Transforming Research: Beyond the Economic Growth Paradigm

What if researchers were supported and publicly encouraged to address the great challenges we face?

By Amelia Bryne

chuttersnap via Unsplash

If our assumptions aren’t true…

Most of us today have grown up surrounded by a culture that believes that the earth has an unlimited capacity to provide us with whatever we humans might desire — more cars, more electronic gadgets, cheap meat, and so on. Not only that, but we have organized the way that our society works around this belief. The global economy, to which most of our livelihoods are tied, is based on the assumption that endless economic growth (which usually equals an increase in resource use and environmental degradation) is not only possible, but also desirable and even necessary.

What if these fundamental assumptions of our society — endless growth, and endless resources — aren’t actually true? It seems more and more apparent that continual economic growth is not only not possible, but that we in fact must “de-grow” (use less) in order to bring our activities in line with planetary realities. This is a daunting thought because how we currently make our livings, and therefore provide food and shelter for our families, is often reliant on the economic growth model.

Sometimes this reliance is literal — for example, owning a business that sells luxury goods: the business prospers the more you sell and does better when people have extra money to spend as a result of economic growth or higher credit limits. This dependency on the growth model can also be secondary. For example, working for a company, an institution or clients that see the world from within the economic growth paradigm. In this case, one’s job, funding or income is dependent on the fact that you continue to do your work in a way that promotes, or at least doesn’t threaten this fundamental faith.

Turning our minds to the task

As an (applied) researcher I fall into that second category. Presently many researchers are not officially supported in the work they do that is outside of (and challenging to) the economic growth paradigm. Participating in such research can be threatening to one’s career, whether one works in the corporate world, the non-profit sector, or even the academic one. What’s more, the financial underpinning of the modern university often depends on economic growth. Endowment investments are based on a growing economy. And, as governments throughout the world are attempting to reduce expenditures in light of tough economic times, publicly funded research money is cut. This further narrows the scope of research, since research funding becomes increasing dependent on the private sector.

But, what if this wasn’t the case? What if researchers were in fact supported and publicly encouraged to address the great challenges we face?

This possibility isn’t unthinkable. Bill McKibben, for example, writes about Cuba (see full text here), which was forced away from industrial farming in the early 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union — their source of cheap oil. Cuba was able to transition to more-or-less local, organic agriculture in part because of the fact that the country’s best scientists and researchers started focusing their work on how this could be done, and done better. So, McKibben implies the question: what if research money in the United States started to be put into organic agriculture research rather than industrial agriculture methods as has been the case for the last decades?

Or more generally, what if researchers, in many different disciplines, started putting their energy into addressing post-growth/de-growth questions rather than doing research that supports the growth paradigm?

What does research look like that takes a deep sustainability perspective as its starting point (whether that POV be de-/post-growth, post-carbon, collapse, cradle to cradle, resilience, transition, local, life-centered, etc.)? What issues are explored? How is this research useful, and to whom? What research is already being done? What would it take to make this kind of research professionally acceptable in cases where it currently isn’t? Does the role or purpose of researchers change? How?

Five types of research

We can perhaps consider at least five basic kinds of deep sustainability research, all of which are important:

1. Awareness research: Research that contributes to raising awareness of the difficult problems that confront us.

Examples include much of the environmental research done today — such as modeling climate change, or tracking the factors leading to the disappearance of the world’s fish. This may also include research that points out the unsustainable interplay between the environment and the financial system — such as the history of debt, or resource-related research that illustrates the phenomenon of peak oil or peak water, etc. James Gustave Speth’s “ The Bridge at the End of the World “ is one example of a book that does a good job of presenting the implications of this kind of research.

2. Change research: Research that supports people in transforming their worldviews.

Here we might look at research in anthropology, psychology, cognitive linguistics and other social sciences that gives insight into how worldviews change and how we can most effectively communicate about important issues with diverse audiences. An example of the application of this research is the Common Cause framework. We can also look at research that illustrates the difficultly of this process of transformation, such as the stories complied by psychologist Kathy McMahon in her work related to peak oil. Another aspect of this research could include looking at global ethics — if we can’t all have as much as we want, how do we share what we have?

3. Asset based research: Research that highlights already existing models and practices that we can build from.

Moving beyond the economic growth paradigm doesn’t mean we have to throw everything away! Many daily life practices, organizations, concepts, and business models already exist that are relevant to a more balanced future. Research in this area includes work by solidarity economy theorists and practitioners such as Ethan Miller or SolidarityNYC, Juliet Schor’s work on plentitude, business research that considers cooperative models, or anthropologist David Graeber’s research into the history of debt (and the idea that societies have the possibility of being organized in many different ways as well as differently than economists usually think).

4. Transition research: Research that contributes to making a practical transformation in how we live, work and relate to both the planet and each other and in the fundamental purpose of economic activity.

Examples of this kind of research include things like: determining how and how much food can be sustainably grown in various climates, mapping out how a 20-hour workweek could play out in practice, designing IT systems relevant for environmental or social crisis, or developing truly cradle to cradle manufacturing systems.

5. Experiential research: ‘Research’ which seeks to give people (whether students, oneself, or other participants) an embodied experience of various future possibilities.

The future is likely to look different from the present, but it can be difficult to imagine. What would it be like to live in a resource-constrained world? Would this be as frightening as we might think? What would it be like to live in community? Is this as ideal as we might imagine? We can explore these possibilities by enacting them. This can be as simple as not using electricity one day per month (What’s that experience like?) or traveling somewhere by foot rather than by car (How long does that take?). More elaborately this can include experiments such as living without digital technology, eating locally, or living as if it were 100 years ago. The applied research of intentional communities like Zegg are also notable, which have led to the development of tools for living together and working through conflict.

Interestingly, a 400-page report, called World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability highlights the importance of “fringe change agents” in shifting paradigms. (The report was produced by a think tank that advises the German Federal Government.) As, John Thackara writes on Design Observer:

Seeking inspiration, the report examines how great transformations happened in the past: the abolition of slavery; the green revolution in agriculture; the spread of the internet. A key conclusion here is that ‘individual actors and change agents play a far larger role as drivers of transformation’ than they’ve been given credit for in the past. The most effective change agents, states the report, ‘stimulate the latent willingness to act by questioning business as usual policies’. They also put open questions and challenges on the agenda, and embody alternative practices in the ways they work.

Researchers can, and do, play this role — bringing “outsider” ideas to the mainstream and helping to legitimize them.

Phases of social diffusion of ideas and behaviours, and the roles of change agents in the transformation process. Source: German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU)

Moving forward

How do we get from here to there? Here are some ideas of how to begin to shift the research paradigm itself:

  • Seek out researchers who share your view within your university or workplace or discipline, as well as researchers at other institutions, in other disciplines, and even other countries. Develop ways of supporting one another. (If you are in Sweden, consider joining Steg3forskning — an emerging group of researchers from different disciplines who share a post/de-growth perspective.)
  • Publish or co-publish articles legitimizing deep sustainability research in your field. See, for example, this paper on Collapse Informatics (PDF here) published by Human Computer Interaction researchers.
  • Make a commitment — individually or in collaboration with others — to do research that is in line with environmental realities. For example, develop, sign and circulate a set of post-growth research principles to which other researchers will also commit.
  • Host a conference(s) on deep sustainability research in your discipline, across disciplines, and/or in collaboration with activists. Design these conferences to be action-oriented and transformative.
  • Create clarity about the barriers to getting deep sustainability research funded, and be a voice — publicly, or directly with funders — that communicates the importance of this research.
  • Tenured university researchers in particular might consider publishing post/de-growth critiques of uncontextualized analyses, mentoring new students, writing creative grants to help fund PhD students, joining search committees for new hires, volunteering as a reviewer for journals, and joining the trans-disciplinary committees that many universities are creating.

The task of shifting the research paradigm so that deep sustainability research is both supported and encouraged may seem daunting (it can feel intimidating sometimes to even admit one’s views), but seeds for this change have already been planted, and are growing. This is evidenced in, for example, the ways that prominent conferences are beginning to incorporate sustainability themes — where as a few years back even this would have been off the table, the growing amount of research on de-growth topics, the increasing number of graduate students considering previously “un-thinkable” questions, or actions like those of undergraduate economics students at Harvard who walked out because they did not believe in the economics being taught to them.

If you have other ideas, comments, challenges, or inspiring examples, please share!

Originally published in February 2013 on the Post Growth Institute (PGI) blog. Find out more about the PGI here.

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