Erik Assadourian, a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, is an environmentalist, an anthropologist and a concerned parent obsessed with “how (if at all) the human species is going to stop its rapid slide into civilizational collapse.” He is dedicated to increasing awareness and catalyzing positive behavioral change by creating alternative communication tools such as the Settlers of Catan: Oil Springs board game expansion and the reality TV show Yardfarmers.
“We have 7.4 billion people on the planet, the population is growing and more people are advancing economically,” Erik told Planet Experts. “Forecasts suggest an additional one billion consumers by 2025.” That’s a lot more cars, clothes and hamburgers.
“Even if we magically make our supply chains green, we can’t keep consuming as we are,” he said. “Something’s gotta give.”
Our planet has a finite carrying capacity and there are limits to growth. Eventually, Earth’s systems will not support our rampant consumerism. “We must start figuring out what we need in order to sustain a high quality of life and what we can get rid of,” he added. “So much of our economy is based on fossil fuels… We are undermining our future wellbeing for short term addictive consumer habits.”
The western paradigm is built on consumerism and “keeping up with the Joneses,” which ingrains planned obsolescence and the “throw away” mentality into our psyches. How can we communicate this message of degrowth to both consumers and corporations?
Communicating the Message of Degrowth to Consumers
For nearly 15 years, Erik has been working with his colleagues at Worldwatch to communicate the message of sustainability through traditional mediums such as writing and research. However, these communication methods don’t always catch people’s attention if they aren’t already versed in, or looking for, information on the topic.
“We have slowly entered into using social media strategies, but I think social media is a challenge. People can’t typically absorb more than 140 characters in that platform and you can’t say much other than the newest celebrity trend,” he said.
In the last few years, Assadourian has been exploring more engaging means of communication. “The idea of intentionally contracting the economy to reduce total consumption so we aren’t destroying the planet – yet continue to provide high quality lives for the population – is a red flag for media strategists,” Assadourian reflects. “So, I tried to repackage that as a reality TV show called Yardfarmers. ”
Simply put, Yardfarmers satirically plays on the fate of many of America’s youth by focusing on six millennials who move back in with their parents to farm on the lawns of their childhood.
“If you peel back the layers, it’s essentially a less threatening approach to talk about degrowth,” he said. “It sets an example of how to increase suburban density, grow local sustainable food on otherwise wasteful lawns, and pull millennials out of the formal economy so they’re not generating discretionary income to then go out and buy cars and all these other things that eventually have to go.”
Can Corporations Get Onboard?
Even if people buy it, this message is a hard sell for corporations that are getting fat off our insatiable desire for more. “It’s a real challenge,” reflected Assadourian. “There’s no one answer. No matter what kind of communication tools we use there’s half a trillion dollars’ worth of marketing supporting the exact opposite, and we won’t ever have that amount of resources.”
“There’s a cartoon that I once saw, which shows a CEO talking to his board of directors. “He says, ‘The bad news is the world is ending, but the good news is the quarter before that will be highly profitable.’
“I have a feeling that a lot of corporations will stay at the top of the shrinking mound. As the Earth’s systems break down, those that have commodified the resources we need, like agro-corporations – even if they were part of the problem at the beginning – will come to be seen as part of the solution.
“I want to believe that there’s some enlightened self interest, but I am skeptical,” he admitted. Erik hopes that corporate leaders will denounce practices that are harming our environment, “like the late Ray Anderson, who had an epiphany that being part of the Earth-destroying industry of carpet making was not okay, so he really tried to transform his business to be zero waste.”
In a rare moment of optimism, Erik suggested that some of today’s “young billionaires (like Evan Williams and Mark Zuckerberg), who’s businesses don’t necessarily depend on Earth razing, in theory, could dedicate more philanthropy and more resources into creating products – especially entertainment products – that might shift people expectation of the future.”
How Early Education and Play Can Increase Awareness
These are some sobering concepts for many of us who shudder at the thought of living without easy access to coconut machiatos, vacations in the tropics and the newest (albeit) electric vehicle. How can we slowly introduce these concepts to people in a way that isn’t such a slap in the face?
Early education presents an opportunity to shape young minds, but at the moment, said Erik, “I don’t think it plays a big role.”
The Senior Fellow, who homeschools his toddler, added, “Most education is focused on academic skills rather than teaching people to be good humans. We need home economics back in the classroom, so when all the fashion stores shut down people can maintain there own clothing.”
To prepare our youth for the risks of corporate demise, Erik encourages bringing things like “basic eco-literacy, acquiring a taste for healthy foods, and exploring nature” back into the classroom.
Erik views play as an important communication tool for both children and adults. “I love to play,” he said. “Whenever I am playing a game, I think, ‘how can this be an environmental education tool?’”
When he created the Oil Springs expansion for Settlers of Catan (a resource trading and development board game), Erik focused on “trying to get people thinking about the climate crisis and limits to growth, because you just can’t grow forever on a finite island or a finite planet.”
The Oil Springs scenario allows players to expand faster by using oil, but incorporates a disaster stage after a certain amount of oil is used, which can seriously hinder development for affected players.
“It causes tension and forces negotiations around the table,” he explained. “It raises the question, ‘how do we start using less oil?’”
Erik finds that players usually come to the same conclusion that’s supported by activists like Bill McKibben; that is, to keep it in the ground. “We just can’t extract all the fossil fuels or we are going to cause a climate catastrophe,” he said.
Shifting From Awareness to Action
Environmental issues are becoming more mainstream as increasing numbers of public figures promote sustainability and climate action, leading to greater global awareness. Yet we are still increasing fossil fuel emissions and consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. How can we take it a step further and shift from awareness to action?
“I don’t think information necessarily shifts behavior, that’s why I’ve tried to explore alternative media,” said Erik.
He also suggests the environmental movement could learn from missionaries, who’ve “been effective in spreading philosophies and cultural ideas, in part through mutual aid.
“If we set up institutions that help support people in times of need we may be able to model and inspire a more sustainable lifestyle.”
How to Thrive in the Post-Consumer Era
Speaking with Erik made me consider grabbing a pitchfork and trading my Prius for an ox. It left me thinking, “If we do experience radical degrowth, what will I need to prosper in this new global paradigm?”
The cultural change specialist recommends people store several months’ worth of food but “having skills is far more important. Knowing how to yardfarm could mean the difference between surviving this transition or not.”
The futuristic farmer suggests that if we are to prosper after “we make it through the bottleneck, we need to develop traditional sets of knowledge – like midwifery – that could make life better now and in a post-consumer future.”
Whether Erik’s hypothesis’ of large scale socioeconomic restructuring will come to pass or not, there’s no doubt that growing our own food, thinking twice before making unnecessary impulse purchases and living with – instead of against – nature is better for our pocket books, our wellbeing and our planet.