DeGrowth Week Webinars

Yesterday 10 July, I tuned into the DeGrowth Week of webinars being offered by NENA (National Economy Network Australia) and caught up with Donnie Maclourcan, an Australian with links to UTS who is now based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and who is the Executive Director of the international Post Growth Institute.

I’m a big fan of the Australian Earth Laws Alliance (AELA) led by Michelle Maloney and her network of collaborators, which includes Future Dreaming Australia, and NENA. We sometimes think Queensland is the home of conservative thinking, bulwark of the LNP, but it is also home to this network of organisations who are forging a new pathway to address the interlinked crises of our times.

As I have written previously, the clash of civilisations in the 21st century is NOT between the liberal democratic and autocratic nation states within the global capitalist economy. Nor is it between the Christian West and the Islamic East.  Rather it is between the Extractivist logic of global capitalism in a world with a human radical sense of separation from the natural world, which is experienced only as a resource, and the Relationist logic of the world revealed in Indigenous knowledge systems, with their ancient awareness of living in tune with ecological systems of animated intelligence; all of nature with their own voice and spiritual agency.

Relationist Logic

Today, Kombumerri Elder, Dr Mary Graham is in conversation with Michelle to talk about the need for us to take a lead from Indigenous knowledge systems and shift from ‘extractivist’ logic to ‘relationist’ logic in how we shape our future.

As Donnie Maclurcan explains in his new book, How on Earth (co-authored with Jennifer Hinton), this Indigenous commitment to relationist logic is exemplified by the approach taken by civil engineering company, Myuma. Donnie relates how, in 2009, he heard Colin Saltmere give a presentation at a conference in Brisbane, Australia. Talking about his company, which had 50 employees and an annual turnover of 17 million Australian dollars, he discussed how their work  included the construction of roads in north-west Queensland. Then, Saltmere said five words that changed our lives: “And we’re not-for-profit”.

This was a paradigm-shifting moment for us. How could this company, which does so much work and generates so much revenue, be not-for-profit? Furthermore, if an engineering company could be not-for-profit, then might there be not-for-profit companies in other unlikely sectors of the economy, too? If so, would it be possible to have an entire economy based on not-for-profit business? Could that help us move beyond our current crises? The potential felt enormous.

In a follow-up conversation, Saltmere told us that, as an Aboriginal group of engineers, they wanted to do work that would help the community. So they started their engineering firm as a not-for-profit (NFP). This means that Myuma is based on a social mission and that, after it has paid all its expenses, including wages, it must use 100% of its profits to fulfill its social mission.

They acknowledge in their book that this understanding of interdependence was embedded in many ancient cultures, and remains an integral part of many indigenous societies today. They also note that, fortunately, this wisdom is re-emerging in different forms all over the world. Movements such as the sharing economy, the solidarity economy, open-source innovation, peer-to-peer networks and a growing focus on taking care of the commons all show the eagerness of people to work for the greater good.

The 21st Century Interlinked Global Crises

We all know the interlinked crises bearing down on us, whether we live in affluent Australia or the poor and struggling nations of Bangladesh and much of equatorial Africa:

  • Global warming and climate change resulting from the intensifying use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) since the accelerating globalisation of the economy since the 20th century
  • Ecological degradation leading to increased pollution, loss of fresh water resources, species extinctions, desertification and loss of soil fertility for food production
  • Increasing flows of people seeking refuge and political asylum from their home countries due to armed conflict and climate change, leading to increased ethno-nationalism in a multicultural world.
  • Political instability and conflict between and within nation states directly related to increasing wealth inequality and competition over access to resources, and loss of confidence in the viability of the liberal democratic order that has shaped western economic and cultural wealth since WWII under the so-called ‘international rules-based order’
  • Concerns about the weaponisation of technological change, including generative AI and biotechnologies, by platform capitalist corporations through data mining and information manipulation, and their applications into weapons of war by both nation states and criminal enterprises

Business and the Relationist Logic

In their book, How on Earth, Australian, Donnie Maclurcan and his co-author, Swedish, Jennifer Hinton explore how a shift from extractivism to relationism as the governing logic of society, can be achieved by a shift in business culture and economic thinking from a For-Profit basis of business and economic activity to a Not-For-Profit basis for all businesses in the running of the international economy. The provide access to a working draft of  How on Earth here:

Donnie is also author of Nanotechnology and Global Equality, Nanotechnology and Global Sustainability and is currently writing The Not-for-Profit Handbook.  Jennifer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Lund University studying the social dynamics of the biophysical resource economy, internationally.

Donnie and Jennifer make the radical claim that a post-capitalist world is readily available if we just shift our business culture from a For-Profit mode to a Not-For-Profit mode, and suggest this trend is already in motion around the world.  Crucially, instead of businesses generating profit for distribution to owners (including shareholders), business generate surpluses (profit) for reinvestment in sustainable, purpose driven businesses that serve communities and the planet. They claim that for the first time in modern history we have the structures, capabilities and impetus to evolve to a Not-for-Profit World, in which the drivers of good business are harnessed for our collective flourishing. Not-for-profit enterprise is the keystone that allows us to bridge to a healthier economy, and it’s been hiding in plain sight, waiting for us to have the wisdom to see and pursue it.

What’s Wrong with For Profit Business Culture?

Donnie and Jennifer describe the historical evolution of a For Profit Business culture, claiming that in a world with for-profit business at its heart as in our current global economy, profits are generally created in the most cost-efficient ways, regardless of social and ecological consequences and result in the siphoning off of wealth into a non-productive elite economy.

A very clear example of this is how profit maximization has been driving companies to outsource labor, often moving factories to countries where wages are lower and environmental, health and safety regulations are lax or nonexistent. This is largely done in order to increase shareholder value, deliver higher profits to owners, and stay competitive against other companies that are also trying to maximize profits. The result is that wealth is siphoned off from the real economy to a shadow elite economy where it continues to accumulate leading the greater and greater concentration of wealth among just a few.

The social stratification that results from economic inequality in a for-profit system tears communities apart and generates status envy, exacerbating the conditions for a rampant consumer culture that further alienates people and destroys ecosystems. It is a vicious, for-profit cycle.

Why Not-For Profit Businesses?

Donnie and Jennifer outline what universally distinguishes a ‘not-for-profit’ entity from a ‘for-profit’ entity. All NFPs have:

  1. A social and/or environmental mission and hold it as their top priority;
  2. No ability to privately distribute profit or assets; and
  3. No individual owners or shareholders
  4. Cannot have as their mission the maximization of capital gains for individuals or for-profit companies.

The take-away message is that NFP business is mission-oriented and uses all resources, including profit, to achieve social or environmental goals, whereas forprofit business is profit-oriented and can distribute profit to private individuals. NFPs generate surplus with the intention of being better able to achieve their social or environmental goals. With for-profit businesses largely geared towards self-interest, profit tends to be destructive and degenerative. This is because surplus is principally created with the intention of accumulating private wealth and power.

The main point they make when introducing their core thesis about the crucial and transformative role of a shift to a NFP Business Economy is that most people carry the inherent wisdom and intuition that a healthy, sustainable economy must be balanced and it must use money and resources in a circular way. This principle of circulation must be built into the very way our economy functions; not as a side-effect, not as an afterthought, but as the way that economic activity naturally flows.

By contrast, they suggest that what we have now is a linear economy focused on throughput, with massive amounts of resources going to waste, and money accumulating in the hands of a few. Keeping resources and money circulating in this economy is an afterthought, not an inherent feature of the system. In fact, many of us who are trying to work for a more sustainable economy often feel like we’re swimming upstream or fighting a doomed battle against the very rules of the economic system, itself.

The economic model that they’re introducing in this book has the circulation of money written into its DNA. In their vision of the economy, all players are looked after through fair wages, and any surplus is fed back into the system. After all, when it comes to money, what more does anyone need than a good enough wage to cover today’s expenses and to put something aside for the future?

Rewilding and Relationism

We also note that this economic movement is part of a change in consciousness that is associated with the global re-wilding movement, a form of ecological restoration aimed at increasing biodiversity. It differs from ecological restoration in that, while human intervention may be involved,  aims to restore human-altered ecosystems to their wild and natural state. For WWF Australia, the focus is on supporting strategies that test and scale-up successful methods to reverse the decline of our vulnerable keystone species.

Rewilding entered the mainstream largely due to a popular TED Conference talk by George Monbiot called “For more wonder, rewild the world.” Australia’s ‘Rewild University’ recognizes that for many modern rewilders, the truth is that rewilding is more about inner change than outer change. True, it’s probably impossible to go through meaningful rewilding if you are completely immersed in civilised life (meaning moving from a desk job to driving in your car to sitting down at home to a frozen packaged meal in front of the television, then sleeping inside all night and repeating that pattern every day). However, they assert that “if we combine time in nature with conscious living in civilization, we can begin to see many civilized things through wild eyes.”

The human rewilding movement of individuals and families to improve their sense of connection with the natural world is exemplified by Gina Chick, winner of the Alone in Australia series, filmed on the west coast of Tasmania. Along with that engagement is an increased sense of wonder and curiosity, a desire to understand natural processes and to figure out how we as humans fit into the natural order.This differs from the survivalist movement, as can be seen in the different way that Gina approached this task to those with a military-survivalist background. Human rewilding is also associated with the growth of neo-paganism, as people seek to regain access to their own cultural traditions of acknowledging spiritual agency in the natural world—something that has been denied by the ‘Religions of the Book’ (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which have achieved global dominance, particularly via the evangelism of both Christianity and Islam.

Interestingly, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have shown a way that heals this inherent dualism with nature, which prevails in Christianity, as they have blended it with their own eco-spiritual beliefs in Caring for Country.  God as ‘creator’ is extended to embrace the whole of creation, including that of deep time that predates humanity’s time on Earth, expressed in the role of the Creation Ancestors, who are celebrated in the songlines and recorded in sacred sites across Australia, and the totemic relationships that link humans with our more than human world.