  “Within this system, growth has a kind of totalitarian logic to it:  every industry, every sector, every national economy must grow, all the time, with no identifiable end point.”

It can be difficult to grasp the implications of this.  We tend to take the idea of growth for granted because it sounds so natural.  And it is.  All living organisms grow.  But in nature there is a self-limiting logic to growth:  organisms grow to a point of maturity, and then maintain a state of healthy equilibrium.  When growth fails to stop—when cells keep replicating just for the sake of it—it’s because of a coding error, like what happens with cancer.  This kind of growth quickly becomes deadly.



Under capitalism, global GDP [Gross Domestic Production] needs to keep growing by at least 2% or 3% a year, which is the minimum necessary for large firms to maintain rising aggregate profits.  That might seem like a small increment, but keep in mind that this is an exponential curve, and exponential curves have a way of sneaking up on us with astonishing speed.  Three percent growth means doubling the size of the global economy every twenty-three years, and then doubling it again from its already doubled state, and then, again and again.  It is coupled to energy and resource use and has been for the entire history of capitalism.  As production increases, the global economy churns through more energy, resources and waste each year, to the point where it is now dramatically overshooting what scientists have defined as safe planetary boundaries, with devasting consequence for the living world.


That is the basis of his argument:  capitalism is destroying the planet.

Obviously, he’s a much more sophisticated thinker than this, recognizing that capitalism has different forms, and that not all forms are equally culpable.  He recognizes the distinction between “low income countries,” mainly of the Global South, and those “high income countries” of the Global North.  Thus, he argues that because the “northern” countries have developed capitalism further, thus contributing more to historical global emissions, that they should be required to drastically reduce their emissions further and faster than the “southern” countries.

He also recognizes the limitations of calls for a growth model based on “clean” energies, often referred to as “renewables,” such as solar, wind, and wave energy.  He states, “A growth-obsessed economy powered by clean energy will still tip us into ecological disaster.”

He spends time telling us that cultures in the “northern” countries are changing, with support of capitalism declining noticeably by younger people.

But he also goes back and tries to help readers understand the historical evolution of capitalism, discussing its philosophical base as well as the material reality.  He provides a section focused on the philosophical developments relevant to the emergence and development of capitalism.  Key is Rene Descartes’ “dualism,” which was key to shifting from seeing all living matter being integrated and connected to “men” being separated from nature and superior, leading to the domination of all things not human.  [And, I would suggest, domination of men of women, and later, people of color by whites-KS.]  It is this domination of nature that ultimately enables widespread appropriation of resources and people around the world.

Specifically, he sees the Enclosure Acts in England in the 16th Century as being the key turning point, turning the access of abundance into exclusion and privatization, limitation, and starvation.  And he explains that colonialism was the extension of this “enclosure policy”—my term—to much of the rest of the world in response to peasant rebellions across Europe:  “the rise of capitalism, enclosure and colonization were developed as part of the same strategy”:

The scale of colonial appropriation was staggering.  From the early 1500s through the early 1800s, colonizers siphoned 100 million kilograms of silver out of the Andes and into European ports.  To get a sense of this wealth, consider this thought-experiment:  if invested at 1800 at the historical average rate of interest, that quality of silver would today be worth $165 trillion—more than double the world’s GDP.  And that’s on top of the gold that was extracted from South America during the same period.  This windfall played a key role in the rise of European capitalism.  It provided some of the surplus that ended up invested in the Industrial Revolution; it enabled purchase of land-based goods from the East, which allowed Europe to shift its population from agriculture to industrial production; and it funded the military expansion that power further rounds of colonial conquest.


Hickel also recognizes the wealth garnered by slavery in the United States:  “The United States extracted so much labour from enslaved Africans that if paid at the US minimum wage, with a modest rate of interest, it would add up to $97 trillion today—four times the size of the US GDP.”  He points out this doesn’t include the extraction from slavery in Brazil and the Caribbean!

He elaborates on what this means regarding the environment.  After noting that China emits almost double the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the United States, he then notes,

But there are a number of problems with this approach [of focusing only on total emissions].  First, it doesn’t correct for population size.  When we look at it in per capita terms, the story changes completely:  in China, it’s 8 tons per person.  By contrast, Americans emit more than 16 tons per person—double that of China and eight times more than India.  Plus, we have to account for the fact that since the 1980s, high-income nations have outsourced much of the industrial production to poorer countries in the global South, to take advantage of cheap labour and resources, thereby shifting a big chunk of their emissions off the books.  If we want a more accurate picture of national responsibility, we need to look beyond just territorial emissions and count consumption-based emissions too.


And then he points out that the majority of the problem is due to the United States and Western Europe.

In fact, he points out that a safe level of planetary emissions today, as determined by climate scientists, are those that keep the carbon dioxide (and equivalents) proportion of the atmosphere to 350 ppm (parts per million) or less.  [In late March 2024, according to NASA, it was at 425 ppm-KS.]  He analyzes what he calls “overshoot emissions,” which are those leading to a higher CO2 proportion in the atmosphere above 350.  He reports:

The figures are staggering.  The United States is single-handedly responsible for no less than 40% of global overshoot emissions.  The European Union is responsible for  29%.  Together with the rest of Europe, plus Canada, Japan, and Australia, the nations of the global North (which represent only 19% of the global population) have contributed 92% of overshoot emissions.  That means they are responsible for 92% of the damage caused by climate breakdown.  By contrast, the entire continents of Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East have contributed a total of only 8%.  And that comes from only a small number of countries within those regions.


This—combining an understanding of “growthism” based on capitalism, an understanding of the role of colonialism in expanding capitalism around the world, and an understanding of the ecological impact of all this on the rest of the plant—is an excellent analysis.  There is a lot more that I could quote but get the book itself; Hickel brings many things together not usually considered, and I think he’s done an excellent job of putting this all together.

From there, in Chapter 3, he evaluates whether technology can save us.  While he recognizes that while technology is necessary to address the problem of climate change, he recognizes it is not sufficient.

He decries the “triumphfulness” that came out of Paris in 2015, where the countries celebrated their efforts to keep the Earth’s temperature at 1.5 degrees C or less.  [This is in relation to the planetary average temperature between 1850-1900, a time when industrialism spread around the globe; above 1.5 degrees C, according to climate scientists, we risk crossing planetary “tipping points,” which would be like a river boat heading over falls-KS.]  Hickel discusses the agreement:

Here’s how the Paris Agreement works.  Each country submits a pledge on how much they will be able to reduce their annual emissions.  The pledges … are supposed to be set in line with the goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees C.  But if you add up all of the pledges that have been made by signatory nations as of 2020, you’ll notice something rather strange:  they don’t come anywhere close to keeping us under 1.5 degrees C.  In fact, they don’t even keep us under 2 degrees C.  Even if all the countries in the world fulfill their pledges—which are voluntary and non-binding, so there’s certain no guarantee of this—global emissions will keep rising.  We’ll still be hurtling toward 3.3 degrees C of global warming by the end of the century.  In other words, even with the Paris Agreement in place, we’re on track for catastrophe.  [Note:  Donald Trump took the US out of the Paris Agreement for four years, although Joe Biden rejoined it-KS.]


Hickel argues strongly that technological “fixes” aren’t going to save us.  He savages BECCS (Bio-energy Carbon Capture and Storage) solutions; he argues that “The scientific consensus against BECSS is now rock-solid.”  He rejects “green growth.”  He points out the limitations of recycling.  He argues against “solar radiation management,” where either chemicals or physical reflectors are put into space to “redirect” solar energy from the Sun.  He points out that none of these address the central problem; that of “growth.”

This brings us to the end of the first part of his book.  I find his arguments informed, cogent, and compelling:  I think he’s right on!

About the only criticism I have of the first part of the book is that I think he should have provided a quick, basic understanding of climate change to his readers, and that he should have come back at the end of the first part and reminded them of the now-crisis in which we face.  Small potatoes, really; the first part is quite strong.

Then, however, we get to part two.  Hickel moves from a direct, powerful style, largely based on physical reality to one more philosophical.  He examines the gap between our understanding of economic growth and personal well-being and tries to understand it.  After all, it’s well known that after a certain level of economic growth, people don’t become happier.  In fact, as he notes, once that certain level of economic growth is achieved, improvement of general social welfare is the factor that leads to more happiness among societal members.

Yet, as he cogently points out, today’s global economy is based on increasing inequality, and it is delivering the overwhelming amount of benefits to the top five percent of income earners in the world.  (A great chart on p. 193!)

Hickel’s examination of this gap between economic growth and personal well-being goes back to the 17th Century philosopher, Rene Descartes, who saw the separation between God and creation and then took it one step further:  creation itself is divided into two substances, “mind” and, for our purposes, “non-mind.”  He saw those with “minds” as being part of God, and those without, well … shame on them.  It is this separation between humans and nature that leads to the exploitation of the Earth and those who depend on it.

Descartes was challenged by Baruch Spinoza, who saw everything as part of one “thing,” God.  Spinoza, according to Hickel, saw the unity of life.  Hinkel then sums up these developments:

Europe faced a fork in the road.  They had two options:  the path of Descartes or the path of Spinoza.  With the full backing of the Church and capital, Descartes’ vision won out.  It gave legitimacy to the dominant class forces and justified what they were doing to the world.  As a result, today we live in a culture shaped by dualist assumptions,


Much of the rest of this book is challenging that dualism, arguing quite persuasively that humans and nature are united as one.

Now, this is all interesting, and Hickel is eloquent.  While there’s much I agree with this, I still am troubled by it:  I think this second part of Less is More should have been focused much more on today’s physical situation, helping people to understand the crisis humans, animals and plants are currently facing, and much less on philosophy.

So, my following comments are to share where I think Hickel should have gone, following his own logic in much of the first part of the book.

After presenting an incisive analysis of capitalism, colonialism, and ecological destruction in the world, and labeling it a crisis, I think he should have moved toward presenting a solution:  despite claiming in his subtitle “How Degrowth Will Save the World,” nowhere in the book is a meaningful discussion of “degrowth,” what it might look like, how it might be implemented, how it would solve the problems he so carefully explicated.  Now, I’m not suggesting it had to the solution, but at least one substantive enough to stimulate discussion and debate, to get other people thinking about these issues if not actually entering the debate.  (I tried to do this in a 2017 piece published in Class, Race and Corporate Power at

Again, not expecting “perfection” or “resolution,” if he didn’t have a solution to propose, then I think he should have at least advanced principles on which he thought any solution had to be based.  I would argue that any solution had to try to address his earlier argument that the so called “northern countries” had to reduce their emissions sufficiently to get the carbon dioxide proportion of the atmosphere down to 350 ppm by 2030, and the “southern countries” to this level by 2050, levels he himself had proposed as being necessary; or at very least, making substantial, binding moves to meet them in order to address the current climate crisis.  It is this resoluteness needed to even have a chance of keeping Earth’s temperature below 2 degrees C.

Instead, he proposes a number of “immediate steps” we need to take to challenge capitalism; he argues we need to end “planned obsolescence” of goods produced, with policies suggested including mandatory extended warranties on products, a “right to repair,” and switching to a lease model for large appliances and devices; cut advertising; shift from ownership to usership; end food waste; scale down ecologically destructive industries, including the fossil industries as well as cattle ranching;  all good things that I support, but these things, in and of themselves, do not challenge capitalism as a rapacious, destructive economic system; they do not challenge the growthism that he spent the entire first half of the book excoriating; they do not acknowledge the crisis we are currently in; nor do they even lay the cultural groundwork to prepare people to think about doing these things!  (Although not a Marxist, I accept Gramsci’s understanding that we need cultural preparation—which Gramsci calls “wars of position”—before initiating changes to the status quo; without the preparation, even if we were to act to achieve our goals, “wars of maneuver,” they would probably be rejected by most Americans at our expense!)

Within this limitation, throughout the book, Hickel doesn’t give us all of the tools we need to understand the world.  While he is quite good at discussing the deleterious effects of colonialism, he does not seriously discuss “imperialism.”  The problem here is that imperialism encompasses not only colonialism, but not neo-colonialism, the efforts by the former colonizer to maintain the exploitive economic ties developed under colonialism after the country is granted its political independence.  To put it another way, “independence”—whether after armed revolution or through colonial grant since the costs have gotten too much and the benefits too low for the colonizer to continue—is really only political independence with the former colonizer seeking to maintain economic control.  Hickel does not address the neo-colonial aspect of imperialism.

And this is tied into the terminology he uses throughout the book.  He speaks of high-income countries or those of the Global North, leaving unquestioned how these countries gained these higher standards of living, etc.  The reality is that these imperial countries stole the raw materials, natural resources, and sometimes people of the then-colonized countries which, because of gaining political independence, should be now referred to as “formerly colonized countries.”  These thefts were often done with much death and destruction of indigenous peoples and often of their respective cultures (think of the epistemicide currently being carried out by Israel in its war against Gaza).  They took these stolen resources back to the imperial country from which they came and provided them to the latter for the benefit of economic and social development.  At the same time, they did not concern themselves at all with the economic, social, and cultural devastation of the colonies that resulted from this theft.  We should quit undercutting the strength of our analysis and utilize the best, most accurate terms possible:  imperialism, imperial countries, and formerly colonized countries.

With that, there is nothing suggesting that we work to limit/reduce/end imperial countries’ abilities to military dominate the world, or even parts.  The US spends approximately $1 trillion a year on its military as it seeks to dominate the world; and has spent over $18 trillion in direct military expenditures between 1981-2021 (from Reagan to the end of Trump’s administration) just for “defense.”   This is prior to backing Ukraine against Russia.  This money is going mostly to the arms producers, such as Boeing, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, etc., and it is being used to field a military that has caused the most death and destruction in the world since World War II.  And Hickel says nothing about ending it…?  Accordingly, there’s no understanding that the US is the homeland of the US Empire.

Where this comes together is in the US National Debt.  After 192 years ( from the beginning of George Washington’s administration to the end of Jimmy Carter’s), the US National Debt was less than $1 trillion; $ 909 billion, or $ .9 trillion.  This is after paying for the War of 1812, the Civil War, the wars against Native Americans on the Plains, the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars, World War I, World War II, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the electrification of the Tennessee Valley, the Interstate Highway System, and the Space Program.  Since 1981 and the beginning of the Reagan Administration, the National Debt has grown in barely over 40 years by over $33 trillion!  What economic growth we’ve had in the last 40 years has been based, not on solid economic performance but on writing “hot” checks!  And while I’m probably being unfair here to Hickel, who is based in the UK, but these things are not being considered by most Americans, including activists!  (See my in-depth account of the last 40 years at

Yet the thing I miss most in Hickel—as much as I like the first part of this book—which I would argue should have been much better discussed throughout his entire book, is the worsening crisis of climate change.  He says little to nothing about it after mentioning it at the beginning.  According to Jonathon Porritt, an English activist (at, it looks like we’ve blown through the 1.5 degree C level of additional heat over the 1850-1900 average, and it may be unstoppable at 2 degrees C.  One.five, according to scientific consensus as I’ve noted above, is the level by which the Earth System is probably safe; any higher—and the odds worsen with additional heat—and we risk exceeding “tipping points,” where things get out of control; the metaphor I like to use is like a river boat going over falls.  Once that happens, it looks increasingly bad for the very survival of humans, animals, and most plants after the turn of the next century.

In short, a powerful, trenchant, and well-informed first half of the book.  There is much to be learned from it, and there’s much I’ll be able to use in my writing.  The second half is good, but works for a calmer time, after the climate crisis is averted.


Kim Scipes, PhD, is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana, USA and taught a course on “Environment and Social Justice” from 2006 to 2022.  He’s been a political activist for over 50 years.  He has published four books and over 265 articles and book reviews in the US and in 11 other countries.  His web page on the “Climate Crisis” is at Climate Crisis, Environmental Destruction, and Social Justice: Resources – Personal Faculty Pages (

Kim Scipes, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, IN.  He is a long-time activist, with an extensive number of publications that can be accessed–often with links to original articles–at