By Christiane Kliemann
“Facing the current crises: critique and resistance”: The motto of the second day´s conference programme takes into account that degrowth is mainly a concept from the global North which naturally has a different perspective on the mulitfaceted global crisis than social or ecological movements from other parts of the World. While degrowth can be described as “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet“, many people who are exposed to the economic crisis in Southern Europe for example, are naturally far from calling for a downscaling of production on consumption in their countries. And yet degrowth can be seen as a valuable concept particularly for these countries.
According to Haris Konstatatos, political scientist from the Harokopio University of Athens and member of Syriza, various Southern European countries have many problems in common which finally could be drivers towards a social-ecological transformation. As emphasized in his keynote speech, the main problem is that of aggressive neo-liberalism:
- A double devaluation of labour and environmental commons
- Catastrophic consequences of austerity on the environment
- Competitiveness, productivity, extroversion, investment stimulation and employment opportunities
- The ‘poor sell cheap’, this gives new opportunities for capital, tourism and resource extraction
- Privatisation of services and resources
Although there are left-leaning, socialist and progressive groups who still favour traditional left-wing solutions based on progressive productivism and nationalization and tending to ignore environmental factors, there are new solutions gaining ground which mainly stem from the anti-globalization- and indigenous movements. They propose meaningful democratic alternatives and new non-hierarchical, horizontal organisational structures: for example worker cooperatives, social enterprise, solidarity initiatives, collaborative consumption and alternative currencies.
The European South as an ideal place to test degrowth theories
The ‘orthodox’ left claims that these experiments lack the critical mass necessary to make real change and cannot seriously challenge the system. However these ‘experiments’ have helped provide immediate aid to those most in need, and this bottom-up approach is possibly helping make the change for those who it really matters to. They are empowering their participants and helping them take part in the political system and ‘economy’. Therefore, the European South may be an ideal place to test many of the degrowth theories as they are challenging that they need to follow what everyone else does. Many feel they have nothing to lose and need a change and are ready to ‘take the power back’. If successful, it may even spread from the South to the European North.
Barbara Muraca, environmental philosopher fom the University of Jena, sees degrowth as a concept which could help build bridges between the North and the South, capitalists and anti-capitalists. In her keynote she described how growth has turned from a magic want into poison:
Growth from magic wand to poison
So far growth has helped create prosperity, reduce poverty, create employment, raise taxes for government services, keep up political stability with less social conflicts. However it needs to constantly accelerate to keep going and if it slows or stops, there is disaster. This led to an attitude of ‘growth at any cost’ which has caused debt, speculation, exploitation and expansion risks (e.g.fracking) and an intensification of the pace of life and a reduction in happiness and well-being.
However, if growth based societies simply stop growing, this will lead to crisis and destabilisation. Such enforced adaption to a shrinking economy may lead to a necessary return to localization and family-based services. However this could lead to a re-feudalisation of society with a lack of balance in the division of work between genders and reduce academic, arts and cultural pursuits.
Degrowth requires radical transformation of institutions
Therefore, degrowth cannot be seen as simply adapting to changed constellations, but as complete radical transformation of institutions. It aims to anticipate what is really possible based on existing potential and tendencies. It then encourages and nurtures these potentials without blind or militant optimism. It will also need to completely tranform the social imaginary and enter into the shared ideals, visions and values of society. This redefining of values may also mean shifting the meaning of basic values such as ‘freedom’,‘autonomy’, ‘inequality’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘exploitation’. With regard to organizing a degrowth society, rich countries can learn from poorer countries and people how to structure and organize themselves more intelligently.
Climate Justice and Degrowth
The panel discussion on climate justice and degrowth was mainly focused on exploring degrowth from a Southern perspective, thereby looking at the commonalities and differences in view of establishing a possible long-term alliance. While degrowth rejects overconsumption in the North, climate justice articulates demands against the North and addresses climate racism, given that international negotiations do not solve the climate crisis but only displace it. Accordingly, the climate justice movement sees in degrowth the potential danger of a new environmental racism, which is why degrowth has to take global justice into account. Unlike degrowth, climate justice is rooted in specific struggles – e.g. farmers versus agrobusiness – and identifies agents of change, whereas degrowth is rather a discourse.
As an essential commonality, however, can be seen the struggle against fossil fuel which is essential in the growth machine and also plays a central role in th climate justice movement. According to Nnimmo Bassey from Friends of the Earth and Oilwatch, every coal mine and oil field is a crime szene and governments are the shoe-shine boys for corporations. Growth has been powered by the myth that we can always grab what we want and we urgently need to take real actions to confront real problems. Oil fields are located in fragile ecosystems and therefore keeping oil in the soil and coal in the hole and fighting extractivism, including fracking, is more urgent than ever. The questions we have to ask are: what is life? why are we here on this planet? Degrowth and climate justice must act together wherever the crime is committed.
According to Lucia Ortiz it is important to focus on the perspective of the victims of climate change and its “false solutions” such as monocultures and expansion of big energy companies. Alternative movements are not only supposed to lead the struggle against the financialization of nature, but also to find alternative solutions and spread them in the global system. Issues like peasant agriculture and food sovereignity are important goals to reduce the heating of our planet as well as the opportunity for indigenous people to live in harmony with nature in traditional commmunities and have the right to do so.
When arriving in Leipzig, she was a bit afraid to be confronted with a eurocentristic narrative, which luckily was not the case. In fact, she has observed many shared priciples despite coming from different backgrounds: The principles of localisation, sharing, solidarity and cooperation.