“There are big problems in the world. I excel at science and math. Engineers solve problems.”
These three ideas determined my choice of undergrad program. I was going to learn what I needed to use technology to solve climate change and poverty. In my words of the time, “human civilization” needed to change its relationship to the environment. I had chosen an interdisciplinary engineering program, so I was going to get a well-rounded view of the world. I studied electromagnetism and material science, data structures and control theory, non-linear systems and thermodynamics. I learned to understand the world as structured systems that could be characterized by (complex) mathematical equations, where specific questions could be asked, and answered definitively.
By the end of undergrad, I had a sense that technology wasn’t really something “human civilization” was lacking. I wrote a paper on the problems of GDP, the impossibility of infinite growth, and the role businesses could play in creating a new world. I found a job – my dream job at the time – finding ways for manufacturing plants to save energy and water. But I got sick of finding 10% reductions that had economic paybacks of less than 2 years when I knew climate change demanded much bigger reductions. So I decided I’d start a Master’s degree and learn more about economics: clearly we just need to make different decisions about how we spend our money as a “civilization.”
I was lucky to find E4A, a community of scholars where ecological economics goes beyond pricing ecosystem services and quantifying the biophysical limits to growth. The first day of the first class, Professor Peter Brown blew my vision of technological and economic solutions to climate change out of the water:
“Our most important institutions – economics and finance, law and governance, and ethics – are founded on a Judeo-Christian-Muslim philosophy. What if it is all based on a series of mistakes?”
And so began a journey into a new way of seeing the world, and a new understanding of the transitions that are necessary to build a society that respects the people it is made up of, and the planet that it lives on. Where the goal isn’t simply to love being in nature, but to understand oneself as embedded in and as a part of nature. Where no real solution can be found without understanding the colonial and patriarchal history that created the problem. Where a systems view doesn’t mean seeing the world as a set of objects interacting in deterministic predictable ways, but requires recognizing a world of subjects existing in relationship.
The latest steps on this journey were taken at the First North-South Conference on Degrowth in Mexico City, held in the middle of land that used to be the centre of the great Lake Texcoco, steps away from where the imposing Spanish Cathedral was built almost on top of the religious centre of the Mexica (dubbed “Aztecs” by archeologists) city of Tenochtitlan. Here are some of the ideas I encountered, and the questions I felt compelled to ask.
Manish Jain from India presented parts of the narrative we need to escape as simple ideas: that using our hands is drudgery and inefficient; that nature is dangerous and unhygienic; that wealth, happiness, and wellbeing are external and have to be bought; that success lies in leaving our communities; that greed is good, and ethics can be determined by a spreadsheet. Escaping this narrative isn’t easy: as a child, he saw a diamond merchant in his community give everything away to become a monk. Years later, this created a crack in the narrative that allowed him to move from being an investment banker to starting a free system of learning outside the universities. How do we make similar cracks for the people around us and invite them into a different way of being?
Susan Paulson from the US challenged me to understand my cultural understanding of gender and race as a system that capitalism has harnessed for its own ends. Dividing production from reproduction and tying each to one gender was crucial for convincing people to sell their labour, she argues. This harmed both women and men: not equivalently or comparably, but both significantly. As we reimagine new socio-ecological systems, how do we create new masculinities of care for family and the environment, and revalue the reproductive work that we see as female?
Rosa Marina Flores Cruz from Mexico told stories of how mega-wind-farms being installed by large corporations against the wishes of local indigenous communities are destroying the sacred land and crucial ecosystems of these communities. I was unsettled to see that the technological solutions to climate change of my undergrad, and central to my master’s work, are perpetuating the existing unjust relationships when deployed by capitalist structures. How do we deploy renewable energy quickly enough to address climate change when the dominant system with much of the capital seems incapable of doing it without creating more destruction?
Attending this conference marked the end of my Master’s degree. I’ve joined an invaluable community of scholars, friends, and companions on the journey. I’ve been offered a glimpse into a new way of seeing the world, one full of many questions that when answered, at least in part, will help build a better world. I’m working on figuring out my role in that, but I’m starting from a different set of ideas:
“The world is full of broken relationships. Causes are ontological, cosmological, psychological, technological, societal and economic. I exist only as a network of relationships.”