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How does degrowth apply to our minds?

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By Erin Remblance

· 10 min read

As an Australian, it troubles me that if the whole world lived like us, we would need 4.5 planet Earths. Thanks to over-consuming nations like mine, worldwide we are living as if we have 1.75 planet Earths, a figure that has increased from 1 (that is, living within our means) since 1970. What this boils down to is that those of us in the global north are taking from both countries in the global south and future generations to fuel our lifestyles today. The ‘Earth Overshoot’ research is supported by the work of the late Earth System Scientist, Professor Will Steffen, who brought to our attention The Great Acceleration, whereby “[a]fter 1950 we can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system.” Steffen is referring to our growth-based economies, and while three percent economic growth each year might sound small, it means that within 24 years we will be consuming twice as many resources as today, and within 100 years 19 times as many. As economist Kenneth Boulding said: “[a]nyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

For this reason, I am a big proponent of degrowth in over-consuming nations in order to fit back within planetary boundaries. For anyone not familiar with the term, degrowth is a planned, democratic reduction in material and energy use in high-income nations while improving the well-being of people in those nations. It is more than this though. While very often the focus of degrowth is on how life can be better in a smaller economy, Federico Demaria and Serge Latouche argue that “[t]he point of degrowth is to escape from a society that is absorbed by the fetishism of growth…. It implies decolonization of the imaginary and the implementation of other possible worlds”. In this respect, the former definition of degrowth applies only to over-consuming nations, while the latter definition applies to all nations, and to all people. It is this second definition of degrowth to which this essay relates.

The concept of degrowth is powerful because it is clear that we need systemic change to avoid ecological collapse: business as usual with a “green tinge” isn’t going to be enough. It is also true that individual change drives cultural change which can be the key to unlocking political change leading to fundamental change. On this point, I find it fascinating to consider how “growth has entered our minds and souls”, and how an awareness of these “mental infrastructures of growth” might free us from growthism and help unlock the cultural changes that will bring about the necessary systemic changes.

With this in mind, here are a couple of points to consider in relation to how growth may be enshrined in the psychological structure of our collective minds, largely based on the work of Harald Welzer:

  • Our dreams for the future are centred around it being better than today, in the sense of ‘more’ (e.g., a bigger house, a larger salary, more travel).
  • We see ourselves as something to continually develop and optimise, our lives are seen as a process of creating biographies or filling curriculum vitae.
  • While we used to see paid labour as drudgery and something we did until we had met our needs, now we view it as noble, esteemed even, to be sought out and with no end. Sadly, this cultural 180° turnaround becomes a regret of many as they are dying.
  • Similarly, society views ‘hard-work’ as virtuous and thus ‘hard-work’ entitles those who undertake it to whatever their heart desires without limit or consideration of the harm caused, their purchases being the fruits of their labour.
  • We typically live by the rhythms of the industrial workday via a standardised worldwide time regime, unaware that there is a natural rhythm of time (for example, consider that in 2023 there will be 13 moons but only 12 calendar months or that, on the whole, our pace of work is unchanged by the seasons).
  • It is a collective belief that we should be able to own parcels of land, excluding others from that land. An example of this is that home (and correspondingly land) ownership in Australia is described as the ‘Great Australian Dream’, a term derived from the ‘American Dream’ of the same nature.

In various ways, these - and probably many more aspects of our modern day lives - relate back to the surpluses created by industrialisation (enabling the future to have more than today, a concept that is “historically quite recent”), the enclosure of the commons (the very foundation of growth-dependent capitalism) and the subsequent imperative to work to have our needs met (rather than simply being able to directly meet our needs). Our ability to recognise and unpick these ‘mental infrastructures’ - that is, the worldview that influences all of our actions - will be key to throwing off the shackles of growth and unlocking a culture of sufficiency, whereby we recognise when we have ‘enough’ in a material sense and from then on meet our “nonmaterial needs nonmaterially”, increasing our sense of wellbeing and contentment.

The work of Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony is relevant in unlocking a culture of sufficiency. Michael Mezz describes Gramsci’s theory on how the ruling class maintains power via a cultural form of dominance:

“…the ruling class creates an ideology in which its own values become common sense for the rest of society and Gramsci argued that the role of the state is to maintain institutions such as media and the education system that educate the masses on the cultural ideology of the ruling class. The goal of that education being that the working class develop a sense of freedom and a good life that serves the purposes of the people in power. In other words, the working class starts to value things like innovation and productivity and economic growth that doesn’t actually serve them.”

Gramsci tells us that the way to overcome cultural hegemony is by creating a new culture that is not based on the values of the ruling class. A counter-culture, if you like.

So, what are the counter-hegemonic narratives that we can begin to embrace? What would a mind and soul not infiltrated by growth look like? There is much to learn from indigenous cultures on this topic. As Jeff Sparrow highlights in his book, Crimes Against Nature, First Nation Australians found paid labour to be antithetical to their egalitarian lifestyles:

“Today, we take the wages system for granted. It appears normal, almost eternal, since we can barely conceive of an alternative. It did not seem normal to pre-colonial people. In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, they found capitalist practices utterly horrifying…. Indigenous people, accustomed to an egalitarian ethos and to work carried out for the collective good, saw the authority exerted by employers as tyranny. As late as 1888, a churchman complained of the difficulty he had in persuading Indigenous people that one man was innately better than another, that a certain individual, by virtue of his possessions, mandated obedience from his fellows…. Indigenous people did not despise wage labour primarily because of the effort that it entailed. Rather, they thought the work demanded by capitalists stripped life of its humanity.”

Furthermore, First Nations people lived with the rhythms of nature, not the industrial workday, and there was no private land ownership, they had the wisdom to know that “… you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

There are many examples of counter-hegemonic narratives arising more recently too. The following list is skewed more towards examples from the global North because the global North represents the vast majority of the over-consumption and is therefore where cultural change is most needed. Such examples include:

  • Those people, like the Futuresteaders and others who practice voluntary simplicity and frugal abundance, who appreciate the simple things in life, and find happiness in what they have rather than what they want. Seeking only ‘enough’ and not ‘more’ represents an affront to the dominant culture of dreams of the future being materially greater than today. This point is relevant only to those whose needs are already met. Of course, those who are living in conditions of deprivation should have access to ‘more’, until they too have ‘enough’.
  • People who choose to spend their time doing work that is traditionally undervalued and lacking in both career trajectory and pay increases, but is socially valuable, forgoing future surpluses (think of the stay-at-home parents, childcare workers, teachers, nurses, carers, small farmers, those who work part-time voluntarily, and those who volunteer their time to worthy but under-funded causes).
  • The move towards minimalism which seeks to value time and non-material items over ‘the grind’ and the accumulation of things as a reward for hard work. The Tiny House Movement shows us that it is possible to enjoy living with less, including the freedom of a smaller mortgage.
  • The tang ping (lying flat) movement in China and quiet quitting in the U.S.A. are taking back our right to be humans, not simply workers who devote more time than they would like to paid labour.
  • Anyone advocating for job guarantees, enabling anyone who wants to work to do so. Job guarantees seek to remove the artificial scarcity of employment we see today, where the threat of joblessness looms ever large and we constantly need to better ourselves so that we can compete for work. Those who advocate for a Universal Basic Income – an unconditional liveable wage for all – are fighting to remove the need for waged employment at all.
  • People organising for the community rather than the individual are prioritising others over their own interests, giving up the opportunity to build their own CVs in favour of the greater good, and there are some wonderful examples of such union building here, here and here.
  • The move towards a 4-day work week challenges the dominant narrative that more time at work is better.
  • The many activists calling out the harm caused by the carbon-intensive lifestyles revered by the dominant culture, such as Greta Thunberg (who beautifully articulated in her book, The Climate Book, that “we all have a responsibility to find quick ways of making that [extremely high-emitting] lifestyle socially unacceptable”), activists who block private jets, people promoting going flight free, and those seeking to reduce the dominance of cars on our streets. For these people, simply having the means to live a materially intensive lifestyle - regardless of the hard work involved in acquiring those means - isn’t enough to justify the harm it causes.
  • The locals of the Greek Island Ikaria, who do things in their own time, not that of the industrial workday. This fascinating paper describes “people arriving to appointments in ‘Ikarian time’, that is, a ‘few hours late’ or shopkeepers telling bewildered tourists that ‘the shop will open when it is time to open’”.

There are, of course, many other wonderful counter-culture examples beyond this short list - this is merely scratching the surface - but the point is that we need to advance these, and those of the same theme, until they become the leading narrative.

Unpicking the dominant, growth-based worldview will mean closely analysing the stories we have been told (and who those stories might serve), and bravely and courageously assessing whether all of this growth really does bring us ‘the good life’. We will likely find that we can achieve ‘a good life’ (that is, harmony with ourselves, our community, and the physical world) by living simpler but more meaningful lives. Perhaps we will even come to realise the very wise words of English writer, Alan Watts: “the meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves”. The way that growth manifests in our minds, our thoughts, our dreams, and our souls is important to consider because if we can create a culture of sufficiency, we will have found the key to systemic change and avoiding ecological catastrophe. I’m sure we can all agree that this is a worthy task indeed.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published in the Hopeful Realist newsletter. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Erin Remblance is a co-founder of (re)Biz which is launching Project Tipping Point in January 2024, for those people who want to learn more about tipping points, their role in reaching them and to connect with like-hearted people wanting to do the same. She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.

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