Rethinking not repairing: a call for Utopianism

Commons Network researcher Winne van Woerden investigates the links between commoning and public health, and how commoners play their part in the transition to a ‘degrowth’ society. In this blog post – part of Commons Network’s Caring Commons programme,  she applies some lessons learned to the current systemic crisis, and urges us all to reinvigorate Utopian thinking in shaping a post-Corona, healthy society.

We are living in daunting times. As the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the weaknesses of institutions we have built to address global crises, many are looking for ways to mitigate the risk of more pandemics in the future. One study area where this search takes place is the field of Global Health. But truly having a fruitful discussion on risk management, means asking ourselves: what exactly is the problem we are talking about? What disease is it that is causing a sick world?


Diagnosing the right disease

It has already been said by many: the emergence of the coronavirus can be seen as a symptom of a disease that is barely discussed by health scientists but increasingly done so by those working in the political and economic arena. The name of the disease? You could call it ‘growthism’: the desire for economic growth as an unquestioned societal objective. A desire that is, as it turns out, both ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust. It is unsustainable because it is already pushing the Earth’s life-supporting cycles beyond their natural boundaries. It is unjust because it fails to provide all people with the basics to live a dignified and healthy life, worsening socio-economic inequalities both within and across nations worldwide instead. So if the world is suffering from growthism, what does this mean for ways of doing risk mitigation?  


The usual approach taken by many risk mitigation programs within the field of global health is what you could call a ‘predict and control’ approach, where the goal is to return safely to a state of “normal”. But what if our idea of “normal” is what is making us sick in the first place? It would mean that we shouldn’t bounce back from the adversity of the COVID-19 pandemic to where we came from, but instead embrace change and bounce forward into new ways of thinking, doing and being. It would require openness to alternative, transformative ways of imagining the world we want to live in. Being truly serious about finding a cure for the disease that causes global crises like viral pandemics, requires an open mind to utopias.


A call for utopias

The landscape of the social imaginary is what can be called a worldview. It guides our beliefs and actions, framing the way we imagine the past, the present and the future, how we see ourselves and others. When discussing worldviews, a distinction can be made between ideologies and utopias. An ideology can then be explained as the orthodoxy that is inherently conservative and seeks to explain and justify the status quo. A utopia on the other hand it is the heterodoxy that aspires to become the orthodoxy, and it can thus be understood as a counter-ideology. Utopias always stand in opposition to the social reality, or “society-as-usual”, so utopian imagination will always require active effort. Utopias help us free our imagination to conceive new worlds. We need that imagination to change our ways. We need a utopia to replace growthism as the ideology that dominates our lives.


If growthism is the disease, what does degrowth have to offer?

Over the last couple of months, as part of my master thesis in global health, I have been trying to understand a proposed utopian cure for growthism as a disease, which goes under the name of ‘degrowth’.
In essence, degrowth is an alternative vision for human development and well-being, based on the hypothesis that we can live well without increasing our use of energy and materials. It calls for the decolonization of the public debate from the idiom of economism and for the abolishment of economic growth as a political objective. Degrowth represents the desire for societies to use fewer natural resources and to live differently than today, characterized by principles such as autonomy, care and sufficiency.

The elephant and the snail. Source: © Bàrbara Castro Urío (

Remaking the institutions based on this vision for what constitutes the “good life for all” is what degrowth thinking is all about. Consequently, although degrowth aims to enhance human well-being while promoting ecological integrity on a global scale, the degrowth movement primarily focuses on socio-ecologically transforming Western, industrialized societies of the Global North.


Towards transformative change

Currently, the worldview of global health sits uneasily with that of the degrowth movement. Yet, the current pandemic can teach those committed to safeguarding human health and well-being many things. One of these lessons is the need to step away from conventional ways of doing risk management and start walking – or rather running, since time is not on our side – on the path to transformative change that is paved with utopias. Each narrative will unfold in different directions and none of them will hold all the answers. But when the “normal” way of doing things doesn’t work, the various utopias like degrowth – and, indeed, the commons – can show us the way.