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From Growth, through Degrowth, to a Pluriverse of Flourishings

May 9, 2023

This history is well-known: Supported by the Club of Rome, a group of MIT scholars published ‘The Limits to Growth’ (LtG) in 1972(PDF). Immensely successful, the book was also intensely critiqued.

One important line of criticism was launched by researchers based at the University of Sussex, who argued that LtG’s ‘models of doom’ downplayed the importance of modernity’s technological and scientific advances. These critics of LtG saw future innovations as reducing pressure on resources, so economic growth could continue unabated.

Rehearsing coloniality

Today the Club of Rome thinks of LtG that “the message of this book still holds”. Indeed the contours of the old battle between MIT and Sussex researchers, are still clear in recent debates between degrowth scholars and ecomodernists.

Investing faith in modern technologies like “next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion”, ecomodernists dream of a “decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts”, while degrowth scholars consider such techno-optimism to be little more than fantasy.

Degrowth scholars and their wider movement call instead for resistance against “overshooting of planetary boundaries”. Grounded in ideas and practices like commoningsimplicity, and autonomy, they promote valuable experiments with lifestyles characterised by low ‘material throughput’(PDF).

There is much to commend in degrowth arguments, which are often limited to colonially privileged regions in the Global North. However, like the sparring of the 1970s, degrowth narratives share with ecomodernism, a deep conditioning by colonial modernity – manifesting as the imagination of a ‘one-world world’.

In this view, people across multiple cultures are imaged as a single humanity. This extends to a singular ‘nature’ approached as a separate category of objects to be used primarily as resources (and knowable only through modern science). Differences between diverse ways of living are thus reduced to quantity and efficiency of resource-use, with more or less ‘environmental’ impact. This unfortunate fixation with magnitudes on supposedly pre-set dimensions, overlooks and undermines the true radical diversity of social and material worlds whose entanglings constitute the pluriverse on Earth.

It is these worlds – often classified in terms of ethnicities and cultures as indigenous or traditional – that provide homes to a majority of the Earth’s languages (despite a massive loss of languages in the last five decades). And despite being targeted by extreme violence, it is these worlds that sustain most of the richness of the Earth’s biodiversity.

It is also these worlds that colonial modernity subordinates in linear time – as ‘backward’ or less ‘developed’ according to contingent characteristics like industrialisation or bureaucratisation. This subordination reduces rich relational differences between worlds into mere ‘past’, ‘present’ and ‘future’ of a one-world world. Resulting hierarchy can then be used, particularly under ecomodernism, to justify development that attempts to integrate traditional knowledges and assimilate indigenous ways of living into modernity.

The pluriverse surrounding us doesn’t merely exist to advance flashy intellectual ideas. Instead, it affords us an insight into decolonized futures that we are unable to imagine due to our deeply colonial and materialist modernity. Pic. Ashish Kothari.

Another  – more subtle – way in which colonial modernity can inadvertently be reproduced, relates to considerations especially in Eurocentric degrowth discourses, of alternatives for sustainability from Indigenous worlds (and Southern societies). If such alternatives are seen as ‘natural allies’, mainly due to low magnitudes of environmental impacts (again in presumptively given dimensions), then this may suggest the many worlds of the pluriverse matter only insofar as they serve modern ends and agendas like degrowth.

Imagining control

By presuming a hierarchical ordering of worlds in linear time or addressing them only insofar as they serve modern agendas, both ecomodernism and (to a lesser extent) degrowth can in different ways reproduce and entrench a common colonial imagination of control over other worlds.

Hardwired in monolithic notions of rationality and machine-based ideas of control, it is this colonial imagination that lies at the heart of diverse globalising modernities. As a result, attempts are made to mechanise life and society become through a series of interrelated moves: objectifying and categorisingsubordinating and separatingreducing and standardisingquantifying and aggregating – in order to drive appropriation and extraction, for concentration and accumulation on behalf of the most privileged interests.

In such machinations of coloniality(PDF), modernity is the proverbial limited toolbox through which multiplicities of processes and agency across many worlds, are approached as mere targets for the instrumentalising hammer of control.

In this overbearing vision, multidimensional relations are thus narrowly divided, bounded and fixed in ostensibly settled categories. These may then be measured in singularizing metrics like monetary value, GDP, national incomes, consumption bundles, industrial productivity, ‘ecosystem services’, ‘material throughputs’, ‘environmental footprints’ and ‘planetary boundaries’ (eg: 350 ppm CO2 concentration in the atmosphere).

So the many pluralities and complexities of worlds – inseparable from their uncertainties, ambiguities and ignorance – are routinely suppressed and denied in colonial modernities.

Not content with this blinkering out of relational processes, multiple subjectivities are also curtailed and disciplined in this modern imagination of control. As in the machine paradigm, intentions fixate around a notionally singular and definitive idea of ‘function’, with outcomes fantasised as fully met, with no shortfalls (that may be framed later as feedbacks or ‘unintended’ effects).

Thus subjugated by power, privilege and patronage, all that are encountered by colonial modernity are treated like controllable machines: minoritized peoples; singularized nature; individualized life-courses; industrialized production; rationalized reason; disciplined labour; processes of governance; expressions of democracy; forms of organizationsdestinies of nations; unfoldings of innovation; patterns of migration; directions for development; the ‘systems’ of the Earth – and so entire futures of many disparate worlds.

Recently, these controlling imaginations have metastasized in anticipated ‘climate geo-engineering’ and ‘planetary control’. A much-vaunted ‘Anthropocene’ looms, where a cataclysmic geological moment of destruction is mistaken for an extended epoch and then defined in celebration of “dominion” by a notionally universal humanity. All other named geological epochs have lasted at least many millions of years. Yet this one is named in advance, by the same force that exerts the spasm of impact – in praise of itself!

While the constituting myths and fallacies in such hubristic visions are daily unmasked by manifest uncertainties, complexities and pluralities, the ‘globally’ standardising fantasy of colonial control remains central to modernity of all kinds.

Overall then, in this hubristic technical imagination, the fixed orders and borders of colonial modern categories subdue the myriad and dynamic political ecologies of relations and agencies that constitute the diverse identities, practices – and worlds – of the pluriverse.

Pluriversal flourishings

More than five centuries of modern assaults associated with colonial assimilation and control, have been variously resisted by decolonisation movements in different parts of the world. It is a testament to such resistance and refusal, that multiple ways of living, knowing and doing still thrive in Earth’s 7000 human languages, 650 recognised ethnicities and many Indigenous peoples.

Despite the sustained onslaught of colonialism over the last five centuries, the socio-ecological genius of indigenous communities has allowed them to survive, and even offer templates for collective resurgence to the rest of the world.

Grounded in mutually disparate ontologies that often prioritize socio-ecological relations over categories, Indigenous peoples embody in their own realities, a wide range of grasps of being, doing and becoming. Resulting dynamic patterns in socio-material relations go far beyond mere differences of magnitude on pre-set categorical dimensions.

Even the most rationalizing of modernist imaginations must concede that every quantified geometry is always fundamentally structured by an underlying qualitative topology. So too, disparate patterns of human and nonhuman relations across different worlds represent diverse topologies.

Whether acknowledged or not, these topologies of worlds constitute (and are constituted by) heterogeneous and dynamic complexes of ontologies – for instance comprising animals, plants and places encountered as persons while forests, lands and ecologies are respected as cosmological agents in their own right. Similarly, soils may be approached as living beings that can rejuvenate themselves and ‘nature’ can be grasped not as one but as many.

Multiplicities of such worlds are too expansive and complex to be imagined or embodied in modern ways of knowing and being. By privileging tactical opacity over apparent transparency and appreciative wonder over cognitive concreteness, pluriversal worlds can weave back to challenge the objectifying, categorising, subordinating, separating, reducing, standardising, appropriating, extracting, concentrating and accumulating imaginations of colonial modernity.

Pluriversal articulations of different kinds can now be found in burgeoning movements – like those around Pachamama and buen vivir, uBuntueco-swarajpluriversityconvivialityradical care and decolonial love.

Examples of practical activities associated with such movements can be found in most places where Indigenous people live. Take the example of Koraput in Odisha, India, with which we have had the good fortune of being associated, as part of a recently completed research project.

Amidst declining agricultural biodiversity due to intensifying modernity, Koraput’s farmers – often women from Adivasi groups like the Paroja, Gadaba, Kondha, Bhottada, Bhumia, Duruba, and Bonda – have not only been growing, protecting and exchanging many ‘traditional’ varieties of rice but also different kinds of millets. Supported by civil society organisations like Pragati and Living Farms, the work of Koraput’s farmers is now sometimes celebrated under the banner of climate resilience.

Among Koraput’s many craft ‘traditions’ is the weaving of Adivasi Pata that is now celebrated for its sustainability. In making the PataAdivasi peoples like the Mirgan employ handlooms and natural dyes often derived from complex processes using the bark of the Aal tree (Morinda citrifolia) or the roots of Indian Madder. Many of the Adivasi peoples in Koraput have their own distinctive woven motifs, to which they are seen as having a historic attachment.

Sustainability beyond degrowth?

The implications of sustainability in the ‘one-world world’ of colonial modernity are exemplified by the growth/degrowth axis pioneered in LtG debates. Across the many worlds’ world, in contrast, decolonial struggles foreground possibilities for a pluriverse of more deeply and richly contrasting flourishings. Possibilities of the latter cannot be subsumed under any modern ends and agendas – including even the most ambitious framings of sustainability.

Of course, these pluriversal possibilities are gravely undermined by inexorable growth in any single topology – especially one that is built like (eco)modernist economies around technological dreams of colonial control. And obviously, pluriversal flourishings may indeed often require radical degrowing transformations in extractive modern ways of living in the Global North and South. But such transformations cannot be reduced just to imaginations of “natural allies” of those aiming to slow and downscale modern economies and techno-fixes.

Sustainability transformations require appreciations of deeper topological changes in, and differences from, colonial modernities. Some of the transformations are clearly anticipated but not fully realized in calls for humility and simplicity within the degrowth movement. Similarly pluriversal differences may be recognized in the degrowth literature, but without developing critical (ontological) analyses of globally hegemonic colonial modernities. Instead the modern may be oversimplified as ‘Western’.

In this way, it can be missed how struggles for decolonial transformations of modernities diverge in many ways from degrowth agendas. Crucially it can be overlooked that sustainability transformations of all kinds in the Global North and South, may require movements to confront not just intersectional racism but also other similarly prejudiced colonial categorizations and appropriations that alternative modernities inflict on minoritized worlds.

By falling into the trap of colonial categorization and appropriation, alternative modernities weaken the possibilities for systemic change, and need to be reminded of those intellectual and operational pitfalls.

To support such transformations may require an admission (rather than suppression) of ambiguities, uncertainties and ignorance in modern knowing. Transformations may be about embracing: situated learnings rather than presumed universals; caring relations rather than controlling categories; musics of movements rather than linear trajectories for transition; cross-border weaves of solidarities rather than extensions of extractivism; convivial hopes rather than competitive fears; and collective mutualisms rather than technocratic hierarchies.

Perhaps it is in these manifold embraces that the arid dichotomy can be transcended with which this essay began. Only by defying the persistently narrow choice between ‘growth’ or ‘degrowth’ in forms that are categorically given, can the twin faces of colonial modernity in technocratic consumerism and environmental authoritarianism finally be confronted and transformed.


Teaser photo credit: Author supplied.

Saurabh Arora

Saurabh Arora is a Senior Lecturer in Technology and Innovation for Development (SPRU – Science Policy Research Unit) University of Sussex Business School. His research and learning journeys over the last two decades have focused on sustainability and its politics, particularly in relation to science, technology and innovation issues in agriculture and energy. More recently he has also worked on politics of urban transformations and of poverty alleviation. Much of this research was based in India and East Africa.

Tags: degrowth, indigenous knowledges, limits to growth, pluriverse