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Cultivating a Post-Growth Relationship with Knowledge

April 19, 2023

A tool for equality and inequality

Misusing knowledge can lead to it being ineffective and sterile for true social flourishing. Examples of this are knowledge-based initiatives that address climate change, for example, technologies that gather or crunch data about the environment. We held discussions through the Open Climate collective during the pandemic on this subject, and it came to our attention that no knowledge would ever be useful if it lacked a definite purpose, especially if it is expected to benefit the communities most affected by environmental injustice and to support activists and professionals addressing the same problem from other fronts. We noted that, without a connection between the data we collect about the planet in the context of science and technology, and the actual narratives of individuals at the frontlines of climate change, all this work leads nowhere.

A resource with material costs

When we talk about improving our societies’ consumption patterns, we often think of the things that we can see and touch, for example, the resources our societies extract to build products to then return as trash in a landfill. We seldom think of the intangible, like information and knowledge, as having a material embodiment. Thomas Jefferson famously said that “he who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. […] ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe […].” Using the same analogy, living in a world where taper-making industries extract materials at an unsustainable rate, we can categorically state that this shared fire does have a material cost.

Similar considerations must be held in this information age. The internet is composed of physical devices that require minerals and other natural resources to be manufactured, as well as water and electricity to operate and connect to share data around the world. We must reckon with the idea that knowledge has a material cost and that we can have too much of it, especially regarding knowledge that is superfluous and unethical, like personal information, as well as expensive in terms of the resources required to operate, like bitcoin.

A catalyst for social action

known adage in the software development world says that when we solve a problem using a technical tool (such as regular expressions), we are creating two problems. This speaks to the challenge of enabling or avoiding the growing complexity that scientific and technical knowledge offers. We can take multiple positions around this issue that range from Luddism and rejection of technology to using technology to solve the problems created by technology (for example, creating a machine to clean the air being polluted by machines) to a technological determinism that chants phrases such as “progress is unavoidable.”

E. F. Schumacher also pointed out this conflict within the sciences: as we apply science to solve a problem, new problems are created. I believe that knowledge is crucial since both technology and science align with our relationship to knowledge. This is not to suggest that ignorance is a solution to any problems. Instead, a lack of purpose is detrimental to the knowledge we entertain and our scientific and technological endeavors. For instance, applying science was not the problem, according to Schumacher, but rather, it had a faulty purpose at the beginning. In his words, the problem to solve was the “direction of scientific knowledge.”

Andrew Lamb once told me that “good knowledge takes time.” This does not mean that we can’t produce and share knowledge by using technology at a faster rate, but that purposeful, collaborative, and just applications of knowledge require doing the unavoidable hard work. According to Tim Ingold, it should be impossible in practice to observe without being transformed by the world, and human transformation should come without shortcuts. This is why Paulo Freire’s legacy is becoming relevant again; concepts like “participatory,” “critical,” and “pluriversal” are making their way into many current discussions in academia and other areas of practice because we recognize the need to be transformed by what we want to change around us.

A tool shaped by wisdom

Schumacher faced the question of scale — how much should our societies grow — by appealing to a quasi-spiritual human characteristic: “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of Wisdom.” We can put it this way: how can we regain attention to what is important and worth our time to achieve a sustainable and just future? In this information age, our relationship to knowledge and, therefore, how we view technology and science, must change. But most importantly, we must pay attention to the way that we value it in relation to other individuals and nature, and become more wise in the process.

Making community diagnostics through games & electronics inside a “transparent box” to gather information, and how the results were showed to the community.

Teaser photo credit: The art of Diné weaving is part of the traditional knowledge of the Navajo people. By Terry Eiler – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Emilio Velis

Appropedia Foundation, an organization promoting access to sustainability and poverty reduction knowledge. His work focuses on the intersection of innovation, design, and technology with social impact. He advocates for the responsible use of new technologies, especially through open knowledge contribution and practices. Emilio currently resides in San Salvador, where he was born, and enjoys skateboarding, running, and other quirky hobbies he knows he’ll never be good at, like playing yoyo and chess. Know more about Emilio here.

Tags: knowledges, open knowledge, post-growth economics