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Green, Not Growing

June 20, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

“Watch out!”

Shout that, with real terror, and most of us will respond: first with some variation on the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and second (hopefully) with a timely effort to avert danger, ameliorate damage, and connect with others.

It’s useful, this protective mechanism. But we don’t often recognize how much our primary responses can influence even our seemingly most rational decision making.

Try this: Instead of shouting, just whisper calmly in a friend’s ear, “No more economic growth.” He may unleash a Keynesian stem-winder about rational actors and invisible hands (both rarely seen phenomena…but that’s another story). But is your friend’s response rationality or rationalization? Might there be something more elemental at work, like the desire for his coherent worldview to continue to cohere, even when the logic is no longer logical?

In 1972, The Limits to Growth unleashed a “Watch out!” warning about burgeoning consumption. Environmental groups and their constituents might seem the most logical pollinators of this message among the broader public. To their credit, many environmental groups have incorporated resource limits into their strategies. Yet, 40 years on, a substantial (and influential) segment of environmental groups still promote “sustainable growth” as a cure for what ails not only the planet, but also the economy.

Putting aside these groups for a moment, what do we know about the people who are trying to advocate for, and practice, a greener way of living? Would they be willing to contemplate the “end of growth” as a viable, even desirable alternative?

Last November, Innate Intelligence (a whole systems, process design and facilitation provider), invited Post Carbon Institute to help survey 100 participants at the San Francisco Green Festival on this very question. We asked respondents about their perceived level of knowledge of the current global economic crisis, their self-perceived contribution to it, and if they thought more economic growth would solve the crisis. We also asked if they could imagine a world without growth, and how all this uncertainty made them feel and react.

Some of the findings (.pdf document) are surprising. Of the 91% who said they had a moderate or strong understanding of the current economic situation, 74% said a return to economic growth would not resolve the situation. Similarly, 64% of these same people (who reported a moderate or strong understanding of the current economic situation) said they could imagine a world without economic growth.

Admittedly, this data comes from a small sample of Bay Area residents with the time, capacity, and interest to attend a Green Festival. However, this sample may be a pretty fair representation of concerned, progressive, middle- and upper-middle-class American environmentalists. If so, then many more environmentalists may already be moving along the imaginative (and possibly, actual) journey to a world beyond continuously compounding economic growth.

This inquiry offers some intriguing implications for the work of Post Carbon Institute and our friends and allies:

  • At least some environmental activists may be ready for information and action around a future beyond growth.
  • An “end of economic growth” message may be compatible with a “green” message.
  • There may be potential leaders, mentors, and advocates among the green community who can guide conversations and action around post-growth economics and environmentalism.
  • Education, outreach, and communications groups will need to pay as much attention to process design as content.

If some environmentalists are sailing confidently into the uncharted waters of the Sea of No Growth, how can that confidence be shared more broadly? Carefully.

Research and experience both suggest that we humans react powerfully to perceived threats to our identity or sense of security, and the paradigm of continuous economic expansion is deeply embedded in Western (particularly American) culture. A direct challenge to that core belief may put people and groups into “charged” emotional states, where they operate on a more basic biological level.

It’s darned difficult to talk someone out of an emotion, particularly fear or existential terror. Introducing more “facts” that contradict core beliefs won’t change minds. A direct challenge to a deeply held belief will typically elicit a defensive response backed by all the energy that went into constructing that belief. The conversation will no longer be operating in the present, and certainly not pointing toward a new, viable future — it will be driven by what was learned and assimilated in the past.

Even people and groups who recognize at some level that the current system is unsustainable may need support in surfacing and talking through what an unwinding of our growth-based economy means. The survey results, and the best practices on compassionate conversations suggest we should:

  • Learn just how informed our friends and allies actually are, and how ready they are to deal with the looming challenges. (Respondents to this survey showed large variations in assumed knowledge level, emotional response, and state of confidence. For example, although many more men than women expressed self-assurance, it’s not clear if the men are over-confident, or the women are too modest.
  • Make it easier for people to inquire into their assumptions and beliefs, and deal with the implications of changing their assumptions.
  • Slow down (despite the fierce urgency of the situation) and spread out the emotional charge that many people will feel, so that their level of arousal stays within a manageable range.
  • Avoid unproductive triggering of strong emotional reactions.

One tool that may be helpful in reaching out to our friends in the environmental movement is “YOU ARE HERE: The Oil Journey,” PCI’s customizable presentation. It tells the story of our collective journey through the last century in an honest, but inclusive way that honors all viewpoints, while gently but insistently pointing to both realities and possibilities. More than 250 people have already signed up to be presenters…will you join them?