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How do we humans change course?

By: Susan Paulson


Anthropological thoughts on degrowth

Degrowth energizes and interconnects remarkably heterodox thinking and surprisingly heterogeneous action. To advance dialogue among diverse pathways, a recent Journal of Political Ecology issue on “Degrowth, Culture and Power” joins studies of 15 initiatives to forge worlds that prioritize well-being, equity and sustainability rather than expansion. My introduction to that issue explores innovative science and activism, north and south; the paradox of much information and little transformation; and new modes for producing knowledge and value. This essay summarizes its encouraging attention to change in habitual practices through which skills, perspectives, denials and desires are viscerally embodied, and in sociocultural systems that govern those practices and make them meaningful. Proponents and critics of degrowth agree that simple contraction of current economies would be disastrous. What we need is not just quantitative decrease in production and consumption, but radical transformation that re-establishes livelihoods, relationships and politics around new values and goals. What cultural forms can foster positive and equitable degrowth? What features can mitigate and distribute hardships of change? Who answers these questions? And how?

Scholars learn from activists in the Global South

Efforts to question growth and to visualize alternatives have pushed scholars beyond the bounds of mainstream natural and social sciences into engagement with social, political and religious activism, among other modes of enquiry. Many learn from livelihoods and actors outside of academia, on pathways including Buen vivir (Latin America), Ecological Swaraj and Radical Ecological Democracy (India), Ubuntu (South Africa) and Gross National Happiness (Bhutan). If climate crisis has a silver lining, it may be the power to provoke residents of high-GDP high-emission countries to question the portrayal of their own societies as "developed, " in the sense of full-grown, perfected, complete. That new humility opens doors to learn from the global south, including decolonizing visions that interweave struggles against political and cultural domination with alternatives to expansionist economies. Some of these visions are communicated in Mahatma Gandhi's message "live simply so others may simply live," in Via Campesina's aim of "food sovereignty" and in the Yasuni cry "leave the oil in the soil."

Sociocultural systems support small initiatives to make big impacts

What can enable small initiatives to catalyze the changes necessary for downscaling global societal metabolism in ways that enhance human-environment well-being? Scholars have rightly identified the need to establish supportive conditions via new economic institutions, political processes and scientific practices. In his encyclical letter On Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis exhorts: "Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change." So I focus here on sociocultural systems (economic, kinship, gender and others) that produce differentiated human bodies, complete with skills, visions and desires, including appetites for consumption. Habitual participation in urban cooperatives, whaling traditions, community gardens, local currencies, timebanks, khat chewing, transition towns, religious communities and ecovillages, among others, leads some people to adapt lifeways that use less material and energy. Loss of employment, economic recession, and collapse of industries and ecosystems sometimes lead to similar outcomes. Aside from ecological impacts, we draw attention to the transformative role such participation plays in the continual becoming of participants as social actors and moral beings, and in the practices and relations that co-produce new generations of humans and future socio-ecosystems. Karen Foster (2017) probes the power of a culturally-embedded work ethic to produce people who face difficulty acting, and even being, outside of a productivist paradigm. Workers she interviewed in Atlantic Canada, like many in other contexts, have learned to be decent people according to moral codes in which virtuous behavior is epitomized by long hours of hard work in contrast to the dissolute laziness of leisure. The primacy of paid work in constituting dignified identities constrains laborers' ability to question economic systems in which they participate. However, in shrinking rural economies where jobs can be elusive, Foster searches for clues about how communities reorient toward perceiving paid work as one means to moral ends, rather than an end in itself, or a definition of self.

Gendered bodies and identities serve the evolving growth machine

In several Latin American contexts, I have been seeking to understand men's participation in economic practices and relations that seem to exploit their own human resources and undermine their socio-ecosystems (Paulson 2013, 2015). Two features of prevailing gender norms stand out: first is a symbolic binary that associates masculinity with paid "productive work," in contrast to unpaid "reproductive work" construed as feminine and as inferior; and second are constructions of subordinate masculinities in which manliness is measured by one's capacity to perform brutally hard labor in uncomfortable conditions, and virility is displayed by taking risks, and by exercising and enduring violence. These norms did not come from the Garden of Eden. Over generations, different kinds of policies and propaganda have influenced the adaptation of gender and kinship systems to produce bodies and identities that serve the evolving growth machine. Fruit of these historical processes is evident today in the millions of low-paid men who perform dangerous and painful work necessary for the expansion of industries that degrade ecosystems and exacerbate climate change: mining, logging, petroleum and agroindustry. During recent interviews in Ecuador and Mexico, dozens of men told me about physical and emotional hardships they had experienced in efforts to meet expectations of manhood. Some also described efforts through which they are trying to change norms that have constrained their own horizons. By adapting their personal practices and interactions, and by adjusting the expectations they communicate for others, some working men are consciously trying to raise sons and daughters capable of following—or even forging—a wider range of paths. These observations shed light on the puzzle of why scientific evidence of negative impacts of growth has provoked so little consequential change. By appealing to individual reason, scientists and policy-makers disregard systems of culture and power through which identities and values are viscerally incorporated. Efforts to curb the wave of extractivism ravaging Latin American environments, for example, will need to promote changes in the systems that (re)produce human resources in the form of tough men suitable for use in toxic and violent environments. Our studies suggest that individuals' ability and willingness to moderate their involvement in expansionist practices and institutions involves more than rational decision-making; it may be nurtured—or constrained—through other kinds of human experience, particularly bodily action and interaction.

Commoning practices produce different forms of physicality and subjectivity

As living organisms dwell in landscapes and taskscapes, their habitual biosocial interactions influence processes of mutual becoming. Some modes of dwelling in today's world produce subjectivities that repress acknowledgement of and resist response to signs of degradation and inequity. Others cultivate sensitivities. In rural Brazil, Jon DeVore (2017) describes daily practices in which individuals nurture and protect specific springs and trees, practices that—over time—contribute to the (re)production of shared water sources and forests, and the (re)production of relationships. Joshua Lockyer (2017) describes commoning practices through which people have collaborated over decades to continually build Dancing Rabbit ecovillage; in the process, they produce different forms of physicality and subjectivity, expressed today in relationships and decision-making more sensitive to impacts on other people and other nature. Via muscular consciousness and neuroplasticity we humans continually produce ourselves and our new generations. Large and small adjustments to habits of thought, action and interaction, work in mysterious ways toward institutional and paradigmatic change. Testimonies recorded by Emma McGuirk (2017) among timebankers in New Zealand show that habitual participation in what seem like menial transactions has led to deeper transformation including increased energy invested in networks of solidarity and friendship. Via biophysical and psychosocial habits developed through timebanking, people not only adapt themselves, they also create and experiment with small-scale networks, while contributing to prefigurative modes that lay foundations for future world-making.

What changes humans?

In the short run, then, my voluntary shift from a jet-setting lifestyle toward lower-impact living has little chance of slowing the global growth machine. However, my new habits will definitely alter the ways in which I become human each day forward, thereby influencing environments and processes through which family members, students, colleagues and others around me continually become human. Producing new kinds of people and relationships is fundamental to any great transition. It is dangerously ingenuous, however, to think about change as merely a function of individual volition. Material conditions and power relations—embodied and environmental—variously circumscribe each of our abilities to change course, as do worldviews, assumptions and ideologies. Such dynamics replace the question of "how do we humans change?" with "what changes humans?" Countries around the world show abrupt upswings in behavioral trends ranging from fuel consumption to obesity, signaling that some powerful forces have been working to change modes of being human at precipitous speed. With US data from late 20th century, economist Juliet Schor (1993, 1999) charts remarkably steep average increases in hours worked for pay, in material goods consumed, and in personal debt. She also points to legislation, policies and advertisements that worked to impel adoption of personal habits and values that would be instrumental to exponential growth.

Modern markets misrepresented as timeless mechanisms

Despite these astounding transformations, actors who are privileged by today's status quo—and many who are exploited or marginalized—protest that it is neither ethical nor feasible to try to change human behavior or attitudes: "You're never going to convince people to produce and consume less!" Degrowth is vehemently denounced as ecofascism: ideologically-driven imposition that would force unwilling victims to sacrifice their God-given freedoms and to betray innate self-interests. Growth, in contrast, is perceived as apolitical and impartial; modern markets, in particular, appear as timeless mechanisms through which all humans freely organize livelihoods and establish value. This perception is fostered by cultural and scientific narratives attributing an insatiable drive to increase production and consumption to human biology. Featured myths include the innately rational Homo economicus maximizing utility for individual gain; an inherent human propensity to truck and barter avowed by Adam Smith; and that "selfish gene" that makes each of us crave control over resources and strive to take more than our share, condemning to tragedy any attempts at commons management.

Capitalocene instead of Anthropocene

Even climate change is portrayed as a result of human evolution! Teleological narratives surrounding the Anthropocene are encouraged by scholars such as Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill (2007: 614) who write: "the first use of fire by our bipedal ancestors, belonging to the genus Homo erectus, occurred a couple of million years ago." And "The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene." Putting extraordinary recent trends into deeper (pre)historical and broader cultural context reveals the absurdity of claims that ancient evolutionary traits inexorably led Homo sapiens to destroy earth systems. It also challenges the misleading message that this new era was provoked by humanity as a whole (the Anthropos), rather than by one group acting in and through a historically specific sociocultural system. Scholars fighting for a more accurate characterization insist that the era be called the "Eurocene" or the "Capitalocene."

Human survival lies in our capacity for symbolic thought and communication

Glimpses of many possible modes of existence—with myriad sources of richness and pleasure—widen horizons for building unprecedented futures. They do so by liberating us from the fiction that human behaviors currently instrumental to growth are biologically determined universals. However, there is something about human biology that is relevant to this conversation. Compared to other species interacting in the earth's ecosystems, individual humans are not particularly strong, quick, tough, spikey or poisonous. The survival of Homo sapiens lies in our biophysical capacity for symbolic thought and communication that enables groups of humans to collaboratively develop sociocultural systems that survive the individual organism, and that shape the production of new generations of humans, their habits and their habitats. These uniquely human systems take the form of languages, religions, economies, sciences, kinship and gender systems, among others. New theoretical approaches to change shift attention away from individual decision-making and toward systems through which socialized humans and socio-ecological worlds are (re)produced. That shift brings attention to communities around the world who are already managing and adapting these most fundamental common resources in ways that can support equitable and pleasurable degrowth.

About the author

Susan Paulson

Susan Paulson is professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida; she previously taught in Latin America during fifteen years, and taught sustainability studies in Europe for five years. Paulson finds inspiration and connection in Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance. She is co-author of The Case for Degrowth (2020), now translated into eight languages, and author of Masculinities and Femininities in Latin America’s Uneven Development (2015) and Masculinidades en movimiento. Transformación territorial (2013).

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