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

I will begin at the end.  The last sentence in Jason Hickel’s new book is “We have everything to lose and a world to gain.”  We have always had everything to lose, perhaps, but it is only relatively recently that we have, and by “we” I mean we of the so-called First World, drifted so far into a mass delusion that we no longer live in “the world.”  We live off the world, enjoying lifestyles that depend on long supply chains which we barely realize exist.  We have developed elaborate intellectual structures to deny that the world matters or has any standing except as a extraction site or a dump. To mainstream political and economic thinking, the world is not a factor in any discussion of goals and values.  The world as foundational to our being, much less as a full subject with intrinsic value to itself, has no place in mainstream thinking.  It is a resource, a dead corpse on which we feed. This is our Achilles’ heel, our fatal blind spot.  It has been built into our intellectual tradition for millennia.  It is our daunting task to alter that tradition, change the intellectual DNA of our civilization, and re-learn the values and aspirations that animate our daily lives. Jason Hickel’s book is an important contribution to that effort.

A quick synopsis of the contents:  Part One, titled More is Less, sketches the rise of Western capitalist modernity and its increasingly disastrous outcomes.  Part Two discusses the possibilities of a post-capitalist, de-growth evolution. 

Hickel’s earlier work The Divide makes a illuminating case for re-thinking “Third World development” and the relationship between global North and South.  Less is More builds upon that earlier work, but also takes it in a new, more risky direction. It is relatively easy and safe to make technical arguments about macro-economics and to critique the inequities of global capitalism. But in Less is More Hickel also critiques the foundations of “the divide” in the strains of thought that have led to our instrumentalist, extractive, ruthless social order. He calls out  the European Enlightenment – Bacon and Descartes in particular – for drawing up the philosophical permits to ravage the world in the name of God, Reason and Modernity.

As an alternative to this dismal, world-ravaging tradition and its dismal science, Hickel points to the indigenous traditions of animism to make the argument that it is animism’s inherent ecological sophistication that is more rational in the long term than the extractive logic of modernity.  There is no argument more important.  Bruno Latour speaks of moving from economy to ecology as the guiding metaphor of our civilization. Animism is the key that turns ecology from a way of knowing into a way of life.  

But to call up animism is an attack on the foundations of capitalist exploitations and its resultant privileges, and that means risking being ostracized by the gate-keepers of High Seriousness and Academic Prestige.  I deeply appreciate the risks that Hickel is running in making the argument for animism and indigenous ecological knowledge. 

As a step towards changing our trajectory, Hickel makes the case for the de-growth paradigm and its positive possibilities: “Degrowth begins as a process of taking less.  But in the end it opens up whole vistas of possibilty.  It moves us from scarcity to abundance, from extraction to regeneration, from dominion to reciprocity, and from loneliness and separation to connection with a world that’s fizzing with life.” The concept of degrowth is necessary in order to call out the almost religious power that the idea of economic growth has over our thinking, but it may only be a stage on our way to becoming animists/ecologists.  And to getting our world back, which may be what we always and only wanted in the first place.