David Heinemeier Hansson

March 3, 2021

You gotta read Less Is More

This gushing review was first posted to our automatic check-in question in Basecamp: What are you reading?

Normally I do a big batch of everything I've been reading for several months, but right now I'm so enamored with Jason Hickel's new book Less Is More that I didn't want to wait!

I've been a fan of Hickel since I heard him on the Citations Needed podcast talking about global north vs global south inequities, the history of colonialism, how the common perception of the global south as "developing countries" is completely bunk, and the accounting shenanigans needed to maintain the illusion that "world poverty is declining".

That lead me to read his book The Divide, which expands on all these topics, and is truly an illuminating treatises while still being readable! Some tomes on world inequities, like Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, can be a bit of a bear to work through. Hickel's writing is plain, accessible, and flowing. It debunked myths I'd left unquestioned since attending business school.

That brings us to his new book. It starts from a pretty basic, if no less radical, premise: Capitalism's need for never-ending growth is killing the planet. Then he delivers an abridged summary of The Uninhabitable Earth, which again is simply devastating reading. He uses his own life example of having to scrape bugs off the front of his family's truck after a long drive while growing up to realizing that this isn't needed any longer. The bugs are gone. Which of course has all sorts of dramatic, dire repercussions for food chains, biodiversity, and what not. He keeps hitting example after example of how this isn't something in the far past or the far future. This is ecological destruction that's happening in a single generation. If you're even just a forty-something like myself, you can actually remember when the earth was different. That's... heavy.

After setting the stakes, you're then treated to a history lesson in capitalism. Starting from the break of the feudal era, peasants leading comparably content subsistence lives for a little while, and then the brutal era of enclosure, privatization of the commons, onto the industrial revolution. Which is all in service of the argument that capitalism is not nearly as great as the banner ads keep telling us. That life prior to capitalism wasn't the "short and brutish" misery it's commonly depicted as, in fact much of the time it is and was the opposite, particularly at the start of the industrial revolution (life expectancy actually fell for a long time, not the opposite).

And I'll just recap one final argument: That the never-ending pursuits of capitalism are not making us live healthier, happier lives once we've reached a certain point of maturity. There are societies around the world that make due with a small slice of the GDP-per-capita that, say, the US musters, yet deliver far longer living, happier citizens.

I'll stop now before I end up providing you with a complete cliffs notes version of the book, because I don't want to rob you of the fluency of its arguments by thinking you got the gist of it from me. This is imperative reading for anyone living, working, or succeeding under capitalism as we know it today. The constant search for growth is killing the planet, and we're watching it happen in real time. It's urgent and our responsibility to pick a different path before it's too late.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.