INTERVIEW WITH Erik Assadourian
("Worldwatch Institute," Senior Fellow; Director of The "Transforming Cultures Project", and Co-director of four editions of "Worldwatch’s State of the World report" - http://www.worldwatch.org/)
Since 1980 global real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown by 175% (that means now global economy is almost three times higher than in 1980); in the meantime global CO2 emission has grown by 73,6% leading CO2 concentration in the atmosphere reaching 400 parts per million (ppm) (in pre-industrial times it was 280 ppm) and the ratio between the Ecological Footprint and Earth biocapacity is 1.5; that means Earth is not big enough to satisfy human needs and wants and, at these rates of consumption, Earth resources and ecosystem services are facing a progressive decline. The annual average growth of the Advanced countries between 1980 and 2012 was 2.3%, while the BRICS’ one was 6.2%; even in Sub-Saharan countries real GDP in this period grew (3.6% annually). Nevertheless, human wellness (in terms of health, social relations, happiness, social equality and so on) is shrinking: chronic illnesses are increasing, in both advanced and developing countries; infectious diseases once tamed are starting to spread again as the climate changes and as antibiotics are overused and become less effective; social relations are weakening while crime rate are increasing; wealth and consumption of resources are unequally distributed around the world. Why hasn’t a “growth-based” system worked in increasing real human wellness? Is a “degrowth-based” system the solution to the world’s biggest ecological and social problems (climate change, resource depletion, inequity, chronic poverty, and so on) humans are facing? What can be done in order to make a degrowth-based system a reality? Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute, director of two important annual Reports (Vital Signs and State of the World), answered those and other questions.
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch Institute, where he has studied cultural change, consumerism, economic degrowth, ecological ethics, corporate responsibility, and sustainable communities over the past 11 years. Erik has directed two editions of Vital Signs and co-directed four editions of State of the World, including State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?. Erik also directs Worldwatch’s Transforming Cultures project, which explores innovative new ways to intentionally and proactively transform cultural norms so that living sustainably feels as natural as living as a consumer feels today. Erik also co-designed Catan: Oil Springs, an eco-educational scenario for the globally popular board game The Settlers of Catan. Since having a child in 2012, he has also started to write on how to raise a child to survive on a changing planet at www.raisinganecowarrior.net.
INTERVIEW - (December 2013)
The interview was realized in December 2013 and published in January 2014 - (Original Interview in English)
Subject: Degrowth - Overdeveloped countries, the failure of the growth-based society, the transition towards "degrowth"
Subject: Degrowth - Overdeveloped countries, the failure of the growth-based society, the transition towards "degrowth"
Question 1: You are a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Can you explain the role of this organization in promoting sustainability and its main publications?
Worldwatch was founded in 1974 to serve as an early warning system for the Earth’s environment. Over the years the Institute has evolved to be a leading sustainability think tank providing a vision for a sustainable future and strategies and policies needed to get us through that evolution. Our annual publications include State of the World and Vital Signs and other Worldwatch reports. Our newest book is State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? (available in Italian here: http://www.edizioniambiente.it/libri/928/state-of-the-world-2013/), and asks these questions specifically—what is sustainability and how do we measure it?, how do we get to a truly sustainable future?, and if that’s not possible, how do we get ready for the turbulent transition ahead.
Question 2: Why do most of the countries in the world (especially the richest ones) have an obsession for economic growth?
In today’s globalized world, economic power translates to political power, both in direct economic influence over satellite nations, in military power (through purchasing of weaponry from surplus earnings), as well as broader indirect financial and cultural interest over nations. So countries continue to work to fortify their economic advantage through growth. At the same time, at the microeconomic level, corporations and individuals pursue growth to maximize profit, which is celebrated—like economic growth—as an overall unquestionable good. Few people talk about the dark side of profit: exploitation of the planet and people (both as consumers and workers) to extract that profit. Even most mainstream newspapers celebrate economic growth, describing growth as indisputably positive and describing contraction as negative. Growing up in cultures that have always equated growth with progress, it is hard for most people to step out of that cultural frame to even question this equation—let alone challenge it.
Question 3: Economic growth has always been seen as a way to eradicate poverty and social inequalities among and inside the countries. However, many problems still remain (in many advanced countries the % of people living in poverty conditions remains high, and in some it is even growing) and others – especially social ones (like criminality) – are intensifying. Why are growth-based systems not simply working in improving human wellness?
By whom has growth been seen as a way to eradicate poverty? Growth has been celebrated in large part by those who stand to profit from that growth. Certainly indigenous and colonized peoples have not been celebrating growth over the past 500 years—as they often are the ones directly paying for others’ growth. And the planet certainly hasn’t as its forests have been cut down, its lakes and rivers have been polluted, its biodiversity killed off.
There’s a saying that “if development isn’t sustainable, it isn’t development.” We’ve essentially been borrowing from the future to ‘develop’ the present—and not in ways that prioritize well-being. We’ve destroyed ecosystems, destabilized the climate, killed off pollinators, destroyed freshwater sources, acidified the ocean, mostly in our pursuit of unnecessary consumer products for an exploding human population.
But even if growth was completely focused on achieving real human well-being, if it did so unsustainably, it would still only have a temporarily positive effect (as ecosystems broke down later and caused human misery in decades to come). And perhaps this would be an even worse long-term path as it enabled the human population to grow while Earth’s systems became more frail, leading to a larger population die off later—rather than just sustaining a smaller population originally. In other words, all this growth—fueled in large part by fossil fuels—has allowed us to grow far beyond Earth’s limits and there will sadly be a reckoning in decades to come.
And of course, much of growth is not at all focused on improving well-being but is simply there to generate profit. Soda, junk food, cigarettes: considering the ecological and health problems with these products, it would make sense to tax these at enormous levels so that if someone wanted to smoke, they would smoke perhaps a cigarette or two each week—as a rare luxury, certainly not a pack a day, shortening their life spans, causing misery to their families, and causing great ecological harm both in producing cigarettes and also treating medical conditions arising from their smoking. But of course, growth is not at all about reducing human misery but simply about maximizing profit.
Question 4: Apart from social and economics failures, what are the main problems a system based on economic growth brings to humankind and to the Earth overall?
Four, five, even six or more degrees Celsius of average global temperature increase. Even the World Bank—which itself is a major funder of fossil fuel projects and other unsustainable development—wrote a report recently warning about a 4 degree future. This is going to be ugly—with billions of humans affected and realistically most likely leading to runaway climate change, driven by positive feedback systems like the thawing of frozen methane in the world’s oceans. Humanity could foolishly bring about a world where only a few hundred million people could live around the poles of the planet. All for what? Profit and consumer luxuries that humanity survived for tens of thousands of years without? Other civilizations have extinguished themselves pursuing symbolic consumption—think of Easter Island and the destruction of their habitat in pursuit of building ever more Moai statues—but unlike these historical mistakes, this time we’re talking about the whole planet. The coming century will not be pretty if we don’t make a rapid transition toward degrowth soon.
Question 5: What does “economic degrowth” mean and what are the principles it is based on?
Economic degrowth is simply the inverse of economic growth. At its simplest it means contracting the economy in a proactive and strategic way so as to improve human and planetary well-being. It’s based on the reality that continued growth in a finite planetary system is both self-destructive and an ethical abomination, as people, species and the planetary system itself is destroyed in pursuit of said growth.
Question 6: Can you explain the difference between “degrowth” and “recession”? Does degrowth necessarily mean a decrease in the GDP? What is the difference between “green growth” and “degrowth”?
Leading degrowth thinker Serge Latouche explains that difference best, comparing degrowth to a diet and recession to starvation. The first is a healthy choice that would lead to improved health for those bodies that are currently overweight/overdeveloped. Just like when an obese individual loses weight and his body becomes healthier, he can often also stop taking medications—such as those controlling blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels. This is healthier for the individual and the planet as less food has to be grown and fewer medicines need to be produced. Compare that to a situation where suddenly an individual has inadequate access to food. That can lead to starvation, to violence (fighting over limited food supplies), or malnutrition, which weakens the immune system and can lead to sickness or death. The metaphor clearly applies to societies. Climate change can and has already led to sporadic reductions in agricultural production—such as the 2010 drought in Canada, Europe and Russia that led to skyrocketing grain prices. (The new IPCC draft also suggests a decline of agricultural product by 2 percent/decade due to climate change). If we intentionally choose to diet, we’ll improve the health of the planet, and of the human population. If we wait for the planet to force us to contract, the human population will suffer far far more, and the process will be out of our control.
Does degrowth necessarily mean a decrease in the GDP?
Since GDP factors in all economic throughput, yes, probably degrowth means a decrease in GDP—at least for overdeveloped countries that need to drastically reduce economic throughput. But it certainly doesn’t mean a drop in living standards. It could in fact mean rapid rise in the well-being of people as well as the planet. If we reduced total crime, pollution, food waste, health treatments for chronic diseases caused by obesity and pollution, all of these would reduce GDP while increasing people’s quality of life. If we shifted values so raising one’s own child was celebrated (and facilitated by laws and cultural norms) instead of outsourcing that care to nannies and day care, families would benefit, but GDP would not.
Other measures like Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), show that the global economy hasn’t been growing since the 1970s when you subtract out all these negative elements, and even when you add in volunteer time and unpaid child care. So it appears we haven’t been on the right track for decades. And the fraying of Earth’s systems clearly support that conclusion.
What is the difference between “green growth” and “degrowth”?
Some green growth will be necessary in this transition of course—and this specifically is growth that displaces ecologically destructive growth. Take for example transportation. A sustainable future is one in which there are very few private cars. Cities will become completely navigable by foot, bicycle and public transportation and more rural communities will probably share a few vehicles amongst themselves. In that process, car companies will fold or probably convert into bus or bicycle manufacturers. In the short term if there is rapid growth in the bicycle industry, that is a good thing if it’s displacing car ownership, but over time, as everyone has a bike that’s designed to last 20 years or more, even the bicycle industry will need to degrow and simply be present to maintain bicycles (local bicycle repair shops will probably grow dramatically though—offering another example of green growth).
Question 7: What kind of Energy system does a degrowth-based system require?
A human-energy based system: the future will be much more based on manual labor—from bicycle powered washing machines, to bicycle repair shops, to hand cobbling, to much more local food production (as a main element of families’ livelihood). The fossil fuel era needs to be over as soon as possible. The International Energy Agency noted last year that for just a 50/50 chance of keeping global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius we’d need to keep two-thirds of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground until 2050. While renewable energy sources will replace some of our fossil fuel energy, it takes a lot of energy to build this new renewable energy infrastructure—too much to continue to use the same amount of overall energy. We’re going to need to reduce energy use significantly. Some of this reduction will come from efficiency but much will come from consuming far less: no air conditioning, wearing more clothes in the winter instead of turning on the heat, eating lower on the food chain, and making one’s livelihood not in the consumer economy but as a small scale producer. I imagine in a hundred years much of the world’s population will once again be small-scale sufficiency farmers and the micro-artisans that support these local economies (assuming we make a proactive transition not suffer through a collapse).
Question 8: In “State of the World 2012” (Chapter 2) you talk of “overdeveloped” countries. Could you explain the meaning of such an appellative and what are the main side effects of a country where the economy is “overdeveloped”?
Obesity, chronic illness, stress from being overworked, depression coming from social isolation, which in turn derives in part from a sprawled out suburban infrastructure, these are all side effects of the modern consumer cultural design. Consumerism is equated directly as “development” by corporations and governments promoting their consumer products and policies, but in truth, real development looks closer to Cuba. While the country uses just about one planet of ecological capacity, it has health and educational indicators on par or in some cases better than the United States—which per capita uses four times the ecological resources. We have the choice to provide high quality lives for all 7 billion people if we truly prioritize those aspects of life that improve well-being: health, education, community cohesion, and food security. Instead we promote consumer products—spending $500 billion a year to advertise how these make life worth living.
But even more than the health and social indicators, a large ecological debt reveals that a country is overdeveloped. Since the planet is finite, all countries must balance their populations’ needs with the biological capacity they have. Of course there can be some exchange (e.g. large sparsely populated countries may grow grain for densely populated ones and exchange that for goods they don’t produce—and in the process essentially grant surplus land to those denser populations—but overall there are limits to the Earth and the human population must live within those limits. Any country not doing so is overdeveloped and must be held responsible for reducing its overall ecological debt.
Question 9: We have found that the correlation between CO2 emissions and GDP growth in emerging countries is much higher than in developed countries. So countries like China and India will have an important role in shaping the climate pattern in the next future. What can be done in these countries to avoid that their “growth” will translate in a catastrophe for humanity? And what can developed countries do to make emerging countries more responsible on this theme?
As long as overdeveloped countries’ media and marketing companies are guiding the dialogue—selling the world alcohol, fast food, cars, cigarettes, computers, cell phones, disposable diapers, pets, air conditioners, and more broadly the idea that people should stay cool in the summer, should have personal animal companions, should eat meat 2 or 3 times a day, should fly to exotic places for a weekend of fun in the sun and so on—the elites of all countries of the globe will strive for that “consumer dream.” Perhaps a global treaty on marketing, in the style of the World Health Organization (WHO), framework convention on tobacco control, could help rein in some of this pressure, but ultimately, until people strive for a non-consumer lifestyle, growth in consumer products and overall economic throughput is going to increase.
Question 10: One of the most important challenge for a degrowth-based society is how to provide people with jobs (especially those now working in sectors or firms not compatible with a degrowth process). Another is how to preserve public debt sustainability in countries (like Italy) highly indebted. Finally, another one is how to reach international agreements on this matter (as many countries fears to lose power in international relations by pursuing degrowth policies) – This last problem in “games theory” is called “Prisoner's Dilemma” (in the end every country will take the wrong decision) -. How do you think these three issues can (and should) be faced?
The first will come naturally. As systems break down and job opportunities in the consumer economy evaporate, unemployed will return to the informal local economies producing things people used to buy in department stores. More will become sufficiency farmers, more will become artisans or learn to fix things, and life will go on but with a lot less consumer junk intermixed into day to day living.
The second will be harder—and quite possibly countries like Italy may be sold off to foreign investors like the Soviet Union was. Or perhaps it can default and turn inwards become self-sufficient, if for example, the European Union came apart. Ideally, countries will recognize the risk involved in being a debtor nation and start working to resolve that before crisis comes.
The third is the hardest of all. Will countries like the US, Russia, and China learn to move beyond empire? Probably not, so we probably won’t move to degrowth, but will probably instead witness the tearing apart of societies like the United States, as the temperature warms to such an extent that large parts of countries are devastated and countries’ war machines can no longer be sustained. At first, that may mean even more aggressive imperialism (to find new agricultural land and energy sources), but there may come a threshold that no colonial prize is worth the toll and countries will instead decommission large parts of their offensive armies and hold just enough to defend their current borders. But that process probably won’t be very gentle.
Question 11: could degrowth and market economy coexist?
If by market economy, you mean individuals converting their labor and goods for a monetary instrument that can then be exchanged for the goods and services they need, then yes. If you mean a global corporate structure that requires a significant profit on all investments leading to a growing cycle of speculation and marketing of products that are either unnecessary or even sickening to populations and the planet, then no. The corporation as an institution can probably continue, but only if the charter mission evolves from maximizing profit to maximizing societal good (there is now precedent for that through legal structures like the B Corporation, and social enterprises are guiding the way to that potential future).
Question 12: Finally, could you give a value from 1 (not important) to 10 (very important) of the following factors for making a degrowth- based society?
These are all essential and not really worth ranking. We’ll have to implement all of these to get to a degrowth society.
|FACTOR||IMPORTANCE FOR ESTABLISHING A DEGROWTH-BASED SYSTEM (from 1 to 10)|
|- Choice editing: a shift of government subsidies toward more sustainable sectors / products|
|- Information: consumer awareness of their ecological footprint|
|- Diet: a change of human diet from the current meat-based one towards a more vegetable-based one|
|- Education: teaching children with ethic principles|
|- Energy: a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy|
|- Waste management: recycling waste|
|- Agriculture: a shift from massive monoculture agriculture towards local agriculture (permaculture, polyculture and so on)|
|- Finance: more ethic in the financial institutions|
|- New measures for countries’ risk: changing the measure of GDP in order to better assess the debt of countries|
|- Deleveraging: in both private and public sectors|
|- International consensus: international agreement on degrowth|
|- De-globalization: ending the globalization process favoring a return to local economy|
|- Ecological Footprint: assessing countries with their Ecological Footprint in the international relations|
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State of The World - http://www.worldwatch.org/bookstore
Vital Signs - http://www.worldwatch.org/bookstore/vital-signs