Climate justice, development and the problem of endless economic growth

6 Sep 2023

Image: Dr Susan Murphy

Dr Susan Murphy spoke to about her vision for sustainable development and why we need to move away from endless economic growth.

In her book, Responsibility in an Interconnected World, published a few years ago, Dr Susan Murphy briefly referenced the topic of climate justice. “It seemed self-evident to me,” she says, “the unavoidability of justice in considerations of climate change and responsibility for human-induced harms”.

However, as time went on and climate breakdown accelerated, the issue of climate justice, particularly regarding the fraught topic of loss and damage, became ever more pertinent. Murphy realised the necessity of engaging in research and debate about these issues in her work on humanitarian aid and development.

Murphy is associate professor of development practice in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. She researches and lectures on issues of gender, climate justice, governance, ethics and practices of humanitarian action and development.

Getting there

Murphy took more of a winding road to academia than some. After completing a master’s degree in politics and international relations in University College Dublin (UCD), she took a 12-year break from research. She spent nine of those years working at Accenture, designing and implementing tech infrastructure solutions for clients in Europe, Asia and Africa. Murphy regards this work as vital experience for her current role.

“I gained extensive experience managing interdisciplinary international teams, designing and delivering complex solutions in a range of diverse contexts,” she says.

Although she says she had a fantastic experience in industry, “it was always my desire to return to research and teaching”.

In 2008, she began a PhD on the ethics of international assistance and development cooperation and later took up her role in Trinity.

“The role draws together my industry and project management experience and my research interests in development cooperation theory and practice,” Murphy says.

After a decade of teaching modules about climate justice, Murphy founded and became director of the Climate Justice in Development Research Group. She describes the group as “an interdisciplinary network … exploring the implications of climate change, climate actions and development transitions on human-nature relations, socio-cultural relationships and situated power dynamics”.

Economic growth above all

Through her focus on climate issues, Murphy was reminded time and again that so much of the current thinking on development centres on economic growth “as the primary vehicle for achieving national development priorities and wider social justice goals”.

For Murphy, “this narrow focus” fails to see the problems within this system of unchecked economic growth or the knock-on effects for development – problems such as exploitation, biodiversity loss, resource depletion and increased inequality, particularly in poorer countries in different stages of development.

She gives the example that, “Droughts, storms and changing weather and climate conditions push economic development gains backwards.” Yet, there is little “recognition of the interconnection with and dependence on nature” in development policies, she says.

To research this issue and offer alternative ways of thinking, the Climate Justice group looks at development strategies that focus on the green transition, such as alternative foods, energy and transport, and examines the societal effects of these changes. “How are decisions made? Who and what are in/excluded? Who and what are the winners and who carries the greatest burdens, and why?”

By looking at development through the lens of climate justice, it’s possible to pinpoint the people and places most affected by the climate crisis and by “persisting unsustainable development practices and policies”, and to consider new, more equitable development models.

The problem of ‘business as usual’

In a recent paper, Murphy questioned the well-worn narrative that pits young climate activists, epitomised by Greta Thunberg, against older generations (typically middle-aged, middle- and lower-income voters).

Through an analysis of surveys and social media, Murphy found that these two groups were actually in alignment in their trust and belief in climate-change science and in their desire to see political action to solve the climate crisis. She concluded that this false animosity served as a useful distraction for those invested in the fossil-fuel economy.

“The key battleground for this debate is between those calling for radical social-economic-ecological systems change and the mainstream political establishment that is seeking to address this challenge through a continued dependency on the same political-economic systems which generated the problem in the first instance,” Murphy wrote.

Murphy has recently received funding from the European Research Council Starting Grants scheme for her new project, Geoformations. Through this project, Murphy aims to put forward adaptive and inclusive development solutions that align with climate justice goals and move beyond a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

The aim, as Murphy sees it, is to move from “neocolonial models of aid and charity to decolonised, justice-based understandings of international development”. She believes this is the most pressing challenge for communities facing escalating poverty, instability and climate breakdown.

Climate justice

As argued by Unicef, central to climate justice is “a people-centred approach” to climate action and development. The organisation gives the example that some climate projects “inadvertently create climate injustices when local communities are displaced for a conservation or renewable energy initiative”.

Murphy is keen that in planning sustainable development activities, people must “ensure that climate actions do not accentuate inequalities, multidimensional poverty and continued extractive relations with nature that drive species extinction and ecosystems decline”.

This all sounds great in theory, but are there examples of it working in practice?

Murphy praised the Irish Citizen’s Assembly on climate change as an example of “how bringing together a diverse range of people, including younger voices and disaffected citizens, in political debate and deliberation concerning climate change is likely to shift the narrative beyond deeply rooted biases and stereotypes, and create space and opportunity for new visions and new options to emerge”.

What with a total upending of the system of international development, Murphy has her hands full. She is busy assembling a research team for the Geoformations project, which she hopes to have up and running next month. And, unlike economic growth, the possibilities for future research are endless.

“I simply cannot ever see a time when I will have answered all the questions that I think need to be answered.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic