Students for sustainability… Post-Growth Singapore founder Lim Lecarl

Lim leads Post-Growth Singapore, a movement pursuing alternatives to the relentless pursuit of economic growth in the wealthy city-state. He shares with Eco-Business why reimagining our societal and economic structures is essential.

Lim Lecarl
Lim Lecarl represented Singapore as a youth delegate at the Youth Conference of the Archipelagic and Island State Forum in October 2023. The delegation advocated for good ocean governance, sustainable livelihoods, and environmental protection and rehabilitation. Image: Lim Lecarl

Lim Lecarl first experienced the deep bonds that can form between humans and non-humans from his interactions with his two dogs, Snoopy and Julius. Snoopy is a 16 year-old Chihuahua Jack Russell mix, and Julius is a 14 year-old Silky Terrier.

Both dogs have been with him for over a decade now, and his profound love for them has influenced his relationship with nature. “They’ve helped me to understand and recognise human and non-human love, which has translated into my appreciation for nature, and a wish to further explore the human-nature connection.”

This desire to learn more about humankind’s interactions with the natural environment is complemented by his studies at Yale-NUS college – Lim reads a major in environmental studies and a minor in urban studies, and he is among the batch of final-year students who will graduate this July.

During his undergraduate education, courses on environmental humanities spurred conversations about alternatives ways of living – those not fixated on limitless, capitalistic growth.

“We realised that many of the narratives we have been told, like how we can have economic growth while addressing environmental impacts and decreasing carbon emissions and material use, are not accurate,” he said. “We can’t have both at the same time.”

In January this year, Lim founded Post-Growth Singapore, a movement that advocates for prioritising wellbeing and harmony with nature over the pursuit of limitless economic growth.

While the terms “post-growth” and “degrowth” are often used interchangeably, they differ in the intensity of the change they propose. Post-growth broadly acknowledges the need to rethink our economic systems to fit within ecological limits, whereas degrowth calls for a scaling back of both production and consumption.

If we go around telling people we need degrowth in Singapore, we will be shut off immediately.

Lim Lecarl, founder, Post-Growth Singapore

Ahead of Post-Growth Singapore’s open house on 23 June, Lim spoke to Eco-Business about what degrowth could mean in Singapore and the challenges of promoting a concept that is politically taboo. 

Tell us more about Post-Growth Singapore.

Post-Growth Singapore strives towards a future that prioritises human wellbeing in a socially just and equitable manner, and in harmony with nature. It tries to present an alternative to the cesspool of relentless production and consumption, and aims to be a movement grounded in care, sufficiency and connectedness.

We use the term “post-growth” rather than “degrowth” mainly as a strategy – if we go around telling people we need degrowth in Singapore, we will be shut off immediately. There is still stigma around the concept of degrowth – that is, scaling back economic growth to limit environmental and social harm.

Post-growth and degrowth do not advocate for a recession, but rather, to redesign and reorganise our societies. It needs to be done in a way that continues to achieve meaningful employment, while fulfilling our basic needs.

What inspired you to start the Post-Growth Singapore initiative?

Before I started Post-Growth Singapore, I was the co-chairperson for the Inter-University Environmental Coalition (IUEC), a youth collective bridging the distance between youths and the government, and building platforms for learning.

This is one of the communities that inspired me the most. Being in the space and interacting with other youth environmental leaders helped me to see the gaps in Singapore’s environmentalism scene.

My friends and I believed that we needed to introduce post-growth conversations to Singapore. These concepts are not new – ecological economists and environmentalists have been talking about them, and people around the world have been mobilising for and practicing what I call “now-topia”. These are ecovillages where they practice post-growth principles. The Global Ecovillage Network is one such network of practitioners.

Now, we need to introduce the conversation to Singapore and see how we can build communities and ground-up practices here.

What are some of the key projects that Post-Growth Singapore has undertaken?

At the start, we screened the film called “Outgrow the System”, which beautifully articulated post-growth concepts in a digestible manner. We didn’t expect so many people to come for the screening – about 300 people signed up for it. This gave us an indicator that a lot of Singaporeans are thinking about post-growth concepts, and they are from all walks of life, not just from the environmental community.

Now, we have weekly discussion circles called “Post-growth Circles”. Every Sunday since February, we gather and unpack what post-growth concepts are, their principles, and how these might be operationalised in Singapore.

Post-growth SG post-growth circles

“Post-growth circles” is one of the events organised by the group. Topics discussed include post growth concepts, alternative business models and citizen-government relations. Image: Post-growth Singapore

These conversations are important because we cannot reproduce the neocolonial dynamics of the West. We didn’t want to simply cut-and-paste policy to Singapore. It was necessary for us to integrate the social concepts in the context of Singapore and see how it might work here.

Has anyone challenged the group’s ideology?

People commonly respond with scepticism, which is quite understandable. When we are addressing environmental problems, we often call for systems change. There is a popular quote from the activist community that goes “Systems change, not climate change.” Looking at the system with all its complexities, power dynamics and politics, one might question how it is possible to change when we can’t get away from capitalism. 

We encourage people not to fall into this crisis of imagination. We need to see the future as something we can be active agents in, rather than be resigned to living in the same state. Join a community where you can find solidarity and support if you are feeling overwhelmed. If you have been benefitting from the status quo, and therefore see no need to change it, maybe it’s worth questioning your position of privilege.

In terms of misconceptions, some think that post-growth means returning to the stone age. Many of these ecological concepts are not a step back, but a step forward. It recognises that we have made mistakes in the past, but we can build and aim for better, based on what we have learnt and the technologies we have.  

Another misconception arises because post-growth seeks to envision an alternative to capitalism; some say that it’s a communist movement. It is not a dichotomy between capitalism and communism. Post-growth looks at concepts like economic democracy and solidarity economics, which are hard to categorise under capitalism, communism, or everything else.

Is the degrowth concept feasible in Singapore, where such concepts are politically taboo?

In the narrative where we need growth to meet Singaporean needs, there is a huge question we are not asking: is it even possible to grow forever? Are there limits to growth that we are not talking about? I think the answer is quite obviously ‘yes’. We cannot grow forever because there are ecological and social limits.

Post-growth is an essential conversation for Singapore because we are a late-stage capitalist economy, and we can expect no more than 2 per cent income growth year-on-year. In time, we will possibly experience low growth, no growth, or recession scenarios.

Some might say that it’s not politically feasible to advocate for post-growth. Whether we like it or not, we are going to hit the limits of growth. If we don’t answer the question of how we can thrive in a post-growth world now, we will hit these limits of growth really hard. If we start having conversations now of thriving in a post-growth world, then we stand a better chance.

What are some of the barriers to implementing post-growth strategies in Singapore?

Most societies have been built on the idea that we can grow forever, and that we can meet people’s needs through growth-based institutions. This has made many of our institutions highly dependent on growth, such as our social welfare systems.

We have placed ourselves in a situation where we depend on more growth to address the social costs that come with this additional growth. It’s a cycle that becomes increasingly expensive to both society and the environment. Unpacking and understanding these growth dependencies is difficult. Moving away from these growth dependencies and building alternative ways to improve people’s wellbeing becomes even more difficult.

But there is hope. There are many ground-up initiatives that I’ve interacted with and learned from in the past few years, which demonstrate possible alternatives to this growth system. We should look to these ground-up initiatives and see them as possibilities for building towards this system.

What do you envision growth to look like in post-growth Singapore? What are some metrics we can use to measure this sort of growth?

There are various interpretations, but post-growth to me isn’t a state that you can say you have reached. It is a constant approach to build towards a future that prioritises people’s wellbeing in an ecologically sensible manner.

It’s not to say that Singapore has not been doing that; in fact, we have many ground-up initiatives that are trying to meet people’s needs without making excessive profits. But there remain urban planning practices and industrial priorities that continue to evade ecological or social sense.

For many ecological economists, there is a need to use not just one indicator, but a basket of indicators, and to be comfortable with complexity. We need to use both quantitative and qualitative ones to derive insight into societal wellbeing, rather than tend towards a single indicator to decide if Singapore is on the right track.

Many countries see Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a proxy indicator of wellbeing, and to some extent, that might be true. However, it is a deeply flawed evaluation. Since 1999, GDP growth has not led to overall equality increase in Singapore; instead, the additional growth has come with greater costs to the people and the environment. The challenge is to create alternative ways to measure and strive for collective wellbeing.

One of the ways to conceptualise post-growth would be through doughnut economics. Doughnut economics provides a framework with multiple social indicators [for example addressing poverty, hunger, and inequality]. We need to meet those social indicators without trespassing on ecological limits.

What are you hoping to achieve with the initiative?

We want to deepen our understanding of post-growth concepts and what that might look like in Singapore. We hope to support other ground-up initiatives that are working towards a post-growth vision, and we are looking to start a working group for that.

We also wish to continue conversing with people, especially those who might disagree with us, and increase our outreach and education efforts. We encourage everyone to come with an open mind.

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