Exploring Post Growth
In conversation with Post Growth Institute (PGI) Executive Director, Donnie Maclurcan.
This is an edited version of a radio interview Post Growth’s Donnie Maclurcan did with Chard Currie of Sydney’s 2RSR in April 2012. Thanks to mrmatin88 for his fast transcribing service of this interview.
Chard (2RSR): I’ve got on the line Donnie Maclurcan from the Post Growth Institute. Donnie, good morning sir!
Donnie: Good morning Chard. How are you?
Chard: I’m good mate. Now, Post Growth Institute, could you tell us a little bit about what it actually is? We get a constant barrage from the media about how economic growth is almost the be all and end all of humanity, but you guys are thinking otherwise.
Donnie: Yes. We’re an international group that has, for about two years now, been exploring and hopefully inspiring paths to global prosperity that don’t rely on economic growth. So we’re flipping the coin over a bit and saying, well if we’ve been living beyond the limits to growth, probably from about the early 80’s in fact — in terms of using more resources than the earth can actually replenish each year itself — then what do we do if we live in that kind of predicament? How do we actually push through to futures which are more equitable, sustainable and, hopefully, peaceful.
Chard: So, what are some of the ways? You guys talk about new economic models?
Donnie: That’s right. I think it’s a big curve to turn around in this sense and we certainly don’t put forward that we’ve got all the answers. There are groups like the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy that have been working for a long time now on different models like the steady state economy, and you’ve got big movements in Europe around what’s called Degrowth and increasingly groups like the new economics foundation in the U.K. and New Economics Institute in the US that are starting to engage with this. Some of the stuff that we’ve been putting forward looks at asset based economics. This doesn’t mean how many McMansions economies have within them, but more how you actually shift away from looking at things in the deficit model — in which people note what they don’t have — towards looking at what you actually do have. So, emerging movements like Collaborative Consumption, The Commons, these sorts of things, are really re-shifting focus back on communities and saying, “how much do we actually need to own privately? How much can we share? What is there that we forgot we had in local communities and local economies that we can reinvigorate, with just a little bit of effort?” and that’s certainly made easier in the Internet era where you can map a whole lot of things and connect much more quickly.
And then others at our Institute are looking at a new kind of framework, a new model based on not-for-profit enterprise, because lots of unhelpful assumptions are made about what not-for-profit means. In fact, in the US every not-for-profit organization is called a non-profit which is probably associated with the typical kind of thinking people have around that structure, i.e. that there’s no profit involved. But in fact, not-for-profits can make healthy profits just like for-profit companies can, it’s just what they do with their profits that is different, they reinvest them back into the company and its objectives rather than to shareholders and private equity. That for us is a really exciting avenue we are currently looking into and really enjoying things as they emerge in this exciting space.
Chard: Like I said before, we’re bludgeoned around the head about the importance of economic growth. What is it leading us to, this unbridled economic growth, this almost psychotic need for it?
Donnie: Well certainly the research that we’ve seen says that, since the 1970’s, economic growth hasn’t been leading to ever increasing happiness. There’s very little correlation, pass a certain point, in terms of more economic growth making people happier.
Chard: But we’re told that it does. We get a big house and two cars and we’re happy aren’t we? And a big screen TV we’re happy?
Donnie: Of course. I guess it’s one of the things that we consider: who’s telling us that. Generally those messages are coming from the .1% who’ve got a lot of the wealth tied up, who are interested in maintaining that power dynamic in society. And unfortunately that message is pervasive. But I certainly take heart, as do we all at our Institute, with the amount of people starting to say, “Hey, you know what? If this isn’t working for me, what will?” And finding that reconnecting — the common things that you hear in terms of reclaiming your lives — connecting with community, getting back involved, getting back into the garden, these sorts of things, they sound simple on one level, but yet they’re the essence of so much that makes us happy as humans.
Chard: Exactly. One of the topics that’s very dear to our hearts here at Radio Skid Row is the whole Global Financial Crisis. It seems to be ongoing since about 2008 but seemingly a lot longer before that. Do you guys at the Post Growth Institute see this as a positive? Do you see it as something that’s bringing awareness to a whole lot more people in terms of living in a system that can’t sustain our way of life, do you think it’s a positive thing?
Donnie: I think all systems, even ones as heavily manufactured by such a few in our societies, have these inbuilt mechanisms that try to give people signals about when to readjust. I don’t think you could say that the Global Financial Crisis is positive in many senses, when you think of the hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been affected adversely by the decisions of a select few. The other side of that is, as you mention, the raising consciousness about wanting to do things differently. Take the Occupy Movement — and people perhaps think that that’s over now — there are still thousands of Occupy groups meeting around the world. I’m predicting big things after the winter finishes in the US in terms of activities that are scheduled around Boston and other areas that I think are going to reignite that flame.
Chard: So it could almost be like an American Spring, like when we talk about the Arab Spring.
Donnie: Well it’s been talked about a little bit lately and I think there’s going to be some big things happening this year. I think this year is a turning point for humanity, whether or not it’s a fast enough turning point, is yet to be seen. But the great news really, from my point of view, is that the shifts don’t have to be big to be impactful. There just needs to be shifts in terms of worldviews. In connecting back with your community, looking at how much have you can actually provide locally is not such a big shift in terms of the actual activities associated with people’s daily lives. It’s just a massive thing to step out of the whole dependency cycle and say, “You know, I’ve been told my whole life that I need government services for this or I need the private sector’s involvement for this, or that I need to travel 30 kilometres to my job or I need to travel 60 kilometres to a hospital, etc.” But there are certainly exciting examples from around the world showing that that doesn’t have to be the case, and with a bit of leadership in local communities, those things can change.
Chard: The advocates of further economic growth talk about how only economic growth can bring people out of poverty, make it an equal playing field, quality of life for all. If we don’t have economic growth, how can we raise people out of poverty? Is it the community kind of ideal?
Donnie: Well I guess I’d step back a second there and ask, “What are some of the inbuilt assumptions in those comments?” The first is that idea that we in the West have the model which, if we just share the knowledge and the wisdom, will bring people out of poverty; and that model is economic growth. So, at all costs, people in the Global South, people living in India, Africa, parts of South America, just need to follow our prescriptions and they’ll be pulled out of poverty. Now unfortunately, that’s been a mantra that’s been going on for over 60 years now and has had mixed success — I’d say on the whole it’s failed people. There are still 40,000 younger people dying from hunger every day. And, if you step back even further, you might ask, “Well, why is it that that situation even arose in the first place?” And it was based on pretty similar philosophies in terms of exploitation -people understanding that if we impose models from the West, then it’s going to be in our own interests. And unfortunately, there’s only so much of a point that we live outside a zero-sum game. In other words, if we keep exploiting people under the guise that economic growth will pull you out of poverty, then in fact you hit a point where no amount of economic growth really can pull people out of poverty because inbuilt in the system is inequity. You see this in India, for example, where there are more millionaires than there are in the US — yet we know the kind of levels of abject extreme poverty that exist in that country.
The other side to all of this I learnt from working with people in Kenya, who actually taught me a lot about the ‘asset mapping’ process. It relates to the provision of people’s needs. If you take out some of the exploitation via some of the bigger multinational corporations in the agricultural space, the tying up of knowledge in patents by Monsanto and others, if you take that out of the equation and re-instil people’s hope in their ability to provide for themselves, what really are the major barriers, once you can start the ball rolling, in terms of improving health care, the barriers that come in that area in terms of people fulfilling daily functions? What are really the barriers for people providing for themselves? And my answer is that there aren’t that many. In other words, it shocks me that people around the world couldn’t, in some people’s minds, provide for themselves enough food, basic medicine, that kind of thing that would ensure a basic level of quality life that isn’t there for most people. And, see, in the West we have very strange perceptions about this…
Donnie: …well, ones that are very much shaped by our formal education systems. So, for example, it seems very few people understand that the majority of the people in the Global South, in the developing world so to speak, still get their health concerns addressed via traditional sources and that’s something we just think, “Oh, hey. You know, Western medicine it’s the solve-all for everyone. If you’ve got AIDS, if you’ve got tuberculosis, etc.” We don’t understand that alternative systems exist around the world and function in many senses in healthy ways, so to speak. Although obviously things like HIV and its introduction in parts of the world make it difficult for traditional medicine to deal with such strong viruses. It is still a point to consider that there are alternatives and that that resilience can be locally-grounded.
Chard: Now, we were talking before about the whole economic growth cycle and this kind of obsessive way we’re living under this system. Climate change I think is a topic very dear to your Institute’s hearts, anthropomorphic climate change, it’s happening, yes?
Donnie: I think if you look around you at the changes in climates, it’s hard not to say that there’s been an influence of humans. It’s something that in fact we at the Post Growth Institute take as a given and want to have conversations beyond. And it’s not necessarily one that matters in terms of whether or not you agree with that position. I think what we’re more interested in looking at the broader system and saying, “What’s working, what’s not?” Currently, overall, the trajectories don’t seem to appear sustainable. Even if you take climate change out of the equation, in terms of social breakdown, in terms of peak other oil and phosphorus, these sort of issues. So, climate change aside, there are still big challenges there that addressing would simultaneously, in our eyes, address matters relating to climate change.
Chard: How would a post growth economic system deal with something like climate change? We hear from the politicians we need market based solutions, things like the carbon tax, for example, that’s coming in of June this year. How do we deal with that without any kind of incentive?
Donnie: I think the incentives to re-localize economies are actually very strong in terms of if you come back to what drives people’s happiness and what drives high quality of life. So, if you think about bringing activities back to the local level, when you think about the happiness that can be associated with the relationship building, with the freeing up of time that was otherwise spent with travel — often stressful travel — these sorts of things. I think there are ways that largely exist outside market mechanisms. We’ve got to remember that market mechanisms have been behind pretty much all of the growth pushers’ agenda; that ‘the market’ is the way forward for economic growth, it can bring people out of poverty, the market is the way forward to deal with climate change, these sorts of things. And in fact, if you think about it, the market has worked very, very well, despite the Global Financial Crisis and others, in terms of what it’s established to do.
Chard: It’s worked very well for a very small amount of people.
Donnie: Exactly! It’s worked very well at distributing things in certain ways that actually ensure certain people gain at the expense of others. In terms of service delivery, the free market will never service the poorest of the poor. There have to be redistribution mechanisms built in. You have to have regulation built-in, in the current framework, for that to happen. I think, though, that there are ways to move beyond that kind of thing, to look at the value of the informal economy, to understand that so many women, particularly, around the world, indigenous peoples, peasants and farmers are not considered in terms of their wisdoms around how to address climate change or the economic growth conundrum. And actually they have wisdoms that existed for so long, that exist outside the market, the informal economy where people gift things, they trade things, they barter things outside of that mechanism and they do it very, very well, and it localizes economies, it builds trust, it builds relationships and simultaneously addresses challenges like climate change.
Chard: Yes. Very nice! They’re doing that in Greece I think because the economy’s kind of fallen…
Donnie: Yeah. I’ve just seen some barter networks spring up in Greece recently. It’s certainly something that’s happened with the Occupy movements where people are actually doing that kind of thing a lot more. The Collaborative Consumption movement is worth over 100 billion dollars now in terms of people actually sharing things from cars to through to tools and that kind of thing.
Originally published in June 2012. To find out more about the Post Growth Institute, visit our website.