What if we stopped growing? (And it wasn’t a bad thing).
This is the question asked (and answered) by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics. The University of Oxford economist has become something of a sensation since first introducing the world to “the one doughnut that might actually be good for you” in 2012. It might be ironic, considering that the doughnut is also a symbol of overconsumption, or perhaps it’s a fitting sign of the times?
The key aim of Raworth’s theory is healthy management of resource consumption – balance, not growth. Growth is generally seen as a good thing in the economy, we all know that. But wealth, like anything, can’t increase forever. What goes up, must come down, an unavoidable law of nature. If we continue to grow, if our collective resource use overshoots the doughnut’s ecological ceiling, ecosystems will not be able to sustain our resource consumption. All of human and non-human life will perish on a barren planet, except for a small number of billionaires, led by Jeff Bezos, who will flee Earth on a Space X ship owned and operated by Elon Musk, zooming off to plant an Amazon flag on some distant planet (henceforth known as Planet X), colonise a race of aliens, forcing them to work in horrific conditions producing plastic promotional eco cups and surveillance cameras until Planet X also, inevitably, dies. Or something along those lines.
If we can’t keep growing, we need an alternative. “Regeneration is a philosophy and practice that mimics nature’s law, earth laws, law of country. Reciprocity is another word you could use.” Willow Berzin, co-founder at the Coalition of Everyone, is working with Regen Melbourne (a collective of organisations and individuals exploring new economic models in the post-COVID world) to introduce Melbourne to the doughnut. “And of course, we can’t forget the fifth global ecosystem: the technological. We need to learn to use technology, and not be used by it, and this use needs to be in service to rest, not treated as a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems left unchecked. Technology will save us? Nature’s technology is millions of years more clever and adaptable.”
But displacing the narrative of growth is more complex than shifting economic goals. The growth mindset that has steered economic policy for more than a century has trickled into almost every aspect of human life, whereby we are constantly expected to increase, improve and expand as individuals. Quite aside from the drive towards wealth accumulation, concepts of ‘personal growth’, ‘self-improvement’ and even ‘body positivity’ are insidiously present in our social and cultural lives. Staying the same is seen as inertia – neutrality, stasis, or immobility in any area of your life implies a problematic state of affairs. It is becoming a taboo to be content with what you have, who you are, and how you live. The duality of our time could be rewritten from ‘good and bad,’ to ‘growth and everything else’. And it is increasingly difficult to articulate any area of human wellbeing outside of the capitalist-informed growth mindset.
“Entrenched ideas about existing human structures are not easy to transition away from. Human psychology, behavioural change, safety, security and comfort, coupled with vested interests, are what we need to understand in order to change complex systems.” Berzin comes from a design background, and believes that systems thinking can help us understand current systems, and design new ones that enable better human decision making. So, the first step is to understand how the current growth-obsessed economic system shapes our social, cultural and political lives.
Take body positivity, for example. Body positivity first emerged in the US in the 60s to raise awareness of the barriers faced by fat people. The word “fat” was reclaimed as a descriptor rather than insult, and the movement started out as a challenge to the status quo construction of bodies. But in the age of social media, body positivity is largely defined by loving how you look. Hannah Knox describes the effect of the growth mindset on the movement in this Cultivate Feminism essay.
“…the progressive aims of these movements have become co-opted by neoliberal principles, which severely limits their endeavours to challenge the status quo… [N]eoliberalism encourages an individualised form of empowerment via body positivity, which has depoliticised the concept of empowerment, removing its capacity to abolish social injustice… [T]his conception of empowerment as an individual choice and responsibility is twisted into a narrative of self-improvement, which can be achieved through the purchasing of commodities; a phenomenon that corporations have embraced in recent years in their marketing of products to women.”
The growth mindset artfully transforms cultural movements into profit models – and nowhere is this more counter-intuitive than within the environmental movement. Growing demands for a drastic climate action are desperately stemmed as the system seeks to protect itself, convincing us to buy our way out of climate guilt, without actually changing anything.
Take the Promotional Eco Cups.com (Keeping your brand hot!) website. Its header stars a click bait graphic screaming ‘Reasons to Buy! Click Here!’, followed by a guarantee of ‘fast production’. You can slap your logo on a Karma Cup, or “Why not try something from our premium range? You will love our selection of high quality plastic and ceramic eco cups!”
You could say that this is still better than buying disposable cups, but better on what spectrum? If the only solutions available to us are fast produced, possibly plastic, and able to be branded by anyone from Ceres to Adani, where is the systemic change that we initially demanded?
Importantly, the focal point of change can’t be individual consumer behaviour alone. Berzin believes that this starts with re-forming collective practices. “Start by seeking out leverage points. Participatory and deliberative practices have the capacity to ignite new possibilities for democracy, enabling people to reimagine their role within the system.”
Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe calls this ‘Radical Democracy,’ and calls for a reinvigoration of healthy political dissent. Mouffe, and many others, dub the current situation a ‘post-democracy’, where the ideals of liberty – free markets! – have suffocated those of democracy and resulted in the rise of populism.
Adopting the doughnut is a step towards these goals. Calling for ‘people powered economics,’ Raworth has provided a framework for change. But as the people that define local systems across the globe each have their own identity, the shape of the doughnut needs to be formulated by local communities. Collectives like Regen Melbourne are taking an important step towards social and environmental equality.
Kate Raworth will give a digital keynote presentation and live Q&A at MKW21, on Wednesday 28 April from 7pm, followed by small-group conversations facilitated by Regen Melbourne about how each one of us can work these ideas into our work and our lives.