This blog is the third in a series of five, each digesting and reflecting on a day at the Degrowth conference in Leipzig, 2nd – 6th September. You can read about Day 1 here and Day 2 here. Below is a summary of my experiences of Day 3 – Thursday 3rd September – Building alliances.
(Re)Productivity as an economic paradigm for a social-ecological economy
Thursday began with a keynote speech from Adelheid Biesecker, Professor at the Universität Bremen, who emphasised that sustainability is a normative concept, incorporating both intergenerational justice (leaving a healthy world for future generations) and intragenerational justice (just relations between North and South, encompassing economic, ecological and social sustainability). Sustainable development should be understood as an open, dynamic process that constantly needs to be redesigned; a process that constantly preserves and renews its own natural and social preconditions.
Biesecker told a joke, of two planets meeting in space, one big and round, the other almost destroyed (Earth). The first planet asks “Are you sick?” and the second replies “I have humans.” The healthy planet responds, “Don’t worry, it will pass”. A punchline which reflects the fact that the modern capitalist economy systematically destroys the productivity of nature, and of unpaid work – such an economy is not sustainable. We need an economy which facilitates the “good life”, one which enables humans to evolve their capabilities and faculties, to shape their own lives and use all their potentials. For this society needs to reconsider what kind of “growth” is needed. For example, there needs to be growth in good paid care work, in the caring economy. Care is a central principle, and caring is not only a form of work, but the basis for sustainable democracy, one which takes a different image of humans to the economist’s homo economical, whose only interest is in profit maximisation. The caring principle is based on humans seeing each other as humans, and recognising that humans need relations to one and other and to nature. Caring economic practice also entails doing what we can today in order to ensure a sustainable future.
Beisecker’s (re)productive economic practice is one which mediates between the productivity of humans and nature, in terms of quantity, quality, space and time. In other words, producing is always closely tied to regenerating and restoring the social and ecological preconditions for production. Such a set up would be organised in a (new) democratic and participatory way, everybody needed and included, with the local/regional economy at the centre. Working hours should be shorter, and unlike at the moment, where most unpaid work and care work is done by women, half of care work should be done by men (and men have to claim this!) – a sustainable economy requires gender equality.
A right to grow? Meeting the needs of all within the planetary boundaries
Sunita Narain, from CSE India, gave a keynote which started from the key premise that we need to find a way for the poor to live well, to share the world’s resources, whilst in total staying within our planetary boundaries. We’re faced with a warming world, climate mitigation efforts have been too little too late, and in places like India, the future is already here. Faced with increasing extremes in weather, the real finance minister in India is the monsoon. It is the bitterest irony that the poor in the world, those least responsible for climate change, are its worst victims. Over two decades after the first international talks about climate change, the rich have failed to reduce their emissions to make space for the poor in the atmospheric commons, and we’re running out of time and space.
Yet, Narain pointed out, the world cannot make serious emissions cuts until it has discussed seriously what this conference is about – degrowth – how to build economic futures without destroying the earth. Mitigation efforts today are not adding up, the science is clear but the action not, and we are on a pathway for well over a 3 degree temperature rise. We need trajectories that are transformational – we cannot afford merely transitional emissions reductions any more – but we must also be able to meet the needs of all. This crisis however is also an opportunity to understand, once and for all, that the capital intensive, extractive, iniquitous and polluting economic model of development needs to be reinvented, in order to meet the needs of all, respecting the principles of justice and equity, whilst staying within planetary boundaries.
Taking the example of India, a poor but fast developing country, this means reinventing the economy to enable wellbeing for millions – including energy access, mobility, etc, to all – without adding GHGs from coal burning. Narain emphasised the scale of the challenge in India, a population over 1 billion, but with millions still lacking energy for basic needs: 30% still use kerosene for lighting, and 7 million use firewood for cooking. Increasing clean energy production to meet the needs of all requires some radical rethinking – for example, large, centralised solar energy plants connected up to the grid only enables those who already have access to the energy market, and can afford it, to get energy from a clean source. What we need is decentralised clean renewable energy, meeting the needs of the poorest and most marginalised. Similarly, although big corporate interests are pushing for a car-based model of mobility, and cities like Delhi are exploding with cars (and suffering the consequent pollution and congestion), less that 15% of Delhi drives car whilst 26% of Delhi’s land area is covered with roads. Clearly this growth cannot go on, even if cars themselves are hybrids, or biofuel etc. We need to reinvent the model of mobility.
Narain made clear that, in the context of the global South, degrowth should not be degrowth, but rather a different kind of growth, inclusive growth, shared growth with a human face. At various later points of the conference, Narain’s language/ perspective was challenged, with the argument that it is not simply that the North should degrow so that the South can grow, but that the North should degrow so the South can find new ways for all to live well. Poverty is not tacked by aggregate GDP growth – that’s part of the same neoliberal discourse. Yes, overconsumption (of resources like land, water, minerals, the atmospheric commons, etc) in the rich North, fueled by the GDP growth paradigm, must end, so as to enable a greater and fairer share of resources to be available for meeting basic needs in the South (rather than luxury desires in the North). But pursuing a growth-based “development” course is not the right answer – or the right rhetoric – for the South either.
Narain ended with some proposed changes – or course corrections – to the way we do environmentalism, starting with understanding the difference between the environmentalism of the rich and the environmentalism of the poor. The rich world has learned to deal with environmental issues after it has become rich, seeing them as a fall-out of wealth creation, cleaning up waste – an environmentalism of garbarge management. For the poor, environmentalism is protesting (against pollution, deforestation, the taking-over of grazing lands or fishing areas, etc) not because the environment is a luxury for them that may be spoiled, but because it is their livelihood at stake. Facing the fear that whatever so-called development is coming (and threatening their local environment) will make them poorer. With this in mind, green technologies invented by the rich, if not affordable to the poor, are not sustainable. Without affordability, and equity, we will not have sustainability. There is also a need to look for answers in the ways of past, in the knowledge of the very poor, knowledge that modern systems discount (e.g. seed-sharing, rain harvesting – which use local resources efficiently). Answers can also be found in nature. For example, traditional industrial development uses very concentrated forms of energy (coal/oil) and water (from aquifers, lakes), when we could use less concentrated forms (e.g. solar energy – many micro-solar plants, feeding into a smart grid; rainfall harvesting, recycling and reusing every drop of waste water, and avoiding upsetting the nitrogen cycle).
Beyond the Hill: A degrowth lobby in Brussels?
Billed as “a group of young Europeans who work more or less close to the EU institutions”, the What If Network hopes to provide the degrowth movement with a stronger and clearer political voice at EU level, where the mainstream is still overwhelmingly powerful. I found it heartening that a group of Brussels bubble insiders, working in the EU institutions and consultancies, have come together to promote alternatives to everything being dependant on growth, to show “what if…”. And I agreed with the cogent point made that unless you have a lobby in Brussels, you’re invisible to the EU institutions. Yet, I found myself in the position of being the most critical, most cynical person in the room, for a number of reasons.
Claire Baffert and Pierre Serkine, co-founders of the (up till now 8-person, all volunteer) What If Network, presented a picture of the EU machine as a neutral tool which can be used to different purposes, that it is up to us to steer in the direction we want. They flagged up the EU’s growth obsession, but noted that growth is only mentioned 12 times in the EU treaties, and that the treaties even set out a recipe for times of weak growth – what they see as an ironic recognition that growth does in fact fluctuate. They noted that the Lisbon treaty added the goal of sustainable economic growth, and that the Europe2020 strategy is for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Baffert and Serkine identified the absence of degrowth ideas in the EU debate in Brussels as being down to both a lack of knowledge and ideological blindness. They noted that the EU’s austerity measures since 2009, justified to bring growth back, have not worked, just as the EU’s projections of rapid growth for the Greek economy are, year after year, proved wrong. The What If Network concludes that although the EU institutions appear to be blind, we should hope that they are not deaf, and raise our voices.
Now, whilst growth may be mentioned only(!) 12 times in the EU treaties, it is nonetheless absolutely fundamental; growth is entrenched in a union built around free trade and a neoliberal market system. The optimistic interpretation that there is no inherent tension between the EU (as it is) and a degrowth agenda, and that the main problem is rather the influence of corporate lobbies (which is of course enormous and deeply problematic), cannot stand-up against the legal commitment to the pursuit of growth in the EU treaties. Economic growth is not only overarching and deeply embedded in the EU machinery, but all other goals – like environmental sustainability, including the precautionary principle, and social inclusion/cohesion – are, in practice, subsumed whenever growth is (or perceived to be) threatened. EU-imposed austerity measures are one example of this, as is the so-called recipe for times of weak growth, e.g. budgetary policies to stimulate “competitiveness”, wage cuts, facilitating investments regardless of environmental impact. When growth is under threat, measures for sustainability and social inclusion go out the window.
Of course, the EU has evolved much over 60 years, and it continues to do so. As a human-created institution there is no fundamental reason why it cannot become something very different. But to be compatible with a degrowth agenda it would have to change radically, both in terms of its ideological foundations and its decision-making processes. This is not something a degrowth lobby in Brussels can do, alone. But that is not to say its not a good idea for alternative voices to be heard at the heart of the EU, as one small part of much bigger, much more diverse movement.
Degrowth and social inequality: Eating the rich or governing the poor?
In a session discussing several academic papers, a number of things in particular stood out to me. Stephan Voswinkel’s ‘Upward Mobility in Degrowth Societies’ made the point that social advancement in a system of economic growth can be a zero-sum game. One person’s success means that some others won’t succeed, creating a conflict-laden system, where one generation’s “winners” must defend their position, and often seek selective advantages for their offspring (e.g. middle class parents sending their kids to private schools). Today, the growth system crisis is accompanied by a crisis for this kind of ‘advancement society’. For example, as the negative effects of attempting to advance increasingly outweigh the positive (e.g. burnouts and breakdowns). But this doesn’t mean people don’t want to climb the social escalator any more; such desires can even become stronger as the possibility for their realisation gets smaller – making the system more competitive, individualist and conflictual. The discussion following Voswinkel’s presentation also touched on the point that “work-life balance”, “upward mobility” and “career” are all ideological words, both neoliberal and individualistic.
Tilman Reitz and Tine Haubner together presented on ‘The threat of (not) being exploited: How inequality promotes growth dispositions’. Reitz made the point that education, increasingly standardised in developed countries, teaches us to compete with others. In the workplace, managerial positions have proliferated in recent decades, as has the use of constant and visible performance indicators, creating ever-more constant competition. An increasing amount of power and profit is falling into the hands of business and managerial elites rather than technical experts.
Haubner explained that care work has been looked at extensively and critically by feminists, but less so by degrowthers. In the capitalist system, care work is underpaid and unpaid, being less profitable than the production of goods, as well as labour and time intensive. Care work is often not regarded as normal work, and seen as value absorbing rather than value creating. As such it is often assigned to particular groups of society, due to their gender, race, etc. But care work (for example, child care) is not less economically important – it is essential for society and for profit in the market, by reproducing living beings. Haubner summed up the situation as that it is problematic to commodify care work (always being badly paid, as it is not profitable), whilst unpaid care work is systematic exploitation. In other words, care work under a capitalist regime is always exploitative, so we need to question capitalism. For the degrowth movement, it is important that as we criticise the commodification of care work, we must also emphasise the need for just, non-exploitative eco-social alternatives, that don’t rely on gender roles.
What stuck in my mind from Stefanie Hürtgen’s presentation on ‘Dual Development and the denial of social requirements by logics of Growth and Degrowth’ was the description of the logic of growth via exclusion from growth. On the one hand, pressure has increased on those with salary work, as governments’ priority is to attract capital and guarantee profit growth, and social demands from workers are perceived to hinder this. So, for example, revolts against multinationals in Tunisia with demands for higher wages and more democratic rights, are repressed with the argument that if they continue, if their social demands are too high, the companies will relocate from Tunisia to Romania. In Romania, the argument is the same, the multinationals will move to Ukraine; in China, they threaten they’ll go to Vietnam, and so on, a whole circle of competition fueled by the argument that we must guarantee growth of profits, or else we won’t have employment and social inclusion.
On the other hand, those without salary work, i.e. the subsistence production sector, also face increasing pressure. In the South, as well as increasingly in Eastern and Southern Europe, people face expulsion from their means of (subsidence, non-formal) production in name of (formal, capitalistic) production. For example, people are thrown off their land, or have access to livelihood resources removed, in order to facilitate industrial-scale production, as in the case of land grabs for agribusiness or agrofuel plantations.
Hartmut Rosa on ‘The Iron Cage of the Elites: Time Consuming Efforts to Stay on Top’, offered a tirade against the way we conceptualise society, arguing that way we define classes, winners and losers, upward mobility etc is one of the drivers for the growth system. Of course, it is clearly true that society does produce winners and losers, the growth engine and logic of capital accumulation creating a perverse and idiotic distribution, and producing ever-new forms of scarcity, poverty and deprivation. But this growth machine is kept alive in part by the way we internalise this logic of accumulation, and how we tell the winners they’re the winners, they’re better off, living the good life. Society saying “you earn more, you deserve it” provides the motives to stay there and defend what you have, implicitly defining the ‘good life’ and warning of the myriad others racing behind you. And at the same time providing motives to the lower rungs of ladder, by telling them they’re on the lower rungs.
Instead of fixating on winners at losers, we should be taking a step back and looking at game we’re playing, at the idiocy and irrationality of it. The winners, with the most capital, the freedom and resources to lead the ‘good life’ so often don’t, from Japanese business elites having a lower life expectancy, to pressure-related suicides in Korea, to self-hating and cynical Goldman Sachs executives. Why define such people as winners, rather than as maniacal suicidal people? We need to pull the plug, Rosa argued, to take away the motivational energy for this logic of accumulation and permanent acceleration – and we can’t do this if our sociological and societal rhetoric stays the same. Instead, we need a re-appropriation of what we want to do, to look at the relationships we develop with each other, our bodies, families, nature, the goods we produce, etc, and look at quality of life through that lens.
* * * * * *