Living the questions: Why is an ontological metamorphosis foundational for enacting degrowth?

Part I: From snail to butterfly

This piece is the result of an ongoing collaboration between five masters students of Political Ecology, Environmental Justice, and Degrowth at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. We gathered through common inquiry of what it may look like to address a dimension commonly overlooked in our quest for radical systems change – that of inner transformation.

This collective process has led us to vulnerable places, deconstructing our own identities and understandings of the world. We invite you to join us on this journey of living the questions, which will inherently be personal to you.

Urgency, yes; but for what?

We start by acknowledging the urgency present in the context of the current global ecosocial crisis. Through this inquiry, however, we ask: An urgency for what? Instead of just an urgency for action, we call for an urgency for contemplation, an urgency born out of the recognition of our interdependence with all life and the impermanent nature of reality. As Bayo Akomolafe wisely advises, “the times are urgent; let us slow down.” It is inherent in most of the ways we are socialised to respond to material manifestations of oppression by using force against force, and anything else is seen as complicity. Yet, instead of contemplation being co-opted as a way of bypassing responsibility, what if it is exactly the opposite – bringing awareness of our complicity and accountability towards life in every moment? By recognising that interdependence, and not separation, is the real foundation of life, we can envision life-centred societies, which embody and enact caring ways of being at all levels.

From our perspective, this reframing of urgency is a foundational element to any substantial shift towards a more equitable and liveable world, and an important step to enact degrowth. Embracing a mindset of not-knowing, we explore what it means to be in relation with ourselves, each other and the more-than-human world and observe the various imaginaries consciously and unconsciously present within us. Through contemplation, we see that relations are weaved on a moment-to-moment basis through the process of emergence and that our actions are influenced by our understanding of the world, the sense-making patterns we’ve created and the social structures encouraging certain ways of being. So, our question becomes: How can contemplation create the conditions for individual and collective action aligned with caring for life in these critical times?

Where to start? Questioning the dominant ontology of the modern world.

Our inquiry departs from ontology, the philosophical study of being, which looks at the nature of reality and the relations between the entities that exist. Looking at ontology is akin to looking at the root, the source from which epistemology (the study of knowledge) and praxis (the connection between theory and practice) stem, and their societal manifestations across the political, social and economic spheres.

As brought to light in the works of Escobar (2016), Böhme et al. (2022) and many others, the majority of Global North societies function under ontologies of separation characterised by worldviews based on rationalism, dualism, and determinism. The depiction offered by Dr. Rupa Marya (2021) exemplifies how exploitive, extractive, and harmful practices, from patriarchy to inflammation in the body, are direct manifestations of living under a mechanistic, reductionist worldview. An ontology of division and separation lies at the root of the “othering” required for colonialism, supremacism and capitalism to be enacted, leading to devastating consequences for human and non-human life on this planet.

Conversely, a relational ontology is a worldview that emphasises the interdependence between all the entities that exist, where nothing pre-exists the relations that constitute it. The notion of relationality is a cogent alternative understanding of the essence of life and human nature to that established by the modern ontology of separation (Escobar, 2022). It radically shifts the shared planetary story we are writing to align with life’s regenerative impulse; recognising the collaborative, cooperative nature inherent in all beings and our shared responsibility to create conditions conducive to life. Thus, from this viewpoint, humans are participants (not owners) in the complex web of existence, learning to be part of an expression of life’s system at the right scale. Relational ontologies are prevalent in primordial wisdom cultures, philosophies and practices around the world; cultures which are widely recognised as having co-existed with and cared for ecosystems they directly depend on for thousands of years. The fact that their practices and expressions vary demonstrates the simultaneity of many different manifestations of a relational ontology based on local realities, in a pluriverse. Our deepest gratitude goes to primordial wisdom holders throughout time, who continue to share and live by relational ontologies. How can we learn from these primordial cultures and elevate their wisdom in service of all life on earth?

From snail to butterfly: why is a metamorphosis needed?

Keeping this reflection present, we expose in the following lines why the plane of ontology (and our inner beings with it) needs to shift for degrowth to be enacted and why a “metamorphosis” is needed. Following the work by Heikkurinen (2019), it is key to differentiate between reforms, transformations and metamorphosis: Transformations encompass changes in various dimensions, such as economic, social, cultural, and environmental, aiming to address deeper-rooted issues and systemic challenges. Unlike reforms, which often operate within the boundaries of the prevailing systems and do not challenge the fundamental assumptions or paradigms underlying those systems, transformations may challenge prevailing norms or assumptions and often involve multiple actors and levels of society. A metamorphosis represents a deeper and more radical shift compared to both reforms and transformations. It involves a profound reimagining of societal paradigms, values, and worldviews. It is characterised by an ontological shift around “being” and relating, and not merely changes in matter-energy throughput. Furthermore, a metamorphosis implies a way to escape from the “transformation paradox”, which Heikkurinen (2019) describes as the urgency that humans experience to transform the world, “while this transformation is at the same time a root cause of the ecospherical crisis”.

Rather than the metaphor of the snail, which restrains the concept of degrowth within the realm of transformations, we propose the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into a butterfly as a stronger analogy to be inspired by: In the caterpillar or “feeding stage” the aim is to eat, be nourished and grow to the point of sufficiency. In the “transition stage” or chrysalis, a place of stillness, sensing and becoming, the metamorphosis takes place within the imaginal disc, a sac-like structure found inside the butterfly larva that encodes a whole new template for the butterfly-to-be. Once the larva turns into a pupa, almost all the larval tissues degenerate and the imaginal cells turn the imaginal disc into the external structures of the new being. Finally, the butterfly reaches the “reproductive stage”, in which it can fly and disseminate messages far and wide. Note that the one thing it can’t do is grow in size. This is the scale of metamorphosis that we need to enact degrowth. Nothing short of a complete restructuring of our worldview, our ontological assumptions about how the world works; a restructuring that does not reproduce exploitative power-dynamics or increase the Global North’s energy-matter throughput. A metamorphosis that opens the possibility for infinite beauty, aliveness and plurality, the potential of which lies in the here and now, if only we change our ways of seeing and being in this world.

Why is inner-inquiry essential to enacting degrowth?

Building on the analogy of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly, degrowth, as an action-research community, calls for a radical reimagining and remaking of our societal fabric for human and more-than-human life to thrive. The how of this process has been associated with certain aspects of reality, primarily at the “tangible” level, on the energy and material throughput of societies. Although references to the centrality of the inner being and ontological assumptions have been growing in the literature (Hickel 2020, Kallis et at., 2022)1, there is a need for a more systematic inquiry around the potential of exploring this dimension. The plane of the inner being is in intimate connection with the other three planes of social being proposed by Bhaskar: humans’ interactions with nature, social structures and social relations. With this in mind, we choose to understand degrowth as per Buch-Hansen and Nesterova’s (2023) definition:

“deep transformations occurring on all four interrelated planes of social being [(humans’ interactions with nature, social structures, social relations and people’s inner being)], on different scales and in all sites, guided by gentleness and care, towards a society co-existing harmoniously within itself and with nature”.

This definition is not an alternative to the definitions that stress the reduction in energy and material throughput towards sufficiency. Rather, it is a holistic expression of degrowth that infuses previous definitions with relational and emergent qualities, capable of informing present and future strategies for the civilizational transition we have to undergo. We consider this way of understanding degrowth as more helpful to approach the reality of the metamorphosis required to transcend neoliberal capitalism. Such a radical shift necessitates inner transformations in each of us, in how we see, understand and act in the world. As Heikkurinen (2019) sustains, along with a growing number of degrowth scholars (e.g., Buch-Hansen and Nesterova, 2023), the inner-being lens isn’t explored enough, yet it is foundational to enacting degrowth. Leaning more into spirituality can provide a container within which to undergo this inner transformation. As such, spirituality can act as the chrysalis or the cocoon for an ontological metamorphosis from an ontology of separation to one of relationality.

Spirituality, as we conceive it, doesn’t require a belief in a higher power. It is simply that which nourishes the spirit, which is another word for breath (spiritus) – that which makes us conscious of our aliveness and interconnectedness. Spirituality creates the space for transforming (rather than reproducing) social structures, moment by moment, through embodying the impermanent and interdependent nature of reality. Unfortunately, colonialism and capitalism have very much severed our innate connection to spirituality. In pre-capitalist communities, it was common to have a collective spiritual connection and practice. This severance of our spiritual umbilical cord is comparatively recent, and we’re still suffering from it as a collective, with many of us feeling lost, disconnected and lonely. Fortunately, we have started to understand this, and recent decades have seen a huge revival in spiritual practices.

Leaning into spirituality to enact a societal-wide metamorphosis isn’t so straightforward. First, if spiritual practices are not accompanied by a radical shift in our worldview away from separation and commodification, towards interbeing and relationality, we risk succumbing to what Ronald Purser (2019) calls “McMindfulness”. It is important to understand that the spirituality we are speaking of is not of the performative kind, unlike certain practices co-opted by capitalism which perpetuate current power relations. Second, at present, not everyone in society lives in conditions permitting deep inner exploration. So, a fundamental condition for a just and equitable societal-wide ontological metamorphosis is that all members of society have the opportunity to partake in processes that facilitate inner transformation. In this regard, several degrowth policy proposals have the potential to create the groundwork to enable more inclusive and universal participation in these transformations.

Which kind of metamorphosis needs to occur within degrowth as a community?

Bringing forth degrowth from its relational basis can create the conditions for a pluriverse composed by the different expressions of an ontology of interconnectedness in “a world where many worlds fit”. In this way, degrowth is conceived as an enabler, rather than an “overarching global know-it-all” framework, for creating the pluriverse.

From this standpoint, we invite degrowth to reconsider how it nurtures alliances from a place of humility, service and care – building gentle bridges and reconsidering its position within the ecosystem of sister movements as an enabler from the bottom up. How can degrowth elevate sister movements and integrate their messages? How can degrowth scholars approach research and knowledge creation with humility? How can degrowth in practice co-create spaces for emergence? An embodied degrowth would be one that acts standing on these pillars. It would become a discipline that starts from the perspective of abundance, that recognizes the pluriverse in which we are all involved. Not doing so risks perpetuating patriarchal ways of knowledge production and reproducing extractive power dynamics and social structures. The emphasis here is not on action itself, but rather on the new spectrum of possibilities. This spectrum is born from a very special type of confidence, one that comes when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and truly understand the world as it is, with all its complexities, and decide to relate to it in a caring rather than judgmental way. The reality is that ontologies of separation and relationality are constantly co-existing, whether we are aware of it or not. The question is which of them are we nourishing and from which of the two are we living and co-creating?

How to live the questions together?

This is an open invitation for readers to live the questions with us and engage in exploring your own ontology and relationship to degrowth. During our own process, we created two models, which may be of help.

By deconstructing our ontology to align with the truth of the interconnectedness of life, by living from a relational ontology, we enable the enactment of degrowth; which in turn creates the conditions that enable a deeper ontological metamorphosis at the societal scale. Out of this mutual relationship, in the space “in-between”, emerges the conditions for a good life for all: a pluriverse.

Enacting degrowth requires a multi-layered metamorphosis to unfold simultaneously within ourselves and across our collective imaginaries. This process starts from a place of not-knowing, by living the questions through the dual process of inner-inquiry and spaces of collective holding and processing. The intersection between these two forms of practice creates a space for emergence out of which different realities, such as degrowth, can be embodied and enacted.

Inherent to both models is the importance of the ever present dance between contemplation and action, which stems from a responsibility to care for all life. This leaves us with another question: How do we, from the here and now, honour life by living in alignment with our inherent interconnectedness?

We will delve into this so question, as well as a deeper exploration of degrowth polices as enablers for inner-inquiry for all, in our next blog entries. Our intention is to share the learnings that emerge from the committed community of practice we have setup in Barcelona along the way. This is but the beginning of us living the questions together…

The opinions expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect those of R&D, but are those of the authors.

Sophia Boubal is in her early 30s, and of French, English and Norwegian origins. She grew-up in France, before studying a BA in Chinese & International Relations in the UK. Experienced in collaboration consulting, experiential events design and facilitation, she explores emergence and the conditions conducive to life for all. The passing of her mother at age 16, set her on a path to question the nature of life, death and everything in between. Her experiences are shaped by Yogic, Daoist, Buddhist and Amazonian cosmo-visions.

Paul Saad is originally from Lebanon, but grew up in diaspora, in the UAE and the US with a background in Mechanical Engineering. Through immersion in the study and practice of deep ecology, he became involved in eco-social resistance networks that explored embodied forms of resistance. This eventually led him back to Lebanon at the beginning of the 2019 people’s revolution, where he has lived since, to investigate the importance of reclaiming land-based cultural knowledge in the fight for land sovereignty, through the cultivation of regional native botanical gardens (Tariq el Nahl – Way of the Bees – Collective).

Sarah Keogh is British. After a childhood in Canada and France, she has spent her adult life mostly in the UK, the US and Spain. She holds a PhD in Demography and has been conducting research in Africa and Latin America for the past 15 years. Having the opportunity to live, work and learn with different cultures has greatly influenced her understanding (both intellectual and embodied) of the richness of the pluriverse and our interconnectedness, and continues to deepen her sense of awe at the sublime sacredness of this planet, and the urgency of coming together in care.

Hugo Abad Frías comes from La Mancha, a region in centre-south Spain. He has a background in Political Science and International Studies, being in contact with contemplative practices since his adolescence in connection with his ecosocial activism. He was the main candidate in the 2023 Spanish General Elections for the political platform Sumar in the district of Ciudad Real. More recently he has participated actively in events organised by Mind and Life Europe, exploring the connections between degrowth and enactivism, and offering a presentation (“Embodying and enacting degrowth”) at the 9th International Degrowth Conference at Zagreb.

Facundo Viera is from Uruguay. He has spent more than half of his life in the countryside, working in the land his father owns. Academically, he comes from an economic background, and this is part of the explanation why he decided to study degrowth, the frustration of feeling that academia could never find a solution to the world’s crises. Spirituality has always played a central role in his life, making him feel a strong connection with nature. His interest in ontology comes from the influence he has received from certain esoteric authors and masters that showed him and others a more convincing framework for understanding reality.


Akomolafe, B. (2016). The Times are Urgent: Let’s Slow Down • Writings –.

Böhme, J., Walsh, Z., & Wamsler, C. (2022). Sustainable lifestyles: Towards a relational approach. Sustainability Science, 17(5), 2063–2076.

Buch-Hansen, H., & Nesterova, I. (2023). Less and more: Conceptualising degrowth transformations. Ecological Economics, 205, 107731.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. In Designs for the Pluriverse. Duke University Press.

Heikkurinen, P. (2019). Degrowth: A metamorphosis in being. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(3), 528–547.

Hickel, J. (2020). Less is more: How degrowth will save the world. Random House.

Kallis, G., Varvarousis, A., & Petridis, P. (2022). Southern thought, islandness and real-existing degrowth in the Mediterranean. World Development, 157, 105957.

Lobst, Z. (2023). Self-transformation Towards Degrowth [PhD Thesis, Ghent University].

Marya, R., & Patel, R. (2021). Inflamed: Deep medicine and the anatomy of injustice. Penguin UK.

Purser, R. (2019). McMindfulness: How mindfulness became the new capitalist spirituality. Repeater.

1 “The processes of extraction that are so crucial to capitalist growth ultimately depended on a particular kind of ontology, or theory of being. Indeed, this is where our problem ultimately lies … It’s not just our economies that need to change. We need to change the way we see the world, and our place within it” (Hickel, 2020). “[D]egrowth marks a cultural or even ontological shift, not just a shift in economics or policy” (Kallis et al., 2022).