This week, I’ll be joining 2500 others to knock our heads together on the subject of how to move towards a society beyond the imperative of economic growth. From 2-6 September 2014, the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, is taking place in Leipzig, Germany.
But why do we want, or need, a society and economy that is beyond the structural requirement to constantly grow its GDP? Well, as the Degrowth conference blurb puts it:
“Many analyses from various scientific disciplines imply that a growth-based economic and social system cannot have a future: Despite a growing number of technological solutions for “Green Growth”, inequality and the destruction of nature are significantly on the rise. It is high time to develop economic and social models that are independent of growth and can provide for a good life for everybody.”
It has long been recognised that economic growth, and the consumption of resources and environmental degradation that go hand in hand with it, cannot – on our finite, single planet – go on forever. But it has also long been willfully repressed that economic growth is not an end in itself. Rather, it is supposed to be a means to fulfilling social and economic needs – feeding people, providing jobs, homes, education, health, and improving lives and opportunities.
And yet the ruthless pursuit of growth has been failing to achieve these goals. Not only for the majority of people on earth, but for the majority of people within individual countries and regions. It has however done a very good job of destroying the prerequisites for our species’ continued existence (you know, the little things, like productive soils, breathable air, ocean fish stocks, oh and a climate conducive to flourishing life) and, of course, making a tiny minority very, very rich.
The world faces many very serious challenges, from climate change and biodiversity loss to resource conflicts and rabid and growing inequality. Meeting these challenges is fundamentally at odds with the global pursuit of economic growth, the neoliberal hegemonic paradigm which has inequality structurally built-in, whilst the environment and natural resources are systematically excluded from consideration.
The Degrowth conference, starting from the premise that degrowth concerns a “downscaling of production and consumption in the industrialized states that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet” will offer space for scientific debates, exchange between activists and economic pioneers, artistic approaches to the subject, as well as discussion around concrete projects and policies.
I’m looking forward to the opportunity for constructive and positive engagement with such a large mass of interested people on the topic of degrowth. It is a refreshing opportunity that contrasts dramatically with the mainstream mantra that economic growth is tantamount to a natural law. Politics, policies, academia and the media have for decades marginalised, and even ridiculed, those who criticise or challenge economic growth. For many of us working to expose the power structures and systemic failures of the neo-liberal growth paradigm, the role of critical thinker and challenger of corporate power can feel like a very negative one. Always calling out the bad things, telling a negative story of how deeply entrenched this disastrous system is, not to mention constantly coming up against a barrage of powerful actors, part of a system determined to protect itself.
I have done a lot of work on exposing corporate influence on policy-making (lobbying for laws that will increase corporate profits despite undermining the public good, for people and planet), and this always carries the risk (and sometimes reality) of legal threats from the corporate titans whose real agendas are being exposed. But power tries to protect itself in other ways too, and I had a personal reminder earlier this summer of an even more menacing way (and one unfortunately seen all over world, every day): brute force, the restriction of liberty and the criminalisation of dissent.
Along with 250 other peaceful protestors, I was arrested in Brussels at a demonstration protesting the secretive and undemocratic negotiation of the TTIP – the proposed EU-US free trade agreement known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. As the creme de la creme of business leaders and the EU establishment discussed how to “maintain citizens trust” at the European Business Summit inside the glittering Palais d’Egmont, the force of the state was busy protecting them from the terrors of… citizens peacefully exercising their democratic (and legally enshrined) right to political protest.
Kept in a kettle of police officers in riot gear (whilst the non-surrounded protesters were water-cannoned down), cuffed and forced to sit in agonisingly uncomfortable and deeply degrading lines on the ground for over an hour, before being carted off (sirens blaring, in armoured police buses) to police holding cells, for over 8 hours.
All the whilst, our high-level politicians discussed with multinationals how to most profitably sell off our rights and our democracy to the richest, most powerful minority. From austerity imposed as a false solution to a crisis caused by the greed and irresponsibility of bankers, to TTIP, the so called EU-US “trade” agreement that seeks to undermine environmental and social protection laws whilst giving corporations the power to sue our governments for billions if they pass laws that might undermine the potential profits of multinationals (you know, the sorts of things like minimum wages or reducing carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change).
TTIP is a stark and terrifying example of the pursuit of GDP growth being prioritised over all else, as well as the deeply entrenched and unequal power structures of the global economy. The way it is being negotiated, behind closed doors and against the interests and protestations of citizens, also has deep implications for democracy. This is one of the reasons that I decided to take part in the Degrowth conference’s working group on Democracy and Degrowth. The working group will consider:
- How might a transition towards degrowth look like? Whose voices are heard, whose are rejected?
- Can a democratic degrowth society remain within the systemic structures of modern societies? If not, what would have to change?
- How do we deal with the challenge of open-endedness of direct democratic processes, which might very well lead to paths contrary to degrowth?
These are, to me, very fundamental questions for the future. As the discussions and debates get under way in Leipzig tomorrow, I will be writing more on these issues.