Interview: Fairytales of Growth

How does colonialism and exploitation of indigenous communities intersect with environmental justice?

Before the pandemic, Pierre Smith Khana made the film Fairy Tales of Growth, looking at how a degrowth model could reposition our economy to be less extractive, and more considerate of the environment, and communities it has exploited in the past. MDI caught up with him after the COVID-19 pandemic shifted everything to a “new normal” to see if we are closer, or further away from that being a possibility.

MDI: Can you tell me a little bit more about what inspired you to make the film?

PSK: I had an interest in what it would take to change the world into a more sustainable place. I discovered degrowth and it seemed like the most interesting understanding of the global social economic and environmental crisis that we’re in.

Degrowth looks not just at the environmental crisis but also the power relations and structural inequalities that exist in society. It is not a simple remedy but rather a deep and complex remedy that involves looking at economics, climate change, historical inequalities, patriarchy and colonization in developing ways, these extractive ways of living. I felt like a lot of these ideas were confined to academia, even though degrowth started as an activist movement, it is not very well known. So, I wanted to spread this different perspective so that more people could come across it.

MDI: You talked a lot about the history of colonialism and exploitation of indigenous communities, and how it informs modern day capitalism. Can you elaborate on these ideas?

PSK: The history of economic growth and capitalism starts in Europe in the 16th century with the idea of the enclosure of the commons in the United Kingdom, where peasants had access to commons, where they could grow food, go to the woods, and survive and sustain themselves. When this was cut off, they were forcibly removed from this source of sustaining their lives.

History thereafter is this expanded process of removing commons, removing people from their lands in order to exploit this land—for the wealthy class, entrepreneurs, capitalists. In order for these people to gain access to these new frontiers, these new resources and exploit them in order to make a profit.

It is not just labor, but also reproductive labor of women—something Silvia Federici talks about in her book, Caliban and the Witch, bringing our attention to the importance of reproductive work and care work, who raises children, who takes care of the house, who cooks the food–all these things that are essential for life to continue, but are not recognized in the way we value the economy or society. It’s the exploitative nature of desire, to make a profit, expand. It relies on this abuse of the land, of people and it is not sustainable in any way—now we’re seeing that in the way that climate change and biodiversity loss and other indicators of environmental wellbeing are reaching critical limits, because of the way that a certain section of mankind has been pursuing a way of life.

MDI: Do you think the mainstream media does a good job at covering this angle on environmental and economic issues?

PSK: No. They don’t. Perhaps certain channels do, like Open Democracy or Democracy Now, but in the mainstream media these things are not discussed. They’re discussed, beating around the bush, peripherally. For example, this week there was a new poll asking whether the UK government should prioritize health and wellbeing or economic growth—eight out of ten respondents said health and wellbeing. But while a paper like the Guardian might write about the poll, they won’t dig deeper into the roots of the issue.

The same thing goes for the way that any coverage of climate change and the environmental crisis focuses on carbon emissions; it treats the problem as a scientific problem that has little to do with morality or injustice. If there is, its that we have been emitting CO2 by using fossil fuels—it stops there. But we can keep questioning further, why do we use this fuel? You have to go into the industrial revolution—and how this lead to a cycle of colonialism, extraction and exploitation around the world. Suddenly you have a different picture; it puts responsibility on certain shoulders, mainly rich western countries.

Understandably, a western newspaper that is run by elderly white men is probably not going to want to point a finger at their grandparents.

MDI: How has Coronavirus impacted this conversation?

PSK: I think that the pandemic has revealed the realities of what matters to people, and shown that it is nothing to do with economic growth. What matters is health, the health of loved ones and the ability to be together, share together, to raise your children and to have a good quality of life. Now that people have lived through this strange experience of being totally isolated, meeting with people over zoom or skype and they realize the value of real social interaction and social relations.

MDI: What is the media’s role in creating this change?

PSK: I mean, I think the media plays a critical role. The media shapes our perception of ourselves—in that sense, if the media keeps publishing articles about the latest iPhone or articles about the economy is growing at one percent or two percent, we are looking at the same “business as usual” conception of what life look like and what we should value.

MDI: Do you think there is hope that we will do the right thing as a society?

PSK: I think there is hope. I have a lot of hope. I had a lot of hope last year before the pandemic, with this incredible rise of social movements across the world and I think this will continue after the pandemic. I think the pandemic adds to it. There is an appreciation of what matters to people, that gives push to people to put life at the center of our economics and not economic growth. There are lots of amazing initiatives that every day I see more of–all the social solidarity that have sprung up, different neighborhood groups, people who don’t know each other helping out as best they can in a time of crisis…

Will people be able to capitalize on that? Will we push that agenda for change forward once the restrictions of the pandemic are lifted? Or are we going to return to our normal, daily lives. I don’t think it is possible to return to our normal lives after living through something like this.