Shifting state : from growth to health

2022 marks 50 years of historical advances in the recognition of human constitutive dependency on the Earth System : Limits to growth report to the Club of Rome, the Stockholm summit and declaration, and the UN Conference on the Human Environment.
On that occasion, I argue that achieving health and care for mankind and the biosphere is a very different way of societal growth.
Growth without health : the long great mistake (Horton and Lo, 2014).
Beyond growth : health, what else ?
A manner of leaving no deleterious trace of human existence on Earth, of joining the biosphere and its wanders : the interconnected water, carbon, nitrogen, and other fundamental cycles of nature. The definitive exit from over-production and over-consumption and their consequences (Meadows, 2022) means shifting from a violent to a peaceful relationship with the Earth System (Serres, 1990 and 2016).
This is likely a cultural revolution, knowing that history, according to one of the fathers of the western economy science, Alfred Marshall, has shown that human needs expand with knowledge, technology, and material richness. And population.
The ideology of perpetual growth (economic, demographic, etc.) on a finite planet is a fiction (Meadows et al, 1972 and 2005). That fiction, founded on immoderation and prestige, is the essence of power systems, i.e., the multidimensional logic of unbridled competition, the mantra of productivity and concentration (Mischke et al, 2021, Francis et al, 2022), and the combined control on physical, informational, and institutional resources at global scale (Kissinger, 2014 ; Ottersen et al, 2014). The result is enhanced socio-economic and ecological pressures and impacts, i.e., social and ecological degrowth.
On that trajectory, China’s state centralized capitalism is expected to collide with GAFAM’s private centralized capitalism. Such a configuration of economic and financial systems would orient societal choices, change the perception of the world and structure the social space in ways that may restrict democratic debate and practice with the risk of an insufficient ethical response and impoverishment of world visions (see also Sullivan, 2009).

Alternative movements

A myriad of amazing alternative movements questioning the foundations of the system in place (Bennet et al, 2016 ; Löwy et Tanuro, 2021) are proliferating but have not been able so far to challenge the essence of business as usual. Why ?
The diversity of these alternatives is a local discrete wealth, characterized by varying degrees of cooperation and solidarity. Documentaries such as Demain (Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, 2015) and Bigger than us (Flore Vasseur, 2021) illustrate how people (and young people in particular) are engaged on the ground.

Food production, transformation, and distribution in local settings is a good example (Collart Dutilleul, 2021) : cooperative societies are building confidence networks essential for food security, cover social rights, create ethical charts, participative governance with just and equitable trade and prices, share logistic services, eco-labels and scores with dedicated data bases and platforms (e.g., Agribalyse). Via Campesina deserves a particular mention highlighting a severe bottleneck : agro-food small holders are the most vulnerable link of the social chain.

The modest financial support to such alternatives through public and private, but also crowd-funding, favours dispersion and crumbling, an entropy essential for maintaining business as usual, its institutions and mechanisms behind the monopolization of the commons (e.g., resource scarcity-generating institutions).
At more global level, NGOs (e.g., Oxfam) and international institutions (e.g., UNEP) that contributed ideas and recommendations for change had no or limited outreach so far.

However, all these alternatives are political projects, mobilizing and sharing important sets of values expected to shift societal boundaries by diffusion and domino effects. But can they in the absence of a supportive narrative, a matrix for creating synergy and coherence of the myriad of concrete projects already underway ? In other words, a narrative enabling substantial networking and the critical mass absolutely necessary in counteracting the dominant power system.

This is what the Stockholm+ 50 declaration (2022) is attempting : reviving a historical process and engaging with civil society, institutions, and governments all-in-one.
You can sign and join. I quote :
One of the most revolutionary achievements of the 1972 Declaration was asserting

  • the interconnections between development, poverty, and the environment ;
  • a State’s “responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond national jurisdiction” (Principle 21 Stockholm Declaration). Principle 21 reappeared as Principle 2 in the Rio Declaration, adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit. Probably the most significant provision of both Declarations is the “no-harm” rule, now widely recognized as a principle of customary international law, whereby a State is duty-bound to prevent environmental harm to other States. The problem is that, in practice, the “no-harm rule” does not include the global commons, nor does it include the system that supports life – the Earth System – as an indivisible, highly interconnected, and single whole. The indivisibility of the biophysical unity of the Earth System inevitably leads to the formation of a “community of interests” that must be organized with the goal of restoring and maintaining its well-functioning state.

The Stockholm+50 Conference will take place on June 2nd and 3rd, 2022 in Stockholm under the theme “ Stockholm+50 : a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity ”.This high-level meeting follows consultations and discussions with individuals, communities, organizations and governments around the world. A one-day preparatory meeting has been scheduled at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 28 March 2022 (UN, 2022) on the urgent need for a system-wide transformation of socioeconomic systems through policies, that change economic and social signalling, such as measures of progress and wellbeing, true costs of economic products, targeted pro-poor subsidies, sustainable consumption that addresses both under and over consumption, circular production practices, investment in education, gender equality and rights of women. Policies are required to enable countries to increase fiscal space, invest in sustainable infrastructure, rebuild key sectors and value chains, grow green and decent jobs, and align finance and investment in the pandemic recovery with longer term sustainable and equitable development. In short, setting accent on responsibility to care for the Earth that sustains life and to ensure that prosperity reaches and is shared by all.
Is this THE narrative that will make change happen ? Time will tell. The Michel Serres Institute contributed to the drafting of the declaration, the planetary health issue being critical.
Let us take a look at the past and current narrative landscape.

Narratives, visions.

Often humans base their activities on the stories they tell to themselves (Harari, 2017 ; Wyborn et al, 2020 ; Bohler, 2020 ; Chapoutot, 2021). Narratives are obviously important as they can change political agendas. As a matter of fact, narratives are used to provide the assumptions and arguments for future pathways and technological trajectories. The great emancipation-oriented narratives of modernity have been able to give meaning to events, guide practices, legitimize ethics, institutions and social actions. Despite their divergence on the nature of emancipation or their material differences, they all seem to have been invalidated by history because, embedded in subtending techno-scientific narratives, they generated securitization rather than emancipation (Amadieu, 2017). Taken under a different angle, the conquest of freedom has largely been built on the idea of the abundance of resources (Charbonnier, 2020), a colonial and industrial era lasting imprint.
Limits to growth, the Great Transformation, Natural Contract, Anthropocene, the Long now, Degrowth movement, Planetary health, Common Home of Humanity, Homo deus, the New Green Deal (and many more) are the new generation of narratives and visions. They engender semantic confusion as there is no comparative inventory and critical synthesis assessing their respective purpose and destination, and how actionable they are (see also Hulme, 2020). And who decides on priorities and their coherent articulation so that limited resources be beneficially allocated (Lomborg, 2001) ?
As a matter of fact, most grand narratives are variations on the same theme, the indivisible socio-ecological systems, characterized by Ostrom (2009). Since then the link between social and ecological processes has entered the media, policy, and economic agendas (Raworth, 2012). The social-ecological approach implies a radical reversal of the relationship with the economy and the markets, especially the financial markets. Public authorities - promoters and guardians of physical and institutional infrastructures, and public services - must channel markets left to their own devices towards efficient social and ecological investments. And move beyond their present condition as insurer of last resort and safety net for the private finance. Facing a highly unstable capitalism, the long term thinking must come from somewhere : it is high time for narrative making.

PNG - 45 ko

Diagram. Current narratives fuel semantic confusion, the myriad of local alternatives lack critical mass and political weight, and top-down or bottom-up propositions of change mask shared values and core principles of action. A synthetic socioecological narrative would define a destination, and the dedicated methodology and instruments necessary for the in context deployment of solutions.

In that landscape, it is very likely that the contour of a grand narrative – based on social justice, environmental responsibility, and cultural acceptance/acceptability - will strongly rely on the planetary health concept and methodology (Horton et al, 2014 ; Whitmee et al, 2015 ; see also IMS, 2020 ; Laurent, 2020), and have the resource justice and stewardship challenge at its core (Negrutiu, 2022). The shared health of nature, society, and people.

The sober society to come will

  1. consider that Health is a precondition, outcome, and indicator of a sustainable society, and should be adopted as a universal value and shared social and political objective for all (Ottersen et al, 2014), and
  2. aim for more incremental, and multi-scalar projects that emerge from a humbler disposition toward the future and that anticipate perverse outcome (Hulme, 2020).

Otherwise, the scenario proposed by Randers (2011) for the next 40 years likely sets the main horizon : capitalism (it persists, but changes strongly) ; economic growth (weak because affected by access to resources) ; democracy (still standing, with variations of authoritarianism imposed by the degradation of ecosystems) ; intergenerational relations (bad, because young people struggle to change their condition) ; climate stability (very altered, especially after 2050) .

All in all, young people should take stock of this, lead the change by drafting their own narrative, and make the prediction wrong.

Ioan Negrutiu, April 05, 2022

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Article publié ou modifié le

11 avril 2022