Global perspectives on postgrowth transitions: learnings from an international exchange

April 9th, 2024

Researchers with CSIRO’s Valuing Sustainability Future Science Platform (VS FSP) are encouraged to explore Horizon 3 science – innovative research that involves long-term, transformative thinking.   

Dr Sabrina Chakori, an ecological economist and CSIRO Postdoctoral Fellow whose research focuses on postgrowth transitions and food system sustainability, recently completed an international exchange that included time in the Netherlands, Spain, and Colombia.

With a focus on project collaboration, professional networking, and presenting research papers, the exchange exposed Dr Chakori to cutting-edge innovations in ecological economics and allowed her to learn from some of the best scientists in this field. Dr Chakori is now back in Australia and ready to apply some of the learnings from the exchange to her own research.

“In the final part of my exchange, I participated in the 17th International Ecological Economics Conference in Colombia, and at that event the award-winning ecological economist Prof. Joan Martinez Alier told me that we come to conferences to expand our ignorance,” laughs Dr Chakori.

“Indeed, I was exposed to many new topics and research approaches. Most importantly, I met and deeply connected with colleagues who are advancing important work, some of which may be translatable to the Australian context.”

Ecological economics and postgrowth transitions  

Ecological economics is an inter- and trans- disciplinary field that explores the interdependence between socio-economic systems and ecosystems. The fundamental premise is that the economic system is embedded within a social system, which is, in turn, embedded within an ecological system. Many researchers in the field of ecological economics focus on how to create systemic change that will build a socially just and ecologically sustainable economy.

Postgrowth transitions studies represent a subsection of ecological economics, and this area has seen increased interest over the last few years due to broader understanding and recognition of the limits to growth, and of the social and ecological negative impacts of the current unsustainable socio-economic system.

“Postgrowth and degrowth studies explore how to build societies that can prosper within planetary boundaries. These research areas seek to explore transition pathways that prioritise increased human wellbeing and enhanced ecological conditions at both local and global scale, short term and long term” explains Dr Chakori.

“In Australia this field remains underexplored,” continues Dr Chakori. “That’s why this trip was such a valuable opportunity to meet with academics from across the world who are at the forefront of postgrowth research.”

Sustainability transitions perspectives in the Netherlands

Dr Sabrina Chakori seminar at Utrecht University

Dr Chakori’s trip began in the Netherlands, where she was hosted as a visiting scholar at Utrecht University and invited to present her work on social innovation and postgrowth transitions at an Environmental Governance seminar. Her host at Utrecht was Associate Professor Giuseppe Feola, whose research focuses on food systems transformations – also an area of focus for the Valuing Sustainability FSP.

At Utrecht University, Dr Chakori attended the 3rd Utrecht Degrowth Symposium: Sowing Sustainability in Food and Agriculture. This event included academic presentations and a panel discussion.

“I appreciated the fact that the degrowth debate was nuanced, with different perspectives put forward,” says Dr Chakori. “One session explored what degrowth can (and can’t) add to the existing (food) movements and a key point that stood out for me was that degrowth helps to identify the origins of unsustainability. A second point that has stuck with me is that degrowth might help build new coalitions and alliances, but only if it reaches out as a humble and self-critical ally, avoiding, for example, overshadowing other global south movements.”

Invited by Assistant Professor Steven R. McGreevy, lead author of a paper in Nature Sustainability about sustainable agrifood systems for a postgrowth world, Dr Chakori also had the opportunity to present her work at a seminar at Twente University.

Two further learning opportunities that Dr Chakori took advantage of in the Netherlands were a talk from Associate Professor Joost Vervoort, and a seminar by Assistant Professor Thomas Bauwens, whose research focuses on collective action for sustainability.

Dr Vervoort explored how creative practices in the gaming industry can help support sustainability by enabling the creation and imagination of new worlds and possibilities; while Dr Bauwens, who is based at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, presented his community enterprises research project.

“Dr Bauwens’ work is of great interest because it aligns with my FSP research,” says Dr Chakori. “He was recently awarded a grant for an ambitious project to study different forms of community enterprises in multiple countries and build an interdisciplinary theory of the mechanisms through which such enterprises can transform our economy to tackle urgent sustainability challenges.”

3rd Utrecht Degrowth Symposium: Sowing Sustainability in Food and Agriculture. Ass. Prof. Feola introducing the session Degrowth scenarios for the food system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by David Meng-Chuen Chen (Humboldt University Berlin & Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research).

Exploring postgrowth approaches in Barcelona

From the Netherlands, Dr Chakori moved onto Spain, where she had the opportunity to engage and collaborate with several scholars based at the University of Barcelona and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).

At the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB), Dr Chakori engaged with the Ecological economist Dr Sergio Villamayor Tomas and his team who seek to better understanding the influence of rural vulnerability in sustainability transitions in Spain. Additionally, she was invited to give a guest lecture on her circular economy and postgrowth work to Masters students of ecological economics.

A meeting with renowned ecological economist Professor Jesús Ramos Martín, who has recently edited the Elgar Encyclopedia of Ecological Economics, brought the realisation that the interdisciplinary nature of the field brings both advantages and challenges. While the capacity to explore topics holistically is a major positive, some researchers face practical challenges like where to situate the discipline within a university or research institution.

“I met some ecological economists who sit within environmental science departments, whereas others are placed within economics and business schools. The siloed structure of research institutions often results in barriers in enhancing interdisciplinarity,” explains Dr Chakori.

Barcelona presented Dr Chakori the opportunity to briefly meet with leading researchers Dr Jason Hickel and Dr Giorgos Kallis who, along with Dr Julia Steinberger, were recently awarded a 9.9 million Euro grant from the European Research Council for a postgrowth project. Among the research aims are developing democratic models of provisioning systems to ensure future populations have adequate access to necessities such as energy, food, shelter, health and social security, and identifying political and practical steps towards post-growth deals. 

Seminar of Professor Enric Tello at the University of Barcelona

“In my trip, I understood that for several decades ecological economists had to think, explore, publish, communicate and clarify concepts like degrowth and postgrowth because they were at the forefront of sustainability science. However, the times have changed, and, at least in Europe, the field has entered a new stage where there is increased interest and funding to support practical research that explores, for example, ecological macroeconomics models and scenarios.”

Dr Chakori explains that the primary incentive for this trip was to be exposed to and learn from these exciting projects, in particular, the ToBe project (Towards a Sustainable Wellbeing Economy: Integrated Policies and Transformative Indicators) led by Associate Professors Federico Demaria and Daniel O’Neill (also President of the European Society for Ecological Economics) at the University of Barcelona.

Researchers are working to develop novel ecological macroeconomic models that will include a wide range of indicators of human well-being and environmental sustainability. Such modelling will support policymakers in assessing policies from a multi-dimensional perspective and to reveal the synergies and trade-offs inherent in the transition to sustainability.

“It was energising to see how interdisciplinary these teams are and how passionate they are in exploring these new transition pathways, with the goal to introduce them into policy-making practically,” says Dr Chakori.

The exposure to these projects, along with a seminar by Professor Enric Tello, left Dr Chakori feeling that there is enormous potential for Australia to step up efforts and explore pluralistic transition pathways. It also provided some inspiration and reinforced the value of her own research focus.

“Is economic growth already becoming history? And if so, what does it mean for ‘our’ (economic) discipline? Professor Tello started his seminar with these questions. He then also emphasised the importance of exploring postgrowth food systems, which is what I am doing with my postdoctoral research,” she says. “Food systems are a driver, and the first victim, of ecological degradation. Therefore, to increase the resilience of our societies, we need to explore how the structure and governance of food systems could be reorganised to achieve sustainability in a more holistic sense”

A final stop in Colombia: Biennial International Ecological Economics Conference

Dr Sabrina Chakori with Associate Professor Tommaso Luzzati (University of Pisa), editor of the Ecological Economics Journal and leading author of IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) for the Unit Regional Assessment for Europe and Central Asia.

17th International Ecological Economics Conference: Dr Sabrina Chakori with Associate Professor Tommaso Luzzati (University of Pisa), editor of the Ecological Economics Journal and leading author of IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) for the Unit Regional Assessment for Europe and Central Asia.

The concluding part of Dr Chakori’s international exchange was her participation in the 17th conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics, which took place in Santa Marta, Colombia.

Dr Chakori presented her work at two conference sessions. Her first paper was Limits to growth and limits to plurality: from green growth to degrowth, which was included in the Transdisciplinarity and Social-Ecological Transformations session. The second was Postgrowth food enterprises: case studies from Australia, which took place in a session titled the Business Ecological Economics – towards an Ecological Economics based view of the Firm.

She also had the opportunity to hear presentations by many other researchers at the forefront of ecological economics, and to participate in discussions where diverse perspectives were included.

“We discussed topics ranging from corporate social (ir)responsibility, to community-driven agroecoenergy transitions, to beyond-GDP systems,” says Dr Chakori. “Across sessions, as per the title of the conference, economies were understood as economies for life – not economies for growth and profit.”

Internationally, there is increased interest in ecological economics and postgrowth transitions, and as the discipline becomes more established there is a shift taking place from theory to action. The work of Dr Chakori and other researchers within the Valuing Sustainability FSP are a crucial part of efforts to help Australia make its own shift towards a thriving, sustainable society.

“I would really like to sincerely thank Associate Professor Giuseppe Feola, Dr Sergio Villamayor Tomas and Dr Angelos Varvarousis for helping me organise this exchange,” concludes Dr Chakori. “The learnings made will be incorporated into my current and future research, and the connections made will continue to nourish me as we continue working towards systemic change”

Author – Ruth Dawkins