Degrowth, by disaster or design: Looking back at Day 5 of #Degrowth14

Degrowth14 closing morning - the Group Assembly Process (GAP) reports its outcomes

Degrowth14 closing morning – the Group Assembly Process (GAP) reports its outcomes

This blog is the final 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, Day 2 here, Day 3 here and Day 4 here. Below is a summary of my experiences of Day 5 – Saturday 6th September – Building alliances.

Closing morning – reports: What happened?

Of the various observations and reports about the Degrowth14 conference, all noted with great appreciation how well organised it had been (from the interpretation, to the food, to the accommodation arrangements – I, along with many other participants, was put up in a friendly resident of Leipzig’s home). In terms of facts and figures, Degrowth14 included over 400 single events, 3000 participants (38% female, 31% male, the rest undisclosed), 80% of whom were German and the remaining 20% representing 74 different nationalities, 606 speakers (38% female, 46% male, 16% not specified), 55% female core organisers, over 900 helpers, the consumption of 1250kg of vegetables and 32kg coffee, +3000 people clicking on the conference website per day, and 7000 people watching the livestream of the opening night. And, of course, an “unquantifiable amount of joy”.

The Degrowth14 conference itself was described as a small island, but one that is getting bigger, people sharing a common ground, fighting for a different world and trying to build it. There are many links between the reality outside and our island – sometimes people are pushed towards it, sometimes they make their own way here. But despite this growing island, it was noted that there is still a sense of cognitive dissonance for those taking part – at the conference, able to feel ourselves, to open and freely discuss with like-minded people, whilst the mainstream outside is still so very far from accepting the basic tenet of the degrowth movement – that the pursuit of economic growth is incompatible with creating a just, equitable and sustainable world. “Degrowth”, it was suggested, can be a difficult word, but it is nonetheless a very interesting one, encompassing the deconstruction of growth from many different perspectives, levels and ways of seeing the world. Furthermore, one commentator pointed out, we will be living in a degrowth society soon enough, by disaster or by design!

As a confluence between scientists, artists, activists – and many other “degrowth practitioners” – it was noted that everyone finds their own approach to this topic, whether through art, gardening, science, etc. Yet there are, of course, stumbling blocks for the degrowth movement, and for the path to a degrowth society – for example, why were there so many men talking at and attending Degrowth14? The questions of power relations, who is leading the discourse, whether there are some VIPs in the movement, as well as who’s attending this (relatively white middle class) conference must be kept at the forefront.

A strength of the conference was seen to be the diversity of session formats, and the many different mindsets, tools and methods, with particular recognition of the numerous workshops that enabled the communal sharing of experiences, offering space to explore things at an artistic and emotional level. A process which is quite vital, for if we don’t feel strong ourselves, if we can’t find the energy in ourselves, then we cannot energise others.

On a personal note, whilst I was only able to attend a fraction of the sessions at #Degrowth14 (take a look at the full programme – there were many fascinating and tempting events taking place during each time slot) – one of the highlights I haven’t written about in my five blogs of the five days of Degrowth14 were the many and varied artistic events. Performances and interventions, installations and exhibitions, concerts and even a short film walking-tour. A favourite for me was Friendly Fire‘s audio-visual performance tour “[untitled] a space for monsters, ghosts and animals”, which explored “individual and collective transformations in all their visionary, dreamy, scary, eerie, threatening, monstrous or incredibly funny facets”. Whilst not an easy experience to describe, highlights included being taken to the basement by a gorilla to look at cave-paintings coupled with quotes about degrowth, discovering a wolf with a message for you in the library, and watching tourists and late night shoppers interact with two silent and expressionless performers slowly, rhythmically sweeping Leipzig’s main shopping street.

Another of the art installations (which in the closing reports was compared to the degrowth movement) was a demolition ball made of grass – Elijahs Ball by Herwig Kemmerich – which sought to reflect ecological challenges in post-industrial society, representing both deconstruction of the material and of given patterns of thought and behaviour. Despite the wide array of form and theme of the conference’s events however, there was a still a clear separation between arts on one side and theory on other – and we need to learn to better link them.

Observations of the GAP process

Degrowth14 continued the Group Assembly Process (GAP) that had been developed at earlier Degrowth conferences. The GAP was an intensive three-day exchange between scientists, activists, artists and practitioners on a specific degrowth-related topic, to map existing – and develop new – concrete political proposals, as well as controversies and research questions. Combining both a GAP assembly and nearly twenty different working groups, the process was intended to allow cross-contamination and convergence, and was very outcome-oriented. For some groups/topics this was stressful and too confining, whilst for others very productive. A few highlights from the GAP working groups, as presented in the closing reports, included:

  • Basic Income – there should be an unconditional basic income, to improve social justice and decrease inequality, which is precondition for degrowth
  • Commons and Peer Economy – relies on positive reciprocity, building collective autonomy, and beating back the limits imposed by private property
  • Money and Finance – to come to a stationary/shrinking economy in peaceful way, we need changes to monetary system
  • Redefining Value – who decides on values (intrinsic, extrinsic, multidimensional)? Questions of reciprocity (between humans and with nature), and meeting the primary needs of all. Can/should value be demonetised and/or denumerised?
  • Solidarity Economy, Cooperatives and Social Business – large scale, for profit corporations must be moved away from. This should start from social movements, putting pressure on governments, in order to build more conducive legal frameworks
  • Sufficiency Policies – use of political instruments like the 30 hour working week and reform of the tax system, but how to make sufficiency seem more attractive?
  • Transport and Mobility – all like to travel, but in the future we need to use less space/energy to travel. Free public transport is good, but needs measures to ensure people don’t travel more because its free. Role of behavioural change, higher taxation on unsustainable forms of transport, and the need to make our streets liveable spaces where people can meet, children can play, etc
  • Urban Transformation – need for multifunctional urban spaces that include food production

Several of the GAP working groups noted that the process of to getting to their (more and less concrete) conclusions was very important – being participatory, inclusive, and following a direct democratic example. This is certainly something that we found in the working group I took part in, on Democracy and Degrowth, which will be the subject of a later blog post.

Closing Plenary: How do we move on?

Christoper Laumanns, one of the conference’s spokespeople, described the amazing preparation of Degrowth14 – a group formed more or less out of nowhere, using grassroots democracy, and taking time to make decisions. With respect to conference outcomes, Laummans noted that whilst German post-growth debates have generally avoided discussing capitalism, the degrowth movement has started to enter into this, with a clear stance on its incompatibility with a capitalist model (which is, at heart, to take a sum of money and make it bigger). On the question of whether “Degrowth” is a movement, people certainly feel that it is… and following the conference there are at least thirty media articles saying that it is! Yet, it is very diffuse, as illustrated by the Degrowth14 participants flocking to psychological workshops more than theoretical panels. But this he argues is a strength, not a weakness, as change begins in the mind.

Degrowth14, with its sessions on degrowth and feminism, degrowth and climate justice etc, could be described as “speed-dating other movements”. Laumanns however argued that degrowth has an over-arching element, looking into minds, into different disciplines, and trying to get the growth logic out. For example, Germany needs to cut carbon 90% in 30 years, which is impossible if the economy is growing – degrowth and climate change are not speed-dating, they’re married!

Lucia Ortiz, from FoE Brazil, summed up that people power needs to challenge corporate power and the financialisation of nature, bringing a common vision for a peaceful and sustainable world based social and environmental justice, free from all forms of domination and exploitation. With the whole system of production and consumption geared towards corporate power, we need systemic change, nsincorporating sufficiency, cooperation, solidarity, the struggle to defend our commo, to live well and be free from fear and the politics of fear.

Whilst the degrowth movement may be relatively small/ Eurocentric, other inter-related movements (e.g. anti-capitalist and “System change not Climate Change”) which share the goals of defending the commons and identifying the root causes of the crisis, are much much bigger. Many strategic alliances can be built, and links with struggles in the South (for example, on coal mining), as well as the fight against EU-US trade agreement TTIP, and other free-trade agreements, are all important steps to take. (There is an action day on 11th October against TTIP, supported by many of the degrowth conference organisers).

Giorgos Kallis, Professor of ecological economics at the University of Barcelona, talked of feeling an emerging consensus on the need to occupy space in the economy, diverting our time (and helping others to) away from capitalist-wage labour economy to solidarity, peer-to-peer, sharing economies. But, of course, we also need political action to let these economic practices flourish, which requires civil disobedience and direct action, saying no to growth and to austerity. Kallis made the very important point that doing all of this puts a very heavy strain on people – we’re not hyper-intensive individuals, we can’t do everything. Thus, we need to respect those who put most of their time into political, or practical, or caring work – whilst at the same time, not expecting this divison of labour to occur in any particular way.

Kallis summed up the view that it is not that the North should degrow so the South can grow – rather, the North should degrow so that south can find new ways for all to live well. Poverty is not tacked by aggregate GDP growth – that’s the same old neoliberal discourse. Furthermore, whilst an exit from growth means an exit from capitalism, an exit from capitalism does not necessarily mean an end to growth. Whilst it is an old joke that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is also easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of growth! It is therefore a key question not only how do we talk to other movements, but how do we popularise the idea of degrowth? How do we talk to the 99%, not just the 10-20% in other related social movements? Kallis noted that in Greece, a “tactical romanticisation” has been useful, the idea of simplicity, living well with little, appeals to a lot of people. Laummans noted in response to this that it is also important to be careful about romanticising the past, as you can get into problematic gender relations etc, very fast. He also suggested the discourse of less speed for less exploitation, and less speed for better health, is useful, that we need to learn to be lazy again.

One of the final comments I heard before I had to rush off to catch a train back to Brussels, was that the first Degrowth conference in Paris in 2008 had 140 participants, the conference in Barcelona in 2010 had around 500, in Venice 2012 around 900, and in Leipzig 2014 3000… so with a growth rate like this, we will soon have whole world at the degrowth conference!

Although I missed Degrowth14’s Saturday afternoon collective action (and closing party) in Leipzig city centre – “Enough is Enough for Everyone! A good life instead of growth mania” – it looks like it was as full of energy and creativity as the rest of the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, Leipzig, Germany, 2nd-6th September 2014.

Degrowth14 collective action in Leipzig, Saturday 6th September. Twitpic from Ashish Kothari ‏@chikikothari

Degrowth14 collective action in Leipzig, Saturday 6th September. Twitpic from Ashish Kothari ‏@chikikothari

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This blog is the final in a series of five posts, each focusing on one day at #Degrowth14. Read about Day 1 here, Day 2 here, Day 3 here and Day 4 here


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