Nov 2, 2015
This is a transcript of my keynote address presented at the ‘Local Lives, Global Matters’ conference in Castlemaine, Victoria, 16-18 October 2015.Other keynote speakers included Rob Hopkins, David Holmgren, and Helena Norberg-Hodge.
Thank you for that introduction, Jacinta, good morning everyone. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land and to recognise that these have always been spaces of teaching, learning, sharing, and conversation. It is a real honour to be part of this conversation today.
When I was a boy, if ever I were amongst a group of people congregating at 9am on a Sunday morning it was because I was at Church. For better or for worse, I am now a lapsed, or rather, I should say, a collapsed Catholic, although I remain a seeker. But as I look around the world today, especially from my Western perspective, it seems clear enough that God, if he is not yet dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche declared, is, at least, increasingly absent. There seems to be a tension between our spiritual sensibilities and the cultures and systems within which we live. As the poet-musician, Tom Waits, would shout in the voice of a husky wolf: ‘God’s away on business.’
But the absence of God should not imply an absence of religious thinking in our culture or cultures. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite; that our Western religiosity has become ever more intense in recent decades, and what has happened is that we simply switched idols, no longer worshipping the God of Christianity, and instead worshipping at the alter of growth, singing praises to the God of GDP, our saviour, for only in growth will we find redemption. Our high priests now take the peculiar form of neoclassical economists, bankers, and national treasurers. Daniel Bell once wrote in his landmark text, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism: ‘Economic growth is the secular religion of advancing industrial nations.’
Since the industrial revolution this faith in growth has been unshakable. Today, however, we find ourselves at a moment in history where this faith is beginning to crumble, where the ideological ground beneath us is beginning to move – and opening up before our very eyes is a space, at last, for something new, a space where we are being called to think and live differently. What I would like to talk about this morning is something that has been emerging in recent years within the ever-widening cracks of capitalism, a new story, of sorts, or a new book of many different stories.
But I am not here to try to replace the god of growth with a new God. I will not pretend to be the next iteration of the high priest, nor am I about to pontificate about a new Doctrine or Dogma to which everyone must subscribe. As the anti-capitalist slogan goes, there may be one No, but there are many Yeses. So today I am going to talk about one of the yeses, which I hope can enrich the multitude of overlapping yeses we have all been exposed to this weekend, just as they have enriched me. To all those who have been part of the collective ‘yes’ this weekend, I thank you and I salute you.
The vocabulary I am going to focus on today revolves around the emerging ‘degrowth’ movement, which calls for planned economic contraction of developed or overdeveloped nations. I will get into details soon enough, but the basic case for degrowth is surprisingly simple:
1. The existing global economy is already in ecological overshoot, driven by the expansion of high-impact, Western-style consumer lifestyles and the structures of growth that often lock people into those lifestyles.
2. Great multitudes around the world do not have enough to live with dignity.
3. And, we have a population of 7.3 billion that is still growing.
Based on those three simple but extremely challenging premises – ecological overshoot, global poverty, and population – it follows that the richest nations must give up the pursuit of ‘more’ and find ways to flourish on less – much less. Less energy, less resources, less waste. And that means less consumerism, less globalisation, and ultimately, less capitalism.
But degrowth is not just a movement in opposition. Perhaps more than anything else degrowth is about embracing the abundance of sufficiency, it is about knowing how much is enough, and creating the necessary cultures, structures, and systems within which the entire community of life can flourish.