Towards a post-growth economic culture: existential transition blocks and levers from an ecopsychological perspective

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Thesis defended by Sarah Koller, December 22, 2023 – Institute of geography and durability (IGD).

Debates on economic growth are underpinned by strongly polarized ideological positions. On the one hand, belief in the possibility of unlimited growth, now backed by its “green” label, is presented as an essential condition for the proper development of economies and the resolution of current ecological problems. On the other hand, calls for a post-growtheconomy have been emerging for several decades, presented as inevitable, whether it be imposed or chosen through a political project of degrowth. These calls do not yet seem to have shaken faith in the necessity of continuing to pursue growth. How are we to understand the hegemony of economic growth, and the absence of any real large-scale political reflection on the subject?

In recent years, the institutional answers to these questions have been supplemented by research that highlights the psychological forces at play at the boundary between the individual and the collective, sometimes operating in an unconscious way. This work feeds into an existential economic anthropology that seeks to reveal the deep-rooted motivations behind our participation in the economic system. The present work is part of this project, while questioning our anthropocentric relationship with our terrestrial habitat, from an ecopsychological perspective.

Using both a theoretical and empirical approach, this work sheds light on the existential motivations behind adherence to two socio-economic paradigms that circumscribe clear-cut positions in favor or against economic growth in the current ecological context: the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP) and the New Ecological Paradigm (NEP). To this end, a field survey was carried out with some twenty people adhering to one or other of these paradigms. In order to explore the existential experience of these people, a theoretical framework – called existential self-regulation, was developed sui generis from a literature in experimental existential psychology. This framework simultaneously integrates five major existential issues : mortality, identity, meaning, isolation and freedom. The experience of these issues is apprehended according to two major trends: one defensive, characterized by an attitude of flight, and the other reflexive, favoring an attitude of confrontation. The hypothesis explored is that of a double association between, on the one hand, a defensive existential experience tendency and a more favorable adherence to the DSP; and, on the other hand, a reflexive existential experience tendency and a more favorable adherence to the NEP.

The concept of existential interest is proposed to account for adherence to one or other paradigm according to the existential experiences explored. In addition, the development of a strong ecological identity and cultural reflexivity are conceptualized as key factors that can explain adherence to the NEP. Finally, the thesis identifies practical avenues of support, by then proposing two more concrete action-research projects: the creation of a show and the holding of cultural reflexivity workshops. Finally, the work looks ahead to possible future research aimed at expanding our understanding of the existential blocks and levers of paradigmatic transition.

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