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Reinforcing the Global South’s Existence: How to Dismantle Capitalism and Colonialism through Degrowth?

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Over the past few decades, the discourse surrounding the environment in global political studies has progressively developed. The increasingly prominent destructive impact of the climate crisis due to increased industrialization since the 19th century requires states to expand their understanding by incorporating ecological considerations in domestic and foreign policy projections. However, implementation under the status quo is counterproductive to a ‘sustainable earth’ idea. The capitalistic global market structure has succeeded in producing exploitative and polluting production mechanisms. Hence, the main orientation of today’s economic developmentis the transition from a traditional society to a high-mass consumption society. In the long run, consciously or not, this has become a serious problem for ecological aspects and structural inequality. So, how should the Global South respond to this global challenge as a vulnerable actor? This paper is intended to achieve two things: first, to reaffirm the interrelatedness of ecological destruction and structural inequality as a result of the global capitalist system; secondly, how to develop an alternative paradigm that is more “green” as a sustainable transition process and a solution to today’s structural inequality.

Status Quo and Inequality in Global Development

Before entering into the level of analysis, the author would like to limit the subject of structural inequality, which is limited to the inequality relation between the Global North and the Global South. The end of the Cold War and the globalization of production around the 19th century have gradually brought the world’s geopolitical multipolarity towards ‘North’ and ‘South’ bipolarity. Enthusiasm for this epochal shift in development models can be seen in research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which sees South-South relations as the basis for a new development paradigm that will result in a ‘more inclusive, effective and horizontal’ global development agenda, especially if it goes hand in hand with North-South relations. While the above data indicate that some countries of the Global South may be experiencing a rising tide, this trend parallels a significant increase in structural inequality, social vulnerability, and widespread ecological destruction in the global sphere. This escalation of structural inequality is closely related to the strategy of state initiatives to securitize capital accumulation in a competitive world market order. Therefore, instead of contextualizing the relations between developing countries within the geo-economic scope of the Global South, this paper suggests the need to understand the interactions that occur within the scope of contemporary capitalism as a representation of a new phase in the consolidation of global development.

The dominance of the capitalistic system in the status quo successfully justifies the paradox that in achieving maximum economic growth incentives, the state can ignore the destructive impacts that increase structural inequality between the Global North and Global South. In climate change mitigation, such hierarchical relations are visible in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) project under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As a relatively more vulnerable party, some Global South countries consider this project problematic due to mechanisms that enable the commodification of nature, marginalization of indigenous peoples, and restrictions on the participation of grassroots actors in decision-making management. In addition, these rules in REDD+ demonstrate the weakening of the Global South’s bargaining position in global climate negotiations. In the broader landscape, global development under this capitalist system portrays the North-South divide, including the problems of inequality and efforts to redistribute responsibilities.

Amid increasingly destructive climate change, the structural inequality between the Global North and Global South today may reflect the critical issue that ecological destruction and structural inequality show a reciprocal relationship, which can only be overcome through changes in the global economic system.

The Logic of Degrowth: “Green” Solutions and Structural Decolonialization

The unequal reality in today’s global structure reflects the urgency to transform the paradigm towards a more just and sustainable direction. Jason Hickel (2020), in his book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, tries to shift the dominant paradigm in today’s global market status quo, namely from economic growth to slow economic growth (degrowth). This paradigm is based on two main premises: First, the logic of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) as an indicator of economic growth is problematic. When GDP increases, there is an increase in commodity production through excessive extraction of natural resources – transportation fuels, electricity, and other physical materials – which contributes to excessive greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. Second, the reality is that the Global North is the most significant driver of ecological damage, accounting for 92% of emissions. Still, the destructive consequences of these activities are disproportionately felt by the Global South, which is only responsible for 8% of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, the economic growth of the Global North is heavily dependent on patterns of colonization-resource grabbing and labor exploitation in the South. In terms of emissions and resource use, the global ecological crisis runs along the lines of colonialism.

Furthermore, Degrowth believes these two premises are born and sustained under a capitalistic production system. The main problem of ecological and structural inequality lies not in individual behavior but in the underlying global system of capitalism. The orientation towards economic growth will only add more burdens to the government because the pursuit of economic growth by only focusing on increasing – without efficiency efforts – consumption will cause climate change mitigation and adaptation that has been carried out so far to become mere wishful thinking. Some steps that can be initiated to achieve Degrowth ideals include (i) a fairer redistribution of income and capital; (ii) a transition from extractive to reproductive work; and (iii) implementing cooperative ownership structures in strategic-political and economic institutions.

Degrowth is, therefore, essentially an alternative solution in the spirit of decolonization, which requires the Global North to reduce production to a sustainable level (read: within reasonable limits), reduce excessive energy use to enable an accelerated transition to renewable energy, and reduce the obsession with development through decreased economic activity. The spirit of decolonization is essential for affirming the existence of the Global South because “catching up” is impossible in a system based on dispossession and polarized accumulation.

Affirming the Idea of Degrowth in the Context of the Global South

Degrowth may not be a “silver bullet” to overcome the structural problems of the world and the Global South in particular. However, the spirit of the Global South in reducing hierarchical inequality in markets, structural poverty, and climate injustice should be the subject of study on how Degrowth can be involved in policy formulation and (post) development discourse. At the macro level, strengthening the Global South is manifested through South-South Cooperation (SSC) as a process of development cooperation between Global South countries based on the principles of equality, solidarity, and mutual benefit. SSC aims to emphasize the bargaining power of the Global South in various diplomatic negotiations in international forums so that the Global South has sovereign power and is no longer dependent on the Global North in the development and decision-making process. In the scope of the global economy, SSC is interpreted as a form of mutualistic relationship to promote intra-regional trade of Global South countries and cooperation to stabilize commodity prices. These aspirations are pursued through various global and regional institutions, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held every four years since 1964.

Not only that, but the social movements in the Global South also advocate the idea of decolonization at the grassroots level, such as the Red Deal indigenous community in the United States and the Via Campesina food security movement in France (Raworth et al., 2022), which seek to break the capitalistic political-economic structure as an entrenched status quo system. These social movements are born from the same proposition: the realization that the growth of the Global North is colonizing and depriving them of resources, so structural liberation is vital to be initiated. Degrowth is a call to liberate the Global South from imperial plunder that is clearly articulated in the People’s Agreement of Cochamba-a demand from Global South activists to the Global North after the failure of the Conference on Parties (COP) 15 to align economic productivity with the principles of justice and sustainability.

Reflective Conclusion

Problems in economic and environmental studies are becoming increasingly complex as the capitalistic global market system is often counterproductive to a ‘sustainable earth’ goal. The hierarchical relationship born from the historical traces between the Global North and the Global South creates a disproportionality of responsibility and destructive impacts both entities feel. With the spirit of decolonization, Degrowth comes as a “green” alternative to address ecological issues while uprooting the problematic roots of the capitalist system as the source of the Global North’s and Global South’s structural inequality today. International forums, such as the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), should be the right momentum to urge commitments and concrete actions based on the degrowth paradigm from inter-domestic Global North actors across sectors to create a sustainable and equitable future for the earth.