Posts

Building a Local Movement: Transition Winnipeg Embraces the Steady State Economy

by James Magnus-Johnston

Johnston_photoWhen activists, teachers, and thought-leaders talk about the steady state economy (SSE), we often refer to macroeconomic state-oriented policy. Not always fodder for dinner conversation. If we’re going to mainstream the SSE, efforts have to be reflected in the local community to show what a steady state economy feels like in the real world. To that end, I believe that a strategic partnership between the transition movement and steady state advocates would be mutually beneficial. Transition initiatives are in need of a lexicon that articulates what we’re transitioning to—that is, the degrowth transition to a steady state economy—and the steady state movement would be able to foster greater collaboration with proponents of community economic development and grassroots change. In collaboration with a number of local teachers and practitioners, I tested a strategic partnership over the last two years, with positive early results in a city that isn’t generally known for leading the charge to be green.

Sometimes, steady state advocates simply fall into the trap of preaching to the wrong audience. We want to celebrate the adoption of SSE policy by governments—things like the reduction of the work week, a basic income, and an increase in the fractional reserve requirement. So rather than having conversations with our neighbours, we jet-set to cosmopolitan centres only to argue with neoclassical macroeconomists over the feasibility of embracing a new set of norms. The response is almost inevitably “one day…but not now.” Among audiences where competitive overconsumption and entitlement are accepted as prime motivators, the steady state economy could not possibly be an easy sell. The culture shift is happening elsewhere.

In fact, the culture shift is likely occurring among a sizeable number of citizens in your own community, where steady state policies are an easy sell indeed. Perhaps post-growth thinkers need to embrace a both/and strategy—both policy reform and grassroots change—rather than privileging one over the other or wasting energy on the wrong audience.

Enter the transition movement, a neighbourhood-based movement for low-carbon, climate-resilient action and reform.

When bicycling isn’t enough, and policy reform is too slow, perhaps what we need is a community-based movement. Photo Credit: Daniel Lee

The transition movement has adopted the notion that “If we try and do it on our own it will be too little, if we wait for government to do it it will be too late, but if we can gather together those around us—our street, our neighborhood, our community—it might just be enough, and it might just be in time.” This likely resonates just as well with proponents of degrowth towards a steady state economy: clearly, if we wait for government, it will be too late. If we act as individuals by embracing materially simpler lifestyles, we may just be branded “weird” by friends and family. Too little. But if we foster a community of like-minded partners, our efforts may be just enough, just in time. Community gardens appear, a can-do entrepreneurial culture leaps ahead of nervous or fickle legislators, bottom-up pressure is exerted on bureaucrats, and simpler low-carbon lifestyles become almost cool—perhaps even hip(ster). More than anything else, the transition becomes something that people can feel. It’s achievable, and it’s fun.

Can it happen in your community? I think Transition Winnipeg’s early experience demonstrates that it can happen just about anywhere. Over the past two years, I inflicted my enthusiasm for post-growth economic change upon the organization’s initiating committee. What I found was that grassroots activists and practitioners were craving a word that described an economy that functions within ecological limits. Often the only word we use to describe the present state of affairs is “capitalism,” but popular alternatives (“socialism”) aren’t universally designed to function within ecological limits. Attractively, perhaps, the word “steady state” can be used to describe both.

Transition Winnipeg’s first pass at imagining Winnipeg as a thriving post-growth community and steady state economy is entitled Winnipeg’s Great Transition: Ideas and Actions for a Climate-Resilient, Low-Carbon City. The document is not all that unique among transition initiatives. In fact, there are plenty of vision documents among transition towns, often called “energy descent action plans,” that outline how energy and climate constraints will shape communities in the years to come. What is perhaps unique about Winnipeg’s Great Transition is its explicit use of the post-growth paradigm and steady state economy as organizing principles. After all, energy use and economic growth have historically been extremely closely linked; it is accepted among ecological economists that you can’t have much of one without the other. On many transition websites, including that of the REconomy Project, “growth” was widely used at first. While the term seems to have been phased out, “steady state” has not been embraced as an alternative. Would it not be meaningful for transition groups to state the explicit goal of aggregate degrowth towards a steady state economy?

The release of Winnipeg’s Great Transition was something of a one-day sensation in the local media for a city where ecological resilience and post-growth planning almost never makes the headlines. We timed the release to coincide with the middle of the civic election and invited a number of mayoral candidates to attend. Three candidates joined us for a sincere dialogue and were receptive to the strategy. The authors of the report were invited by some of the candidates to provide a workshop to the new city council to explain why post-growth planning is important, and how it improves resilience. The report may even have made conversation around the dinner table.

Are small, local initiatives like ours going to move us toward a steady state economy overnight? No. Are they going to create the kind of on-the-ground connections and enthusiasm that a full-scale political and economic movement requires? With time, I believe they will.

Winnipeg provides a great site to test a strategic partnership between the transition movement and CASSE, but that’s not because the city is a shining beacon of change! One mayoral candidate recently announced that he would cancel rapid transit and focus on filling potholes instead (full-cost accounting be damned). Rather, Winnipeg provides a great example of change precisely because the city sometimes fails to embrace the leading edge. If a grassroots partnership can work here, it can work just about anywhere.

The Titanic Code

by Dave Gardner

One hundred years ago April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Several have marked this anniversary by noting the similarities between the Titanic and human civilization. In Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, on the National Geographic channel, James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film, Titanic, aptly turned the event into metaphor:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.  We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum.*

The metaphor is remarkably apt, as the size of the Titanic meant it was not nimble. It could not stop or turn on a dime. The captain needed to look far ahead on the horizon and plan ahead. Doesn’t that sound like the predicament in which civilization finds itself? We have built up an increasingly complex system, and it is a ginormous one (7 billion served), touching all corners of the planet. It’s impossible to change overnight. And looking ahead with only a short time-horizon serves it very poorly.

There’s something else keeping us from changing course, however. It is lack of desire. Our culture is not interested in a course correction because we’re distracted. We don’t see the iceberg ahead because we’re fixated on a cultural story that defines progress as growth, and growth as progress. This worldview has led us to develop a system that depends on everlasting growth.

Fortunately, when Mother Nature says, “enough,” key parts of the system begin to fail. I say fortunately because it’s hard to argue with success. As long as this system appears to be serving most of us well, we are not likely to throw it out. The failure of the system, which we’ve begun to experience, is our best hope for motivation to get moving toward a more enlightened arrangement.

“We’ve written a narrative that was fine in the nineteenth century.  It served us well through much of the twentieth century… but it’s outdated.  And we now need a new cultural narrative.”

— William Rees, ecological economist, in GrowthBusters

In the documentary, GrowthBusters, I refer to perpetual growth as our “operating system,” comparing it to Windows or Mac OS. The belief, the dependence on, and the pursuit of growth are what we’re all about. It’s the computer code that manages everything we do. Many call it our cultural narrative. If we were on the bridge of the Titanic, it would be in our charts, affecting our compass, on our radar. It informs (or misinforms) everything we do.

Without a doubt there are economists, sociologists and activists developing patches for this growth-based operating system. There are also scientists and activists developing apps that help us lighten our load on the planet. Renewable energy, water and land conservation, permaculture, and transit-oriented development are all examples of what I would call improved software applications, but they are still written to run on our old, growth-based operating system. With a system committed to everlasting growth, they will not keep our civilization from running off a cliff.

This is not to disparage them; it is to keep us from relaxing, thinking they will enable our civilization to become sustainable. They can be meaningful parts of a completely new system. But we do have to throw out the old system and start with fresh computer code. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 2013 won’t do — Windows has to go.

“Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future.”

— Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

Changing our cultural narrative is a tall order. In my film, Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for, either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.” I believe it’s the biggest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Who can we call? I’d love to say, just call GrowthBusters. After all, the film is my biggest contribution to the change we need to make.

But this challenge is too big. The film takes only the first step, which is to raise awareness that we have a culture that worships growth everlasting, and to help audiences realize it’s not delivering on its promise. I see the role of storytellers like Daniel Quinn, Dave Foreman, Richard Heinberg and myself as one of preparing our fellow human beings to be receptive to the completely new computer code that steady staters, transitioners, de-growthers and others are developing.

The time is now. The pieces are falling into place. The old system is crashing. We’re not able to reboot and get back to the business of robust growth. It will be key that we don’t rush in with patches or rely only on new apps. We must be relentless in our insistence on adopting a new operating system.

*Thanks to Joe Romm of ThinkProgress for alerting me to Cameron’s words.

Dave Gardner is the director of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, currently screening around the world. CASSE executive board members Brian Czech, Herman Daly and Peter Victor appear in the film. This commentary was published simultaneously here, as part of a series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Dave asks that you take his Pledge to Think Small to help speed adoption of a new operating system.