by Paula Gutlove and Gordon Thompson,
Where in the world are we going? Our fossil-fueled growth economy is driving climate catastrophe and other disasters. We need a paradigm shift.
The “Paradigm Shift” subgroup of the Peace and Climate Working Group of Massachusetts Peace Action organized a webinar on April 6th, 2023. The webinar examined the paradigm shift proposed by the degrowth movement. This event was recorded and can be viewed on MAPA’s YouTube channel, here:
Degrowth is a term covering theories and activities critiquing the prevailing Western paradigm of endless economic growth. Using ideas from a range of disciplines, including political ecology, ecological economics, feminist political ecology, and environmental justice, degrowth represents a true paradigm shift – an alternative to the fossil-fueled growth economy that drives social inequity, injustice, violent conflict, and the climate emergency.
The webinar featured two excellent speakers. They discussed degrowth and the rewards such a paradigm shift could bring in terms of building peace and resolving the climate-ecological crisis. The discussion encompassed what degrowth is, how it connects with our peace and climate agenda, and possible next steps to make this new paradigm a reality. The webinar was facilitated by Paula Gutlove, a member of MAPA’s Paradigm Shift subgroup.
The first speaker was Peter Victor, Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar at York University, Canada. Victor has received numerous awards for his fifty years of work on ecological economics. His latest book is Escape from Overshoot: Economics for a Planet in Peril (2023).
Professor Victor described degrowth from three perspectives. First, he said, it is a call for planned reduction of energy and resource throughput, in order to restore balance between our economy and the living world. At the same time, degrowth is a critique of capitalism and the associated growth imperative. Also, degrowth is a social movement, especially strong in Europe.
Victor gave a thumbnail sketch of decades of scholarly work, including his own, to understand Earth’s carrying capacity and the ways we are exceeding it. He then placed the degrowth movement in the context of related approaches to building a “post growth” world – e.g., the Doughnut Economy, the Circular Economy. He acknowledged that the term “degrowth” can confuse people when they first encounter it.
To illustrate connections between degrowth and peace, Professor Victor quoted from a US Army website. There, the Army celebrates its ability to seize and control “those things an adversary prizes most – its land, its resources, and its population”. Competition for land and resources is, of course, an inevitable outcome of current economic growth.
The second speaker was Andrew Ahern, an ecological organizer, freelance writer, and public educator based in Boston. Ahern is a member of various paradigm-shifting organizations, such as The Democratic Socialists of America and the Sunrise Movement. He is committed to bringing about social-ecological transformation, and he believes that degrowth provides the policies, tools, and values to help us end extractive capitalism and bring about a society based on planetary and human well-being.
Ahern based his talk on his essay, “How Degrowth Can Help Reduce Global Conflict”, published in February 2023 in the journal Science for the People.
As the essay’s title indicates, Ahern explicitly links degrowth with MAPA’s concern for peace. Ahern also made another key issue explicit, by titling his presentation “Degrowth: A transition agenda for global ecological justice”. That title rebuts a criticism of degrowth that is often made by people who are unfamiliar with the concept – i.e., that degrowth would condemn currently disadvantaged countries and people to ongoing poverty. Instead, argues Ahern, degrowth would reduce material throughputs in the economies of the global North, thereby freeing up resources to meet human needs in the global South.
Ahern presented evidence of ways in which the global North exploits resources in the global South. He also argued that efforts to “green” our economies, while retaining the growth imperative, could worsen that exploitation. For example, switching from fossil-fueled automobiles to EVs, while continuing to expand the vehicle fleet, would require substantial additional extraction of critical materials, especially in the global South, with adverse social and environmental impacts. Moreover, competition over access to critical materials would create conflicts.
The two presentations were followed by a vigorous Question & Answer session. That discussion helped to clarify points made during the speakers’ talks. It closed with discussion of two, interrelated questions. First, are there situations where degrowth principles have been put into practice? Second, how could those principles become accepted and implemented at a large scale? The speakers acknowledged that practical experience with deliberate degrowth remains limited. They offered some tentative thoughts about the second question. Both agreed on a point important to MAPA – i.e., degrowth could be effective as a conflict-reducing strategy. That point offers a political way forward.
Paula Gutlove closed the webinar with an observation about the paradigm shift required to move humanity towards a rewarding and sustainable future: “The Paradigm shift includes how we think about ourselves, our values and our power. Understanding and implementing degrowth underscores that we are all mutually vulnerable, interconnected, and interdependent. Conflict and crises create opportunities for change if we reframe conflict situations into opportunities for collaborative problem solving. In so doing, the leadership paradigm shifts from one leader with power over others to many people leading together through mutual empowerment. So, I ask you all, fellow leaders in creating the future we want and need – how can we best joyfully collaborate to solve these existential crises together?”
For more information about taking part in an inter-organizational collaborative conversation on Degrowth, please contact Paradigm Shift subgroup member Denis Kalthofer at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Paula Gutlove is a member of MAPA’s Paradigm Shift subgroup, and deputy director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (IRSS). She is also a speaker, teacher, trainer, and international consultant on negotiation, public engagement, leadership, and conflict management.
Gordon Thompson is a member of MAPA’s Peace and Climate Working Group and is the director of IRSS. He has five decades of experience with technical and policy analysis related to our sharing of Spaceship Earth.