BY LUIS I. PRÁDANOS
Every time I mention the obvious in a classroom—that most industrial economic activities deplete energy and materials and, therefore, constant economic growth in the context of a limited biosphere is a biophysical impossibility—I am moved by some students’ honest reactions. Their response will be some variation of “That makes sense. Why did nobody tell us before that as the global economy grows, the living systems of the planet collapse?” In fact, the default in today’s neoliberal dominant mindset and consumerist culture is to take for granted that the mission of higher education is to prepare students to contribute upon graduation to the expansion of the modern economic complex.
We are currently using the ecological capacity of more than 1.5 Earths. Human activity is not only causing rampant climate change, but also disrupting vital cycles of nutrients and extinguishing species at a rate one thousand times faster than what was previously the norm. If we continue business as usual, the planet may become uninhabitable for most of the biotic community (humans and nonhumans) in a few decades. However, under current academic, educational, cultural, and economic inertias, we funnel society’s energy and creativity toward an unachievable and destructive task: growing the economy for its own sake without considering the social and ecological consequences of our systemic addiction to growth.
We, as a society, do not easily acknowledge the social and ecological limits to growth because recognizing such limits would force us to rethink everything we have taken for granted during the last couple of centuries (namely, that we can continue depleting while ignoring our biophysical foundations and call such madness progress). Instead, if we would dare to rethink everything—and at this point we cannot afford not to do so—unrestrictive and radical creativity will suddenly ignite! Creativity would liberate itself from focusing primarily on the prefabricated question of how to feed a destructive economy and would start thinking more broadly about how to live well in a limited planet.
The point I wish to make here may sound somehow paradoxical, but it is rather commonsensical: to encourage a creativity that is not blindly restricted by the self-imposed limitations of an economic system addicted to growth, we need to teach, precisely, about the limits of economic growth; we need to teach, not about the limits of human innovation and collective knowledge, but about the limits of the biosphere in which all human creativity and economic activity is inextricably embedded.
Only after we recognize material and ecological limits will we be able to unleash the potential of our cognitive, spiritual, and relational creativity. Only after we recognize the limits of our beautiful Earth, can we generate an economic culture that is socially desirable and ecologically viable and that enhances, instead of depletes, the socioecological systems on which it depends. In other words, ignoring material limits not only harms our planet and undermines our future survival possibilities, but also significantly mutilates our creative potential and, with it, our chances for designing and enjoying a system that delivers long-lasting prosperity without growth for all.
So far, higher education institutions have been instrumental in promoting business as usual and spurring economic growth. Today, we are much more efficient at depleting the Earth than we were a few decades ago. So the problem is not the tool (technology), but the logic. The question remains: Is it really smart to educate people to technologically and theoretically refine a system that operates by undermining the conditions of possibility for our biophysical survival? Is it smart to make a destructive system smarter, more sophisticated, and more efficient? Most classroom practices, curriculum content, and departmental programs across academic disciplines are designed as if the answer to these questions would be “yes”. In this regard, if we do not revisit our pedagogical institutions, habits, and toolkits, we may be perpetuating learned ignorance and triggering collective suicide rather than teaching critical thinking. For critical thinking to be worthy of such a name, it should be targeting the root causes of our structural and interrelated social, economic, and environmental issues, not simply reacting to its symptoms from different academic realms.
For all the reasons stated above, during the last few years I have been assembling a teaching method that I call “The Pedagogy of Degrowth,” a pedagogy that is based on teaching biophysical limits and material-semiotic interrelations to foster bold creativity, systemic thinking, and critical inquiry. It is a teaching method that intends to prepare students not to spur economic growth but to envision and imagine regenerative urban and agricultural systems that promote cohesive and healthy societies, as well as non-growth-oriented economic cultures able to heal, rather than deplete, the Earth. If education is going to make a positive contribution in our age of economic reductionism, social inequality, and ecological collapse, it needs to turn students (and educators!) into complex systems thinkers able to unlearn the destructive inertias ingrained into our educational institutions and cultures. Our real prosperity depends on it.