Evaluating Post-Growth Institutions Part 1: Introduction and Institutions

Inspiration for this short series comes from Walker’s words on resilience, in asking how post-growth institutions can change “in order not to be changed”? Given the increasingly urgent global environmental emergency, sustainability researchers require tools to easily and immediately evaluate and inform response. Such tools need to integrate lessons learned from the multitude of research on transition studies. This series aims to accelerate the conversation on exactly how to evaluate post-growth institutions to make it easier to identify leverage points, develop policy, suggest change, and put research into action. To do this, I take lessons from socio-ecological systems (SES) and post-growth fields of research, such as ecological economics and degrowth, and synthesize key concepts, such as resilience and uncertainty, into one framework. In doing so, I provide an approach for evaluating post-growth institutions using a questionnaire meant to inspect an institution’s compatibility with primary considerations for post-growth institutions. A bridge between SES and post-growth research is essential for solutions that are both resilient and embody the normative standards of post-growth visions.

I have separated this series into three posts:

  1. Introduction and Institutions
  2. Resilience and Co-Evolution
  3. Post-Growth Institution Evaluation

Here is a PDF of all the works cited in the series.

Motivation for writing this comes from a simple question: how do post-growth scholars determine which institutions are the right ones to work towards and strengthen? What does the post-growth alternative basin of attraction look like and what qualifies an institution as an ally in that process? Can we create a methodology to evaluate and determine the kinds of attributes that promote postgrowth ideals?

The purpose of this series is thus to address the gap that exists between post-growth’s “normative ideas and analyses about how to bring these ideas from outside the cultural norm into mainstream thinking and practices” (Joutsenvirta 2016 p. 23). While it’s not possible to create relevant policies across sectors and contexts, it is possible to think about what kinds of characteristics institutions can have to endorse post-growth practice sufficiently. While imaginative visions of a post-growth utopia seem farfetched and difficult to achieve, it may be much easier to establish clear goals that function as criteria for post-growth institutions. In this way, the purpose is to create an easily followable framework for an institution to embody and organize around shared practical understandings of post-growth institutions.

I use the term “post-growth” rather than favoring any specific post-growth vision such as degrowth, agrowth, no-growth, low-growth, or steady-state. While it may be contentious within these circles to say they are all inherently working toward the same goals, they are when compared to the dominant hegemonic order. Individuals within post-growth areas of research and activism are working toward a world that no longer centers growth as the dominant feature of success and progress, primarily due to their shared foundations with the realities of biophysical limits, such as those outlined in the Limits to Growth report (Meadows et al. 1972) and popular scholars who questioned growth, such as Schumacher (1973), Illich (2001), and Latouche (2009). However, post-growth differentiates from some of this work in that it uses complex systems to build off existing ideas and initiatives, rather than taking a more imaginative approach. This still begins with a deep acknowledgment of the limits to growth and the need for new measures of social success such as cooperation, sharing, social justice, and Earth stewardship. While I incorporate theoretical ideas from each subdiscipline, a more broad-brush post-growth framing centers more firmly on the “here and now.” With this broader framing, the framework I present applies to a wider audience of actors as a tool to evaluate the implementation of shared visions of differing post-growth scholars to post-growth institutions.

By institutions, I refer to “integrated systems of rules that structure social interactions” (Hodgson 2006 p. 498). The institutional environment constitutes the wider cultural framework that shapes how formal organizations are structured within a system (Scott 2014). So, when I say “institutions,” I am primarily pointing to social structures that facilitate interactions between non-familial members of society such as education, industries, production methods, economic systems, civil society, media, and policy development. My use of this definition assumes that these institutions can change behavior as they define the rules of the game (North 1990) and are what Scott would refer to as normative institutions to evaluate and pressure coercive or regulative institutions (2014).

While Kolinjivadi argues a focus on getting institutions right risks “shifting the emphasis within socio-ecological systems literature on the managerial task of appropriately responding to” shocks and disruptions (2019 p. 36), his argument ignores the historical realities of institutional development that are unlikely to change. Furthermore, such an argument ignores the fact that “institutions are never neutral” and are “domains of power and struggle” (Kallis 2018 p. 21) and thus, post-growth scholars have an obligation to try and get institutions right. Institutions, and humanity’s need to shape them, are fundamental to modern human governance and can be much more intricate in allowing for complexity, uncertainty, and co-evolution.

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