The ideology of growth: Tourism and alienation in Akumal, Mexico

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Introduction Global environmental change and persisting social inequalities pose a challenge to the assumption that economic growth may reduce poverty without creating other negative consequences. A common response to this challenge has consisted of research and discourses on governance reform to allow some sort of reconciliation between economic growth and socio-ecological degradation (e.g. ecological modernization, or inclusive/shared growth). In opposition to such reconciliatory responses, sustainable de-growth acknowledges upfront the impossibility and undesirability of continuous growth. As Barry suggests in Chapter 9 (this volume), the ideology of growth, which is structurally coupled with capitalist political economy, is increasingly identified as a major underlying cause of climate change and natural resources depletion. Therefore, a ‘postcapitalist’ political economy perspective is needed that questions economic growth. The least radical de-growth route, often advocated by economists, consists of reforming the dominant economic paradigm. Reform may range from new accounting criteria (that reorient the economy), up to the review of economic paradigms. In either case, the idea is to move away from the goal of ‘maximizing growth at any cost’ and focus instead in achieving broader welfare objectives, such as full employment, eliminating poverty, and protecting the environment (Victor and Rosenbluth 2007). A second route to de-growth, perhaps following the work of Polanyi (2001 [1944]), focuses on neither state nor market-based responses. The idea is that both governments and economies would, and ought to, get embedded within empowered local communities which would grant that these institutions work along authentically democratic principles. In this vein, social scientists, including some economists (perhaps regretting some of their professional choices), assert that the transition to de-growth cannot be left to economists or representative governments. Rather, the embedding of the economy into democracy is envisioned as the outcome of political struggle, led by coalitions of social/environmental movements (Martinez-Alier 2009). A comprehensive deployment of this argument is Speth’s (2008) call for reinvigorating democracy from below in its deliberative and participatory forms, rather than seeking to direct change from above. Unfortunately, it is unclear how and why people will disengage from consumerism and take on the burden of democratically designing the rules of the economy. One may argue that there is already an increasing number of people who are deeply concerned about the urgency of climate change and the unfairness of the economy, but this painful realization does not lead them to take any significant action or engage in organized movements (Fournier 2008). Therefore, significant doubts can be cast over the capacity of a de-growth movement to emerge in the short run and wage an ideological struggle against the power of a hegemonic macro-structure, which has emerged from the interplay between market economy, capitalist production conditions, and representative democracy. This macro-structure is tremendously sturdy and confers stability to the tyranny of growth both ideologically and practically, while at the same time depending on this very tyranny for its reproduction. A third route proposes ‘inclusive democracy’ as a universalist project for human liberation and autonomy. Drawing on libertarian thought, this route postulates a fundamental incompatibility between liberal market economies and degrowth (Fotopoulos 2007). Accordingly, strategies based on changing behaviour, democratic reform, or radical decentralization are not seen as effective, or even realistic, because they do not address either power relations, or the historical characteristics of capitalism, which are both structurally linked to the need for continuous growth. Therefore, a pre-condition for de-growth is a more egalitarian distribution of power, which would result from a confederation of communities functioning according to principles of economic equality, collective ownership, and direct democracy. Again, the means, or praxis, to achieve this organizational vision is the crucial issue. Inclusive democracy does point to a conscious and self-reflective choice for autonomy (over heteronomy) as a driving force towards de-growth. Perhaps following Hegel, Fotopoulos (1997: 181) situates this choice in the dialectical tension between individual versus collective, agency versus structure, or idealism versus materialism. The origin of this tension is situated in the fact that individuals are both free to create their world and at the same time are created by the world. According to Fotopoulos (2000), the way out of this tension is a liberatory project towards individual and collective autonomy that synthesizes democratic, socialist, libertarian, green and feminist traditions. In this chapter I discuss the usefulness of the concept of alienation in the study of growth. This exploration is based in bibliographic and ethnographic research that sought to reconstruct life-story narratives (see Bruner 2004) of agents promoting tourist growth. The development of two adjacent coastal enclaves in the Mexican Caribbean, a region subjected to intense tourist commoditization, is compared to illustrate the usefulness and difficulties of researching alienation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationClimate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism
Subtitle of host publicationA Chance to Reclaim, Self, Society and Nature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781136507687
ISBN (Print)9780415676946
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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