One way of arguing for the value of sustainability is to suggest that we (humans, westerners, whatever) have declined from a past that was more in touch with nature. Jason Hickel does this by combining ideas about sustainability and grand historical sweeps.
History Is Very Much In The Past
This isn’t the approach I would take. It seems too fraught with assumptions and simply doesn’t seem necessary. The need to prevent catastrophic environmental problems in the future seems largely independent of what people thought in the past.
To argue that we need to reclaim our best values you have to argue that historical people were much better than us. That just seems odd to me. Never have I read a history book and, exempting the occasional admirable change agent, thought ‘these were fantastic people’. Still, Jason Hickel attempts to paint a picture of westerners after the fall. (The fall being the rise of capitalism which he dates around 1500).
Everything Is Connected
One of Hickel’s chapters is called ‘Everything Is Connected’ and his work does read a bit like a manic conspiracy theory. Everything bad must have a single source. The way that people practice modern capitalism can be reasonably blamed for a large number of things in the world. Yet, that isn’t good enough for Hickel. Capitalism must be responsible for everything bad. Christopher Columbus seems to be the first capitalist despite relying on monarchical, not LLC, support. People had been conquering other people for as long as we have recorded history. It isn’t clear to me why Columbus is a capitalist colonizer, as opposed to just a colonizer.
Oh To Be In England In The 15th Century
Seeking to show everything has the same root cause of evil presents a challenge when discussing European history. Because life before capitalism sucked for most people. It wasn’t as though it was all great, then capitalism happened and things started to go badly.
Hickel seems to need to invent a high medieval (late 14th/15th century) paradise. One of his key sources for this seems to be Karl Marx. For one footnote he says ‘historians’ and then cites only Braudel (1967) and Marx’s Capital (1867). Even if you think Marx had great insights you surely wouldn’t think of his mid-19th-century writing as being the last word on medieval peasant life. Furthermore, Marx may have had a political angle to his comments(?)
Better, But Not By Much
According to Hickel English Peasants in the 15th century were apparently having a whale of a time. They simply loved tilling the land, doffing their caps, and dying of now easily curable diseases. It does seem reasonable to say that peasant life, post-Black Death was better than peasant life before the Black Death — if you didn’t mind having lost 1/3rd of your friends and relatives. (And you didn’t get to choose which 1/3rd).
After the Black Death, the supply of peasants was low compared to the demand for them. As such, it seems logical that the cost of their labor would have risen. But surely the way peasants were treated rose from truly, truly awful to merely truly awful? If anyone wants to go back to feudalism feel free but I’m not joining you. Remember, chances are you won’t be a noble and even being a noble kinda sucked too — see the life expectancy numbers. (And no, the fact that the average life expectancy is skewed by massive child mortality doesn’t make it better).
Capitalism has created a lot of misery, but there was plenty of misery before 1500 too. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to prevent current misery, we need to improve the world and this includes changing a lot of the way business operates. Still, the idea that we are behaving in a uniquely bad way is quite bizarre.
Apparently, pre-capitalism everyone was seeing everyone else, indeed all nature, as one. To Hickel, it was capitalism that created pressures for population growth. He doesn’t address why birth rates have declined in recent years in the west despite his argument that capitalism is currently running rampant. He also doesn’t explain why birth rates were so high in China in the 1950s when that country was actively challenging capitalism.
This idea that we are all one with nature remains with us apparently. These are “secrets that linger in our hearts like whispers from the ancestors” (Hickel, 2022, page 33). This is very poetic. But being forced to study poetry at school beat out of me whatever innate enthusiasm I might have had for better poets than Hickel. Furthermore, my ancestors were poor, they are whispering to me saying, “keep the indoor plumbing, Neil”.
Capitalism, Sustainability And Grand Historical Sweeps
I don’t understand the general need to grandly label things. Hickel sees the evil hand of capitalism everywhere. He is a broken clock, sometimes he gets it right but when he does it seems largely by luck. By capitalism, I think Hickel includes everything from the most Friedmanite mega-corporation to firms run by workers’ councils.
His idea is that capitalism is intrinsically colonial and so can be blamed for everything that involved theft in recent history. Apparently, people were all cuddly bunnies until someone invented the limited liability company. I was left wondering why the Mongols did their expansion if they didn’t have the idea of capitalism to drive their conquests.
Apparently, capitalism brought all the ills that we see in the early modern period and beyond. My main challenge was that I can see a lot of these ills well before the 16th century (his dating of capitalism’s rise). Romans did a hell of a lot of enslaving despite Seneca seeing the world as a single living organism. The ancient Athenians were pretty brutal on women’s rights. And don’t get me started on the Spartans. (As an aside, why is ‘Spartan’ still an okay nickname for a college given the Spartan history of murder, enslavement, and proto-fascism?)
History And Sustainability
Given that he talks so much about history Hickel seems remarkably cavalier in his attitude to it. He sees capitalism as part of a plot by ‘the Church’. What exactly is the church? Has he not heard of the reformation? This is surely the heart of 16th-century European history where he starts his view of capitalism. I believe at least a couple of people in Europe thought not following the ideas of ‘the [Catholic] Church’ was pretty central to their self-views. His description of a grand conspiracy of ‘the Church’ (what exact religious denomination is unspecified) and capitalists seems less deep than the plot of the average children’s coloring book.
I was curious how he could support his grand sweeping statements. His cites don’t seem as though they could ever do the heavy lifting necessary. For example, it is hard to see how citing an analysis of health in 19th-century Britain to support his point could ever give sufficient evidence to demonstrate that “For the vast majority of the history of capitalism, growth didn’t deliver welfare improvements in the life of ordinary people” (Hickel, 2022, page 171).
Can You Criticize Capitalism?
If you want an example of Hickel’s slightly paranoid style how about this?
We are not permitted to question capitalism and the conquest of nature.Hickel, 2022, page 248
This seemed like a strange comment. He is writing this in a book produced by a capitalist company. He is employed by universities in what he would, I’m sure, call capitalist countries. I’d say he is most certainly allowed to criticize capitalism. What is more, he is even paid to do so.
Others are allowed to criticize capitalism too — and they should do. Well-thought-through criticism is a very good thing. I work in a business school. We criticize capitalism all the time here, and we are probably the most pro-capitalism bit of the university. Hickel might be argued to be right if he suggested that we as a society don’t criticize capitalism enough. Still, the idea that you can’t criticize capitalism is absurd hyperbole on its face.
Sustainability And Grand Historical Sweeps? I still think of myself as a historian at heart. Yet, when trying to assess what we need to do to improve the world we need a bit less grand sweep, indeed less history, and a bit more now.
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Read: Jason Hickel (2022, Kindle Edition) Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, Penguin