Transdisciplinarity, me and my anchors

It is the time of the year for our UWAS course ‘Film, Work and Labour’. It is a University-wide Art Studies course we run for the second time with two of my colleagues. The approach is interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary or ‘post-disciplinary’ as the UWAS slogan states. UWAS courses can have a good mix of students from all six Aalto schools and there should be no one discipline that is considered better than the other. In this sense, UWAS courses aim at transdisciplinarity. 

Our course this year has made me reflect my take-aways from such an environment, let it be teaching, research or activism. I feel that me reaching a truly multi-voiced dialogue takes time and energy because it requires me to become aware of  my preferred ways of thinking and working. However, my and others’ disciplinary anchors are not ‘bad’ for transdisciplinarity, quite the contrary. When things get complicated, it is useful to hold on to something familiar.

Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

I present you some of my (disciplinary) anchors based on my observations during this winter and early spring: 

  1. I’m inspired by people’s experiences about what they do. As a working life researcher I’m always excited to learn what people do for work, let it be waged work or non-waged work. For example, when I meet people, I often end up hearing stories about their work, for example subcontracting for a construction site, speech therapy or running a citizen cooperative for local food. As a result, I learn from various ways to understand and work around phenomena. But what really matters for an equal discussion and what cannot be overcome is valuing people’s own perspectives. People are experts when it comes to their own labour or work. This approach has also been referred to as the practice approach or lens, with an emphasis on practitioners’ knowledge. 
  2. This is something I learn every time I spend less time with others: My creativity is truly sparked off by others’ projects. As a result, my anchor is to spend (enough) time with others. I might get inspired by something I hear just briefly on a walk to a caféteria or it might be something I have followed for years. In February, I spoke with a UWAS colleague who works on a project with plants. It is truly remarkable in terms of artistic and scientific work. Another colleague has been studying young female scholars for years, and every time I hear or read about it, I’m so inspired. 
  3. Although at times I’m impatient (ask my family for evidence), transdisciplinary interactions take time. This doesn’t mean that it would be always difficult to grasp others perspectives (although it can be) but it is not straight-forward to find a common vocabulary, let alone trust someone who has a different vocabulary. Do I get them and do they get me? Therefore, it is important for me to meet others half way and try to adopt their language, bodily movements and ways of thinking. By learning about their perspectives it is then more likely that I can come across experiences that resonate with something I might be able to link to. And vice versa, I appreciate this approach from others.

Having written all this, transdisciplinary engagements reminds me of ethnographic work. Indeed, in ethnography I (and others) have an experience of ‘working within hyphen-spaces’, ie. working between certain clear positions, such as outsider, insider, same or different. Rather, we glide between the poles of, for example, outsider-insider or sameness-difference, during a project and within single moments during a project. Such a slide – or sometimes it feels like a strain – could be common in transdisciplinary projects as well.

Our course ‘Film, Work and Labour’ takes place again in early 2020. If you are an Aalto University student, you can register in late 2019. You are warmly welcomed to join us and experience some inter/transdisciplinary interactions!

Open letter and petition: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency

Nine years ago I attended the first high profile degrowth seminar in Finland. While I was new to the topic, the argumentation made sense and I became increasingly involved with the degrowth movement that debates and advocates for giving up on our cultural and political dependency on economic growth.

In September 2018, there was a historical conference held at the European Parliament focusing on post-growth. In relation to that, a group of academics put together an open letter to European institutions and its member states. The letter was signed by over 200 researchers in social and natural science, including myself. In the momentum, there is now a petition open to everyone to sign demanding Europe to stop its growth dependency. If you feel that this is a direction Europe should take, please sign the petition.

The open letter arguments for reconsidering economic growth as a primary policy goal and replacing it with maximising wellbeing for humans, nonhuman animals and the planet as a whole. The letter also includes four powerful policy recommendations for European Union, its institutions and its member states:

  1. “Constitute a special commission on Post-Growth Futures in the EU Parliament. This commission should actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.
  2. Incorporate alternative indicators into the macroeconomic framework of the EU and its member states. Economic policies should be evaluated in terms of their impact on human wellbeing, resource use, inequality, and the provision of decent work. These indicators should be given higher priority than GDP in decision-making.
  3. Turn the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) into a Stability and Wellbeing Pact. The SGP is a set of rules aimed at limiting government deficits and national debt. It should be revised to ensure member states meet the basic needs of their citizens, while reducing resource use and waste emissions to a sustainable level.
  4. Establish a Ministry for Economic Transition in each member state. A new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing could offer a much better future than one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.”

The open letter has been published also by several major newspapers, including the Guardian in English and Liberation in French. Maailma.net published the open letter in Finnish.

Browsing through books: ‘Doughnut economics – Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist’ by Kate Raworth

I had come across Kate Raworths’ doughnut economics in a couple of instances, which for me is a sign to read a book in question. In addition, I had gathered that the book deals with the role and nature of economics, which in turn relate to my postdoc project on post-growth work. After all, the need for continuous economic growth stems from the institutions, such as economics departments, practicing economists, and political decision-makers.

What really kicked me into finally reading the book was the fact that Kate Raworth visited Helsinki in May. The organisers of the events encouraged people to familiarise with her thoughts, for example via a recent TED talk. I took the advice quite literally and browsed through her book, finally reading most of it.

The book is well written, flows beautifully, and has a compelling argument. It is organised around the idea that images have a lot of power. The simple supply-demand curve has influenced a countless number of people in universities’ economics basic courses. In fact, I have been influenced myself as a business school graduate in international business (for my undergraduate studies). So she knows what she is talking about. Moreover, that curve is not the only image that affects students, but many other uncontested “truths” are taught over and over again, although they were developed in the 19th or the 20th century and can be criticised heavily.

The power of images

She points out that we live in the 21st century so we have 21st century issues, which I shortcut here in words ‘wicked socio-ecological problems.’ So why should we rely on old thinking that was not developed knowing contemporary issues and, moreover, has proven to be flawed in many ways? In the spirit of powerful images, Raworth introduces the doughnut: when keeping on the ring of a doughnut, we respect the social needs and the ecological ceiling.

The doughnut

Sadly, the ‘selfie of our time’, as she refers to it in her recent TED talk linked above, is not flattering.

The unflattering selfie of our times

Most of the book is devoted to providing evidence for her argument on why we need to shift our thinking to become more doughnut-like, instead of previously developed (neoclassical) economics. This is understandable, since the dominant thinking in many public institutions support economics that is not suitable for the 21st century. She backs up her arguments by examples that already try to respect the doughnut and bring on change. Some of the examples I know from before, and it was fascinating to see how she links them to the idea of 21st economics.

The book gets really interesting in the end, when she talks about regenerative economics and being agnostic about growth. As an avid reader of post-growth and degrowth literature, I was challenged by her idea to invite economic growth back to the negotiation table after we have cleared the hurdle of making socio-ecological well-being our top priority. She argues that growth could be possible and needed in some places, but it would need to respect the priority of keeping within the doughnut and not causing to fall to the empty centre nor to rise above its outer ring. This type of message seems wise, when engaging in dialogues with decision-makers in power at the moment. Any message is easier to communicate when not seeming too fundamental.

In Helsinki, she mentioned a couple if interesting things that I want to share. First, she said has no time to knock on shut doors. In short, she follows good energies. Not surprisingly economics departments have not been keen to invite her. Yet, critical (economics) students have been in touch with her. In addition, cities and urban planners have contacted her. Also designers have been interested in her ideas as well as some businesses and (progressive) business schools. Finally, political parties hungry for new economics have engaged in a dialogue with her, which is very promising.

Second, someone always comments to her that “this is nothing new”. She replies that yes, this is right. In fact, usually this is the case beyond this book or idea. But it is not enough to say things once, when we want change, here end the dominance of continuous economic growth. Indeed, her work is to serve as a communicator of ideas that resonate widely. For some this may seem like a celebrity cult, which is emphasised in our times by TED talks and alike. However, she (and many others) use the medium available to reach people so that she can reach open doors and follow good energies.

Third, Kate Raworth emphasised that the book may seem like an easy thing to write, but it was a struggle. She was about to give up before she came up with the leading idea of the power of images. I appreciate her honesty, since many books seem effortless, although they are a result of sweat and tears, sometimes even facing one’s deepest fears. But perhaps that is why they are so compelling.

Browsing through books: ‘Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science’ by Isabelle Stengers

Isabelle Stengers’ Another science is possible: A manifesto for slow science is an important book for anyone doing research or dealing with research. It identifies problems in science and research today and suggest ways to overcome these. Although I’m not a natural scientist, I found this book useful and resonating. In fact, using examples from a different field helped me to see the issues slightly from the outside. The first 4 chapters are about describing ‘fast’ science and the remaining 2 chapters focus on slow science.

The most important take-away for me was Stengers’ ability to verbalise how contemporary mainstream ways of thinking marginalise other ways of being. In the case of academia, the symptoms relate to rankings, measuring, efficiency, expectations for delivering results, commodification, among other things. While these are annoying practices, together they create a sense of fastness. Still, they are the symptoms and the root causes are elsewhere.

What are the root causes? But briefly, the argument is that science is put to serve knowledge economy. She argues that many contemporary socio-ecological problems are known and shared by scholars but they are affected by ‘fastness’ and thus scientists and researchers cannot focus on ‘matters of concern’ (Latour). The tricky part is that no one has the right to decide on their own what is a matter of concern but it should be a dialogue among many people, and not only scientists, but also non-human others. In her analysis, such dialogue is not encouraged at the moment but circumvented or even denied.

In truth, the whole book is about articulating the root causes since it is a book about the philosophy of science. Thus, it would require more work from me to cristalise her analysis. While the same goes for her suggestions how to bring about slow science, I will still try.

I read that her proposals include researchers facing the question ‘You knew what you had to know; what did you do?’ (Chapter 5. p. 106). In her opinion, research institutions are not equipped to handle this and to admit that science is messy and not controllable. Moreover, facing the question requires negotiations (or reclaiming, p. 141), which always happens in a specific context – not in general or in abstractions. From the perspective of fast science, this seems like a terrible idea since negotiations require time. Still, time and negotiations are required for formulating answers to the question she poses: ‘You knew; what did you do?’ Moreover, engaging in negotiations as an academic results in need for diplomats who do negotiating. Sometimes scientists can be those diplomats, while sometimes the diplomat is someone else.

This is not a book to digest easily. Yet, it is definitely an inspiring and important one. So I’m happy that I did more than browse and spent time with this one. I have a feeling that I will return to this book later and compare the underlined parts and my notes to new highlights that I make. (And yes, I scribble in my books, but usually with a pencil.)

Browsing through books: Farewell to growth by Serge Latouche

Serge Latouche’s book Farewell to growth (translated by David Macey, orig. Petit traité de la décroissance sereine) is a classic in degrowth literature. I first familiarised with it in 2010, when I attended my first degrowth conference in Finland entitled Alternatives to the growth economy. It was a high-profile meeting organised by The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation. One of the keynotes was delivered by Serge Latouche, so I have had a chance to hear his thoughts.

dav
Latouche, S. (2010). Farewell to growth. Polity.

The book is organised in three sections: (1) The territory of de-growth; (2) A concrete utopia; and (3) A political programme. The first section focuses on the critique of continuous economic growth, while the other two sections describe and map how growth and development could be challenged in practice.

The number of pages is a bit over 100, so it is a compact book. Latouche refers to many relevant debates but explains them only in passing. After 8 years of dwelling in the degrowth movement and thinking, my ability to interpret the book has definitely improved. Thus, re-reading it felt easier, but not at all less radical or inspiring.

Basically, Latouche suggests a complete change of paradigm(s), i.e. the way we think about living on planet Earth. The ultimate precondition is a better treatment of everyone and everything living on this planet. The destruction of life in the name of economic gains has stop because it makes no sense. Latouche wisely notes that actually many agree on this point, but few are able to imagine what paradigm changes mean or if they can manage to do that, how such paradigm changes could ever be obtained. However, the tone of the book seems hopeful. He puts trust in people’s movements beyond political parties and maps the role of the degrowth movement as a watchdog that encourages different institutions and actors to carry out the paradigm change.

Throughout the book he addresses questions asked from degrowth proponents, such as what the role of localism is, how do we feed everyone, and is degrowth humanist. Some of the answers are based on pragmatic solutions, while other answers tackle the actual questions and show how the question itself is coloured by the ideology of growth, development, and modernism.

Finally, Farewell to growth is truly “a pleasure to read”, as the book’s back cover text promises. That’s not only because I sympathise with the message, but because of the way Latouche has written the book. In short, this condensed manifesto is a must for anyone interested in degrowth debates.