In times of crises: Why there is no place for ‘development’ in imagining a just future for all

by Adriana Cancar

In these current times of crises, and I purposely use crises in the plural, fatal misconceptions of ‘development’ and ‘growth’ are becoming even more blatantly apparent. Any given day we can see the consequences of ‘development’. Humans are forced to look for a safe place to live as their homes are simply inhabitable due to environmental degradation, land grabs, extractivism, heat waves, floods, droughts and fires. All the while, it feels like the climate crisis is  only taken seriously by young people most likely to experience the devastating consequences of a fossil-based, mass consumptive and resource-intensive lifestyle. Slowly but surely global warming is also hitting the global North –  and that means crises also affect ‘us’, the (relatively) ‘privileged’. By ‘privileged’ I mean those that for decades have profited from a fossil-based, mass-consumptive lifestyle all the while externalizing its costs.

Simply put: The ‘privileged’ are those that live in wasteful abundance and affluence whilst large parts of the world’s population (not only in the global South but also in the global North) are struggling daily to make ends meet. This is clearly a problem of equal distribution. Due to weather extremes causing flooding and shortened rain periods crops more often fail and harvests bring less revenue than previously. The ‘privileged’ in the global North only discover these events in rising prices, through warmer winters, hotter summers and media coverage while the other half of the world clearly struggles to scrape a living. There is no way to deny that something is seriously going wrong and that most of the issues the world’s population is facing are intertwined with an Imperial Mode of Living that is hardly questioned and blindly followed by the most.

So, what are the root causes? How are different- seemingly unconnected- issues such as global warming, growing social injustices and inequality interlinked?

To understand that we need to unravel the concept, paradigm and practice of ‘development’. There is a whole world based on and working around this concept, shaped by us. Who is ‘We’? ‘We’ are the people, the ‘privileged’ (in the global North), that are profiting from ‘development’, setting this as a standard and assuming it as universal. With ‘development lifestyle’ I especially refer to the global division of work and production, resource and labour exploitation, and an externalization of its costs both through time and space. Another crucial aspect of the standard setting of ‘developed’ vs. ‘underdeveloped’ is the one-dimensional measurement of success and even happiness within purely economic terms, taking industrialized, urban societies and what they conceive as ‘desirable’ as the yardstick: economic growth, and endless consumption of mass-produced goods. This hardly questioned lifestyle is the point where I want to start proposing alternatives.

‘Development’ and the growth doctrine

In almost every area of our life we assume that ‘development’ is positive and something desirable, while, at the same time, there is more and more proof of what it does to our environment- socially and ecologically. Part of the reason why people are forced to leave their homes hoping to start a better life in the global North is because highly industrialized countries are extensively exploiting resources elsewhere. The connection is obvious:  maintaining economic indicators- and endless growth requires the exploitation of labour and resources elsewhere- can only happen at the cost of indefinitely destroying human and non-human livelihoods. With this in mind it is obvious that ‘green growth’ can only be an oxymoron. Why? Considering the high hopes put into the development of ‘green’ technologies there seems to be a common consensus that we only need to find a good technological fix to resolve current and ongoing crises. But the more important question is: How can these technologies be ‘green’ (i.e. truly sustainable) if they continue to aim at maintaining an utterly destructive lifestyle? Do they fundamentally cut the waste of material, the production of garbage, extractivism and CO2-emission? Or does ‘green’ technology simply imply using different supposedly ‘innovative’ materials which may be as resource-intensive as before? Looking at the Rebound-Effect it becomes apparent that even if less material is used for the production of an ‘innovative’ product, increasing demand undoes the positive effects. There is an error in this logic: It unquestionably assumes the need for maintaining the doctrine of endless growth. What it lacks is the thought of sufficiency and simplicity. There is no balance between taking (resources from the environment) and giving. The perspective is only short-termed and result-oriented, it is egocentric and non-reciprocal, focused simply on developing more creative ways to extract resources. This also shows in the broader discussion, i.e. Degrowth, Post-Materialism etc., on action countering the climate crisis: Cutting consumption, reducing the usage of materials and resources is unpopular. What is envisaged instead are ‘technocratic’ ways to solve problems and therefore to produce another product with the false pretense of sustainability. But ‘more’ is not a synonym for ‘better’.

To enhance the value of sufficiency and simplicity I want to reference to some short-termed first studies that were published in  the first few months of Covid-19, i.e. different newspapers that analyzed short-term data showing that the air quality significantly improved or that the ‘earth-overshoot-day’ worldwide was delayed by three weeks. They analyzed and demonstrated consequences of the forced economic halt in different cities worldwide. Focusing only on the positive environmental impact of Covid-19 (and not ignoring the truly devastating aspects of this pandemic), studies showed a return of different animals in their habitats, such as dolphins in harbours of Italy, Portugal and Hong Kong. Further the return of different plant species in forests and national parks was observed due to less human intervention and better living conditions, and the CO2-pollution in most cities decreased. All of that the result of a fundamentally down-scaled economic production and a more ‘sufficient’ lifestyle that was practiced during the period of Covid-19-lockdowns.

I am very aware of the negative consequences Covid-19 has caused for many, i.e. social issues like people suffering from an actual infection and it’s consequential health damage, people struggling with redundancy and loss of their economic basis. The people suffering most are mainly those already living in fragile situations. With my arguments I by no means want to romanticize Covid-19, but I see it as a chance to prove that another lifestyle is not only imaginable but possible and -as I will emphasize later on- is already practiced.

Degrowth is not recession

While it would be wrong to equate this forced economic halt to the calls made by the degrowth movement in terms of a more sufficient lifestyle, it nevertheless showcases that the only truly sustainable ‘technology’ to save the environment is a fundamental reduction of consumption and a paradigm of sufficiency and therefore the rejection of the developmentalist growth paradigm.

I chose the example ‘nature and environment’ to depict how developmentalist logic is destroying our (and by that, I mean all human and non-human beings) home and that a fundamental questioning of the ‘development’ paradigm is needed. After being forced to live more sufficiently, we should realise that it is possible to live without endless growth and endless usage of resources and pollution of the air. The fact that ‘we’, as ‘privileged’, see growth and ‘development’ as something good is deeply rooted in our consciousness. With Covid-19 there came a time where we could ask ourselves if it really is necessary to pollute our habitat in order to keep the economy working and rising. Meaning: Is endless growth really necessary and desirable to live a good life? If our world had endless resources would endless consumption and growth be preferable? Are there not more important questions we have to ask ourselves? How can we really end the climate crisis and reduce social injustices?

Alternatives to ‘development’ are possible

 I suggest we try to think outside the box and imagine a world where growth and ‘development’ are subordinate. We need to picture a world where every person can live in dignity- not only a few. We need to open our eyes for new goals, standards and values. We need to open our minds for alternatives, and these may appear utopian at first. But it is worth casting another glance because there are many things ‘we’, the relatively privileged, can learn. And when would be a better time to criticize a system than when it so clearly shows its cracks and defects?

Here are some alternatives, that can be used as thought-provoking impulse:

 The Aborigines in Australia see themselves as ‘Caretaker’ of the world, they feel the need to protect and nurture their land due to their strong connection to it. They feel responsible for their earth’s well-being- an important thought missing in the society I am part of, the sentiment of responsibility for something else than just one own’s life and taking the consequences of one own’s action into consideration. Another group trying to specifically maintain the equilibrium between human interaction and the natural law are First Nation people living according to the spirit of minobimaatisiiwin. In this philosophy it is essential to nurture and respect the land because it affects their life and their ability to live peacefully and productively with nature and each other, there is no more important law than the natural law. And not to be forgotten the probably most widely known ‘alternative’ the Buen Vivir which includes aspects of several indigenous worldviews in Southern and Latin America. These worldviews describe various ways of well-being and good life. The variation of meanings can be seen in the plentiful translations of the indigenous names as ‘Good Living’ or ‘Life in Plentitude’ etc. The philosophies are heterogenous but at the core is the respect for nature and the earth as beings and not as an object to be exploited. Laws in Ecuador and Bolivia even ascribe personhood to the Earth.

We need to ask ourselves if the logic of ‘development’ is the right mode of living. All these alternatives  demonstrate that it actually is possible to live according to another guiding principle which sidelines economic growth, finance and egocentrism . This is exactly the point where we need to begin learning and sharing alternative thoughts and ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. In Jason Hickel’s words: ‘We know a better world is not only possible; it is waiting to be born.’ (2020, Exploring Degrowth).

Adriana Cancar is a Research Assistant at Kassel University. She contributes to the DFG-funded project “Towards a Reinvention of Development Theory- Theorizing Post-Development”.