"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” -- Greta Thunberg, United Nations Climate Action Summit, September 23, 2019
Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg hit modern capitalism’s biggest baked-in contradiction – that capitalism as currently constructed can endlessly bring prosperity to all – square on its massive Daddy Warbucks head and found the response from her audience at the United Nations Climate Action Summit wanting at best.
Greta, the young Swedish activist whose climate change campaign has gained international attention, leveled a piercing indictment at the adults in the room for their unrelenting focus on “money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Gross Domestic Product growth alone, Greta insisted, cannot be – must not be – the sole gauge of societal health.
Greta has lots of allies, many she knows and some she may want to cultivate. She’ll find a diverse and international group of kindred spirits in the field of social and economic research with the awkward moniker “degrowth.” Thinkers and practitioners in this arena explore and advocate for economic and environmental alternatives, especially those that offer more realistic assumptions about growth and better focus humane and balanced attention on individual well-being and natural resource sustainability.
A leading degrowth theorist, Serge Latouche , specializes in economics at the University of Paris-South in France. He has developed a critical theory about economic orthodoxy – the notion, in capitalism’s case, that just because almost every nation on the planet abides by its principles doesn’t mean it warrants acceptance as humanity’s perpetual condition. The term ‘degrowth,’ in fact, traces its origins to the French “decroissance” and the Italian “la decrescita,” words that refer to a river returning to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.
And Greta wasn’t wrong – though to some it must have stung like a rapier – in describing dreams of eternal economic growth as a “fairy tale.” Certain academics classify capitalism and its faith in an ever-expanding economic sphere as a “social imaginary,” a culturally ingrained set of attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that constitutes a widely accepted narrative regarded as permanent or near-permanent. Let’s face it, most humans feel content to seek out meaning and purpose somewhere within the dominant, surrounding social imaginary. That means in an American society dependent on consumption for 70 percent of its economic activity, we’re all passengers on the lumbering vessel “GDP.” That makes us complicit in maintaining a powerful construct that serves many of us quite well, but which routinely jettisons in its wake a waste stream of humanity mired in persistent poverty and a natural environment gravely compromised by industrial pollution and commercial exploitation.
Greta has forcefully challenged not just representatives of the world’s nations, but also the present social imaginary’s validity in the face of climate change’s existential threat. She’s saying what so many of us invested in the capitalist imaginary find difficult to step away from and confront head on: without a healthy environment, one free of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that alter planetary fundamentals, Greta’s and all future generations will live increasingly in harm’s way.
Rage your message far and wide, Greta. You’re absolutely onto something big.