We live nextdoor to my partner’s grandmother, Maria, who was born during the Second World War in Northern Italy. This means that she knows what hard times look like. Maria could not believe we would be using washable diapers for our baby boy. With genuine surprise she asked me, “why?”, and then she was curious in which pot we were planning to boil the diapers. In her eyes, we could not possibly be choosing to use washable diapers – to her, an extinct garment reminiscent of poverty and manual labour – when there exists the comfort of the disposable. Therefore, it must be that we cannot afford disposable diapers. Needless to say, for the first six months of our son’s life, every time Maria went to the supermarket, she bought us a packet of disposable diapers.
Everything about the lifestyle we are accustomed to, as rich westerners, has to change. If we let that sink in for a little bit that is when the real disruption comes in, giving way to a radical shift in perspective. So, where do we go from here?
As practitioners of the degrowth creed, the first challenge we face is precisely this, where do we start? This is a very real question that needs to be answered when degrowthers decide to settle down. Since it’s possible to start anywhere, why not start with the closest and most immediate: ourselves. Our life. Our lifestyle, our diet, our jobs. I want to bring forward how this radical decision – to choose the self as the first point of action towards a degrowth future – brings large obstacles, huge consequences, many humbling lessons and above all, so many mixed feelings.
How do we go about practicing degrowth?
So again, how do we go about practicing degrowth? Keeping in mind that the larger goal of degrowth is to socially organize through sufficiency, not to individually organize a lifestyle that soothes colonial guilt. As I see it, there are two paths for practicing a degrowth lifestyle. One is to build an autonomous off-the-gird community that performs the visions for a degrowth society and the other is to coexist within existing ‘conventional’ communities, neighbourhoods and families.
I can only speak for the latter path, as it has been my experience for the last couple of years. Through coexisting with the status-quo, we are trying to change it from within. So far, the result is a living contradiction: we live in a small town, we manage a small homestead, and share with our community, but at the same time we are constantly breaking apart from them. The cultural obstacles are soul crushing. Being surrounded by conspicuous consumption and judged by the same standards is overwhelming. It’s too easy to feel constrained when we are just trying to live in a way that is respectful of the natural world.
“I don’t understand this poverty vow you have taken for the sake of the environment”
Before my son was born, my mother said to me once, “I don’t understand this poverty vow you have taken for the sake of the environment”. Only in that moment I realized what my choices look like to others. To me, it was both a sobering and a liberating choice, choosing to living with less in some aspects but really having so much more in other regards. However, to a set of very pragmatic eyes, voluntary simplicity looks a whole lot like poverty.
It’s hard to swallow just how much privilege is contained within that sentence, but it’s true. With her comment, my mother was echoing the common renunciations of Degrowth, which is something we (as a movement) absolutely must learn to deal with. Part-time jobs mean more time for the unpaid reproductive labour in the home and the farm, but it also requires to make do with half the salary. Second-hand clothes are an opportunity to be creative and original, but they also look like you cannot afford clothes and rely on hand-me-downs. Fostering cooperation is a way of strengthening the bonds within a community, but it could also mean you are just needy and always seeking help. And so on.
Can we calmly coexist in communities when the waters are turbulent and bitter with contradiction? Not really, that’s my honest reply. There is no way around it, wherever both voluntary simplicity and frivolous materialism (and its resultant over-consumption) occur, a permanent contradiction exists that must be dealt with, never reconciled.
A couple of weeks ago, our neighbour’s daughter handed me a bag full of boy’s clothing and begged me not to be offended. Since the clothes were still good she thought maybe I could find use for them. Twice she apologized for offending me in such a way. Offended! If anything, I am offended she thought I would be offended! I tried to show my gratitude and praise her gesture, but still she shied away.
In the performance of degrowth principles, the everyday things that add up to our existence become tense, there are constant contradictions and irreconcilabilities with the status-quo. And that’s a good thing. But a great deal of support is lacking, because there is definitely a kind of solitude in trying to be alright with a paradoxical existence.
There is a large degrowth community out there
The good news is, we are not alone! There is a large degrowth community out there; many odd-duck degrowthers living amidst capitalistic exploitation who can inspire and encourage each other. We are the revolutionaries that are living with less, the ones whose food choices imply a long explanation, and the ones choosing to wash diapers.
I’ve always accepted Maria’s weekly gift of disposable diapers. Although I’ve tried to explain several times, my point doesn’t really get across. She is doing us a favour and refusing her gift would damage our friendship. She is a generous woman who takes pride in her position of caretaker and the diapers are one of the many ways she helps us out. I am thankful for that, but we don’t really understand each other. She has come to interpret that we are ‘artistic’, ‘eccentric’, and that we ‘experiment’ a lot. To her, we are not degrowthers, we are just poor.
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