Jason Hickel Q&A: “I was kidnapped as a toddler”

The anthropologist on his admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow, and a traumatic childhood memory.

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Jason Hickel was born in Swaziland (now Eswatini) in 1982. An economic anthropologist, his research focuses on global inequality. He serves on the advisory board of the Green New Deal for Europe.

What’s your earliest memory?

I was kidnapped as a toddler in Eswatini. I was in a shop with my dad when someone plucked me up and ran. My dad chased him through the streets and the guy dropped me. Apparently I was relaxed about it, but my dad must have been terrified.

Who are your heroes?

Berta Cáceres, the Honduran indigenous leader who was assassinated for her environmental activism in 2016.

What book last changed your thinking?

I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass last year and it was a real paradigm shift.

Which political figure do you look up to?

I admire Aimé Césaire. To me, his book Discourse on Colonialism remains one of the most powerful texts of the anti-colonial movement. As for the present, I think it’s clear that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most talented and courageous politicians of our generation.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I know a geeky amount about the relationship between capitalism and nature, but somehow I doubt this topic would ever arise on Mastermind.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

We face a fork in the road right now, in terms of ecological breakdown. I’m curious to know how the story ends, so I wouldn’t mind popping up in the year 2100.

What TV show could you not live without?

Channel 4 News is the best that British journalism has to offer. And who doesn’t love Jon Snow’s ties?

Who would paint your portrait?

I love Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s work; he’s a First Nations artist who uses surrealist techniques to powerful effect.

What’s your theme tune?

“Zange” by the Xhosa artist Bongeziwe Mabandla. He reminds me of home.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Some of my first jobs were doing manual labour on construction sites for minimum wage. Someone advised me to join a union, and I’ve been a member ever since.

What’s currently bugging you?

We use the term “Anthropocene” to describe this era of ecological breakdown. But it’s wrong. It’s not humans as such that are the problem; it’s our economic system, and those who profit most from it.

What single thing would make your life better?

Less email. It seems to turn everything into something that feels like work.

When were you happiest?

Even during lockdown misery, most days have moments of profound joy – the colour of sunlight, the smell of wet earth, a lover’s smile. The secret is to hang on to these.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A plant physiologist. Research on plant perception, communication and decision-making is fascinating.

Are we all doomed?

Absolutely not. Of course, carrying on with the status quo is likely to render our planet uninhabitable. But we can change course. A doom-free future is a post-capitalist one. 

“Less is More” by Jason Hickel is published by Windmill

[see also: Gruff Rhys Q&A: “Chelsea Manning is a Welsh-American icon”]

This article appears in the 14 April 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people

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