Pathway to a transformative future: Changing the illusion of ever-lasting growth – Report on “KYOTO 2020: IASC-RIHN Online Workshop on Commons, Post-development and Degrowth in Asia(IASC-RIHN)" (Norie Tamura, Senior Project Researcher and Hiroyuki Ishibashi, Visiting Researcher)

FEAST HQ Report, Seminar & Workshop

Norie TAMURA (Senior Project Researcher) and Hiroyuki ISHIBASHI (Visiting Researcher) contributed a report on “KYOTO 2020: IASC-RIHN Online Workshop on Commons, Post-development and Degrowth in Asia” to RIHN’s Newsletter Humanity&Nature (No.84: 2-5p), which you can download by clicking the link (in Japanese). Here is the English translation. 

Rethinking and transforming a set of values and lifestyles that prioritize economic growth are required to adequately address global environmental issues. On one hand, industrialized countries need to reduce their environmental impacts while maintaining the quality of life. Developing countries, on the other hand, are exploring a way out of poverty while taking into consideration their environmental impacts. Social practices create “commons” as institutions to commonly own, use and manage resources to improve the global environment. But, at what point do we need such practices? With this question in mind, RIHN in collaboration with the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) organized an online workshop “Commons, Post-Development, and Degrowth in Asia” in July 2020. This workshop facilitated exchanges between researchers and practitioners to explore how we should advance the discussion on commons toward a future that bridges developed and developing countries.

It has long been widely discussed that we have entered into “the Anthropocene,” in which human activity impacts our planet’s systems, including the atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems. One of the most plausible arguments is that the beginning of the Anthropocene is in the 1950s. Since then, human activity has increased dramatically, resulting in placing huge impacts on the environment – the phenomenon is called “Great Acceleration.” So, why did human activity drastically increase? The driving factor behind this is the pursuit of material wealth.

Reality that awaits after the pursuit of economic growth: Environmental destruction and social injustice on a global scale

Since World War II, humanity has pursued technological innovation and exploited nature, seeking for a wealthier and more comfortable life. Until a certain point in time, “growth” meant providing a wealthier and happier life. Growth is a value widely shared around the world. An increasing life expectancy, declining infant mortality, improving living standards, and better primary and secondary education can be surely brought about by growth.

However, human activity today is going beyond the limits of our planet and irreversibly eating away at the earth’s system. Nevertheless, such problems as hunger and poverty are still present on the earth, and social inequality has yet to be redressed. In the process, the scope represented by “growth” has been narrowed down to mean “economic growth.”

Envisioning the ideal futures: Degrowth and post-development

To prevent the global environmental crisis and build a fair and just society, we need to reexamine and change human activity. For this task, however, we also need to rethink the fundamental driving force of human activity – the illusion of ever-lasting growth.

In this context, “degrowth” and “post-development” can offer us some implications, both of which are concepts as well as social practices oriented toward socioeconomic systems that do not place the highest priority to economic growth. However, they were generated in different contexts. While “degrowth” originates in developed countries or the Global North, post-development is what is sought after by developing countries or the Global South. In order to solve global environmental problems, we need to identify differences and similarities between these two concepts and explore interdisciplinarity in order to look toward broader, ideal futures.

Drawing upon such mission, we the RIHN’s Commons Study Group (*1) planned and organized this online workshop, in partnership with the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). RIHN co-organized the first IASC Biennial Meeting (or Kita-fuji Meeting) in Japan in 2013, so this workshop was the second co-organized event.

The objectives of this event were to identify differences and similarities between degrowth and post-development, and explore possible ways of bridging the two through a “commons” approach. It also aimed to create a networking platform to facilitate exchanges between researchers and practitioners.

History of the commons and a new frontier: From goods and institutions to social practice processes

Commons refers to institutions to commonly use, manage and own resources, which is one of the concepts repeatedly cited in the RIHN’s global environmental studies. This concept originates in “the tragedy of the commons” by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. Drawing on an example of common pasture, Hardin argued that resources would be depleted if individuals overconsumed them to maximize their own profits, which would consequently impair the collective benefits. He also argued that resources should be either under state ownership or private ownership, in other words, resources should be owned by either state or market.

In contrast, in the 1970s onwards, the study of the commons, based on fieldworks in the mountains, fields, seas, and river, has shown that there existed various rules regulating the common use of natural resources across the world and a proper management based on these rules could prevent such overconsumption. This means that the agency of resource management should not be an either-or choice between state and market, and community and “common” spheres existing in between are particularly important. The study of the commons continued, accumulating various knowledge and insights. In 2009, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics – a monumental event to inform the importance of the commons to the world.

As about half a century has passed since “the tragedy of the commons” was proposed by Hardin and about a decade since Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, the discussion of the commons is now entering a new phase. In recent years, especially in the context of degrowth in Europe, it is not the static commons as a property of goods and institutions (i.e., commons as a noun), but a verb form, “commoning” as a process of social practice to create such a state that is drawing more and more attention. In this respect, we concluded that “commons” was an appropriate concept to bridge degrowth and post-development.

Common ground of RIHN’s transdisciplinarity and IASC: Creating a networking space for practitioners and researchers

RIHN sees that global environmental problems are rooted in human culture, and conducts various researches and activities to find solutions through a transdisciplinary approach, in cooperation with societies in Asia. The IASC has also been working to create a space to facilitate exchanges between practitioners and researchers and to provide relevant media since its inception. With these backgrounds, we conceived that it would be a well-timed as well as great event to represent RIHN’s transdisciplinarity to provide an opportunity for practitioners and researchers working on degworth and post-development to exchange ideas and insights, using the IASC as a platform.

This workshop incorporated a combination of Zoom, a video conference platform, and Slack, an online chat app, to facilitate both real time and non-real time discussions. About 180 participants from about 30 countries, mainly in Asia, joined including researchers, environmental activists, artists, and public administrators. Over the course of the three-day event, 19 research presentations were given online and a variety of programs were organized such as networking time, round tables and many others.

We had a privilege to invite three keynote speakers: Ashish Kotharii (Kalpavriksh (*2)/ Vikalp Sangam (*3)/ Global Tapestry of Alternatives (*4)), an environmental activist and post-development theorist from South Asia, Gakuto Takamura (Ritsumeikan University), working on the study of the commons from the standpoint of the sociology of law, and Alyne Delaney (Tohoku University), an anthropologist specializing in fishery resource management, and a member of the editorial team of the IASC newsletter “the Commons Digest”.

Kothari, drawing on an example of his own initiative called “eco-swaraj”, which will be discussed later, highlighted the significance of a pluriverse worldview in post-development and the importance of showing that alternative pathways could be ways out of poverty. Takamura focused on the topic of land ownership, and argued that creating ownership systems could cause various issues, for example, the fragmentation of communities in developing countries and “the owner-unknown land” issues in Japan, which can be called “the tragedy of the anticommons” (*5). He pointed out that it is necessary to look at the role of the community in the state-market-community relationship, rather than taking the community as a given. Delaney has a long experience working for the IASC headquarters, building various platforms and media to bring the concept of the commons back to the field. Her speech focused on such experiences at the IASC and encouraged researchers and practitioners to stop shutting themselves behind closed doors of their expertise and share their knowledge and experiences and collaborate with one another.

In the context of Asia: Rethinking the Anthropocentric view of nature

The three days of the workshop were very productive and fruitful, but I would like to dedicate this section to introduce the contents of the general discussion on the last day. The general discussion took place with the aforementioned three keynote speakers as panelists and the RIHN Deputy Director-General Hein Mallee as a facilitator.

It started off with a discussion on the nature-human relationship. Both of “the mechanistic view of nature,” which assumes that nature only works according to certain rules, and “anthropocentrism,” which objectifies nature for humans’ use, are the so-called modern Western views of nature. And, they are considered to have contributed to shaping developmentalism to date.

On the contrary, people have traditionally acknowledged the spirituality of nature and treated nature with a sense of awe in non-Western countries, such as Asia. Therefore, in the post-developmental discussion, the focus is given to the value of co-existing with nature, returning to the ideas handed down from our ancestors to avoid exploitative use of nature.

In the Global North, the relationship with nature has also become an important subject. For example, litigation to grant rights to nature and the “multi-species” concept repudiate the privileged position of humans in the global environment and try to reclaim it as part of nature. In the context of degrowth, transforming our relationship with nature is also considered important. As mentioned above, this workshop aimed to bridge two concepts of degrowth and post-development from the perspective of the commons, such a nature-oriented idea, situating humans only as its part, could be one of the common targets.

What the pluriverse worldview explores: Find the words of the land!

There was also a discussion on how to construct a pluriverse worldview. As I mentioned at the beginning, the failure of the current socioeconomic system, especially global capitalism based on the premise of unlimited economic growth is a self-evident truth. We, therefore, need to move on to an alternative system. It is for this reason that the Commons Study Group were intrigued by the concept and movement of degrowth, and decided to organize this workshop.

However, Kothari raised a question at this workshop: why do we have to use the word “degrowth” originated in Europe and industrial societies. The “eco-swaraj” movement that he is involved in is an extension of the Indian idea of “swaraj”, incorporating the idea to the discussion of how we relate to nature. He argued that “swaraj” means an attitude trying to ensure independence, freedom, dignity and rights of the self, and respond to others and nature. In “swaraj,” power does not lie with politicians and bureaucrats, but with people, thus it shall be used cooperatively with others, not to subjugate others.

Similarly, the South American post-development theory has suggested a new word “buen vivir,” a philosophy that symbolizes non-material wealth. Both of these words are native to respective lands, full of local history and wisdom. But they are unique because they have a renewed position in the contemporary world situation.

Kothari argued that movements around the world should not automatically import and use the Western word “degrowth”, but it is important that we should be able to explain about the movement to others based on the local context: “that idea is what we call blah blah in our language, but it is a bit different in this point” etc. He then pointed out that Japan has a word “satoyama” which can be used in the discussion of the commons. This was definitely a painful critique, but a home truth, to hear for contemporary Japanese scholars on the commons.

Japanese commons studies, while based on the study of “iriai” or Japanese traditional common-pool resource management practices and its institutions, have been updating and developing research by incorporating a new, foreign word “commons.” In the process, Japanese commons scholars had a low level of awareness on the need to counter the hegemony of Western values by proposing new terms and theories from a non-Western perspective. However, come to think of it, our predecessors such as Tetsuro Watsuji, Tadao Umesao, KazukoTsurumi, and Kinji Imanishi might have been working with such awareness.

In this day and age, when the Western-style modern socioeconomic systems have reached an impasse, the Japanese humanities and social science scholars addressing environmental issues should proactively advocate a pluriverse worldview.

Deepening exchanges between academia and practice: An attitude required of scholars

From the standpoint of the global environment as well as ethics and justice, there is an increasing need to move away from the current system and transition into a new society. “Degrowth” and “post-development” can surely provide us with guidance when trying to answer the question of where we should go. However, as this workshop has showcased, both of these concepts do not present a single absolute value and converge with such value. They attempt to encourage social practices in each community, and envision various futures by linking these practices. “Commons” can be a tool and a set of concepts that show us ways to shape concrete steps toward a world that has yet to be realized.

Pathways to an alternative future also requires a deepening of exchanges between academia and practices. It is important for researchers not to simply represent the voices of people in the field, but to equip themselves with an attitude open and responsive to what they find in the field so that they can support their autonomy. It is also necessary for researchers to internalize how people they encounter in the field think and have interests in what is happening in the field. This is, in a sense, the essence of the RIHN’s global environmental studies.

RIHN will continue to lead discussions on the commons, degrowth, and post-development, and hopefully grow into a hub for researchers and practitioners working to propose new socioeconomic systems from Asia.

<Book Guide (p.4 bottom)>

In planning this workshop, the organizing team was particularly inspired by the following three books. We would like to encourage readers who became more interested in such topics to read. Christoph Rupprecht, a member of the RIHN’s Commons Study Group, contrived a special issue on degrowth in the Journal of the Japanese Institute of Landscape Architecture (Vol. 83, No. 1), and Norie Tamura, also a member of the group, contributed an article on the relationship between degrowth and the commons. Ruprecht also published a paper on the theme of multi-species and sustainability, which might be of your interest.

Bollier, D., Helfrich, S. (Eds.), Patterns of Commoning, Commons Strategy Group and Off the Common Press, 2015

D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., Kallis, G. (Eds.), Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era, Routledge, 2014

Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (Eds.), Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary, Tulika Books, 2019


*1: A voluntary group of RIHN young researchers and faculty members have organized a series of study sessions titled “Global Environmental Issues and the Commons” from 2019 to 2020, which was the developed into this study.

*2: Kalpavriksh is an environmental organization working on research and education, grassroots activism, and policy advocacy related to the environment, development, and society. Ashish Kothari is one of the founding members.

*3: Vikalp Sangam is an initiative to provide a forum for organizations and individuals to learn from and collaborate with each other so that grassroots movements in various parts of India can grow into larger movements.

*4: Global Tapestry of Alternatives is an initiative that aims to bring about a global-scale change for post-development by providing a networking platform for grassroots movements around the world.

*5: Michael Heller, an American jurist, argued that where there are too many owners with the right to exclude others from using resources, the resources tend to be underutilized, which was called “the tragedy of the anticommons”.

(Translated by Yuko K.)