Live with Less to Live a Better Life

Live with Less to Live a Better Life

Overcoming the ideology of unlimited growth

Often, and as a result of the talks I have been giving on ecological issues, and more specifically on the encyclical Laudato si’, in the round of open questions a question has arisen which, formulated in various ways, asked: Is the current capitalist economic system compatible with ecological values? 

This will be the leitmotif of this article, which will focus more on the cultural than the economic, and which will try to find out what the proposals of ecological and “declining” social and economic alternatives that question the commonality have in common. current capitalist system. 

For many people, these proposals are overly utopian in nature and are poorly generalisable and unlikely to be put into practice. And partly it is true. Talking about realistic alternatives is almost an antinomy as any alternative questions the current state of affairs and therefore always has something utopian, which goes beyond our current imaginary.

Throughout these pages we will try to show that many of the values behind the alternative proposals are rooted in Christian morality and other religious traditions. Therefore, I would like to begin by quoting some words that Pope Francis uttered at a meeting of popular movements in Bolivia in 2015, words that, as Christians, people of good will, should address us and make us aware of the changes that these alternative movements propose: 

We begin by recognising that we need change. I want to clarify, so that there are no misunderstandings, that I am talking about the common problems of all Latin Americans and, in general, also of all humanity. Problems that have a global matrix and that today no state can solve on its own. Having made this clarification, I propose that we ask ourselves these questions: 

  • Do we recognize that things are not going well in a world where there are so many landless peasants, so many homeless families, so many workers without rights, so many people wounded in their dignity?
  • Do we recognize that things are not going well when so many senseless wars break out and fratricidal violence reigns in our neighbourhoods?
  • Do we recognize that things are not going well when the earth, water, air, and all beings of creation are under constant threat? 


So let’s say fearlessly: that we do need a change and we want it […]


But there is an invisible thread that binds each of these exclusions, can we recognize it? Because these are not isolated issues. I wonder if we are able to recognize that these destructive realities respond to a system that has become global. Do we recognize that this system has imposed the logic of profit at any cost without thinking about social exclusion or the destruction of nature? 

If this is the case, I insist, let’s say it without fear: we want a change, a real change, a change of structures. This system is no longer enduring, it is not endured by farmers, it is not endured by workers, nor by communities, nor by peoples.

And neither does the Earth, the sister Mother Earth as St. Francis called it. We want a change in our lives, in our neighbourhoods, in our closest reality; also a change that affects the whole world because today planetary interdependence requires global responses to local problems. The globalisation of hope, which is born of peoples and grows among the poor, must replace this globalisation of exclusion and indifference. [1]

1. LIVING UNDER THE IDEOLOGY OF UNLIMITED GROWTH

The 21st century is not the century of the great ideologies with global visions that seek to explain everything, it is the century of a multiple matrix of partial alternatives that seek ways out of the hegemonic imagination. They are alternatives that foreshadow novelty in small areas of reality and that denounce that what we have normalised in our culture and in our way of life has nothing normal or generalisable, and that it is not geographically or historically.

A system based on growth 

Western society and its hegemonic culture have been based on an economic system in which the free market and the secularisation of private property predominate. Different versions of this system have certainly emerged, with stronger welfare states and states with much more liberal models. The second half of the twentieth century was the time of maximum expansion of this model, from the creation of a global market increasingly free to the movement of goods, capital, information … (Add, even in parentheses, that this has not happened in the case of people, whose mobility has only made it increasingly difficult). 

The whole system has worked with a strong idea that is born in the modern era: the idea of an expansive and constant economic growth. Unlimited growth, which has marked the idea of progress and has become an imperative to achieve the maximum benefit of shareholders or owners of the means of production. We have internalised this idea of progress so much in our culture that we cannot conceive of any other dynamic than that of continuous improvement in the performance of everything we use in our daily lives, thus responding to expectations, constants of greater speed, efficiency and expansion of possibilities. And we want this dynamic of progress and growth to continue indefinitely, until we reach a point where science and technology find a definitive solution to the problems that concern us, whether medical or related to energy, food, transport, communication, etc.

Therefore, we should ask ourselves what we mean by growth. There is no single answer, but in the system we live in we prioritise the notion of economics and the other dimensions are subordinated  to it. 

We might also ask ourselves: could this system, as we know it now, survive without economic growth? With a stagnant or declining GDP, it would be difficult to sustain the current capitalist system. It is true that there are periods of zero or even negative growth, but they are fleeting, and the way out of them is immediately sought, in any case. Thus, when the alarm goes off and growth slows down, mechanisms are activated to reactivate it, even if, for example, at the expense of precarious working conditions or relocating companies looking for labor standards, social benefits or ecological regulations that allow an increase in profitability in the face of higher growth. Here is a certain paradox of the system: it promotes a single universal market (in which goods and capital can move freely) but needs differentiated state frameworks from which it serves to increase its profits.

When, from the 1980s onwards, profit in Western countries tended to decline, large companies maintained or increased it thanks to the advantages of the globalised world. This new world offered a free flow of capital, the possibility of relocations, and also a mechanism that consisted of diverting money to the financial economy, thus ensuring great profits. This new dimension of the financial economy was moving away from the real productive economy, which generates real wealth, a phenomenon that was soon called the financing of the economy. 

The economic crisis of 2007-2008 could have been a turning point and a rethinking of this growth model and the prevailing capitalist system (at least on the more neoliberal and financial side), but if we look at it, the solutions adopted by Western countries they have focused on the same formulas that led to the crisis: reactivating economic growth. In fact, the only novelty has been a new consensus towards economic policies based on either the cutting of state spending (austerity policies, according to the official language), which leave the market and companies more room for initiative. broad, or in increasing public spending with Keynesian-rooted measures. The two economic policies, although of opposite inspiration, coincide in not questioning the growth model (or productive model), and in neglecting the negative consequences of this growth (ecological damage, poor redistribution, increasing financing). …). Consequences that, with the crisis, are far from being mitigated.

We could say, then, that the notion of unlimited growth has become a true ideology in the full sense of the word: a system of ideas and judgments intended to describe, make explicit, interpret and justify the situation of a group or group. And that, inspired by values, propose a historical action at the service of certain individual and collective interests. In such a way that we could ask ourselves: what interests does this unlimited growth serve? 

A system based on hyper-consumption

For this constant economic growth to become the engine of the system, a series of values, ways of life and production models that do not exist in certain cultures must have been internalised as hegemonic. For example, this constant growth would not have been possible without the so-called hyper-consumption, that is, an increasingly accelerated consumption of goods that are no longer basic or necessary, which are superfluous. And this hyper-consumption has its motivations. Certainly, the possession of certain goods managed to increase our autonomy in the face of chance and nature. No one denies that the advent of many technological devices has freed us from very cumbersome tasks, which required a lot of time and effort. But it is also true that if in the beginning this fact meant an increase in autonomy, autonomy has been lost when it has been consumed compulsively and when dependencies have been created in relation to possession. of certain goods. 

This constant consumption has also been favoured by measures that producers have been generating for the sole purpose of preventing the wheel from stopping. I’m talking about phenomena such as scheduled obsolescence (products with a factory expiration date) or psychological obsolescence boosted by marketing that is progressively introducing new products with more benefits. There are certainly psychological bases in all this that explain this human insatiability, but it has been the capitalist system itself that has been responsible for making hyper-consumption one of the pillars of our society. Today, owning things is not just about owning material goods to meet material needs: the possession of these goods plays a strong symbolic role as they give status and build an identity, thus enabling participation in social life. 

Possession of certain goods is also a language of communication to others, insofar as they act as if they were an extension of our self. [2] Also owning goods can act like a substitute of pseudo-religious character because it offers imaginary, dreams to escape of the hard reality. A self that finds itself empty or feels alone is prone to seek meanings in the possession of goods, which are presented through marketing as horizons of fullness and meaning. The more empty, the more the manipulation of marketing acts and the market knows this well. Although the imaginary associated with consumption never comes to fruition, and only generates frustration, it turns out that paradoxically this failure becomes the success of hyper-consumption, as it puts us in an unstoppable wheel where it is increasingly more urgent to satisfy the desire through the acquisition of new goods. Just as in the past it was first saved and only when a certain saving was made did the purchase take place, today through formulas such as easy and fast credit, the time between desire and satisfaction has almost disappeared. 

A false notion that is beginning to be questioned

Until recently, the notion of growth was not questioned in its positive way: growing up meant moving from one situation to another where we earned some things we didn’t have and needed, or at least thought we needed. The mantra of constant growth is closely linked to the notion of progress that arises in modern societies. A faith that leads us to believe that we can be infinitely better, dominating nature and controlling chance to put them at our service. In this way, we reduce the more manual work, fight diseases and make natural disasters more predictable.

This idea of ​​growth and progress did not exist in traditional agrarian societies, in which time had a more cyclical dimension (seasons, harvests …) and in which technological changes were generally quite slow. Growing up, then, is associated with improving the conditions in which we live, growing up is associated with the idea of ​​living better, and ultimately with a certain image of what human happiness is. Using religious terminology, we could say that growth has become an idol. In Europe, and at the time of the industrial revolution, the paradigm of growth was imposed as a response to the emergency caused by the population explosion and the increase in social needs, a situation in which the productive model of ‘at that moment I could not answer. But little by little the new paradigm shifted from emergence to consolidation as a model of permanent production that eventually gave rise to capitalism as we know it today. 

The idol, however, has always had its feet covered in the mud, as it has settled in the generation of many victims not all visible: destruction and exploitation of nature, exploitation of labor, colonialism … During decades, this negative dimension was always subordinated to the unquestionable idol, until from the seventies began to speak of overpopulation or depletion of natural resources. We recall the famous Meadows report which reflected this concern, [4] although it did focus on the growth and overpopulation of the then so-called “third world” countries, and the threat this growth posed to the “first world”.

It was in the 1990s when, following the first reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the issue of global warming and non-absorbable waste was brought to the table. Since then, the consequences of climate change have become increasingly evident, to the point that few doubt that global warming is a fact that makes the current pattern of unlimited growth impossible.

Another point questions the current model: growing inequality within societies themselves, that is, the capitalist economy has created a lot of wealth but has not distributed it well, and this has continued to be accentuated since neo-hegemony. — liberal from the eighties. This inequality is affecting even the countries with the most redistributive welfare state models. And this is causing the concept of economic growth to gradually dissociate from that of well-being in a broad sense. However, there are still those who, despite acknowledging the problem, believe that “more growth” will end up solving the negative effects of this growth that generates inequalities. This is shown by expressions such as “the same technology will find solutions to climate change”, “we need to grow more economically in order to be able to distribute better”, “the evil of poor countries is due to the fact that they are not globalised enough (they need to enter the global market and thus enjoy their benefits)”…  

But fortunately, not everyone swallows their arguments. At the end of the twentieth century we find a whole series of heterogeneous movements that question this notion of unlimited growth and postulate other ways of living and other models of happiness different from those proposed by the hegemonic culture. Despite their heterogeneity, we find coincident values, and although they are not technophobic in a broad sense, they no longer believe that the solutions to the complex crisis we are talking about are only within the scope of answers that new technologies can offer.

2. VALUES TO GROW IN ANOTHER WAY

While it is true that some have proposed the provocative term “degrowth,” and that what is being asked for is a significant reduction in production and consumption, the majority of voices are inclined to emphasise not the “Less” but in the “different.” It’s not about doing less of the same, it’s about growing differently. To achieve this, these movements ranging from the economy of the common good to cooperativism, from feminism to environmentalism, from libertarian movements to communitarianism, from anti-globalisation to alter-globalism, are aware of the need to get out of the imaginary of the current system questioning the values on which this imaginary is based. 

Critique of system values 

A first value they reject is the consideration of accumulation as the engine of history, paraphrasing Ignacio Ellacuría, [5] or, in other words, they question an essential premise of capitalism: the right of each individual to accumulate resources beyond their basic needs and to use them to achieve what they consider a full and happy life without regard to others.

They also denounce how the emancipatory ideal of modernity has been betrayed: 

People, instead of gaining more freedom, are increasingly subject to the dictates of the markets, and the capacity for discernment in the face of their offers is gradually being lost. Some authors speak of a “psychological impoverishment”, in the sense of creating a state of continuous widespread dissatisfaction produced by the loss of capacity for real autonomy in making us dependent on consumption. [6]

They also critique some values of the liberal capitalist system insofar as the balance always leans toward the first of the following poles: competitiveness versus cooperation, selfishness versus altruism, global versus local, material versus relational, own versus sharing, luxury versus frugality, the private versus the common. And we could add the liberation of human greed from any moral and social control.

Anti-capitalism or pre-capitalism?

Given these considerations, we may wonder whether these movements are clearly anti-capitalist. The answer is not simple, and we tend rather to think that what they are doing is to question the values of modernity at the root and therefore to question as economic models both capitalism and so-called real communism. [7] In fact, some of these alternatives could be described as “pre-capitalist” rather, as they propose earlier forms of production modelled on cultures where no Western-style industrial revolution has taken place. What is clear, in any case, is that to understand these movements one must depart from the predominant right-left dialectic in the West during the twentieth century. That is, it seeks to overcome a system that they see mortally wounded, without wanting to enter into a direct dialectical (and above all ideological) confrontation with the capitalist system. 

Some of these movements also denounce the fact that possible solutions to the ecological problem are being developed from some elites who would take drastic ecological measures with the aim of preserving a minority. [8] Enlightened elites would impose ecological measures by taking advantage of democracy’s inability to make decisions and with a policy hijacked by economic power. They are the exits called authoritarian ecocracies, ecofascisms… [9] The movements on which we base our alternative proposals, instead, want solutions that drink from the pacifism and democratic participation of the entire population and not authoritarianisms. 

There is also within all of these movements a critique of the exacerbated individualism of today’s society that has destroyed all that is most collective. We will see how these movements present more common online alternatives and with the aim of revaluing what is common. 

Finally, there is a critical analysis that tries to explain how the values of the current system have been colonising our imaginary and we have been normalising them, to the point that we consider them unique and hegemonic of humanity. The result has been the generation of uncritical, unreflective citizens, meek consumers, competitors and technocratic workers. For these movements it is urgent to see from what values we are educating especially in the West [10] and how a change can be made in an imaginary that has become systemic. The proposals here are also diverse: some use religious language (conversion), while others talk about the need for cognitive decentralisation … 

Given the heterogeneity of these movements, it is difficult to fit them into a single description, but if we look at them more broadly, we will clearly detect values that are transversal to all of them, and that are embodied in social and political proposals that do not always coincide.

Another gross domestic product (GDP) is possible 

Many people start from two interrelated problems, climate change and the growth of economic inequalities, and do so from a critique of the solutions that have been postulated so far. Neither will climate change be curbed by technology alone nor will inequality remit with more economic growth, as current growth (conceived purely in terms of GDP growth) is uneconomic and unfair. Uneconomic because it is a type of growth that does not take into account the impact and costs it causes — for example the impact on health — and because it does not distinguish between good and bad activities. For example, it counts as growth activities that are only reparation for the consequences that the system itself generates — construction of prisons, decontamination of rivers … —. Nor does it provide information on income distribution or account for many actions that are beneficial to society, such as work at home, volunteering, care … And also because it does not take into account that from a certain level of income is equality and not economic growth the factor that increases the well-being of the population As an alternative to this GDP many other indicators have been proposed that have in mind different parameters to measure the development of a society that not just economic ones in the strict sense: life expectancy, schooling, gender equality, ecological indicators … An example of this is the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has been proposing for many years human development index (HDI — see Human Development Report 2020) as an alternative to GDP. Thus, according to these movements, declining in terms of GDP should not mean that other indicators of a society’s well-being do not improve. Therefore, in the end, some believed that the concept of “degrowth” can lead to misunderstandings, as all these movements propose, in essence and as we have said, to grow in a different way. 

In addition, growth is unfair because it is based on the invisibility of reproductive and care work that, as feminist economics denounces, has a clear gender connotation. On the other hand, it is also unfair because it benefits from unequal trade between countries. Materials and energy are extracted in underdeveloped areas – in classic terms of GDP – that suffer the impact of extraction and then also receive waste and pollutants, becoming stores of toxic waste in exchange for money. 

They also criticise that the current growth has led to a commodification that has spread to all areas of people’s lives and has replaced a series of practices (hospitality, care, contemplation …) that until now did not obey the logic of trade or personal economic gain. As the philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, “We have gone from having a market economy to a market society”. [11] These movements demand the recovery and revaluation of everything that was out of the market and that brought well-being to society. 

Relational goods 

In the same vein of the two criticisms mentioned, there is the importance that these movements give to the so-called “relational goods,” which are goods that we find outside the market and therefore do not enter into the logic of GDP growth. These relational goods are what jurists and economists call “common goods,” which include very diverse realities but which meet two criteria, as S. Latouche and D. Harpagès explain: “non-rivalry (the amount of goods available is not it is diminished by the fact that others benefit from it) and “non-exclusion” (access to this type of property is free) ”. [12] Relational goods are diverse, some are goods that are generated in coexistence, in mutual care … They are goods that generate and take care of life. To date, many of these assets have been mostly in the hands of women, which is why they have always been vindicated as welfare generators since feminism. These are goods that oppose productivist logic, and are perverted when they enter the logic of the market.

Valuing these goods would undoubtedly affect the current system in two ways: it would decrease production (since it means freeing up time) and break the exacerbated individualisation to create forms of mutual support between people. Slowly, a sense of mutual interdependence would be generated that would make one person’s problems become others’ problems as well.

Arriving here, some talk about the recovery of the commons, which have a historical origin linked to communal lands but which also embraced other elements: an oven, a mill … They were given in pre-capitalist economies and were managed assets by small communities, public goods to which every member of the community could have access. One possible definition: “A resource becomes commonplace when the community or network of people takes care of it”. [13] These commons were part of European economies before progressive liberalisation privatised them. It is important to realise that the commons mean creating a certain community that defines what is shared and how it is shared, they also mean a local self-government of shared resources. In the realm of values, the commons replace the imperative of “having” with productive systems in which working together and sharing tools for production (co-use and collaboration) increase our quality of life. They also involve the creation of ways of self-government in which all members are involved, and recover the most local productions. The commons are defended by these movements for several reasons. First, they are austerity in the use of resources because they are shared. Second, they foster relationships between people because they share the same resources. 

One of the consequences of these commons is the revitalisation of public space, which does not necessarily correspond to an increase in the state. C. Felber, in his proposal for the economy of the common good without breaking with the market, proposes the existence of what he calls democratic goods (schools, universities, hospitals, water companies, energy, public transport …) that they would be controlled by the citizens in a participatory way and at the local level without any level of higher government having to intervene. [14]

Austerity 

Another value that these movements hold and that takes many names is that of austerity. They propose a voluntary sobriety, linking with a whole philosophical tradition that advocates the limitation of needs in order to be happy, a simplicity of life that seeks what is necessary but does not increase needs. S. Latouche speaks of “the transition from a consumer society to a society of frugal abundance” [15] or, as T. Jackson puts it more moderately in his book, “prosperity without growth”. [16] Latouche argues that rediscovered frugality builds a society of abundance, understanding that people will be less dependent on superfluous needs and will find happiness in relational goods. As K. Soper also states, “Consumer society has crossed a certain critical point from which materialism did not hinder human well-being”. [17] At its core is the intuition that there is a certain basic material well-being, and that when it is abandoned creating more needs, the well-being of the person and society diminishes. This self-limitation focused on basic needs ends up generating abundance and allows absolute scarcity to be combated without the need to expand the production system. 

Frugality, also understood as an internalised experience, as Trainer says, becomes, in fact, a requirement for the spiritual life: “Living with a considerable degree of frugality is necessary if we want to have some of the most important experiences that contribute to quality. of life ». [18] Therefore, the path of simplicity can be something attractive and enriching that also gives meaning to people’s lives.  

In similar terms, Ellacuría expressed himself, and put it as a condition so that a true spiritual and human wealth could spring up: “… this poverty is what really gives space to the spirit, which will no longer be drowned by the longing to have more than the other, by the concupiscent longing to have all kinds of superficialities, when most of humanity lacks the most necessary”. [19]

In the same vein, the authors’ reflection in the epilogue to the book Decrease is interesting, [20] when they propose a binomial opposite to that offered by the current economic system. Instead of social austerity / individual excess, they prefer to talk about personal sobriety / social spending. Finding meaning in life individually is an anthropological illusion that leads to ecologically unfair situations, because it cannot be extended to everyone. From the personal sobriety / social spending binomial, the individual will be able to find meaning in life by focusing on everyday life, valuing care and participating in social spending that is agreed in a participatory way. This reflection is core to understanding the critique that these movements make of the capitalist system, as they question something essential of this system: that each one, individually, without social consideration, can accumulate beyond what he needs for his survival.

A policy of proximity

Another value that is spreading is the revitalisation of politics, especially from the local level, closely linked to the revaluation of the local economy. The scope of the local economy is strengthened to favour local products and avoid energy and transport consumption. And this local economy is being managed by the communities. D’Alisa points out an idea that many of these movements have in mind: moving from the fact that decisions are made by experts to empowering an expert community, that is, achieving greater participation of people in decisions that affect them. [21] The proposals of these movements call for a change in the conception of democracy today so that their alternative proposals can be carried out. They make a critique similar to that expressed by social movements such as the Indignados Movement Occupies Wall Street … [an anti-austerity movement in Spain also referred to as 15-M Movement]. These movements have been the turning point of the fragile alliance between democracy and capitalism that has taken place in the West since the end of the Second World War denouncing that the economic and financial system has hijacked the weak democracies, which have thus ceased to be an expression of the popular will to put themselves at the service of the world’s economic elites. 

Some of the proposals to return to the local area come from countries such as India, where principles of the Ghanaian economy were applied in some villages to establish small-scale democracies and promote local industry and agriculture. J.C. Kumarappa first proposed that these Western movements, an economic model that took great care of natural resources, emphasised grassroots movements, mutual aid, and a revaluation of interpersonal relationships as well as the importance of spiritual values. The ideas of this Indian movement called the economy of permanence later influenced the French degrowth movement. [22]

Learn and unlearn 

All these proposals that we list give a lot of importance to education as a factor of transformation of the existing imaginary. They understand that education can turn the system around by encouraging non-participation in consumption dynamics, which would end up making growth unsustainable and in the end the whole system that is based on it. [23] And at the same time, while ignoring and turning our backs on the current consumer system, it is a matter of creating and working on alternatives that are inclusive, participatory, and that cannot be imposed by a vanguard alone. rather, they call for clear community development.

S. Latouche proposes to review the values ​​that support liberalism and to empower the opposites: altruism towards selfishness, cooperation towards competition, local towards global, relational towards materialism. [24] We must move away from the ideological logic that underpins capitalism, and for Latouche this should not lead to the renunciation of all social institutions of the current economy, but could be re-implanted from another logic, as we remember that some were born before capitalism, such as the market itself or the currency. Latouche wonders how this imaginary has entered our minds, and attributes it to the role of the education we receive and the media manipulation that favours the imaginary of consumption. [25]

Trainer has a whole chapter in his book The simpler way [26] which is very critical of education. As it stands today, it is geared towards training perfect workers, does not question inequality, produces competitors, helps create enthusiastic consumers, generates docile and passive citizens. His proposal is to educate from the following qualities: compassion, social responsibility, the fact of feeling bad when others suffer, knowing how to face adversity and failure. And it highlights other qualities: the ability for recognition, gratitude for the gifts that life gives you (being happy with little, being able to be more than doing …), the ability to feel good when we see others thrive , and the ability to see beauty in things. If anything education has to do is increase the capacity for things to inspire and, working from the most affective part of the human being, deconstruct the normalisation of clearly problematic and extraordinary values: the obsession with wealth , the accentuation of competitiveness, extreme individualism and the lack of collective values, indifference to social problems, apathy and rejection of all that is political, and lack of commitment to the common good.

An array of alternatives 

After a quick review of these movements and the values on which they are based, we have seen that they are presented as a matrix of alternatives to hegemonic thinking in the social, economic and political field, and that they try to foreshadow a future with some clearly opposite characteristics: models of happiness that escape the consumerist and hedonistic standard; models that ensure a more harmonious relationship with nature and other human beings; models that question globalised liberal capitalism because they return to more local and communal forms of production; models that also question democratic logics as they occur today and offer alternatives for more participatory democracy. And if there’s one thing in common in this array of alternatives, it’s that all of these movements question the kind of growth and development that has been hegemonic in our world since World War II.

These alternatives and their values ​​are lived by small groups in the hope that they will be followed more and more by people and thus be able to transform the current system and secure our future as humanity. Most of these movements have to live with a certain ambiguity: in practice, they coexist within the current system and at the same time seek to overcome it. They are well aware that they are trying to gradually change people’s imagination to show that other ways of living and coexisting are possible. Changing notions of progress and happiness deeply rooted in our culture is not at all easy. But despite the opiates that put us to sleep, the problems that force us to look for new answers are becoming more evident: climate change, scarcity of resources, loss of meaning in life, the weakness of liberal democracy. 

One of the difficulties of these proposals is that they call for a certain ruralisation of the world, and the creation of smaller and rather autonomous social and political spheres. And that this must be compatible with the creation of much broader policy and decision-making spheres, since the Earth actually functions as a single ecosystem. 

3. THE REVOLUTION COMES FROM THE SOUTH

One of the constants of the last decades has been the globalisation of the imaginary and the consumerist practice that has reached almost every corner of the planet. Therefore, one of the accusations made in the alternative growth proposals is that they are, once again, the imposition of a rich North, the cause of this crisis and the one who has first exceeded all limits. A kind of new imperialism made of ecological conditionality’s on agricultural products coming from the South, or demographic conditionality’s such as measures to reduce birth rates.

This South, however, is also beginning to be the protagonist of change. First because he is the one who is suffering the most from the consequences of limitless growth and overexploitation of natural resources. And secondly, because it is the South that maintains a more vivid memory of non-capitalist production systems, more inclusive, more communal and more environmentally friendly production systems.

In the face of this, it is not uncommon for many economic and social organisation alternatives to be mirrored or come directly from them. A set of knowledge and skills, which have somehow been despised for decades, are now recovered from oblivion. This is how Boaventura de Sousa expresses it in many of his works, under the category «epistemologies of the South». Indigenous peoples in some Latin American and African countries live these values ​​and alternatives in their daily lives. In the words of I. Ellacuría: “There are places more conducive to the emergence of prophetic utopians and utopian prophets.” [27] J. Sobrino, commenting on these words, also tells us that “the place to think of a civilisation of poverty is not capitalism, it is not the world of abundance, of success, much less the world of poverty. arrogance, the place where prophecy and utopia intersect is the third world, where injustice and death are intolerant, and where hope is like the fifth essence of life. ”[28]

Let us remember that before these alternative movements began in the West, especially after the crisis of neoliberalism, movements had already appeared in India that advocated another development. For example, the so-called “voluntary simplicity”, based on the teachings of the spiritual leader Ghandi, who encouraged people to live more simply so that others could simply live. [29] Or what we have already mentioned above, the so-called economy of permanence, by J. C. Kumarappa (1892-1960), based on the principles of the Ghandian economy. [30] Mohandas Ghandi espoused an economic theory of simple living and self-sufficiency/import substitution, rather than generating exports like Japan and South Korea did. He envisioned a more agrarian India upon independence that would focus on meeting the material needs of its citizenry prior to generating wealth and industrialising. [31]

There are, however, two prominent models that have been inspiring when the West has sought alternatives to the socioeconomic model. One is African, the so-called “Ubuntu” philosophy, and another is the current of thought called Sumak Kawsay in Latin America, inspired by the indigenousness of Ecuador and Bolivia. We present below the values ​​that draw our attention to these models of thinking and how they can help us to look for ways to live alternatives to the prevailing system. They may be difficult to imitate given the anthropologies and world-views on which they are based, but they help to contrast our ways of life and also to realise that the history of the West itself is filled with similar socioeconomic forms. 

Ubuntu 

Ubuntu is a philosophy native to southern Africa that spreads and promotes the idea of interdependence and universal bonding of all humanity. It has been translated as “I am, because you are”, and has been widely disseminated since the democratisation of the Republic of South Africa and its popularisation by Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu. It has had a great influence as a basis for peace, non-violence and social justice processes initiated in different African countries over the last thirty years. [32] 

In the Ubuntu philosophy, to be human, one must practice giving, receiving, and passing on to others the goods of the earth. The ethical stance of men and women is to take care of others. The motto of Ubuntu is that one is a person through others and that life is preserved through mutual care and sharing, and therefore the importance of the community: the living, the ancestors, and those who have not yet been born. In addition, the concept of life is extended to the environment and its preservation through rituals, observance of taboos … 

The Kenyan literary scholar Prof. James Ogude [Director at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria] believes ubuntu might serve as a counterweight to the rampant individualism that’s so pervasive in the contemporary world. “In practice, ubuntu means believing the common bonds within a group are more important than any individual arguments and divisions within it. People will debate, people will disagree; it’s not like there are no tensions. It is about coming together and building a consensus around what affects the community. And once you have debated, then it is understood what is best for the community, and then you have to buy into that.”

This philosophy offers an alternative imaginary and can inspire those who question the forms of growth in the West and are committed to community solidarity, the commons or cooperation… [33] 

The “good life” 

“Good living” (Sumak Kawsay) could be considered a philosophy of life based on harmony with the community, other living things and nature. It gained momentum in the first half of the 21st century due to three events: the emergence of indigenous movements, the discrediting of the nation-state and the reform of the Constitution in Ecuador and Bolivia. Despite its ancestral origins, it has been taken up and recreated from the ancestral experiences of indigenous peoples and their way of building coexistence and relationship with nature. According to Hidalgo Capitán, the Sumak Kawsay has three meanings [34] and here we will focus on what is considered genuine and has been disseminated by Ecuadorian indigenous intellectuals.  

Sumak Kawsay must take place in a specific territory in which material and spiritual elements interact. This territory has three spheres: the vegetable garden, which provides basic support; the jungle, which makes game meat possible as a supplement to the diet and other elements, and the terrestrial water from which domestic water is obtained, as well as the fish that serves as a food supplement. To obtain these resources of the territory, the native needs to have inner strength (samai), balanced behaviour (sasi), wisdom (yachai), vision of the future (muskui), perseverance (ushai) and compassion (llakina). These virtues are learned within the community through a whole learning process based on experience and myths. It also contains an ethical dimension, some values. These values ​​are the domestic harmony that takes shape in eating, drinking and making love; solidarity or compassion (llakina), help (yanapana), generosity (kuna), obligation to receive (japina), reciprocity (kunakuna), counsel (kamachi) and listening (uyuna). From these values ​​the economy of the community is structured, and it is precisely this structure of the economy that has attracted the attention of the movements when rethinking alternatives: an economy that is based on self-sufficiency and solidarity, that is, in obtaining from nature only what is needed and in sharing surpluses. The moment the family unit has problems, the community that acts through generosity and reciprocity appears.

Other forms of solidarity are not related to goods but to services (community work and work for the benefit of a family …). The idea of the accumulation of goods does not exist and enrichment is not considered appropriate, as it breaks the social harmony based on equity. A full life cannot be given outside the community (ayllu), and in this community a form of participatory democracy is practiced in which decisions are made by consensus. [35] These peoples conceive of nature (Pacha Mama —[is a goddess revered by the indigenous peoples of the Andes. She is their “Earth or World Mother” type goddess, and a fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting, embodies the mountains, and who may causes earthquakes]) holistically, must take care of it as a being of which they are a part, and if they are to take what is necessary for their subsistence they ask permission through rituals and they thank him with offerings. 

The current constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia have been based on this “good living” when it comes to legally articulating a proposal for the rights of individuals and communities, and the obligation of the state to preserve them. The preamble to Ecuador’s constitution reads: “A new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living, the sumak kawsay; A society that respects, in all its dimensions, the dignity of individuals and community groups”.

There are many articles that relate it to respect for the environment, health, education … Article 14 relates it to nature: “to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and the good way of living (sumak kawsay), is recognized. Environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and the integrity of the country’s genetic assets, the prevention of environmental damage, and the recovery of degraded natural spaces are declared matters of public interest.” 

Article 32 describes a series of rights related to “good living” (“… water, food, education, sports, work, social security, healthy environments and others that support the good way of living.”) Or the provisions of Article 74: “Persons, communities, peoples, and nations shall have the right to benefit from the environment and the natural wealth enabling them to enjoy the good way of living. Environmental services shall not be subject to appropriation; their production, delivery, use and development shall be regulated by the State.”

And there is also talk of the duties that correspond to the State to guarantee it in article 283: “The economic system is socially oriented and mutually supportive; it recognises the human being as a subject and an end; it tends towards a dynamic, balanced relationship among society, State and the market, in harmony with nature; and its objective is to ensure the production and reproduction of the material and immaterial conditions that can bring about the good way of living”. The different forms of organisation of economic production are also recognized: “… different forms of organising production are recognized in the economy, including community, cooperative, public and private business, associative, family, domestic, autonomous and mixed-economy. The State shall promote forms of production that assure the good way of living of the population and shall discourage those that violate their rights or those of nature” (art. 319). 

The Bolivian constitution is cited by principles and values that the state must keep in mind: “The state assumes and promotes as ethical and moral principles of plural society: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be loose, do not be a liar, not a thief), suma qamaña (live well), ñandereko (life in harmony), teko kavi (good life), ivi maraei (land without evil) and qhapaj ñan (path or noble life).” … the State that must “bear the prime duty and responsibility for this right. Social security shall be governed by the principles of solidarity, obligation, universality, equity, efficiency, subsidiarity, adequacy, transparency and participation, to meet individual and collective needs. The State shall guarantee and ensure the full and effective exercise of the right to social security, which includes persons who carry out unpaid work in households, livelihood activities in the rural sector, all forms of self-employed and who are unemployed”. (Section 8 Art. 34 § 1)

This “good life,” in short, is a collective thought that embraces all areas of life, and that has memory in mind, that is, it does not break with traditions. It is a type of thought quite opposed to Western, universal, fragmented, individual and ahistorical thought. 

4. CHRISTIANITY AND ALTERNATIVE MOVEMENTS

All the movements we have described in previous chapters, although they use many concepts and values from religious traditions —for example, the necessary conversion of the imaginary, whether collective or individual— do not make them explicit. We believe that religious traditions have a lot to contribute to a new culture that helps to establish this matrix of alternatives, and that helps to walk towards an economy at the service of all people and that respects the environment.

In these last lines, I will focus on the Christian tradition and visualise how, in order to help emerge from the delusion of the hegemonic socio-economic system, many of the alternative movements are recovering Christian values. Recalling the words from the Bishop of Rome Francis urging the popular movements in Bolivia on: “You can do a lot […] I dare say that the future of humanity is largely in your hands, in your ability to organise and promote creative alternatives. He asks them in this discourse to be “social poets” and sowers of change, that is, generators of processes of change and not occupiers of space. To work from the small and close, “within the unjust realities that were imposed on them and to which they do not resign themselves, putting up active resistance to the idolatrous system that excludes, degrades and kills.” On the contrary, he calls on them to establish a “culture of encounter,” because “concepts and ideas are not loved; people are loved.” 

Two potential disconnected transformers 

The whole social doctrine of the Church goes in the line of creating a social economy in the service of the people and the common good, understanding this last one in the line that describes the Laudato si’: “In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters” (L.S 158). The concept of universal destiny of goods that the pope reminds us helps to understand this: “it is not a discursive adornment of social doctrine. It is a reality prior to private property […] This applies especially in the case of land resources, which must always be based on the needs of the peoples. “[35]  

The centrality of the poor, of the marginalised, of those who live on the periphery of the world places us in a different perspective. This is what we already called, quoting Boaventura de Sousa, the “epistemologies of the South.” However, it seems that this view is rare in the Church and in Christian communities in general. Despite the radicalism of some approaches to the Church’s social doctrine, which strongly questions the economic system, there has been much fear of making profound changes, and this explains why the church has not been very involved in the new social movements, which generally have a more libertarian and anti-patriarchal character.

Nor have these movements been able to realise the transformative potential of Christianity and other religious traditions, a potential capable of touching not only the hearts of structures but also the hearts of people. This kind of divorce between the Church and social movements has been very noticeable in Europe, and not so much in Asia or Latin America.

Ordering the disordered conditions 

If we look at it from a Christian ethic point of view, what social movements are proposing is not new. Christianity came to accept economic growth as a way to help many people out of poverty, but it has never understood growth in purely economic and materialistic terms, and hence the emphasis upon a whole tradition of austerity and poverty.

Austerity and poverty are justified from Christian ethics for two reasons. First, to be able to show solidarity with those who do not have (distributive justice). And secondly, to gain inner freedom and to be able to focus the heart on following Christ, developing a much freer relationship in relation to things, which become simple means to reach human fullness.

Let us also remember that moral codes, such as the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue), can be seen as normative expressions that try to put limits on the human ego. In other words, as ways of containing (ordering) the most primary desires of the person, which are initially good for the survival of the human species, but which, disordered, can become a source of slavery and exploitation. For example, “not stealing” and “not wanting one’s neighbours property” mean some control over the greed we all have. These are commandments that revolve around the mastery of compulsive desire that involves greed toward others. 

The commandments indicate limits (which is why they are often expressed in a negative way) but it is the various spiritualities, Christian or non-Christian, that indicate ways to put it into practice on a daily basis. Thus, St. Ignatius speaks of eliminating disordered conditions. St. Augustine also speaks of the self-referenced ego that needs to be overcome in order to open ourselves to a greater communion with others. That is, to move from self-centred drives to communion-generating abilities. All spiritual paths offer practices, some more external (fasting, vigils, abstinence from comfort, sexual abstinence) and others more internal (mortifications, self-sacrifice …). The goal is not to suppress these necessary and human impulses but to learn to master them to eliminate their predatory and self-possessing dimension.

The classic vows of religious life (obedience, poverty, and chastity) contain some of these elements. The ultimate goal of these practices is (or should be) to open the “I” to otherness. I say it should be, because it certainly isn’t always like that. Sometimes these practices, when they are very focused on the will and the effort itself, end up increasing the self: the ego can also appropriate the paths of spirituality. When Jesus criticises the Pharisees in the gospel, he does so precisely for this reason. 

Interdependence

In general, however, we can say that the conception of happiness and the human model of coexistence offered by Christianity are very far from the model of materialistic happiness and the individualistic model of human coexistence. And instead they are very close to the movements of degrowth because they share a more relational and non-materialistic happiness. This is where the value of dependence (or rather, interdependence) comes in: the human species is interdependent with other species in our biosphere. This interdependence ties in very well with the concept of Christian communion, in this case of communion between living beings.

Certainly, our cultural environment does not greatly facilitate this awareness of the interdependence between all beings. It is difficult for us to be aware of the extent to which our lives depend on others, it is somehow a gift from others. On the contrary, when we relate we do so by treating ourselves as mere objects that we observe and manipulate but with which there is nothing that obliges us (obligate). We have too much internalised that the self has no need for anything or anyone. Laudato does express it in a very clear way: “The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures” (LS 240). The Pope urges us in Participation At The Second World Meeting Of Popular Movements: “If we truly desire positive change, we have to humbly accept our interdependence, that is to say, our healthy interdependence. Interaction, however, is not the same as imposition; it is not the subordination of some to serve the interests of others.”(Address of Bishop Francis during his apostolic journey to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay 5-13 July 2015). 

Accepting the limits

The ideal of happiness that we find in the gospel can also help us to accept and realise the limits, in a culture that does not accept them. It seems that everything that a human being can do, he must do, without wondering about the effects it has on himself and on the environment. Human self-limitation is just like any other way of exercising true freedom.

Without going into the debate on degrowth, the encyclical Laudato does criticise the current model of development and the meaning that the economy should have. Here are some texts that express it: 

But we need to grow in the conviction that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times give rise to another form of progress and development. Efforts to promote a sustainable use of natural resources are not a waste of money, but rather an investment capable of providing other economic benefits in the medium term. If we look at the larger picture, we can see that more diversified and innovative forms of production which impact less on the environment can prove very profitable. (LS 191)

For new models of progress to emerge, we need to “change the model of global development,”  which means reflecting responsibly “on the meaning of the economy and its purpose, in order to correct its dysfunctions and distortions.”

It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress. A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress. Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes — by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources — in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses. It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technocracy, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures. (LS 194

In any event, if in some cases sustainable development were to involve new forms of growth, then in other cases, given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late. We know how unsustainable is the behaviour of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth. Benedict XVI has said that “technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency” (LS 193).

In the end, although the encyclical insists heavily on the change of mentality (the conversion to ecological values), it must end by referring to the capitalist economic system, which is responsible for having made hegemonic values ​​that we they have led to such a dangerous situation. Christianity is far from the capitalist values ​​that put the maximum profit, the sacralisation of private property and consumerist materialism at the centre. In the words of Laudato if:

The principle of the maximisation of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution. (LS 195) 

Conclusion

In short, the Christian tradition can offer:

  • Alternative values ​​that can help build a new inclusive and ecological economy. Focused on the common good and focused on the preferential option for the poor and excluded from this system.
  • A spirituality that moves and helps the human heart to mobilise for a change in socioeconomic model. A spirituality that is not naive, as it is aware of the ambivalence of the human heart, of greed, of the desire for domination, and that is why it offers ascetic paths. He does not fall into the naïveté of not believing that there is no personal and structural sin that damages good intentions.
  • An ethic that, given its universality, seeks to overcome small groups, ethnocentrism, in such a way that the new social model is inclusive and not just for a minority. An ethic that insists on the need to make a preferential choice for the poorest, for those who have no voice.
  • A notion of a person who abandons individualism and proposes a more communal model of coexistence: we are thanks to the gift of others. The logics he proposes, of communion, of gratuitousness, can help to break the logics of possession and commodification (everything can be sold and bought in the market) that are the hegemonic ones in our world. The need for community to address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss…
  • A hope in the face of uncertainty and the losses we may experience. A non-passive hope that values ​​small gestures, where nothing is lost, as these small gestures help to break the hegemonic logics of our culture. A hope that knows how to see in the dead, in the maximum negativity, seeds of life and rebirth.
  • A capacity and willingness to listen and enter into dialogue with movements that also want to change the planet and human relations so that they are fairer. 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION

  1. What values of Christian spirituality can help us to respond to the invitation to “grow otherwise”?
  2. In what specific personal and community matters should we ‘decrease’ and in which should we ‘grow differently’?
  3. Is the current economic system compatible with the theses of degrowth? What needs to be transformed from this system?
  4. What limits do you think “unlimited growth” has as defended by the ideology that underpins the current economic system?
  5. What can the views and ways of life of the peoples of the South contribute to these alternatives to growth?
  6. How do you interpret the phrase “the time has come to accept some degrowth in some parts of the world by providing resources so that it can grow healthily in others”? (n. 193 Laudato si ’). How should this translate into our lives?
Continue reading “Live with Less to Live a Better Life”
What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.

What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.

The consequences of climate crisis are precisely this, a crisis, and therefore if we wish our children and grandchildren to have any kind of future at all, we have a duty to act immediately and we must do so in a manner that is both just and determined. The alternative is that our children and their children will not be able to breathe, drink water, nourish themselves or see a living animal, that is of course unless you have millions stashed away for them to support themselves. Continue reading What must we do in the face of climate change? The Actions and policies required to appease it.