Jason Hickel wants a fundamentally changed world which he discusses in Less is More. Other posts have noted technical and historical challenges in his work. For this post let us consider how Hickel thinks his ideas can be implemented. What is his messaging about sustainability? For the sake of argument let’s assume that you think Hickel’s ideas are good; should you be confident that they will be implemented?
Hickel Is Not A Political Strategist
As Hickel himself says:
I am not a political strategist.Hickel, 2022, page 242
Never a truer word has been said in the history of the world.
To my mind, a good idea is an idea that could actually happen. After reading his book, I was still at a loss as to what embracing Hickel’s idea would truly involve. More specifically Hickel (rightly) sees the need for action now to solve the world’s problems. So I was especially disappointed to be left puzzled over why he thought his ideas could be implemented anytime soon. Who exactly would do what and when would they do it exactly?
The central contention of Hickel’s work seems to be that we (collectively, not just a few of us) need to adopt animism. This would involve embracing oneness with nature. This seems to represent a major change to most people’s belief, or lack of belief, systems. That said, ideas do change. So maybe in a millennium or two Hickel’s view will take over from the current major religions. Maybe in the future atheists will embrace his spirituality. Who knows? Still, Hickel (rightly) thinks we are facing an urgent crisis that needs to be addressed now. Yet, his main idea seems to involve a massively radical change in the way most of us think. Are we all going to be animists by 2030 so we can keep to less than 1.5 degrees of global warming? I’m guessing, no. So what is the alternative plan?
Hickel says there is an “easy way” to solve the problem of excessive resource use. Namely that someone has to set and enforce the caps. It is ironic that Hickel, as an avowed anti-capitalist, seems to have the same basic philosophy as Adidas, “impossible is nothing”.
The fact that his idea isn’t as easy as he says isn’t automatically disqualifying. After all, no idea is perfectly formed. That said, proponents of ideas do need to, at a minimum, sketch out how they might be implemented. I didn’t see this in Hickel’s work.
Who, exactly, sets the limits that we will all work within? Hickel would likely say ecologists. They will inform us collectively what we should do, so “we” can take action. Interestingly the advice will come from ecologists but people can be described as ecologists whether they are formally trained or not as long as they have a feeling of deep connection with nature. Qualifications can be over-rated but how can we tell a reliable expert from a hobby gardener spewing nonsense if all that is required to be an ecologist is their personal feeling of a deep connection with nature?
How Do We Set Limits?
…we can set limits and quotas accordingly.Hickel, 2022, page 283
One challenge is that I really don’t know who “we” are and who will elect them. If the “we” is an informal community do “we” have arrest authority? Do “we” have an army?
Are “we” governments? In which case what is the plan to influence policy at the national level?
If “we” is at the international level, how can we persuade the nation-states that set the laws (and have the armies) to take action? Why does anyone think this is going to happen anytime soon?
Basic things like how exactly we set the cap and how we share out the resources aren’t properly covered in Hickel’s book. He isn’t a big fan of technology but surely he has to answer what happens if technologies change and what this means for resource allocations. Some resources might become more (or less) useful. Would those with more useful resources willingly trade them for less useful ones to get back to parity? How do we get the recalcitrant to join in?
He says democracy has helped secure benefits for workers, (and I think he is right there). Democracy surely has to be central to any stable system of resource allocation. Yet, he seems to have no strategy to get people to vote for his ideas. This is critical in a democracy. He needs to be a political strategist, at least a little.
So Hickel has no political strategy. Instead, he wants to rely upon general arguments that everyone is with him so together we will surely succeed. I think that this is what his argument that a consensus already exists was supposed to do. He is in effect saying, ‘don’t worry we can make this radical change happen without a clear plan because the people are with us’.
A new consensus has emerged…. The only way to make it work is with co-ordinated government action on a massive scale.Hickel, 2022, page 137
I’m likely keener on government action than most people I speak with. As such, I really want to know where this consensus exists. The consensus isn’t here in the state of Georgia or the US in general. Maybe the UK where Hickel was living when he wrote the book had such a consensus? That would be a definite no too. Hickel advised Jeremy Corbyn on the environment. Corbyn led the Labour Party to its worst result since 1935. I guess he has a different definition of consensus to me if the worst election loss in many generations represents a consensus supporting your ideas.
Implying that there is a consensus seems like evading the problem that Hickel’s mindset change isn’t there yet and we don’t know when it will arrive.
Knowing Your Enemy
Hickel does not like the idea of relying on technology but I’m not sure he has fully thought through the ideas he doesn’t agree with. Apparently “[green growth advocates] say, maybe green growth isn’t empirically actual, but there’s no reason that it can’t happen in theory.” (Hickel, 2022, page 158). I’m calling bullshit on Hickel’s claim here. I just can’t imagine a green growth advocate, like Bill Gates see here, actually saying that his plan only works in theory. I can imagine one criticism of Gates might be he is too confident that his plan can be implemented. Another criticism might be that Gates isn’t radical enough, he is too constrained by what seems possible, so his plans won’t do enough to solve the problem. Still, the idea that Gates, or anyone else of his ilk, will admit that theory matters over achievement is pretty bizarre.
I can go wider than green growth advocates. Who in the history of the world has ever admitted that their plan is great in theory but won’t work in practice? I don’t know anyone. Of course, we will never know who Hickel meant exactly because he didn’t bother with a citation when he put words in his rival’s mouths.
Messaging About Sustainability
Much of Hickel’s book is a rather crude appeal to authority. There are lots of ‘Scientists say this..’. ‘Ecologists think this…’. ‘Historians have found…’.
In fact, scientists go so far as to reject green growth hopes as empirically baseless.Hickel, 2022, page 137
You may want to know who the scientists are. Surely not all of them think that? I think he means the ones he likes.
Empirically Baseless Claims
Hickel also gets bonus points for saying something is empirically baseless while avoiding citing his empirical evidence. This led me to a question; how does one show hopes are empirically baseless? Hopes are about the future and we don’t tend to have much data on that. It is really hard to prove predictions are wrong. This is true even in retrospect, as long as you make the prediction probabilistic. ‘I said it was only a 1% chance and though it actually happened I was not wrong as 1 % chances do happen after all’.
I, personally, find the word empirically is often a rhetorical device. It is most useful for convincing people that you know what you are talking about while making sure that non-academics don’t follow up with any awkward questions. (I believe this is Hickel’s version of “that would be an ecumenical matter”. It sounds good but means nothing. That won’t make any sense unless you have watched a lot of Father Ted. Just take my word for it that my comment is really hilarious. Believe me that ‘scientists have found that Neil is very funny’).
Messaging About Sustainability II
The challenge is even when Hickel says something that seems true to me he loses it by mixing in dubious statements. His crude arguments to appeal to badly specified ‘authority’ have a disappointing record of success in democracies. During Covid, many people reacted badly to the authority of doctors. This was despite the fact that the doctors seemed clearly just to be trying to keep the voters alive. Does he really think a voter who rejects the idea of manmade climate change is going to be persuaded once they hear that unnamed ”scientists think” we should do something?
Is He Even Against Growth?
Hickel even does the classic trick of undermining his own argument, see here. He says that we need to get away from growth. Still,
It’s not growth that’s the problem but growthism.Hickel, 2022, page 99
Hickel is all for degrowth but, apparently, growth isn’t the problem. It is a massive political lift to persuade people that growth is bad. He works hard in the book to explain growth is terrible but then he also says that it isn’t necessarily the problem at all. If that is true, and my guess is that the type of growth really matters, maybe we should just concentrate on alleviating the negative bits of growth and lose the bad messaging around this area.
You know, maybe Hickel is right about something — he isn’t a political strategist.
Advice If Your Friends Are Accused Of Anti-Semitism
I’m always reluctant to stare into people’s minds. So, I will simply state the facts. Jeremy Corbyn, the former UK Labour leader, was widely accused of antisemitism. You can decide for yourself on that charge. Search Google Images for “Jeremy Corbyn antisemitic mural” to see a mural that Corbyn thought should be kept up in London. This mural shows a group of bankers whose appearance bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Nazi caricatures of Jewish people. (BTW in explaining he wasn’t antisemitic the artist’s first example of a banker was ‘the Rothschilds’). There are other reasons for allegations of antisemitism made against Corbyn, he was eventually expelled from the Labour Party over his failure to recognize antisemitism, but the mural is the most visually arresting example. I warn you the mural is hard to look at and not see the antisemitism.
Anyhow, Hickel was so convinced that Corbyn was falsely accused of antisemitism that he vigorously defended the politician. For example, he joined a “what-about-ism” letter to The Guardian, here on 30th September 2018. (The letter’s argument to me seemed to be that journalists aren’t perfect and that right-wing antisemitism makes left-wing antisemitism okay as long as there is a bit less of it). Hickel also tweeted that the accusations against Corbyn were false on December 15, 2019, see here. These defenses of Corbyn were made long after the mural incident came to light. The point of this story is that I believe Hickel can be safely said to be too careless in what he sees. His politics have put him antisemitic adjacent.
Quoting Henry Ford On Banking Conspiracies, Interesting Choice
Another relevant point is that Henry Ford wasn’t hiding his antisemitism. He published “The International Jew” and republished the, at the time already debunked, conspiracy theory “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, see here. According to the Henry Ford Museum, Ford was convinced that “bankers” and “the Jews” were responsible for a whole range of things he didn’t like, see here. My point here is that any decent person should start to worry when they hear the words, Henry Ford and banking conspiracy, especially in relation to the 1930s (when the Nazis came to power in Germany). Not Jason Hickel.
As Henry Ford put in in the 1930s: ‘it is perhaps well enough that the people of the nation do now know or understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning’.Hickel, 2022, page 238
Here is my free political advice. If your friends are accused of antisemitism, don’t quote Henry Ford on banking conspiracies. To be honest, I can go further, no one should quote Henry Ford on banking conspiracies. Maybe just avoid Henry Ford lines in general, to be safe. While I’m giving free political advice, how about not being friends with Jeremy Corbyn?
The postscript is that I tried to track down when exactly Ford actually made these comments about the banking system. Although many agreed the sentence probably captured Ford’s views I couldn’t find the actual quote. This was made harder because Hickel didn’t give a citation. Interestingly Hickel was doing a bad job as a scholar while also tying his ideas to a famous antisemite. (I mean Henry Ford, not Jeremy Corbyn, as Henry Ford is still famous given he made a lasting impact on the world).
For more on sustainable marketing strategy see here.
Read: Jason Hickel (2022, Kindle Edition) Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, Penguin