Video: How to Un-Sustain the Unsustainable

30 min presentation on the need for post-growth and my research on minimalist lifestyles.

Miriam Meissner

The presentation was held at the Pas Festival in Maastricht on September 10th, and I was later asked to share my slides. Here they are, together with the text from the presentation.

The presentation gives a short overview on the need for post-growth and my research on minimalist lifestyles.

How to unsustain the unsustainable (text from presentation)

I’m going to start my story with two statements that will probably not surprise you. Statements that are important because they motivate my work.

The first statement is that humans – some more than others – are – at this moment in time – rapidly and irreversibly heating up this planet, destroying its various ecosystems, and causing the death and extinction of uncountable animals and plants

In other words: Humans are causing a widespread ecological breakdown. 

Here some indicators to substantiate my argument:

Between 1970 and 2016, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians that were monitored by the World Wildlife Fund shrank by 68% on average! So, global animal populations shrank by roughly two thirds – in only 46 years. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a science policy body that summarizes and assesses recent ecological science, concludes:

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history’ 

Key driving factors of this decline are 

  • deforestation for agricultural (in particular meat and diary) production, 
  • deforestation to expand human settlements, 
  • overfishing and -hunting, 
  • climate change 
  • pollution (of various sorts)
  • and invasive species (transported by humans into territories where they don’t belong and do harm).

And that’s of course not just a problem of ‘nature’ – the big other – being destroyed. As the chair of the IPBES puts it:

‘We [as in we humans] are [currently] eroding the very foundations of our [own] economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” (IPBES Media release)

In addition to that, we’re also harming our health. 

In 2015, environmental pollution alone (in particular air pollution from fossil fuel combustion) caused approximately 9 million premature deaths worldwide – that’s about 1 in every 6 deaths worldwide (16%), three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. 

And, the statistic does not even include injuries and mortality from extreme weather events, or climate-induced hunger and water shortages.

But… enough for my first statement on ecosystem breakdown and its consequences.

Now, my second statement is that the measures we’ve taken so far to halt ecosystem breakdown are failing (this does not mean that there aren’t any good initiatives out there, but – overall, in their sum, the measures we’ve taken so far are falling short).

Again some examples:

In 2021, the International Energy Agency – a conservative institution that has friendly ties with the world energy sector – concluded that – to have any reasonable chance of keeping global heating below catastrophic levels, there mustn’t be any further development of oil, coal, gas. In other words, the IEA is saying ‘Keep fossil fuels in the ground!’ Existing stocks are enough to push us over the brink.

A 2020 UN report comes to a similar conclusion. According to the report, fossil fuel production must decrease by roughly 6% per year between 2020 and 2030.

In reality, however, it is increasing by 2% per year on average. 

To support this, governments around the world are investing the monetary equivalent of 6.8% of the global gross domestic product (5.9 trillion dollars) into subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. That’s 11 million for the fossil fuel industry, every minute of the year.

The war in Ukraine, devastating in its own right, is making all of this even worse. In their efforts to seek alternatives to Russian energy, countries are increasing their fossil fuel investment and development.

As we know, the Netherlands is no exception here. 

But … enough depressing statements for now.

A burning question that keeps my mind occupied (maybe yours as well) is: 

Why are we failing, big time, to tackle these pressing problems?

The first report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, was published 32 years ago, in 1990. I was 4 years old. Since then, quite some time has passed. Multiple United Nations COPs were held. Environmental agreements were signed. Promises were made. The result? An increase in carbon emissions by more than 60%. Even the World Energy Agency finds this quite shocking. 

So, my question is not only, why are we failing, but why have we been failing – for more than 30 years?

But, before to dive deeper into this question, I should say that ‘we’ have not been failing, because there is no uniform we (my mistake to use that pronoun in the first place).

As research by the NGO Oxfam recently showed: 

The world’s richest 10% are responsible for 50 percent of the global carbon emissions. In contrast, the world’s poorest are responsible for only 10%.

Research recently published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health shows that, historically speaking (i.e. in terms of historically accumulated emissions) the Global North is responsible for 92% of the excess emissions that are now driving global heating.

On the flipside, research shows that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is to be found in territories that are stewarded by Indigenous communities.

So, ‘we’ are not all equally responsible for ecosystem breakdown. And, we’re also not all equally unsuccessful in counteracting it.

So, what, then, makes the difference?

Obviously, it would be simplistic, and therefore unscientific, to narrow this down to a single factor. There are multiple factors that make the difference.

One key factor, however, seems to be related to the ways in which contemporary industrialized nations seek to achieve their common wealth and wellbeing … economic growth!  

Economic growth is supposed to bring us all prosperity. It is supposed to level out social inequality – the logic being that, if only we grow the economic pie big enough, then there will finally be an ample piece for everyone. 

Now, critical research suggests that this equation has never fully worked – in part because growth alone does not guarantee a fair distribution. In part because our common measure of economic growth – the gross domestic product (or GDP) – doesn’t really measure all the factors that make us well. So, for example, it doesn’t measure the care we provide for each other as friends or family. It doesn’t measure our leisure time. It doesn’t measure the health of our ecosystems. It doesn’t measure volunteer work. Etc. Etc.

But let’s leave this critique aside for a moment and focus on the environmental repercussions of economic growth.

Because, to achieve economic growth, we need raw materials, we need land, we need energy. For the IT industry to grow, for example, we need more microchips – and for that we need more rare earth metals. For the tourism industry to grow, we usually need more transport infrastructure, fuels and hotels. For the meat industry to grow, we need more animal pasture and therefore more farmland. And so on.

So far, economic growth therefore went hand in hand with the destruction of ecosystems for extraction and agriculture, with greenhouse gas emissions, and with other forms of pollution – such as groundwater pollution with chemicals (think of the fashion industry, for example) or plastic waste.

Now – this is of course quite unfortunate. It means that the same strategy that is supposed to lead us to prosperity is, at the same time, destroying the ecological foundations of our prosperity. It’s a catch 22.

This is why industrialized societies came up with a very popular idea: The idea that through smart management and smart technologies – we can decouple economic growth from its negative environmental impacts – and that’s the idea of green growth.

So, once again, the basic premise of green growth is that through smart management (such as emissions trading), and through smart technologies (such as renewable energy or recycling) we – industrialized societies – can decouple our economic growth from its negative environmental impacts (land and resource use, emissions, pollution and waste).

That’s what industrialized societies have been trying throughout the last decades.

Now, the crucial question of course is: Does this decoupling work? 

And, even more importantly, actually, does it work fast and well enough to halt global heating and biodiversity loss before it’s too late? 

Here is what a recent scientific report, commissioned by the European Environmental Bureau concludes on that question:

‘not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown, but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future’

Interestingly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services comes to a similar conclusion.

And so does theEuropean Environment Agency – an independent research body advising the European Commission.

Among international science-policy bodies, there seems to be increasing consensus on the fact that green growth alone won’t work. 

— but what’s the implication of that insight?

The logical implication of that insight is that, instead of thinking sustainability exclusively in terms of green management and green technology (which we need as well, no doubt), we need to also start thinking of it in terms of what to unsustain. 

To put it in the words of British writer and activist George Monbiot: “What counts, in seeking to prevent runaway global heating, is not (or at least not just) the good things we start to do, but the bad things we cease to do.”

So, it means something like no more subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. That’s 5.9 trillion dollars saved. Easy! (well, not quite, since they have a powerful lobby, but it should be the first step – a step that, theoretically, could be realized from one day to the next)

Importantly, unsustaining the unsustainable, also means ditching the ideal of unlimited economic growth. (interestingly, even the OECD – so far a fierce advocate of growth – is considering this idea, as you can see here on the left)

In particular, we need to shrink environmentally harmful industries, and reduce environmentally harmful types of consumption, such as flying, animal proteins, and fast fashion. 

And that, usually, is the point where the issue of un-sustaining the unsustainable becomes uncomfortable.

It’s associated with austerity, sacrifice, tightening the belt. 

But people just don’t want that!  – I am sometimes told.

Another, somewhat more serious concern related to shrinking industries and reducing consumption is the following:

If industries shrink or disappear, then people will lose their jobs, states will lose their tax revenues, social welfare systems will go broke, social unrest will emerge.

Those are concerns we can’t neglect. 

Yet, it doesn’t mean that the un-sustaining the unsustainable isn’t possible or worth trying.

Instead, it means that the shrinking of harmful economic activities needs to be combined with policies that even out the negative social impacts of this process.

Luckily, social scientists and ecological economists have already drafted such policy proposals. 

Proposals include yet are not limited to. 

The introduction of work-sharing and a universal basic income (or UBI), to counteract the effects of losses in certain jobs.

The valuing of activities that bring collective wellbeing, but do so without a massive eco-footprint, such as culture, education, craft and care. Currently, most of these activities are either un- or undercompensated. 

Financing such policies would require new pathways for taxation, ideally targeting those 11% of the world population who currently hold more than 80% of its wealth

To gain funds while at the same time ensuring that the occasional engagement in environmentally harmful forms of consumption (such as taking a flight) would not become an exclusive privilege of the super-rich, researchers suggest the progressive taxation of environmentally harmful activities. So, for example, the first one or two flights per person and year would come at an affordable cost, and anything beyond that would be taxed heavily. 

Now, these are just a few suggestions. Suggestions that, as I hope, will soon find their way into mainstream public and policy debates.

In order for that to happen, however, it is – in my view – vital that we also address the other objection that is held against shrinking environmentally harmful forms of consumption – namely:  that people just don’t want that!

To do that, I have, in 2018 started a research project on minimalist lifestyles.

Minimalist lifestyles are a trend in contemporary popular culture. They include 

  • Self-help books on how to declutter the house, agenda and digital media distractions.
  • Facebook groups on how to live happily yet frugally. 
  • Netflix series on how to live a meaningful life by renouncing consumerism. 
  • Youtube videos on how to live and travel ‘zero waste’. 
  • And the list goes on.

What unites minimalist lifestyles is that its advocates lament a world of too much – too much clutter, too much stress, too much distraction.

That they advocate the reduction of consumption & belongings, work & competition, distraction & commitments.

And, and that they do so not primarily because they want to save the planet, but because they believe that ‘too much’ harms their own happiness, and that ‘less’ will make them feel better.

So, minimalism, for them, is a self-interested, hedonistic endeavor.

The reason why I found this interesting is that these lifestyles seem to challenge an important truism of societies that pursue the ideal of unlimited economic growth – namely that more is more. And that people just don’t want less.

What I found out first is that minimalists mind some of the under-discussed personal downsides of high levels of consumption, which are:

  • To consume more, you also need to work more – while, if you consume less, you might be able to work less and gain time for other meaningful activities, such as caring for loved ones, engaging in politics, pursuing artistic endeavors, self-care, etc, etc. (of course, all of this hinges on income – I’ll get to that in a bit)
  • To own more material goods, you also need to store and clean more. You might even need a bigger house, which – again – means working more, or taking on a debt
  • To continuously engage with certain digital platforms – such as Facebook – you might lose certain qualities of life experience, including embodied social interaction and deep attention. Disengaging from these platforms can re-establish these life qualities.

Now, much of this is obvious – when you think about it – and yet it is rarely addressed in our current debates on consumption, growth, wellbeing and the environment.

What I found even more interesting, however, is that minimalists do – through the practice and aesthetics of their lifestyles – also express certain longings. Longings for life qualities that industrialized societies, with their strong focus on increasing demand, productivity and growth, leave unfulfilled.

For example, minimalist lifestyles express a longing for more resonant relationships with the material world. By ‘resonant’ I mean relationships with the material world that are decidedly not about consuming or controlling the material world but about adapting to it, responding to it, playing with it, engaging in something that is mutual. 

And, what matters as well is that such resonant engagements with the material world do not just happen on an exceptional base – as a weekend hiking in nature – for example, but as something regular and everyday. Interestingly, research suggests that this is also associated with better mental health.

If you’d like to know about this idea of resonance, then I recommend the work of sociologist Harmut Rosa, who also happens to be a leading German post-growth advocate. 

Another longing that minimalists express in their practice is the longing for a different kind of life experience. Something that is not about multitasking, jumping from notification to notification, and being always ‘efficient’. Instead, they long for ‘deep focus’. 

As Michael Harris puts it in The End of Absence, one of the books I analyzed: 

‘I wanted a long and empty wooden desk where I could get some real work done. I wanted a walk in the woods with nobody to meet. I wanted release from the migraine-scale pressure of constant communication, the ping-ping-ping of perma messaging, the dominance of communication over experience.’

Now, I could go on here talking about longings, but I need to move to a third factor that interests me about minimalist lifestyles – namely the fact that, for most of them, minimalism is all about individual choice. It’s not a political project. It’s a lifestyle hack.

On the one hand, this makes minimalist lifestyles particularly interesting for me. The fact that most minimalists are neither politically nor environmentally motivated, makes their insights on improving wellbeing by consuming less somewhat more credible.

And yet, minimalists’ individualism – their insistence on minimalism being just a personal lifestyle hack is also their biggest shortcoming, as it makes them fail to see how many of the advantages that they praise about minimalism are not available to everyone. 

For example, If I need to consume minimally in order to make ends meet, then minimalism is not a lifestyle but a necessity. It will not allow me to work less, not will it feel like a voluntary choice.

Or, as Guardian columnist Chelsea Fagan puts it: ‘“The only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistic circumstances.”

Similarly, what’s the point of a digital detox when every platform that we use to connect with our peers is explicitly designed to keep us hooked and scrolling. Because that’s social media’s business model – they sell our screen time to advertisers. In this context, personal abstinence is a valuable exercise, sure, but it may feel like tilting at windmills – and it won’t solve the root cause of the problem.

What is needed, then, is that not just as individuals but as communities, as social movements, and as social institutions (including universities) we start to see that stress, clutter and distraction are not just personal shortcomings.

They are caused by an economic system that – in order to keep the ball rolling and create growth – needs to continuously step up the speed and scale at which we produce things, compete with each other, demand stuff on the market, and – related to this – pay attention to advertising.

Similarly, it is relevant that we – as society – realize that growth does not just bring about certain benefits to our collective wellbeing, but also considerable downsides. 

And, by this, I don’t just mean that growth is harming our life-sustaining ecosystems (although that reason is somewhat big and important enough in its own right); 

I also mean that our societal growth fixation is taking away a range of life-qualities that are unsaleable and unprofitable – yet essential to life-satisfaction, such as leisure, resonance, and deep focus. 

To regain these qualities while at the same time counteracting the exhaustion of both people and planet, more than a lifestyle trend is needed. 

What is needed is a social movement for rethinking and reshaping the means by which we, as society, create wellbeing and how we measure it. 

There are a range of contemporary initiatives that have this goal in mind, such as

  • Such as the degrowth or ‘post-growth movement’
  • The Wellbeing Economy Alliance
  • And the Sustainable Prosperity project

At the same time, there are many social and environmental justice movements that align with this endeavor.

For of all of us interested in un-sustaining the unsustainable, I invite you to check the websites of these initiatives, to contact the NL-based degrowth network Ontgroei.

And,- if you’re particularly interested in the cultural and cultural policy dimensions of un-sustaining the unsustainable, then I recommend that you follow our MA on Arts and Culture here at UM. 

Enough talking on my part for now. Thanks for your patience. 

Hidden stop sign, photo by Michael Coghlan (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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