Creating global prosperity without economic growth


Post Growth Futures Are Here

by Donnie Maclurcan on 23rd June 2012

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A friend once visited a remote village in Africa. In this village people wore indistinguishable clothing and lived in similar looking homes. Two people, however, had distinct markings on their foreheads and huts. They were treated with an unusual amount of respect, although they didn’t appear to be making decisions for the group. In fact, no governance or power structures were apparent within the community at large.

After three days of failed guesswork, my frustrated friend asked a translator to find out the nature of the group’s dynamics. The villagers responded: “In our society, we don’t have forms of hierarchy as you may know them. But we have a rule: when anyone reaches a certain level of ‘wealth’, they throw a feast until they become ‘poorest’ and then they get the marking on their forehead and home as an eternal sign of respect.”

I since discovered this widespread practice across indigenous cultures has been named a potlatch; in its common Western form: the potluck – although with somewhat less inbuilt wisdom regarding redistribution. What a brilliantly strategic, non-destructive way of engaging with ego, I thought. Hence, it has become one of my favourite examples of what we at the Post Growth Institute call ‘post growth in action’ – things that are already defining futures independent of economic growth. There sure are a lot of these things, and they don’t necessarily fit into your typical ‘sustainability’ box. Here’s a quick look around the world at some inspiring forms of post growth in action.

There are timeless Philosophies, such as the Ecuadorian Sumak Kawsay that explores alternatives to Western-style ‘development’ through the indigenous belief that well-being is only possible within a community, with that community including Nature.

There are influential Principles, such as Qard al-Hassan which, drawing from Islamic Shari’ah law, prohibits the payment and collection of interest (riba) in any loan or gratuitous offering.

There are inspiring Indicators, such as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, whereby the happiness and satisfaction of Bhutanese citizens, measured biennially, drives and informs all government policies. Widespread adoption of the indicator was recently supported by United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and has already influenced practices in places such as the United Kingdom and the U.S. State of Vermont.

There are appealing Activities, like buycotts, whereby communities ‘auction’ their patronage to the businesses that promise the greatest commitments to making socially responsible changes to their work environments and practices. The activity was made famous by the Carrotmob campaign which saw community bargaining with 23 liquor stores result in the winning business allocating 22% of its income to an energy retrofit of its workplace.

There are ground-breaking Legal instruments, such as Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of Mother Earth that provides natural systems with rights that, in modern law, are commonly ascribed solely to humans, thereby creating the ability for such rights to be legally defended.

There are rewarding Livelihoods, such as those of doulas who ensure mothers feel safe and confident before, during, and after childbirth.

There are impressive Lifestyles, such as locavoring in which people seek to eat only local produce. A type of event has subsequently emerged that requires produce come from within a certain radius – 50 miles, for example.

There are remarkable Technologies, such as hexayurts that offer simple, low cost, easy to erect shelters to house humans in need. The designs are open access and the yurts can be built anywhere in the world using local materials.

There are powerful types of Software, such as Skype that allows over 600 million users to communicate freely, with others around the world. It’s a technology we at the Post Growth Institute use in an exciting way for our team collaboration.

There are engaging Facilitation Techniques, such as sociocracy which allows participants in a discussion to position themselves on issues using a physical spectrum (a line or series of concentric circles, for example). By expanding the simple ‘for’ or ‘against’ model, those involved may gain important insights from marginalised perspectives and/or those previously marginalised may feel heard enough to comfortably move on the spectrum to enable consensus.

There are valuable Natural Phenomena such as the sun’s seasonally shifting trajectories in relation to the earth that enable things like passive solar design. Here, simple architectural practices can ensure the entry of the sun’s heat into a structure is reduced in the warmer months and increased in the colder months.

There are common sense forms of Infrastructure, such as seed libraries that enable the public to access seeds for sewing crops, with the expectation that any propagated surplus will be returned to the library.

There are useful Online Platforms, such as Freecycle where over 8 million users, across 85 countries, are able to offer free items to or request free items from their local community.

There are heartening International Movements, such as La Via Campesina in the Global South – 200 million peasants, small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities that promote the right to produce food on one’s own territory – and Transition Towns in the Global North – 1000 registered initiatives across 34 countries that work locally to rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions partly via the creation and active embodiment of an Energy Descent Action Plan.

There are fascinating International Programs, such as the ManKind Project that has provided liberating initiation rites for over 40,000 men, drawing on wisdoms from many ancient and modern traditions.

There are imaginative International Events, such as Park(ing) Day in which people collaborate to ‘temporarily transform metered parking spaces into ‘PARK(ing)’ spaces: temporary public places’ that may include grass, chairs and other forms of activities.

And there are exciting Places, such as the Factor e Farm in rural Missouri where people are using scrap metal and open-source design to build the 50 basic machines that can ensure appropriate, local manufacturing.

Combined, these examples remind me that ‘post growth’ futures are already here, they’re just not evenly distributed. What you might be living, with respect to your food production for example, might be part of my future in ten years. That is, we can move beyond talk of starting the transition; we’ve been transitioning all along, and if we want to evolve a new meta-narrative, isn’t it more empowering and inclusive to ground it in existing practice?

Adam Smith seemed to believe so when he drew together his defining principles for a capitalistic system. He didn’t put out a vision for how the world should be. Rather, he described a series of tenets that underlay existing forms of organisation that he believed worthy of further support. The same inductive method could help us identify and nurture an abundance of hopeful, present realities that show paths to futures beyond economic growth. Shortly we’ll be sharing an initial 5000 of these realities via our newest project: How, on Earth.

Yet, whilst existing realities can provide important evidence of our ability to flourish in ‘post growth’ ways, one central ingredient for post growth futures appears to remain missing: a non-accumulative macroeconomic framework that is incentivised for innovation, creativity and flourishing. That is, a galvanizing economic framework for how we justly and sustainably converge towards a global steady state economy. An ambitious undertaking, for sure, but one in which we at the Post Growth Institute are presently engaging through our Not-for-Profit World project.

And when I think of the challenges ahead, I remind myself of the words from one of my favourite thinker-doers, Stuart Hill. Stuart believes we move through three phases in any challenges we collectively face. The first is deceptive simplicity – we think something is super easy; if we just throw money, technology or time at it, we’ll fix it. The second phase is confusing complexity – we begin to think the challenge has been underestimated. More research is needed. Committees must be formed! Even more research is needed!! But then, Stuart says, we evolve to the third, most heartening phase: profound simplicity. Here we experience ‘aha’ moments, now knowing that there were always alternative paths offering great clarity, with ease. When I consider the potlatch and the multitude of other things ‘post growth’, that’s when I sense we are bathing in profound simplicity, revelling in the beauty of dynamic fruition that speaks to our hearts and souls in ways that make a much deeper sense.

This post was written by

avatar Donnie is a co-founder of the Post Growth Institute and an Affiliate Professor of Social Science at Southern Oregon University. He is presently writing two books: How on Earth: Our future is not for profit and The Not-for-Profit Handbook.

Donnie has written 24 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Donnie


avatar Dina Padalkina June 25, 2012 at 03:41

Thanks for such an inspiring and positive article. It was a good idea to demonstrate actually what kind of examples Post Growth ideas include. Nevertheless, reading all that and claiming that we can move towards post growth future, pushed me to think vice versa, that we move back away from it.

Post Growth future or Community-Based past

To generalize all these initiatives, all of them have more or less one common feature community based approach. As I am not a sociologist, I decided to dig on the community’s features that may form this notion: 1) membership, 2) influence, 3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and 4) shared emotional connection. The article has started with the brilliant example of the tribe community, which cares about their own traditional way of life. If I am not wrong, it belongs to the traditional geographical communities, which were widely spread long time ago. And one of the most well-know notions that gradually ruined it was globalization. I am not going to debate here about this overwhelming global tendency, but that is the fact that I guess push us away rather then forward to the “post growth” ideas.
Everyday full time individualism squeezes the general tendency of communitarianism. Maybe I am kind pessimistic, but I think (but I want to say I have never checked if it’s true or not) that community-based initiatives are dying out. And one of the examples is the implementation of the well-known social net (or social welfare in the developed countries). I will never claim that it’s something negative, but it definitely hallows out the community spirit.
Point 3. integration and fulfillment of needs among others pushed people to be engaged into the community life. Let’s consider one simple example: people living in communities may share the community’s achievements, success and communities’ troubles. It also includes that if suffers the one the whole community may support him/her. It turns to be the method of social protection that may flatter the external individual shocks. On the other side, the government implements very well developed social net, including healthcare system, education, insurance (it deserves special attention) etc. All these features of the high-developed society decrease the need of the social community in their search for protection, because individual mind can be now protected as the particular social status achieved. And here we go the supplementing individual solution is given to the community life approach.
Of course it’s very broad example, and for sure, it’s not given to demonstrate some drawbacks of the social system. However, we have to agree, that our fast developing world every time presents bright and innovative for the individualistic and independent life.

Economic or Social solution

Thinking about solution or creating a belief that post growth life is not a myth I still can’t answer what actually comes first: society or economy. We are living in the epoch of the traditionally established capitalistic system. And it’s like a snowball that is getting so big, that already can’t be stopped by the guy who pushed it to roll. However every small stone on its way represents the society that can actually crack the ball. It sounds very descriptive, but what I want to say the main identification with the post growth is the people’s minds itself (but it’s for sure my very personal idea) The understanding of the whole sequences what for we need this growth? What it gives us? And what we lose with it? Probably it’s very long process of the realization, because cracking the traditions is the most challenging activity, however for sure possible.

And finally Macroeconomic changes!

This is very interesting part for me personally, but firstly, I would not claim that it’s the only one central ingredient, which is missing. The biggest missing centrality is the social awareness about post growth (or in this way, let’s just call it alternatives to the current order). Therefore, macroeconomic approach will catch up if it will be in demand. If you will simply start talking to the business or classical-based institutional representatives about any alternatives to growth, they will in most cases just ask the question “sorry, what are you talking about?” The reasons for missing macroeconomic integrity are
1. Not enough demand for this macroeconomic changes/frameworks/thoughts due to the lack of awareness.
2. Lack of understanding which macroeconomic steps have to be undertaken to make a transition to fully independent system from the mainstream vision
3. And the most important the prediction of the transition results.
However we need to claim, that the macroeconomic model has to be developed and they are developing, let’s take i.e. SERI report summarizes more than 100 economic models for sustainability, and all of them have their gram of the alternative vision.

As being researcher in this field, I personally struggle with the simple idea “what to start with?”, because the role of the society is the essential part to be integrated into the “new model”, however the society itself did not change much, thus this variable hardly could represent the new idea.
But anyway, I hope I will continue working on it 😉


avatar Jen Hinton June 30, 2012 at 15:04

Hi Dina,

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. We hadn’t ever thought about the social net in quite that way! Welfare dependency would certainly seem to break down the realisation of interdependencies amongst communities.

As an example of community-based initiatives that are expanding, we would like to mention the Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) approach, of which we are big fans. We also use this approach in the Post Growth Institute to some extent.

Another example of how the individual/community dichotomy is being transcended is Collaborative Consumption, in which consumption is taking place around individuals’ needs and desires to participate in a community of people with similar needs and desires.

With regards to globalisation, here at the Post Growth Institute, we like to point out that the old pro/anti-globalisation debates are being actively transcended by tonnes of innovative people, worldwide, who sense that things are never black and white.

We suppose that no one can really say if community-based initiatives are dying out. Our gut feeling is that the pendulum of social organisation is swinging back to communitarianism, after the Thatcher and Reagan era. What we find exciting is that, in times of austerity, communities are doing it themselves, such as the rise of alternative currencies, time banks and swapping/bartering in Greece.

We would agree that the lack of social awareness about post growth (i.e.- economic/social alternatives) is a huge challenge, but we would also argue that it’s understandable given, as Donnie expresses here: no one has seemingly put forward a decent model!

However, it’s difficult to have a serious conversation about steps until people have actively debated the principles underlying those steps. Everyone in “this space” basically agrees on the older, general principles of human rights and environmentalism. But where are the debates about ownership, inheritence, the provision of profit, alternative forms of governance, etc.? Without any serious debates about those fundamental underlying principles, the steps are just rearranging deck chairs.

Might you have a link to the SERI report that summarizes more than 100 economic models? We’d definitely be keen to read it.

Thanks again for this comment!

Donnie and Jen of the Post Growth Institute

avatar Per June 25, 2012 at 22:34

Dear Donnie,
Although I appreciate many of the things you bring up, I think the Potlach and other communal distribution traditions are a double edged sword. They may keep the ego at bay, and they may possibly be signs of deep solidarity, but they are not “post-growth”, they are “pre-growth”. If you need to save ressources do to something that requires more money than status-quo, like afford sending your children to higher education, these practices make sure it will never happen, and that nothing will ever change. Your article is a clear example of the so-called pre-post fallacy, where things pre- development (including pre negative things like rogue capitalism) appear to be “post”, higher, more evolved, but no, they aren’t. Many of the other examples on the list are though. Kind regards /Per

avatar Jen Hinton June 30, 2012 at 15:11

Hello Per,

Thank you for your comment. This is an important critique.

Regarding the potlach, we’d like to point out that post growth consists not only of practices, but of principles as well. Just because something happened in a pre-growth setting surely doesn’t preclude us drawing on its inherent wisdoms? In fact, in transcending the growth paradigm, we seek to draw on and include the wisdoms and insights from both the pre- growth and the growth paradigms. (Ken Wilber of the Integral Institute often discusses the pre/trans fallacy in terms of trans- stages of development transcending and including previous stages of development.)

For example, Donnie’s idea for a philanthropy competition came from thinking about the potlach and the brilliant simplicity of it. So, its timing, historically, is irrelevant in terms of being useful and inspirational for the post growth movement now.

In fact, the potlach even bears some resemblance to the open source “reputation” model.

In response to the idea that these practices will make sure that one would not be able to afford to send their children to higher education; some of the main aims of the post growth movement are to promote futures in which affordability is addressed proactively through a communitarian approach and to value the “informal” again in mainstream thinking. In essence, we feel it’s unacceptable that children ever be denied education, especially on the basis of their parents’ monetary accumulation. Rather than working around this fundamental flaw in the current system, we seek to change it.

Thanks again for your comment!

Donnie and Jen of the Post Growth Institute

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