Degrowth and the relationship between consumerism and sustainability
“The goal is not to convince consumers to behave more sustainably but to change the dominant cultural paradigm so individuals’ default behavior is to act sustainably.” Erik Assadourian
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As a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, Erik Assadourian works on the relationship between consumerism and sustainability (State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability), sustainability education (EarthEd), and economic degrowth (Yardfarmers).
What is the role of the Worldwatch Institute?
Erik Assadourian: Worldwatch is a sustainability think tank that works to provide a vision for a sustainable world. We do so through a variety of means — books, reports, op-eds, and even, in the case of Yardfarmers, a reality TV show.
The Transforming Cultures Project, which you are directing, focuses on how we can transform cultures so that sustainability feels more natural for the citizens. What are the main goals of the project? And how do you convince consumers to have more sustainable behaviors?
The goal is not to convince consumers to behave more sustainably but to change the dominant cultural paradigm so individuals’ default behavior is to act sustainably. Getting people to recycle, bring bags to the grocery store, etc. will never succeed. The scale of change needed is 10,000 times beyond this. With a population of 7.4 billion (heading up to 9.9 billion by 2050), people need to live essentially car-free, flight-free, meat-free, even pet-free. None of these will come without a massive effort to engineer cultures. Of course, currently, most cultural engineering is being waged by those encouraging us to drive more, fly more, eat more junk food, and own more pets. So the work of cultural engineering for sustainability is a Herculean task.
Much of the focus on sustainability has to do with the future. But what do we bring from our past that can contribute to a more sustainable world?
Great question! Considering the scale of change needed, we’re going to have to move away from consumerism (either by choice — e.g. degrowth or due to ecological collapse). Where will most people get their livelihood? From small-scale farming and the informal economy most likely. Juliet Schor calls this the plenitude economy, but whatever it is called, it’ll be a much more local, much more needs-based, frugal path — one that we’ll have to relearn as few of us today have traditional skills of generations past.
Going further back, indigenous ways offer other skill sets (hunting, foraging, sustainable shelter and clothing making) that will also be very valuable when Home Depots and Tescos are no longer down the road. As well, if we can rediscover indigenous wisdom around our relationship with the Earth, that’ll help significantly in shaping our sustainability values.
Can you tell us a bit more about the EarthEd project?
The EarthEd project stems from my earlier Transforming Cultures work. In State of the World 2010 (Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability), I argue that six institutions play an essential role in shaping cultures, namely: business, government, the media, traditions, social movements, and education. This next State of the World (2017) expands on this earlier work, looking at education’s role both in helping students become sustainability leaders as well as survive life on a changing planet. The latter is not being discussed much, but certain skills — like socio-emotional learning, life skills, and systems thinking, will be very important to navigating the turbulent future ahead. The literature on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is robust, but is often too narrowly focused on environmental education. Also key are broader sets of knowledge, everything from moral education and comprehensive sexual education (which helps with health and shaping reproductive choices), to building a relationship with the planet (e.g. through nature-based education, teaching stewardship, ecoliteracy, and indigenous knowledge).
How can degrowth improve sustainability?
The only pathway to sustainability is degrowth. We are consuming 1.5 Earths of biocapacity each year and that number will only grow as our population grows, and more particularly as our population of consumers grows (another 1 billion people are projected to join the consumer class by 2025). The only choice we have is whether we degrow (an intentional and controlled process) or we let nature drive the process, which is an uncontrolled process that’ll cause far more pain and disruption.
Are you more of a “degrowth” or a “green-growth” supporter, and can you explain the differences between both ideas.
Green growth is delusional, or at best a euphemism for “less dirty growth.” On a finite planet, especially one that is already deeply overexploited, we cannot grow our way to sustainability. Growth is the root cause of our sustainability crisis. More growth cannot solve the problem. I am not against using technology wisely to help bring us to a sustainable future. The ideal pathway forward is what I call a spiral economy — which is a merging of the concepts of the degrowth economy and the circular economy. The circular economy — which uses design to ensure that all inputs become inputs in the next generation of products (whether reused, recycled, or composted) — is essential but only at a vastly decreased throughput. Hence, eventually we want a circular economy, but only after many spirals inward, shaving away all the unsustainable, unhealthful and unnecessary levels of consumption.
How important is developing renewable energy for you?
It’s important, but again, we need to use less energy first. We cannot simply shift to renewable energy at the same overall level of energy use. Building renewable energy infrastructure takes a lot of fossil fuels, so the transition will be ecologically costly (what is called the “energy trap”). Instead we need to reduce demand. People consume far too much electricity. They have too many gadgets and appliances, and use too much air conditioning and heating. And we use a lot of electricity producing unneeded stuff that is pushed on consumers through 500 billion dollars of advertising each year. And yes, I admit, what I’m saying is the whole consumer economy has to go. But if we want to prevent runaway climate change, that’s what it’s going to take. (And if we don’t stop it, runaway climate change will strip away the consumer economy anyway — so we might as well move away on our terms, rather than in the chaotic way we’re currently headed for.)
You created Yardfarmers, a TV show that will follow six young American adults as they move back in with their parents to farm their yard or neighborhood greenspace. Where did you get this idea and what is the purpose of it?
Actually the idea came from watching lots of people playing the silly Facebook game, Farmville. The idea that millions of people would play farmer and that a company would monetize this compelled me to write to Zynga and encourage them to really teach people to be farmers, by creating a reality TV show. While Zynga didn’t pursue, I liked the idea so much that I decided to explore it myself, and we got foundation support to develop the idea (though finding a channel has been a bigger challenge).
The bigger point of Yardfarmers is not just to normalize the idea of converting America’s 40 million acres of lawn into sufficiency farms (the country’s 5th largest crop by acreage), but to show a post-consumer economy in practice, with multiple generations repopulating our large suburban homes and transforming unsustainable bedroom communities into semi-agrarian communities that help feed nearby cities. Multigenerational living has proven resilient throughout our history and will do so again in the challenging future ahead. Encouraging and modeling this will help empower other young people to see the value in returning home to farm or help develop their community economy. Finally, the more communities that develop a local agricultural base (with real, committed yardfarmers, not just hobby gardeners) the more secure their food source — which will be highly valuable as climate change disrupts globalized food trade in the future.
Tell us about your scenario for the board game The Settlers of Catan.
In 2011, I created an eco-educational scenario for Settlers called Catan: Oil Springs. The goal has been to use this globally popular board game to help teach the challenges associated with growth, the limits to growth, oil use and climate change. It also, I hope, shows the mechanic of what is now called “Leaving it [oil] in the ground.” One of the paths to victory, rather than using oil to grow bigger, is to “sequester” your oil, committing essentially to leaving it in the ground — which gives you victory points. Adding oil to Settlers adds in many key sustainability concepts to an already very fun and playable game — like tragedy of the commons, the resource curse, and the limits to growth. Happily the scenario continues to spread, with it now available in nine languages and another (Turkish) being developed in 2017.
What’s next on your plate?
I’m in the final months of editing and producing State of the World 2017: EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet. Next year will be devoted to communicating the message and bringing together leading educational institutions in an EarthEd Catalyst Network to help them learn from each other. So — if you’re an educator or administrator, please feel free to reach out and join our network!
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou