Pandemic turns research scenario into unexpected reality

Bipasha Baruah initially thought her research project might have been a little too far-fetched.

Wanting to explore the impact planned economic contraction would have on gender equality and social justice, she needed to imagine a scenario where the world completely changed how it worked: Job shares. Flexible schedules. Work from home.

That was January.

Today, the Women’s Studies and Feminist Research professor’s idea is the new reality.

“The most ironic thing is the scenario I had hoped to study has come true, albeit in a completely unplanned and unprecedented way,” she said. “I had no idea when I applied for this grant that I would be studying the effects of degrowth upon gender equality in real time.”

What does degrowth say about gender equality and social justice? Synthesizing the evidence was one of two Western-led initiatives named among 31 nationwide research projects earning a Knowledge Synthesis Grant, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) officials announced today.

Launched in 2018, the new $1.5-million funding opportunity promotes a better understanding of the productive capacity of global ecosystems, as well as the connections between natural and human systems and their role in a healthy and sustainable future.

Geography professor Gordon McBean’s project, Building Climate Resilient Communities – Living Within the Earth’s Carrying Capacity, was also funded for its exploration of how communities across Canada can advance climate-resilience to reduce the risk of adverse climate impacts and damage.

Baruah’s work centres on a dawning area of interest – perhaps magnified by the once-considered unusual measures being taken to combat the multiple impacts of the pandemic.

“Degrowth is an emerging field of research and a social movement founded on the premise that infinite economic growth is incompatible with the physical limits of the planet,” Baruah explained.

The idea has received significant attention within industrialized European countries, but little in Canada. “Politicians do not win elections on platforms of scaling back consumption and shrinking the economy,” she said.

Broadly speaking, the links between degrowth and environmental sustainability are straightforward, as decreasing production and consumption directly alleviates environmental pressures. But when it comes to gender equality and social justice, the connections are not as clear.

“Degrowth may emancipate women and other groups marginalized within the capitalist system from the limitations imposed by the current economic model, and even generate new forms of access, participation and representation,” Baruah said.

But every action has its own reaction.

For example, if middle-class professionals reduce their childcare needs by working less in the name of work-life balance, what would happen to the livelihoods of those who care for the children of others?

Or if hotels offer guests incentives to forego daily housekeeping and laundry services in the name of environmental sustainability, what would to the jobs held by cleaning staff, among whom women, immigrants and racialized minorities?

The current pandemic also offers up some new questions to consider.

“There are reports about how unevenly the burden of essential work and caregiving has been shouldered during this pandemic, notably by women and communities of colour,” Baruah said. “Identifying the types of policy responses that might alleviate these inequities may help us understand how degrowth reconciles with gender equality and social justice in order to guide public policy and future research agendas in Canada.”

While her research will specifically focus on the relationship between planned degrowth, gender equality and social justice, Baruah is also interested in interventions endorsed by degrowth advocates – universal basic income, flexible work and remote work, and other items being tested in real time around the globe.

“What types of policies and programs might we implement to reduce social inequality? These are the types of questions I hope to find answers for – and there is no better time,” she said.

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