A Critique of The Limits of Growth from a Social Ecology Perspective


Written by Emet Değirmenci

Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication
– Leonardo da Vinci

The Limits to Growth was commissioned by the Club of Rome and published in 1972. The cautionary message of the report (Meadows et al., 1972) was intended to signal the need for reforms that would ensure the survival of capitalism. We are now already seeing the greening of capitalism through the supply of so-called environmentally friendly products and the “sustainable growth” agenda as pushed by the United Nations. But is long-term sustainability compatible with Capitalism’s need for growth and accumulation? The report did not address the question of the fundamentally political nature of these limits, and how they challenge capitalistic notions of quality of life and development. In response to the gap, the degrowth movement has sought to politicize these limits in order to fundamentally challenge capitalist assumptions of a “good life” and economic growth, as degrowth is based on creating and implementing a culture that prevents unnecessary consumption and production. This is possible through an open, connected local economy and real democratic participation through striving for a convivial quality of life. To do this it is obvious that human needs and wants should be reviewed radically in this so-called Anthropocene epoch.

Today, not only is the decline in biodiversity an issue owing to global climate change, but many types of ecosystem are declining and even collapsing. Climate statistics show that 71% of greenhouse emissions are due to fossil fuel companies and their investors (Riley, 2017: 39). I am considering that if we take into account that 60–70% of the world’s population live in cities that are dependent on fossil fuels, then the problem becomes more visible in urban settings due to their dependence and modern consumption patterns. At the same time, cities are where the accumulation of money, assets, and investment occurs. And yet, despite this, Murray Bookchin, the founder of the philosophy of social ecology, emphasizes that cities have also been sites of culture and “liberatory” politics (Bookchin 1996). That is why cities (ideally with socially and ecologically responsible citizens) also exhibit the potential to bring the degrowth issue into focus in the context of the “right to the city” (Harvey, 2008).

Social ecology provides us with a framework to understand how an ecological crisis is closely linked to social crises. As Bookchin explores, unequal power relationships in society are based on human domination of nature and humanity itself (Bookchin, 2005).

The aim of this paper is to explore limits to growth and degrowth from a social ecological standpoint. I will first look at how sustainability has been framed in terms of green growth. Second, I will discuss one of my own initiatives as a case study about space-making in the context of the right to the city in Wellington, Aotearoa (New Zealand). Third, I link the concept of the commons to the proposal for a steady-state moral economy. In conclusion, I will focus on what sort of growth would be appropriate from a social ecological perspective. As an ecofeminist, I also tie in issues of gender throughout the paper.

A Green Growth Economy

Many terms in the language of sustainable development and green growth continue to frame nature in terms of ownership. For instance, “natural capital”, “carbon trading”, and “polluters pay” all have materialistic and opportunistic meanings that serve capitalist ideologies. If we view nature as capital, it does not matter how many wind turbines or solar panels are placed on green roofs. Putting a price on nature through “carbon trading” also has a false meaning. For example, pine trees are toxic to Australia’s environment. But when mining companies cease activities, they prefer to plant pine trees because they grow fast and their seedlings are cheap. Carbon offsetting assumes the replicability and commensurability of totally different forms of natural value and services. “Polluters pay” is another arguable term. First, it gives the rich the power and opportunity to pollute. Second, it is difficult to identify who the polluters are and how much damage they have done. How would you calculate, for example, the damage to large and widely accessed rivers such as the Nile, the Rhine, or the Mekong?

The growth economy also fosters polarization, as well as scarcity. Bookchin emphasized hierarchies and polarization in this context: “Material scarcity provided the historic rationale for the development of the patriarchal family, private property, class domination and the state; it nourished the great divisions in hierarchical society that pitted town against country, mind against sensuousness, work against play, individual against society, and, finally, the individual against himself ” (Bookchin 2004: 182).

All the disparities serve to generate insecurity in individuals and promote further consumption. A consumer society based on scarcity tactics aims to sell a variety of products rather than looking at the issues from a holistic perspective.

Sustainable development does not seem to bring any solutions at the grassroots level either. The Club of Rome’s influential text emphasizes that the state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential (Meadows, 1972: 24). However, this raises the question: how can the individual’s basic material needs be measured when living standards such as access to land and ownership are different from North to South? In this way, proposed avenues of action remain technical and do not address the political and ideological nature of the limits to growth outlined in the report.

This presents a deep contrast to indigenous approaches to the natural world, since indigenous communities see themselves as belonging to nature as a whole, not in anthropocentric terms. Since 1998, I have observed and worked with some indigenous and local communities in Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and North America through environmental campaigns and ecological restoration projects. These cultures do not view nature as a separate entity. Even so-called “non-living” features such as rocks, mountains, and rivers are important components in everyday life. They believe all living and non-living beings feed each other in a mutual way. Rivers, mountains, and minerals are seen as quotidian experience. They value the ecosystem as a whole. Furthermore, many indigenous cultures pass on ethics of guardianship, not stewardship, from generation to generation. We should learn from them and implement their practices accordingly. This is the only way to reconnect with nature and repair the damage done in Anthropocene times.

In the next section, I move on from the debate on “limits” to reflect on what a different vision of grassroots politics may look like, inspired by my own experiences.

The Right to the City and Space-Making

The World Charter for the Right to the City highlights the rights that inhabitants of cities can claim, including democratic management of a city and equality. The UNESCO UN-HABITAT project lists five themes: inclusion, governance, human rights/rights-based approaches, participation and urban planning (Brown and Kristiansen, 2009). However, almost all cities feature injustice. According to current city zoning requirements, it seems that the need for land to build housing and grow food are the top priorities among various class, race, ethnic, and sexual orientation groups. The lower classes live on the peripheries or are pushed out of the city through gentrification, because they cannot afford to live close to the city centre. The authorities often do not want marginalized people, such as ethnic minorities, people of colour, LGBTQI communities, or the homeless, to be visible.

I witnessed this when I sought to initiate a social ecological food justice project through women’s leadership for refugees and new migrants in Wellington, in 2006. We claimed a piece of public land and education space for our multicultural group, which was made up of people from eleven different nationalities in the central part of the city. The city of Wellington, however, insisted that we accept land at least one hour away from the city centre. That neighbourhood was not only far, it was also predominantly inhabited by poor and marginalized communities—suggesting that the city seemed more comfortable if our project appeared in more peripheral, marginalized areas than in the economic and cultural centre. And yet, a perfect spot with a building was available for us in the middle of the city on a brownfield site. It was a sort of abandoned site about two acres in size with an existing building. Also the soil was contaminated with DDT since it was an old bowling club. We were happy to clean it up. It took us three years to convince the city council and the predominantly white residents who opposed us that the project was worthwhile. Some of them even asked us if we were going to bring seeds from our home countries to invade the native environment. It was sad to hear that sort of prejudice, despite the fact that we were working with the Maoris and some academics. It required energy to explain our genuine desire to help restore the natural environment, as well as enriching and contributing to the city’s social diversity. We were persistent in bringing the various groups into the city and meeting with the city council. After struggling with the council and the dominant white culture, our Innermost Gardens project was able to put its roots down in the fourth year. Now, the project has become one of the most respected regenerative edible landscape projects in the Green Belt section of Wellington.

This experience highlighted to me the relevance of the right to the city concept, as first defined by Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey. If we consider the right to the city in the context of space-making, Grégory Busquet elaborates Lefebvre’s work on space and justice:

Space is a crucial dimension of human societies and reflects social facts and influences social relations. Consequently, both justice and injustice become visible in space. Therefore, the analysis of the interactions between space and society is necessary to understand social injustices and to formulate territorial policies aiming at tackling them. Planning policies that aims to reduce them. …However, the diversity of definitions of “Justice” (and of the possible “social contracts” that legitimate them), is high and the political objectives of regional planning or urban planning can be quite different and even contradictory. (Busquet, 2012: 2)

Busquet here points out that planning and policy-making regarding public spaces can be either inclusive or exclusive for different disadvantaged groups. If we recall the Innermost Gardens project, unless Wellington city drafts a policy to offer a diversity of cultural, ecological, and social spaces in the city, new groups like us will have similar difficulties in future.

Historian and city planner Lewis Mumford emphasized the city as a community in which everyone is responsible for their everyday activity (Mumford, 1970: 89). As shown by Bookchin, this requires active citizenship. In The Limits of The City Bookchin wrote:

For all its collectivism and strong bonds of solidarity, tribal society was surprisingly patriarchal. Based on kinship, however fictitious its reality, the tribe rooted its affiliations in lineage ties or what I call the “blood oath”. (Bookchin, 1986: 52)

Since there are not many matrilineal communities in the world, tribal roots often pass through male links. Men maintain authority for the sake of the tribe. Hence Bookchin’s term “blood oath” recalls violence and exclusion. Bookchin envisions a city with its cosmopolitan potential where people can mingle:

The city corresponded to the creation of spaces where “insiders” and “outsiders” met and decided their affairs together, spaces where citizenship was a constantly reworked, dynamic and organic process. In this way, at best, political decision-making in cities was independent of ties of kinship or ethnicity. Accordingly, “the city” is a type of settlement where “people advance beyond the kinship bond to share, create, and develop the means for life, culturally as well as economically, as human beings”. (Bookchin, 1992: 173)

In a city, citizenship extends beyond kinship ties to create spaces of social justice that go beyond kinship. It can be based on citizenship and responsibilities of space to create a shared justice concept like in Portland city in Oregon, US, where it is easy for all citizens to intermingle regardless of ethnicity, class, race, and sexual orientation. The project is called City Repair [1]. The project not only encourages conversation and connection between neighbours via the circular street intersections, but it is also building a lively living space with ecological and social principles for hundreds of homeless people as well. If there was any blood-related or ethno-centric agenda during the city-wide transformation, the project would not have been possible. Rigid boundaries, such as defining insiders as blood-related, can create fragile situations that can easily lead to conflict.

Finally, Harvey claims that transforming cities towards social justice is a common process: “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization” (Harvey, 2008: 25). In the Innermost Gardens project, for instance, we have attempted to change our concept of multiculturalism instead of integration, which is a false tabloid concept. Multiculturalism is not only food, music, and dancing girls. Multiculturalism can use actual voices and ideas to contribute to a city’s biodiversity, as well as its cultural diversity. This makes a local culture resilient and strong, as though it was a kind of ecosystem. I believe that an edible landscape project such as Innermost Gardens has the potential to contribute to local transformation in a positive way socially and culturally. There is no need to be afraid of the sort of complexity that is recognizable in healthy ecological systems.

Commons for a “Steady-State Economy”

Although it’s root can be traced to Herman Daly (1973), the phrase “steadystate economy” brought to our attention the concept of sustainable economics from an ecological point of view. According to the Center for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy (CASSE) site:

The term typically refers to a national economy, but it can also be applied to a local, regional, or global economy. An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. To be sustainable, a steady-state economy may not exceed ecological limits. (CASSE, 2019)

Gathering resources in a common pool and sharing them in a village-sized community is not a transformative practice in itself. Before the advent of capitalism in the eighteenth century, it was the most common form of land management. Let us explore how commoning may help to transform a society. The commons are spaces of social reproduction accessed equally by all, without intervention by the State or the market. Production takes place under collective labour and equal access to resources of production. The idea of the commons also refers to collective activities of production and reproduction. It means inclusiveness, belonging, and sharing the outcome together as a group or as a community.

Commons may fail when privately owned. This is called the “tragedy of the commons”, a term coined by Garrett Hardin (1968) to define the eighteenth century land-grabbing and enclosure movement in England. Hardin emphasized that commons can fail from over-exhaustion caused by taking too many resources. Elinor Ostrom, on the other side, analysed tragedy of the commons from a political economy point of view, particularly selforganizing and self-governing institutions. She pointed out that mutuality and reciprocity are essential for the success of common pool resources (CPRs). Individuals using CPRs are viewed as if they are capable of shortterm maximization, but not of long-term reflection about joint strategies to improve joint outcomes (Ostrom, 1990: 216). It is true that, a commons may fail if the community does not bring a continuous reinvigorating energy and joy to the common space for the common good, or the commons is not managed in a self-governing way. The exhaustion of ecosystems can be seen in any former commons. I observed such a tragedy in my own village in the Aegean region of Turkey during the 1970s. A parcel of common land was allocated for grazing village animals. The herd was comprised of animals from every household with one person taking care of the herd every day. Even the job did not invoke gender politics. Villagers were flexible in giving the responsibility to a different man or a woman every day. While a mature woman’s appearance was not acceptable in public spaces, this job of sharing for the commons made them free in public spaces. The problem began when people decided to keep a number of animals in their own individual pastures. The common lands gave them extra benefits without putting any effort or minimum effort in. When individual plot pastures were exhausted the people took advantage of the common lands. This brought about exhaustion in both common land and in the community’s capacity to organize the common property. After a couple of years, the common lands were privatized. However, Hardin’s view and my example may not be valid in some cases, because there are many successful examples of surviving commons around the world. Traditional communities are creating local commons by tracing their ecological practices back in time. For example, there is a successful example in Rajasthan, India. They recharged groundwater and restored a large irrigation system by creating small dams through women’s leadership in 1989. Even the engineering and fundraising was done through women’s leadership. They are known as “Rajasthan’s water warriors”. Thousands of old earthen dams called johads were replenished with underground water as well. This was a 10-year effort led by village committees. They practiced direct democracy. This is a good example of the struggle against drought: “Close to 10,000 johad systems and other water collecting and conserving structures [were created] in approximately 1,200 villages and 19 districts of Rajasthan during the past 28 years” (Suutari and Marten, 2005: np). Since the irrigation issue was resolved, their well-being increased and crime and violence reduced significantly, because some progressive cooperatives were built. This also helped economic justice, and collective abundance is the result. Another example is from Rojava, in northern Syria, where a women’s cooperative called Jinwar lays mud bricks. They have engineered an ecovillage project, and say “this will be the first women’s village and the most radical response to the male-dominant mindset in the Middle East” (Cooperative Economy, 2017).

In a degrowth strategy, a moral economy is the answer for a selfgoverning institution. Let us bear in mind that degrowth requires voluntary simplicity to reduce consumption for material needs. Rather than GDP as measurement of growth, ecological economics becomes the implementation of regenerative and restorative practices.

Commoning is an alternative to the growth economy because it means voluntarily limiting the extraction of natural resources. It helps reduce carbon emissions by saving energy and water. However, the examples above show that commoning is a dynamic collective activity, which requires continuous attention to keep going in the right direction. There is still a risk of reversal through privatization. Any community trying to recreate the commons should be careful about the potential for this to occur.

In a degrowth strategy, a stable-state moral economy would fit well with this commoning process. Degrowth strategy should be based on a moral economy with ecological restoration, rather than extraction from nature, and have a social and economic justice dimension. Recall that degrowth requires voluntary simplicity to reduce consumption for material needs. Rather than GDP as a measurement of growth, the Index of Sustainable Welfare can be used as the indication of a stable-state moral economy.

This is why the moral economy embodies norms and sentiments regarding the responsibilities and rights of individuals and institutions with respect to others. These norms and sentiments go beyond matters of justice and equality to conceptions of the good, for example, regarding the needs and ends of economic activity. They might also be extended further to include treatment of the environment (Sayer, 2004: 6).

For a steady-state moral economy in the context of ecological economics, biophysical and social indicators seem appropriate for a regenerative and restorative transition, as opposed to the “extractivist” behaviour of the capitalist growth economy: “The great challenge of degrowth is how to maintain (or even enhance) the well-being of the planet’s citizens while global resource use and waste production are being reduced to within ecological limits. Social indicators are needed to ensure that quality of life is maintained or improved by degrowth and not diminished by it” (O’Neill, 2011). Indeed, waste reduction for a healthy environment must be the main focus since the growth economy produces an enormous amount of waste, including toxic types. Quality of life could be measured from many different perspectives, such as happiness. When a system reaches a stable stage, that point could indicate the achievement of stability. While society should have a new way of living, it is possible to keep the equilibrium at a stable state at a global level.

What Sorts of Growth do We Want?

There is no doubt that Limits to Growth brought us green consumerist literature. In other words, Limits to Growth neither helps to create a vocabulary to limit consumption nor does it prevent the declining natural resources which, we all agree, are limited. This is because most green developments are, in the end, based on growth in capitalist society. It means that consumerism is just replacing so-called “green” products—recall the shopping bags that are made of GMO corn which are coming into vogue.

The reality of nature’s limits requires clear ethics to reassess human needs, wants, and desires. As ecofeminist and social ecologist Chaia Heller underlines, “Our new ways of desiring nature entail changes not only in personal life-style and outlook, but changes in social institutions as well” (Heller, 1999: 102). The feminist movement contributed an important phrase to social movements: “the personal is political”. Hence, personal lifestyles are interconnected with social life. This applies to institutions as well. We can follow a path in which our needs, wants, and desires serve to regenerate nature and repair the social relations that help to revolutionize social institutions.

Bookchin distinguished human evolution in regards to the relationship with nature as “first nature” and “second nature”. He named nature as “first nature”, which becomes “second nature” through human intervention (Bookchin, 2005). Through the relationship between these two arise dynamics of domination over nature and domination over human (and between genders). As human beings, we have created social ecosystems and many sorts of hierarchy, such as men’s domination of woman, the boss’s domination of labour, white people’s domination of people of colour, dominant cultures’ domination of ethnics, and so on. However, all these hierarchies can be resolved by learning from nature. Nature cooperates rather than competes. For instance, from my long-term observation during my landscape management practices, most trees cooperate to reach sunlight and share the minerals in the root system. Of course, there are also some opportunistic invasive plants that are not native to the local environments. This process makes them a part of natural evolution. That is why from second nature evolution comes third nature which brings social diversity and ecological complexity. Democratic and participatory technological development plays a vital role in the social ecological realization of an emancipated society. Bookchin emphasizes the hierarchical concept: “Organic societies are not yet divided into the classes and bureaucracies based on exploitation that we find in hierarchical society” (Bookchin, 2004: 167).

From a true ecological design perspective, if a city is designed in an ecological way it does not generate waste. Of course, municipal education, voluntary practices and incorporation of citizens are significant components here. In this way, a city is considered a big ecosystem. I can draw on my ecological design experience, in which every element is linked to serve not only mutual support, but also to provide multiple functions at the neighbourhood level. Since all human activities are supposed to be circulated in the closed system, one system’s output can be an input for the following system. This is how chickens gain protein from a compost pile, and produce eggs and feathers as well as resolving the compost problem.

Transformation in everyday life through genuine ecological society is necessary by consuming less and by building radical commons. Environmental scientist, degrowth activist, and writer Giorgos Kallis, who is critical to utilitarianism, explains how degrowth and welfare is possible through alternative economics:

First, reconstructing the commons; second, reclaiming state decoupling well-being such as basic income, public money, work-sharing, carbon caps and taxes; third, political organizing (Kallis 2015: 31’40”).

I agree that adjusting the economy to cap carbon, rather than allowing carbon trading, is important for the reasons outlined above in the section on green development. The carbon economy only assists the greening of capitalism. The point is how to reorganize society in a non-hierarchical way. Also I prefer to say government instead of the State as a criticism to Kallis. I believe that we need to reorganize institutions in a degrowth economy, but not through the State. If we want to transform cities into organic ecocommunities, as Lefebvre and Bookchin proposed, reorganizing institutions accordingly will bring a lot of chaos. For social ecologists, challenging political and economic power and creating alternatives through municipalism is strategically important. Chaia Heller explains Bookchin’s municipalism concept with a community spirit:

We must develop a new understanding of citizenship that is not defined in relation to capital or the nation-state but instead, defined in opposition to capital and the nation-state. We may become revolutionary citizens defined in relation to local communities that are part of a larger confederation of self-governing bodies. We may become “a community of communities”. This new way of thinking about political regeneration is called libertarian municipalism. (Heller, 1999: 12)

Heller here also criticises the Nation-State, which we do not need. Instead, we need to revolutioneer the institutions that create and serve equity and well-being.

Democratic and participatory technological development plays a vital role in the social ecological realization of an emancipated society. Furthermore, a socially and ecologically diverse society keeps its roots strong. A decentralized city requires a municipal level of non-hierarchical governance. This can be applied to degrowth for self-determination and active citizenship as social ecology brings self-determination by opposing any form of domination. When people begin to enjoy helping to resolve their problems through direct democracy, as happened in the autonomous Syrian region of Rojava, it is possible to create alternatives in a social ecological way—even in a war zone.

In the end, yes, we need to limit growth, re-assess our real needs, and simplify life, as well as restore natural so-called “resources” because it has gone beyond saving resources now. We need to concentrate on how to clean up the soil, air, and recharge underground water. Here is my view of utopia. I dream of a city that is more regenerative and self-reliant via its local resources and self-sufficiency through direct democracy principles. I dream of a city, that is connected to surrounding towns at a bioregional level and resources locally managed. I dream of engaging public spaces such as community gardens, urban agricultural sites, wildlife zones, spaces for art and craft activities—also to share stories. I also dream of an inclusive city—along ethical, racial, economic, and gender lines. I dream of a city economy no longer subservient to capitalism’s “grow or die” dilemma. Material accumulation will no longer hold as much social kudos, since the radical commons will play vital roles. I want a city of conviviality and frugality, a harmonious place for its own citizens. I want a “convivial” (Ilych 1973) city which is continuously evolving with its commons through the joy of politics in everyday life. I want a city that serves its citizens with the value of simplicity—the ultimate goal of sophistication, as indicated in Leonardo’s statement.

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[1] More information about The City Repair Project available from http://www.cityrepair.org/

This text is an excerpt from the book “Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities”, containing the proceedings from our 2017 conference in Thessaloniki. Read more about the book here.


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