Carolina Wenniger: The Degrowth Movement and the Struggle for Indigenous Sovereignty




This commentary is written by Carolina de Buy Wenniger of Burlington, a sophomore student at the University of Vermont.

America is set on the ideal of endless consumption, increased wealth, and economic growth. This fixation is often calculated in the form of growth in gross domestic product and comes at the expense of people and the environment.

Most of the environmental impact falls on those disenfranchised during years of continued colonialism, genocide and systemic racism.

Native Americans often suffer from a loss of sovereignty in the pursuit of outside interests of economic power and growth. However, new academic and social fields such as degrowth seek to reverse these systems. Degrowth and the struggle for indigenous sovereignty should be examined to understand how their goals are similar: to redistribute wealth and power while limiting environmental degradation.

Degrowth is a relatively new movement in ecological economics created around the rejection of classical economics measures. Degrowth seeks to analyze how the continued growth of GDP and economic growth has led to the degradation of the environment and human well-being (Robra and Heikkurinen, 2019).

The argument for growth is that increased production and consumption – economic activity – will lead to increased prosperity and well-being for all. It is argued that increasing economic throughput leads to more jobs and more wealth through the spillover effect. Promoting growth has become so entrenched in the mainstream that any economic policy, from the local city to the federal government, seems to prioritize increasing annual growth.

Yet studies have consistently refuted the pro-growth argument, showing that the endless pursuit of GDP growth leads to inequalities in wealth and income, environmental degradation and the exploitation of humans and Resource (Chakravarty and Mandal, 2020). The fixation on infinite growth ignores the rights of humans, organisms and the earth in search of individual wealth.

Degrowth seeks to combat this dominant narrative and works to reinvent our socio-economic system to “include local autonomy, political and economic equity, communitarianism, the link with the place, friendly lifestyles and voluntary simplicity. “(Freeze, 2019). Degrowth focuses on decreasing economic throughput and the size of the world economy given the finite biophysical limits of the planet.

Continued economic growth leads to resource extraction and environmental degradation, often at the expense of indigenous groups. The environmental injustice of industrial processes “takes the form of environmental externalities – negative and unmonetized impacts of industry, for which industry is not held economically or legally responsible and which are inflicted on others in such a way. non-consensual ”(Frost, 2019). This has negative consequences, as the loss of food security and spiritual connection to the place damages integral parts of culture, society and spirituality in indigenous communities. The loss of land resulted in “serious problems for the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian nations” (History of land tenure).

Even today, the sovereignty and rights of indigenous peoples are contested by corporate entities that seek to achieve economic profit in any way possible. Recent and current projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline and Enbridge’s Pipeline 3 continue to disrespect and non-consensually violate land rights treaties with Indigenous nations in the United States.

State and federal governments approve energy projects even with strong opposition from indigenous groups. Pipelines endanger the lives and livelihoods of everyone, especially the indigenous lands they cross. Pipelines have devastating environmental impacts, both directly in the form of oil spills and downstream in the form of greenhouse gas emissions (Erdrich, 2020).

The continued extraction of energy and resources for endless economic growth is a violation of human rights. The climate crisis is the direct result of a pro-growth mindset. This has resulted in irreversible degradation and damage to our planet. The indiscriminate pursuit of individual wealth without respecting the sovereign rights of Indigenous communities in the United States is dangerous and should be stopped. Our socio-political and economic systems harm people and the planet.

Economic decline and the struggle for indigenous rights and sovereignty are aligned. The struggles for indigenous sovereignty run parallel to the ideals of degrowth, which include “calls for voluntary simplicity, local autonomy, communitarianism, conviviality and the sacred relationship to place, as well as to questioning shared explicit of the ideology of capitalist growth ”(Frost, 2019).

These feelings all play a role in indigenous communities and indigenous knowledge. The struggle for indigenous sovereignty and degrowth must not be parallel; they must coexist in the same academic and social paradigms. Degrowth and Indigenous sovereignty and rights must support each other in the struggle for a future that recognizes the importance of land, culture and society.



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