Indigenous Degrowth? Recognizing Visions of What a World Beyond Growth Could Actually Look Like

Environmental activists in the Global North have come to understand indigenous land defense as generative labor, and to recognize that indigenous communities are the custodians of 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Now we must acknowledge that the price of indigenous caregiving labor and land stewardship is rising, as green capitalism expands the frontiers of extractivism. If degrowth is to be an alternative to this, we must ask what indigenous communities can teach us about degrowth, argues Alistair Alexander in his piece for BG’s “Allied Grounds” series.


Degrowth, or post-growth, is fast emerging as the pre-eminent transformative, radical – and arguably anti-capitalist – alternative to a growth-led “Net Zero” energy transition. As degrowth advocate Jason Hickel puts it: “Wealthy economies should abandon growth of gross domestic product (GDP) as a goal, scale down destructive and unnecessary forms of production to reduce energy and material use, and focus economic activity around securing human needs and well-being.”

But if degrowth is to pose a meaningful challenge to climate capital, it must rapidly find support far beyond its academic and political base in labor and environmental struggles worldwide, including – and especially – in indigenous communities, which comprise 580 million people and literally live on the faultlines of any future contest between a growth-led transition and one based on degrowth.

Any growth-led Net Zero pathway will require a massive expansion of mining for “green” technologies; the International Energy Agency forecasts 25 times more lithium production, 45 times more nickel and 32 times more cobalt required by 2040, among countless other resources. Indigenous land is estimated to contain 54 per cent of those resources, so will be central in this new era of planetary “Giga-extractivism.” Edson Krenak, of Cultural Survival, outlines the stark reality:

“Mining extractivism has been by far the most catastrophic operation or enterprise on Indigenous lands in history. We never had so many disasters, so many catastrophes, so many violations, so many dispossessions as we do from mining. I could give you thousands of examples.”

Environmental murder

“Eight or nine years ago, we had the Brumadinho and Mariana Dam disasters. Almost 300 people died (in the Mariana disaster alone),” recounts Edson, “and for indigenous people, two big rivers, one of them by my people (the Krenak Tribe), were, we call it murdered, as if they were assassinated, because the river is our ancestor, it’s our Grandfather, our ancient ancestor in our ontologies. The disaster was not only on the river but the entire ecosystem; all the inhabitants, animals, fishes, birds, and plants around this river, suffered and still struggle with the catastrophe.”

Raki Ap represents the Free West Papua Campaign resisting Indonesian occupation. Indonesia is the World’s largest exporter of nickel – West Papua has several major nickel hotspots and also the World’s largest goldmine: “More than 500,000 indigenous reported deaths after 60 years of occupation in a population of less than 2.1 million. That’s why we’re talking about slow motion genocide.”

Multi-layered collage: fragments of a founding member of Tó Nizhóní Ání (“Sacred Water Speaks”) holding a black rock and an indigenous protester holding a banner that reads “Indigenous women will lead us forward”; both fragments placed on an aerial view of indigenous lands (shot by the SIRGE Coalition, which is composed of indigenous peoples and leaders working with their allies for a just transition to a low-carbon economy) and superimposed with image of “Free West Papua Campaign resisting Indonesian occupation” protests. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

Unsurprisingly, Raki sees the extractivism that has ravaged West Papua directly connected to western capitalism. “The Global North’s way of consuming has caused this carbon bomb explosion as we see today, which is nothing to do with the lifestyle of indigenous people,” he says. “To solve this, capitalism is creating another system, which we call the energy transition. This requires even more resources, while we haven’t reduced any in the current system. Because there’s no degrowth in either of these two systems, we are accelerating the problem. Degrowth in the Global North economies should be mandatory. Otherwise we’re not solving anything.”

Taking and taking without giving back anything to the planet

But when talking to West Papuans, Raki describes the situation very differently. Degrowth, Raki says, “is not the story for the people, because their story is about: How do we stop the killings? How do we stop the deforestation? There’s no deeper story for them in there. The degrowth story in my narrative is to make the people in the Global North connect the dots of injustice, and that degrowth is essential if we really want to solve the climate crisis.”

There are thousands of distinct indigenous cultures, which of course makes the term indigenous itself problematic. Edson, who has recently worked with other indigenous groups to launch the S.I.R.G.E Coalition, is acutely aware of the paradox, but he is also pragmatic: “Of course we would prefer to be called by our own names, Krenak, Munduruku, and so on, much like British, French, Germans are known” he says. “However, considering our current political and legal context, we understand that adopting this term, ‘Indigenous Peoples,’ is more conducive to pursuing our shared goals and agenda. These goals revolve around our unique relationship with the planet, the land, and the forest,” Edson explains.

On degrowth Edson says: “The so-called Global North is addicted to consumerism, extractivism, and taking and taking without giving back anything to the planet. Degrowth is an unavoidable necessity for without it, human life as we know it could be endangered within just a few decades.” But, he adds: “Degrowth has nothing to do with indigenous peoples. We don’t need that because growth was never our goal. We don’t have to adopt this agenda. Indigenous people deal with the legacies of colonialism and industrialization; they didn’t have the chance, or the permission, to grow, to develop, to not be poor that the rich industrialized countries had.”

Employed by the mine

Jessica Keetso campaigns for water rights with Tó Nizhóní Ání in the Navajo Nation. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in her nation’s recent history. “We had the largest open pit coal mine in the Southwest for almost 50 years and a part of that operation was a slurry line which used our groundwater, the only water that’s available to the people of Black Mesa, as a transport medium for the coal. The slurry line was over 200 miles long and something like half of the Navajo Nation Council at the time didn’t even know that that was happening.”

The Navajos’ entanglement with fossil fuels is as complex, as it is toxic. Some Navajo were employed by the mine; it provided one of the few sources of steady income in a systematically marginalized territory. But it goes further. “The only reason our (Navajo) Government was established was to lease oil and natural gas,” Jessica says, “the (US) Federal Government needed an entity to make those deals with.” For Jessica the link to degrowth is clear: “I was trying to describe degrowth to my Grandmother and her view was, so basically you’re talking about our teachings of doing things in moderation.”

Jessica adds: “There is a balance in life, a harmony with the natural world that human beings can achieve, Indigenous people became masters of it, we thrived for it everyday, but when first contact happened we were told that our lifestyle was inferior and to leave it behind. The word is new, but what the word actually means are concepts that have always existed within indigenous life ways, indigenous cultures, indigenous perspectives. […] Navajo culture was never based on an economy in the same way as European culture […]. There was wealth, but the wealth was not things; it was people, it was knowledge.”

Limitations of degrowth

In addition to the climate emergency, of course, we are also facing a planetary biodiversity collapse, often referred to as the sixth extinction event. And not coincidentally, in addition to vast amounts of mineral wealth, indigenous lands are home to an estimated 88 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Any meaningful path toward ecological repair will therefore necessarily lead deep into indigenous territory. Fortunately, indigenous cultures have a far more evolved understanding of this task than their Western counterparts.

“We have this reciprocity among all species,” Edson says. “And this reciprocity means that if I take something to eat, I have to give back something to protect. So we are not simply caretakers but caregivers of the earth. And from an Amerindian perspective we actually share one culture with other species. We do not share one nature, but are one culture […]. This reciprocity, this relationality, are the key values or principles in our view that should be leading any degrowth and economic approach.”

Raki says: “We don’t know the word nature, because we are nature and this is the philosophy of the Papuan people. So if you understand that, you would also understand that degrowth is a word that will never be in our dictionary, because it’s how we’ve been raised; to give back to the rivers, the mountains as part of our family. So this is what what we miss here; the connection of understanding in the relationships among beings and non-human beings.” For Jessica, it is from this viewpoint that the limitations of degrowth become strikingly clear: “The whole idea of degrowth is to challenge the money-based economy, but you’re using the terms and tools of the money-based economy to describe it.”

Maybe then the problem with degrowth is not what it is; the problem could be in what degrowth isn’t. Economic growth may be an increasingly destructive – and mythical – fantasy, but if we let it go, with what do we fill the void? As a term, degrowth simply serves to make that void bigger.

Of the many challenges indigenous people face, filling this void is not one of them. Indigenous cultures have rich, multi-layered, and deeply compelling visions of what a world beyond growth could actually look like. So rather than asking degrowth researchers, perhaps we should turn to indigenous cultures to tell us how to fill that void instead?

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

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