I was at the 3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity last week. This blog post will treat the concept of "degrowth" and I will follow it up with a blog post more specifically about my impressions from the conference a little later.
"Degrowth" - what is that about? Right now - but not before I went to the conference - I checked out the Wikipedia page where they describe degrowth as "a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas". I think that pretty well describes the impression I got from the conference. A neat way to get familiarized with the degrowth ideas is to check out a nice online magazine I just found called "Degrowth Magazine". Recent articles that seem really interesting are for example:
Argentina's collapse and the grassroots of resilience
- How New England can change the world (about regional/local currencies)
There is even a Degrowthpedia around!
I went to the third international conference on degrowth, and the previous two were held in Paris (2008) and in Barcelona (2010). With Italy hosting the third conference, this pretty much covers the countries where degrowth has its strongest hold; France - décroissance, Italy - decrescita and Spain - decrecimiento. Apparently there is even a political degrowth party in France (and elsewhere?). A large majority of the conference participants (90%) came from Europe and my guess is that perhaps almost half came from Italy. While it was a scientific conference and most participants were researchers, there were also many activists, representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and from political parties (mainly European Greens) there.
The basic degrowth tenet is that economic growth is not possible (any more). Economic growth uses up resources and produces waste and pollution, and there are just so many resources around to use up on this finite planet of ours - and we are currently reaching the limits of what the Earth can give us. Which limit you see as the "ultimate limiter" is matter of personal choice, but I do believe the top two bets at the conference were energy/oil and/or our financial and economic system. The second tenet is a corollary to the idea of economic growth not being possible, and that is that economic growth not being desirable (even had it been possible). A French activist-academic I talked to said that "even had it [further/infinite economic growth] been possible, it would still be absurd".
The reasoning goes something like this: we neither seem to manage increased material affluence in such a way as to lift up the really poor people on the Earth from their poverty, nor to make the (relatively) rich people happier - perhaps (perhaps) with the exception of the very most affluent people on Earth. Further economic growth does not seem to bring any further happiness even the middle class in relatively affluent countries (US, Europe) - but we could increase happiness with another kind of society - a society that does not worship Mammon, growth and profits, but rather puts other activities and values higher than crass material wealth. The idea is thus that 1) we have to do it [leave the growth-based paradigm behind us] and 2) it is desirable to do it.
I can buy into these two tenets, but I do believe some people are attracted to degrowth without understanding the first tenet, i.e. they think that if we only could reorganize (revolutionize?) our societies, all human ills would go away. If only the money was more equitably shared, and if only we weren't in the thrall of greedy bankers and capitalists, all would be well. There is even a term, "happy degrowth" that is contrasted both with "unhappy growth" and (unhappy) "negative growth". There is apparently an Italian movement of kinds called "decrescita felice" (Italian Wikipedia page).
I talked to a guy from the (marginal) Greek Green party and he contrasted "negative growth" (what they have in Greece today) with "degrowth" - a conscious retreat and a reordering of society away from a growth- and money-fixated system, and towards a supposedly more equitable and happy state of affairs. Personally, I don't believe in "happy" degrowth. I think degrowth for the most part is unhappy, like going to detox when you are an addict. Probably not pleasurable, but still necessary. We are all addicted to many aspects of our high-energy lifestyles, and phasing out even the most wasteful activities (like flying to a conference about degrowth in Italy, or luxury/conspicuous consumption) will be painful, perhaps even traumatic - but still necessary and even unavoidable during the coming decades of non-existent or negative growth.
While I personally don't think that our current economic system works very well, I do believe we would still face some Serious Challenges (tenet 1 above) even if we could implement more equitable social and economic systems. Since I am always drawn to tensions, contradictions and conflicts, I can thus identify a couple of issues that could potentially split the degrowth movement, but my impression is that the conference represents the honeymoon phase where everyone puts all differences aside (or sweep them under the carpet). The conferences was a big umbrella that houses everyone.
Despite differences in opinions, there are many overlaps between different degrowth "strands", and the emphasis of the conference was on the consensus rather than on the differences of opinion. That's probably a sensible strategy, but I personally think that some of the views being propagated at the conference basically are very naive, i.e. "if we could only do X, then all the problems in the world could be solved". X in the previous sentence = (radical) social action and a total rewiring of "the system" - with everything that that implies. But even people with whom I disagree on some fundamental level can on the other hand do great things when they tackle practical problems and explore alternatives to the current system.
Another significant difference I could find at the conference was between the perspectives of "affluent northerners" versus "the poor south". There were a couple of plenary talks by people who talked about concepts such as "Buen Vivir", or represented popular movements in less affluent countries (South America seems to be a hotspot in this respect) like the "Via Campesina" social movement.
That's my (current) conclusions as to the concept of "degrowth" - I'll get back with more information about the conference shortly.