Upon returning from five fascinating, inspiring and fun days in Leipzig at the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity last week, I noticed – after some seriously needed rest and a couple of good nights sleep – that I had made 42 pages of notes. Those people who are lovers of light-hearted satirical science-fiction, like myself, may recognise the number 42 as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything – at least according to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
On a more serious note, whilst I have no desire to associate degrowth with the same kind of religious fervor and unexamined and unquestioned devotion that is afforded to economic growth and the accompanying neoliberal economic paradigm, these 42 pages of notes do signify something very important. The rich and diverse content and format of sessions at the Degrowth conference, reflecting different disciplines (science, art, activism, politics, etc), origins (global North and South, grassroots struggles, theoretical backgrounds, indigenous movements, practical projects etc) and approaches (feminist, climate justice, anti-capitalist, wellbeing, food sovereignty, social justice, solidarity economy, commons, sufficiency, etc). With so much to digest and reflect on, I’ve decided to write a blog summary of my experience at the Degrowth conference, taking it one day at a time. So, one week on from the start of the conference, lets take a look back at Day 1, Tuesday 2nd September – Opening Day.
Alberto Acosta: the religion of growth
Alberto Acosta, Ecuadorian politician and scientist, kicked off proceedings at Degrowth14, reminding us in his keynote speech that growth is a hegemony, and that it has become almost a religion that economies must keep growing. But unless we learn to imagine economies that aren’t dependent on growth, we will not find solutions to poverty and the degradation of the environment. Coming from the global South, Acosta also emphasised that development theory needs to be decoupled from growth theory. Not least because the so-called “developed countries” are in fact very poorly developed, given that they have carbon footprints much bigger than the planet can sustain! The capitalist growth system engenders inequality, and appropriation of wealth is based on the exploitation of others and of natural resources. Moreover, we’re facing a paradox whereby increasing GDP (beyond the level where basic material needs have been met) does not correspond with increasing levels of happiness. The economy grows without producing respective benefits for people.
Acosta concluded that we need to begin developing different economic models, which reflect that societies have needs and limits, that we are living organisms and part of natural systems. We need economic systems that do not tolerate poverty, or hunger (noting that we already produce more than enough to feed the world – hunger is a problem of distribution and waste), and that get rid of patriarchy and ongoing processes of re-colonisation. The challenge is to bring about change, and to successfully change our lifestyles, before we destroy the planet.
Naomi Klein: climate change as a civilisational wake-up call
Naomi Klein, renowned author and activist, noted in her keynote that we are talking about nothing less than transforming everything about the way we live on this planet. And yet it is easier for us to imagine madcap sci-fi solutions to climate change than to imagine humans changing capitalism. We’re currently on a climate pathway for a 4-6 degree temperature rise, if we carry on our current trajectory. Radical change, either physical or political, are our only options left. But this is very difficult for us to imagine, a failure which is in large part due to the tragic bad-timing of this particular crisis. The WTO and other trade structures prevent the kind of responses we need to climate change, just as EU austerity-measures clash with the urgent need to invest in climate mitigation and adaptation. Neoliberalism fundamentally clashes with what we need to do to effectively and fairly tackle climate change. The climate debt that the global North owes the South, our historical responsibility, gets greater and greater as every year the economy is pitted more and more against the environment.
Klein made the firm point that those claiming “green growth” can fix all our problems, that decoupling (of economic growth and resource use/environmental degradation) is the answer, simply have not looked properly at the numbers nor at the timescale we have. Climate change is not just another concern on list next to healthcare and taxes – it is a civilisational wake-up call.
Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity
In the first plenary session of the conference, Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, some very critical points were made, with Silke Helfrich from the Commons Strategies Group noting that many aspects of the current system – eight hour working days, intellectual monocultures in universities, centralised infrastructures – make it very difficult to experiment with new models, like creating commons. Elizabeth Mpofu from Via Campesina identified the key challenge of turning a moment (the five days at the Degrowth conference) into a movement (for system change), and how to translate the many ideas and practices underpinning degrowth into concrete policy/ political/ institutional demands. These two thoughts in particular are ones that I returned to over the next four days.
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