The great transition - Alternative paths for a better and climate just future
The pictures of our planet from a distance are beautiful and insightful. They show us a fragile marble in space that is ours to protect. But these pictures have also brought us another belief: that what happens on the ground is too small to count. We think that only global solutions can solve our global problems. But at the most local level, communities are already developing solutions. And this is why it’s time to zoom in again – back down to Earth.
In this podcast series, we’ve looked at different strategies to address climate change. We’ve discussed the risky ideas of geo-engineering and heard about climate cases in courtrooms around the world. We also considered the failures of carbon markets and talked about the links between climate change and agriculture.
In this final episode, we will take a look at the broader transformations that are necessary. Climate change is such a unique challenge that each and every sector of our society will have to change. At the same time, it is just one of the many urgent crises we face today. To get to the root of all of them, we need to consider a fundamental shift in thinking about our economies and lifestyles.
Do we need a master plan to get there? Maybe not. Because right now, people are already developing local solutions. They are experimenting with new paths toward just and sustainable lifestyles across the world. It’s a diverse set of approaches, but they share a common vision: The idea, that a good life for all is possible.
Do you know these moments when you reflect on your life and it feels like everything is accelerating? We feel pushed to work more, to work harder and to always compete. Not because we want to move forward, but just because we want to keep up with everyone else.
This treadmill is part of a larger paradigm that we live in. It’s the logic of growth, says Barbara Muraca. Barbara lives in the United States and teaches Environmental and Social Philosophy at Oregon State University:
Modern, capitalistic societies are completely built around the idea of increasing economic growth. The retirement system in many countries, the taxation system, employment etc. So, if modern industrialized societies stop growing, they collapse. We call one year with reduced growth recession or crisis!
When you read the news, it may seem as if we’d be lost without an ever-growing economy. Growth is considered essential for a stable and booming society, and it comes with huge expectations. It’s supposed to guarantee employment, ensure peace, and provide wealth for everyone. We treat growth as the promise of a good life for all. But unfortunately, growth hasn’t delivered on its promise.
Now, the problem is that we have reached a point at which growth has turned from a means to improve quality of life to a goal of its own. Now, we can imagine what it means if we apply that to our own body. What would it mean if we grew every year 3 percent more than the year before? That would be completely crazy, and the balance of our body would indeed collapse, says Barbara Muraca
What seems crazy for our bodies is an accepted paradigm in economics: that we can grow and grow forever. In the process, our societies have become more and more divided. A few people get very rich, but the vast majority struggles. Growth doesn’t mean employment for everyone. And the financial market has stumbled into crisis. So why do so many of us still believe in the logic of growth?
I like the idea of mental infrastructures. You can imagine the highways that are built in our mind that we are used to take and stop seeing the side-roads and possible alternative paths, because we are used to take these highways, says Barbara Muraca
We want both: More energy, and clean energy. Can the two go together without doing harm to nature and other people? Technology is the focus of the so-called Green Economy, but it doesn’t come without side-effects. And while we green our energy systems, we are also consuming more and more resources. So if we really want to reduce our footprint, we need to change our lifestyles and habits. Like eating less meat for example, since breeding livestock produces high carbon emissions.
So, the good news is that especially in countries, like Europe and the US, meat consumption has been significantly reduced in the last years. The bad news however, is that, precisely because of the logic of growth and profit, the export of meat from Europe and the US has increased in the last years as well. And the OECD countries have really been celebrating the creation of new markets for meat in China and India and even issued dietary recommendation to increase meat consumption in these countries, says Barbara Muraca
This is just one example of how the logic of growth reproduces itself against our best intentions. We are unable to simply stop growing no matter how much we try to size down. Sowe must change the basic structure of our societies in order to make them less dependent on economic growth.
Did you know that many rich countries have already hit their limits of growth? Their economies don’t grow as much as they used to anymore. This is the case in Germany, Canada or the U.S. In such countries economies grow only slowly by just one or two percent each year.
At the same time, many developing countries are growing quickly, like China and the Senegal. Their growth can be as high as five or six percent a year. The rate is much slower than it used to be but still high compared to some of the old industrialized countries. A big part of this boom happens in Asia.
In India’s, for example, the economy is expected to grow by up to eight percent each year. And this boom comes with huge changes. We reached out to AshEEsh Ko(h)thar(EE) to understand how such a fast-growing world looks like. Ashish is based in Pune in the West of India:
It’s a very large city, well small by Indian standards, about 4 million people.
Ashish is an environmental activist and co-author of the book “Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India”. The miraculous growth of his country has come at a huge cost, he explained to us:
Well, in India, as I guess across the world, we have a model of development which essentially focuses on economic growth and industrialization and commercialization. You know, a uni-directional approach which says that we have to move from agriculture and pastoralism to industrialization to services to digital economy etc. etc. And what this has meant for very, very large sections of India's population is dispossession, because this kind of an economy needs the land and the forest and the waters to be taken away from those who traditionally depended on them. It holds to be primitive and outmoded their own knowledge systems, very sophisticated ways by which people have dealt with or have lived within nature. All of that is considered to be out-modeled and is supposed to be discarded.
The city of Pune has become one of India’s tech centers. International companies working in information technology, agribusiness and renewable energy have set up camp in the region. The car industry here accounts for a third of the Indian market. More and more Indians are buying cars. And they are finding jobs in the tech sector - and not just in Pune:
In all the schools if you look at the kind of teaching that happens, people are taught that doing farming, and pastoralism or fisheries or forestry work is no longer cool. It's not something that one needs, should be doing in the 21. Century, the 21. Century should be about computers, it should be about being in industries, it should be about learning sophisticated technologies, being savvy with gadgets and so on. So, what we're seeing is a kind of dispriviledging and displacement of nature-based livelihoods, which in India, most of the population actually still is living that.
Half of India’s people still work on farms, in forestry or in fishing. But their numbers are decreasing. People are moving away from the rural areas and into the cities. They give up their traditional livelihoods, hoping to succeed in the new economy.
And from those livelihoods where people are being offered are what I call deadlihoods. Because essentially their mass jobs there, there is no dignity, there is no meaningfulness with this, people are just part of a much larger chain of production. They are subject to the whims and fancies of a small number of owners, whether it's government or it's capitalist. And even in the so-called modern sector, things like computers and all, most of the jobs that people have are extremely deadening, there is no liveliness and then there's no passion. And so, really, the replacement is by jobs with actually what I call deadlihoods, says Ashish Kothari.
Oftentimes, this means repeating the same action in a factory over and over again for a tiny payout. As you heard, AshEEsh calls these jobs ‘deadlihoods’. They separate people from nature and from the products they make, and expose them to tough and toxic working conditions that can be extremely dangerous. Here, global companies can produce at a lower cost, because the rules for the protection of workers and the environment are still less stringent. In many cases, the products are then shipped abroad.
So, there is also then a significant impact on the environment. In India, we already know that we are on a very steep, unsustainable path, using twice the amount of natural resources that can be regenerated. We're already seeing severe, very severe shortages of water, problems of deforestation, flooding, droughts. And, of course now, combined with all that, the impacts of climate change, says Ashish Kothari.
India is both fueling climate change and suffering from its consequences. More and more cars are crowding the streets, and coal-fired power plants pollute the air. To AshEEsh, the current system perpetuates inequalities, to the benefit of a small elite. Simply greening the economy, he says, won’t solve the larger problem.
If one wants to change the situation we're in, we have to tackle the system at its roots. We have to tackle the system in terms of the political concentrations of power in the state, the economic concentrations of power in capitalism, the gender concentrations of power and patriarchy. And depending on where we are in the world, in India for instance, castism, which is very old. These fundamental actors of society have to be challenged and changed, if we're really want to try and solve this problem, says Ashish Kothari.
You’ve heard it from our guests in the United States and India: Ashish and Barbara are convinced that we need a new kind of thinking and a new way of doing. They say we need to work on creating a fundamentally different world. This might sound utopian. But there are already projects emerging that try to do just that. Take the concept of Degrowth:
The movement on Degrowth in Europe, is a very, very important one, because we have to really challenge and say that not only have we gone too far and too much, too big. Actually, we have to degrow, we have to scale down considerably our use of materials and energy. Especially if we are genuine about other parts of the world that have got left behind. Being able to at least meet their basic needs. I'm not saying they should be able to develop in the same pattern, but at least be able to do away with the kind of deprivation that there's an unequal form of development has caused.
The Degrowth idea comes in many shapes. Initially, the movement formed in France, under the name décroissance. It was taken up in Italy and Spain, where Degrowth is called Descrescita, or Decrecimiento. And in Germany, economists are working on so-called post-growth societies. Barbara is among those who support this Degrowth movement.
I do not think that growth is in the long term possible at this rate and I think that if we don’t move on with a radical transformation, we will end up in recurrent crisis, even worse than the crisis of 2008. So, for me, Degrowth is not just a utopia, it’s a necessary path to transform society, says Barbara Muraca.
But Degrowth seems a rather vague term. So what would this transformation actually look like? The people working on Degrowth won’t be able to send you a copy of their master plan. They don’t claim that they even know how it’s going to work. Instead, they are all about leaving the beaten path, and venture into uncharted territory.
And for this we need spaces in which we can experience and experiment what the difference might be like.) We have to experience what it means to live differently. Not only to think about that, but to make the experience in our bodies, in our minds, and in our desires. And I don’t think that this is not just an abstract idea or wishful thinking. Around us, there are so many different projects, social experiments and initiatives, that are already embodying this perspective. And they are already creating spaces where we can experiment alternative futures and start working on them. And I think they are contagious and powerful, says Barbara Muraca.
One space in which such alternative worlds are being explored is the Transition Town movement. Barbara says this is a great example of how we could develop new solutions.
You have small towns or neighborhoods, where people get together and the leading idea is to develop a plan to make their community no longer dependent on fossil fuels. But it is more than that. People build learning networks and start from their potentials and the skills that are there at the local level and they start to re-imagine the place where they live. They really rethink the economy, they reimagine work, they re-skill in order to develop the competences that are necessary to implement a different way of living, but they are also very concerned about social justice for example, says Barbara Muraca.
One of the most well-known Transition Towns is Bristol in the United Kingdom. The people there have developed creative ideas like the Bristol Pound. It’s a local currency, and it cannot be accumulated like normal money in the bank. Instead of generating profit, the Bristol Pound sustains the local economy. There’s a food network and there’s a community-owned farm. In these projects, what’s also being tested are new models of ownership:
It’s not just about sharing the use of tools, but about really rethinking the way we produce stuff. If we can generate production which is independent from the logic of profit, we don’t have to keep going with the idea of mass production and mass consumption. We can produce things that are modular, that can be highly recycled by local communities, that can tackle and address the needs of communities, and that are completely independent from the necessity of generate, recreate and accumulate increasing profit – which is what is happening now with the standard model of production.
If we produce locally, share our stuff and repair things when they are broken, we can decrease our footprint on the planet. And we can defy the logic of growth, by taking back control over our local resources. An interesting example of this comes from Mendha Lekha in India.
And this village in the last 40 years has kind of declared that in its village and for all the ecosystems around it, the...nobody else will be taking decisions but the village assembly itself. So their slogan is that while we elect the government in New Delhi and Mumbai, in our village, we are the government. (Now, through all of this they have upturned 200 years of colonial and forced colonial history, where the forests have been taken control off by the state.) They've taken control back to themselves and they now manage the entire forest, 2000 hectares around them, and they manage it in such a way that it is sustainable, that the conservation is taking place, they also recently agreed communized all the agricultural land, which means there's no private land on the village anymore. And this also helps them to control cropping patterns, to make sure what lands are not being sold off for mining or industries, and so on, says Ashish Kothari.
Ashish calls it a form of direct and radical democracy. Around the world, communities have reclaimed control over important resources, such as water. In another case, in the Western Indian district of Kachchh (Kutch), local people are taking care of their water in a new way. It’s an area where water is extremely scarce. So one hundred villages have banded to collect and use rainwater in a local, equitable and decentralised way. They manage it through local committees. In this way, the system provides enough water for the basic needs of every village:
This becomes very important because when one is talking about the mainstream model of water, creating a big dam somewhere and then transporting that water somewhere else, we now know that large reservoirs can also be serious sources of emissions.
When a valley is flooded to build a dam, it buries the soil and vegetation. The plants start rotting and emit methane. This powerful greenhouse gas can warm the planet. The second issue is that big dams often change the agricultural practices around it. Farmers shift from dryland farming to irrigated farming and start using chemical fertilizers, says Ashish. So the people of Kutch are saving planet-warming emissions, as well as their traditional farming practice.
When they are able to do local water harvesting, they continue with mostly their dry land farming agriculture, which necessarily is more diverse, it's more localized, has less emissions, it's mostly organic – and because it is diverse it is also more adaptable and able to deal with aspects of climate change, says Ashish Kothari.
Our addiction to growth has reached its limits. It’s threatening our environment as well as human dignity. Can we imagine a world beyond growth? Let’s look at our bodies when we get older.
After a certain threshold, our bodies stop growing physically, but do not stop being creative and learning and developing in a different way. And for the economy it’s similar, says Barbara Muraca.
Degrowth activists like Barbara are convinced that another world is possible. But she also says we need more than small reforms and green technologies. We need a fundamental change. What could this look like? There are many people already out and experimenting. Barbara says that the key is to build alliances among them:
So, stopping coal extraction in Germany for example, per se is not enough, because it leads to coal being imported now from Colombia. And in Colombia, pristine forests are destroyed and indigenous people are evicted for the coal mines. So, we to have to combine the blockage of coal mining in Germany with the things that the Transition Town people are advocating which is transforming the economy and society to make it less dependent on fossil fuels at the same time.
Modern culture tells us that we count mainly as individuals. We are divided into producers and consumers. This makes us easy to control. But if we reconnect as collectives, we can realize our power to shape the world:
If all goes well I think the world is moving towards what I call the radical ecological democracy, where the basic unit of decision-making is the collective, in the village or in the city neighborhood or in a school or college or wherever there are electives and communities are forming and being self-defined, says Ashish Kothari.
Ashish tells us more about his vision for the future. It’s a world, where people take back the means of production from states and corporations, and organize locally. Here progress is not measured by growth, but in terms of happiness and relationships. His is a vision of justice without the great inequalities between genders and classes we know today. It’s a world where humans are much more in tune with nature, and their knowledge is a common good.
These are the sorts of things we are seeing already in hundreds of initiatives in India, thousands across the world. And I think the more we are able to network them, bring them together, the more we can actually practice, bring into practice, a very very different vision for what the world would look like in 2050, says Ashish Kothari.
Does it sound idealistic? Well, yes. But idealism is the start of any meaningful process of change. And it’s about time that we take our knowledge on crucial issues like climate change and social justice, and turn them into reality.
This is a radical change in the view that we have. So, in other words, moving from the globe to the home, to the Oikos which is the word that is in the word ecology and in the word economy. Starting to shape together an alternative house, an alternative home for us, and not considering the globe as an abstract thing that can be organized from above, and managed from above and reproduce the logic of management as the solution to our problems, says Barbara Muraca.
The first photograph of planet Earth was taken in the late 1960’s. It made us conscious of the fragile place that we share. But it also planted a bias into our minds: That any solution to a global problem must be global in scale as well. But maybe that’s not true. We can start on the ground now, and develop our own, local solutions. In this respect, climate change is a wake-up call, and a real opportunity: To change our world for the benefit of everyone.