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Stories about economic degrowth help fight climate change — and yield a host of other benefits

Stories about economic degrowth help fight climate change — and yield a host of other benefits

Close-up photo of two yellow bikes with front baskets, each with a sign reading, Share more Consume less.

The recent past has something new and important Sixth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC).: degrowth. Two of the IPCC’s working groups — those focused on climate change impacts and on mitigation — use the economic term to discuss policies that are key to reducing the impacts of climate change.

This is a profound inclusion. This is a profound inclusion. Timothée Parrique, a social scientist and economist, refers to “as an opportunity to recentre our economies on what really matters,” the reports’ authors challenge the widely accepted story that endless economic growth — an increase in the quantity of goods and services — is essential to reducing poverty and improving the quality of life around the world.

Degrowth tells a new tale, one that recognizes the importance of economic growth in climate change and suggests alternatives.

Stories are the foundation of understanding who we really are and the world around us. Economics should be considered a story. As English professor and Indigenous writer Thomas King succinctly offers, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”

The IPCC reports not only offer hope for mitigating the effects of climate change but also offer hope for how we celebrate and understand the Earth.

Alternatives to economic Growth

In an analysis of the IPCC’s Working Group II report, “Vulnerability, adaptation, and impacts,” released in February 2022, ParriqueNotes that degrowth is mentioned 15 times. He also points to the report’s emphasis on other ways of living that are not based on economic growth, including buen vivirSouth America, eco-swarajIndiaAnd UbuntuSouth Africa. Each of these are examples of interconnected ways people live with one another and the Earth.

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The IPCC Working Group III report, “Climate Change Mitigation,” released in early April 2022, refers to degrowth five times and declares that “prosperity and the ‘Good Life’ are not immutably tied to economic growth.”

These reports highlight the urgent reality of climate change: It is a devastating, fossil fuel-driven, anthropogenic global phenomenon and an inequity multiplier — The most severe effects are felt by those who have the least..

Close-up photo of two yellow bikes with front baskets, each with a sign reading, Share more Consume less.
Endless economic growth isn’t essential to being able to live a ‘good life.’

However, the IPCC reports emphasize that if we want to address climate change we must challenge the business as usual story of unending economic growth. Economic degrowth and examples of alternative communities welcome the possibility for a different kind of story — one about the finite Earth as something other than a collection of resources. A story that allows for a new understanding of who we are as well as our relationship to the Earth.

Future interconnection

There was a time — not so long ago — that all of our ancestors understood, and told stories about, the ways humans are interconnected with the Earth. They lived this interconnection. Robin Wall Kimmerer explains this in her book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom and Scientific Knowledge, as well as the Teachings of Plants, “Each of us comes from people who were once Indigenous.”

Stories of humans being interconnected with the Earth are antithetical to those whose industries and businesses rely on it as a source of natural resources and as a dump site for waste. From anti-Indigenous racist to the Rachel Carson was demonized upon publication of her book Silent SpringThere is a long history in which violent suppression has been used to suppress those who celebrate and share our interconnectedness with the Earth.

Three men stand in front of tall office buildings, one with the sign RBC
Wet’suwet’en Chiefs Namoks, left, Madeek, centre, and Gisdywa protest Royal Bank of Canada’s funding of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and other fossil fuel investments in Toronto on April 7, 2022.

This suppression made the story of the Earth-as-resource — a necessary prelude to endless economic growth — appear more palatable, logical and inevitable. It is a story with an absurd premise: that infinite growth can occur on a finite planet. In Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Limited Planet, economist Tim Jackson writes, “those who hope that [economic]Growth will lead us to a materialistic Utopia. We are doomed. We simply don’t have the ecological capacity to fulfil this dream.”

He adds that with continued pursuit of economic growth, by the end of the century we will “face a hostile climate, depleted resources, the destruction of habitats, the decimation of species, food scarcities, mass migrations and almost inevitably war.”

But the IPCC’s unprecedented inclusion of degrowth in its recent reports offers a new way forward. Recognizing ecological limits may allow us to realize different types of dreams and celebrate a return to stories that show humans as interconnected with the Earth.

Spiritual experiences

Researchers, including myself, have interviewed people about their spiritual experiences with nature. These stories and experiences include wonder, awe and the sublime, mystery, and connection with something greater than oneself. They are not attributed any particular religion or faith. My findings echo those of psychology researchers Tristan Snell and Janette Simmonds who write, “The natural environment and the features that are found within it can be triggers of mystical events. [or spiritual]Experiences.”

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Such findings may help to explain a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center that found that people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” Increased to 27% from 9% in 2012 and 2017. As sociologists Todd Ferguson and Jeffrey Tamburello propose, “When a person hikes in a forest to connect with the sacred, she or he may not feel the need to affiliate with a religious organization because They are able to fulfill their spiritual needs.”

It is wrong to see the Earth as a collection or ingredients that can be consumed. This is contrary to the Earth being interconnected and spiritual. Many Indigenous Peoples, engaged scholars like Rachel Carson, environmentalists, eco-spiritualists, visitors to forests, lakes and mountains, among others, have been sharing their interconnected and spiritual stories — sometimes against great resistance. Climate change and the IPCC have made it possible to share these stories by challenging economic growth as-usual.

Climate change is a great opportunity

In The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben writes, “Most cultures, historically, have put something else — God or nature or some combination — at the centre. But we’ve put them at the periphery. A consumer society doesn’t need them to function, and it can’t tolerate the limits they might impose; there’s only need for people.”

People stand along a road, where a bridge once stood.
Prolonged rains and flooding in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province have swept away bridges, destroyed homes and businesses and claimed the lives of more than 400 people.
(AP Photo)

The Earth is showing us that there are limits, from flooding to fires and species extinctions. The climate change is reminding people with great force that they are interconnected with this finite planet. John Muir, naturalist, wrote it in My First Summer in Sierra, published 1911, “We can’t pick anything by itself. Everything is attached to it..”

Climate change is both a terrible reality and a profound opportunity. We are the Earth. Accepting that story opens up new pathways to the future and spiritual opportunities to experience amazement.

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