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15 September 2016, Gateway House

Degrowth: a “bomb-word” comes of age

A decade after the term ‘degrowth’ was first deployed by a small group of European academics, it draws unconventional thinkers, not mainstream policy makers. The recent Degrowth Conference in Budapest made perpetual growth, not degrowth, seem utopian.

former Gandhi Peace Fellow

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Szandra Koves, a Hungarian academic, has vivid childhood memories of standing in long queues for basic food items. That was life under communism. So she sympathises with friends and family who are aghast to find that she advocates degrowth. “Do you want us to go back to communism?” they ask.

Votaries of degrowth are the first to acknowledge that they are deploying a ‘bomb-word’. Yet it has served to highlight an inconvenient truth – that infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. Even ‘green’ growth, supported by technological wizardry cannot, by itself, address the deepening global crisis of under-employment, social dislocation, and environmental degradation.

This diagnosis is easy enough but the purpose of the degrowth discourse is to explore alternative perspectives and methods for ensuring well-being for both humans and the planet’s beleaguered eco-systems. Glimmers of possible answers were evident at the 5th International Conference on Degrowth, held at Corvinus University in Budapest from August 30 to September 3.

Since votaries of degrowth see themselves as addressing a civilisational crisis, the process of knowledge formation is as important to them as the actual ideas and methods presented on this platform. Consequently, they reject conventional hierarchies for selection of papers, such as a governing council of academics who are ranked on the basis of their seniority and previous publications.

The selection of papers for the Budapest conference was done by registered participants through an online process of reviewing each other’s abstracts. Interestingly, the majority of those selected were young people – many of them post-graduate students or freshly minted Ph.Ds. Of the 500-plus academics and researchers who registered for the conference, most seemed to be under 35 years of age.

For these young people, tomorrow’s decision makers, it is the perpetual-growth based global economy that is utopian or a fantasy. By contrast some form of degrowth thinking is seen as a realistic response to material realities. For example, by 2040 an estimated 33 countries, including the USA, China, and India, will face severe water scarcity.

So one of the papers presented at Budapest was about how insights from India’s traditional water culture can provide principles for a paradigm shift in maximising fresh water resources. Another India-related paper was a case study about how Kuthambakkam panchayat, near Chennai, built a local network economy which resulted in sustainable well-being rather than just an increase in the size of the village economy.

There was a paper on how not-for-profit businesses can build post-growth economies – since the drive for profits is often what makes exponential growth an imperative for companies. This claim is bolstered by examples of various not-for-profit success stories from across the world, such as: the Myuma Group, a non-profit corporation owned by traditional aboriginal landowners in Australia; BRAC, the development organization, based in Bangladesh; Som Energia, a consumer cooperative green energy in Spain; Newman’s Own, an American food company; Home Ground, a real estate agency in Australia; and non-profit credit unions serving 223 million people in 109 countries.

There were studies on the rise of ‘sufficiency practices’ in affluent countries – such as de-cluttering groups and buy-nothing groups. One researcher said her purpose was to provide suggestions for planners and policy-makers on how to facilitate ‘sufficient living’ rather than fuelling ever higher levels of consumption.

Eco villages in Hungary may be a niche phenomenon, but they are being studied by social scientists in order to help local authorities and communities understand the causes of ecological crises and to craft nature-friendly social norms. One paper analysed Soviet ‘dacha’ farm plots as a way of creating local food resilience.

Seminar sessions for discussing such papers were packed with innovative and hopeful ideas. By contrast, the plenary sessions, where wide global trends were discussed, had a dark edge.

For example, Ecuador amended its Constitution in 2008 to grant nature legal rights – a structural change that is compatible with the degrowth perspective. But Miriam Lang, Assistant Professor at the University Andina Simon Bolivar, in Quito, spoke at the conference about how, in practice, both the social and environmental crises continue to worsen.

Edgardo Lander, a retired professor from the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, spoke about the 12% of the country’s territory being given over to open pit mining – threatening both local populations and the environment, including parts of the Amazon region.

In countries across the world policy makers justify such strategies because GDP growth is seen as the only road to higher standards of living. However, ridiculing the degrowth discourse is a cop-out.

As organisers of the Budapest conference noted with satisfaction this ‘science of limits’ now has a momentum — degrowth is growing! Much of the discussion in Budapest was about outgrowing the ‘bomb word’ – ‘frugal abundance’ is a leading contender.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.

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