Last week, from the 21st until the 25th of August 2018, the 6th International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity took place in Malmö, Sweden. It was organized by an international group and the newly formed Institutet för nerväxtstudier (Institute for degrowth studies). Around 500 people discussed about “Dialogues in turbulent times”. This article will give you a concise account of the conference and some reviews of selected plenary sessions from the perspective of the blog – team.
The opening plenary on Tuesday 21st ran under the title “Malmö/Sweden in turbulent times”. It was chaired by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya (Lund University) and contextualized the motto of the conference for the situation in Sweden. Ellie Cijvat from Friends of the Earth Malmö challenged the picture of a “green” Sweden. In her perspective, the country could do much more against climate change and for ecological politics. She called for a multitude of visions for a good life for all within the planetary boundaries and with full human rights. Daniel Sestrajcic, member of the Left Party of Sweden, found Sweden not as peaceful and great as many foreigners think, but not that bad either. It obviously has to combat the same problems as other capitalistic neoliberal countries and struggles with a growing polarization of society. He called for strong social movements to push for more inclusive politics. Shora Esmailian, journalist and writer, decried the closing of the Swedish borders in August 2015. Although the country’s economy is doing well and continues to grow, the will to share is too small. However, with the imperial mode of living in the Global North, more and more people will be forced to leave their home country – closed borders won’t stop this, but rather cost thousands of lives. All three speakers denounced the closed borders as being anti-solidary and against the spirit of degrowth.
On Wednesday evening, participants of the conference gathered for a panel on “Migration and Conflict”. Aimed as a bridge between migration scholars and the degrowth community, the panel was amazingly engaging and of high relevance in our turbulent times. Miriam Lang started the panel discussion with naming the links between growth and migration and the structural conditions that are behind migrational ´issues.´ She pointed out the foundations of modern ´western´ capitalist civilization as the root of the conditions that lead people to be forced to migrate in the first place. Those foundations take ground on the need for economic growth, and therefore on the conditions of exploitation, but also on domination along the axis of race, gender, and ethnicity, predatory relation with nature, and a prioritization of certain forms of knowledge and knowing. The fact that migration control, borders, and externalization are not a recent phenomenon of societies of the Global North was added by Martin Lemberg Pedersen. Malin McGlinn brought the big picture discussion to the local level. Focusing her analysis on the European Union´s neoliberal labor market practices, that are suppose to promote social inclusion and employment for ´ethnic others´in Malmö, she brought attention to the ways in which these projects are actually based on racist and supremacist concepts and ideas. For example, framing the problem as an individual problem of migrants and their personal way of being, which promotes assimilation and exclusion.“Migration calls into question the ethical foundation of societies of the global north.” Though originally steaming from societies of the global north and only focusing on limited resources, environmental justice, and critiques of capitalism, Degrowth can, if issues of racism and migration are adequately part of the movement, engage in genuine collective solidarity, and against neoliberal practices of competition, individualization, exploitation, and cultural imperialism. Rather than asking how can we include ´them,´ degrowthers, as pointed out by a member of the audience, should ask themselves what is it about us that is not inclusive to people affected by issues of racism and migration?
Thursday morning’s plenary session featured university of Aalborgs very own Inge Røpke with a talk on the need for a new economics, titled “Radical sustainability transitions: a new economics is needed”. Despite the many battle worn heterodox economists in the room, her presentation turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. Starting with the basics regarding biophysical and energy requirements of all growth-processes, Røpke was quick to weave in critiques on the purely money-focused, supply side based macromodels in general (and the Danish one in particular). Dear to her heart is the fact that neoclassical economics legitimates inequality based on the narrative that everyone (therefore also the poor) gets what they deserve. But traditional economics confuses production and appropriation. To illustrate this, Røpke used the metaphor of a “real cake” for a society’s accumulated production, which is created by the many and consists of its biophysical components. These components can also be measured. Where Røpke parts with traditional economics is that the use value can also be measured and distributed by using money. Her point is that we, as a society, can discuss what we want in the cake and how we want to distribute its yields according to monetary and non-monetary distribution demands. Her talk finished with a call for more work to develop coherence within the wide and dispersed field of ecological economics.
The audience expected a plenary on Thursday evening on the topic “Dialogues between critical social theories, science and degrowth”, however the exchange evolved into a debate on the use of politics and state power for a social ecological transformation. Andreas Malm, professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, called for the need for eco-Leninism and a “vanguard elite” that would seize state power and enact deep policy changes, such as banning within-country-flights. In contrast, Ruth Kinna, professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, refuted that the seizure of state power and maintenance of hierarchal power relations was not the pathway to transformation. Instead, professor Kinna argued that a de-centralized, autonomous, and community-based approach in line with an anarchist analysis was necessary. The urgency of the climate crisis was posed by Inge Røpke (in the audience) as a deterrent to an anarchist approach despite her preference for a non-hierarchal solution. Later in the discussion, the (un)importance of voting in electoral politics was questioned; this led Miriam Lang (in the audience), professor in Social and Global Studies at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, to draw attention to the recent failings of Left parties in South America, i.e. the Pink Tide. This plenary was a fascinating moment of the conference, highlighting disagreements within the degrowth movement (both speakers and audience members) on the question of how the degrowth movement can/will achieve an ambitious transformation. One could hear the division in the audience; identifying the Anarchists, the eco-Socialists and the few who were undecided or chose to take no sides. This topic was explored further throughout the conference in workshops and presentations often under the title ‘strategy’. Some of the authors believe that strategy will become an increasingly important topic within the degrowth movement but hope the fiery (and fairly unproductive) exchanges at Thursday’s plenary can be a lesson on the importance of having an informed and moderated discussion in the future.
Friday morning’s plenary featured wellbeing-expert and co-organiser of the conference Max Koch from Lund university. The keynote’s theme was accordingly “Welfare without growth”. After presenting the established finding that liberal democracies with high welfare-scores are certainly not the most ecological (down the lines of “the richer, the dirtier, the happier”), Koch went into details to illustrate the methodological pitfalls of different operationalizations of “welfare” and finally zoomed in on a human-needs-based perspective. “Sustainable welfare” is then a societal setting that enables the satisfaction of everyone’s human needs (as opposed to “wants”) in present and future, within planetary limits and without economic growth. Building on a broad range of sociologists, Koch went on to discuss aspects such as the pluralist discussion on the role of the state in a degrowth society or the required cultural and socio-psychological shifts within broader societies. Interested readers may be referred to his recent book “Postgrowth and Wellbeing: Challenges to Sustainable Welfare” co-published with Milena Büchs.
The evening plenary of Friday, on “Money, finance and Degrowth”, focused on the issue of money as one of the key drivers of the growth imperative of our current socio-economic system. The first speaker was Ole Bjerg, Associate Professor in Business Philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School, who praised the bold move by the Sveriges Riksbank, the central bank of Sweden, of making plans for launching in the next few years the “e-krona”, the first national cryptocurrency worldwide. According to his analysis, the Sveriges Riksbank would allow citizens to open an account directly in the central bank and, in so doing, provide funds that can be spent directly into the economy. This would amount to adopting a “Sovereign Money System” as advocated for by academics close to degrowth, such as Mary Mellor, and by the British think tank Positive Money. The second speaker in the conference was Ruby van der Wekken, an active member of Helsinki Timebank which was founded in 2009 with the goal of playing a progressive voice with regards to the potential of complementary currencies in Finland. The third and final speaker of the event was Alf Hornborg, an economic anthropologist and professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, who argued that “general-purpose money” (money that can be used to purchase virtually anything) is the core driver of climate change. His analysis rests on the idea that, if there are no constraints on what we can buy with our money, we shall naturally be looking for the best deals, which usually means the lowest-paid labour and the lowest-priced resources. In this sense, the globalised capitalist market is an expression of the inherent logic of general-purpose money. Following this logic, he criticised supporters of a “Sovereign Money System”, since the aforementioned dynamic is the same regardless of whether money is created by banks or states, and even regardless of the existence of interest-bearing debt. This led him to the logical conclusion that, to change the logic of the global economic game, we must change money itself. He concluded his intervention by advocating for an innovative policy proposal: a Universal Basic Income not to be paid in “general-purpose money”, but rather in “special-purpose money”: a complementary currency that can only be used to buy products and services produced within a specified radius of the point of purchase. This would not be a “local currency” in the sense of a geographically-restricted currency, but rather one single national currency – issued by the state – that is only for local use.
We provide here a short summary of some of the plenaries, but be aware of the manifold sessions that took place during these five days, across 19 spaces across 3 venues and the park. We were greeted with a rich mix of formats such as participatory sessions, paper presentations or artistic expressions. Especially the latter, drawing on alternative forms of knowledge, was very well received. It can be hoped that future conferences will incorporate an even greater share of creative and embodied forms of knowledge. Looking back on the past days, we congratulate with gratitude the organizing team for the great experience we could share in Malmö with people from all over Europe and beyond. Despite some hiccups (partially beyond the organizers’ power, such as missing speakers), the conference went smoothly and swiftly. The food, provided in collaboration with local initiatives and with the support of tireless volunteers, and the great and diverse spaces (despite the inevitable scattering of persons across the grounds) provided ample background for conviviality and exchange.