Many of the scientists here have calculated that we are looking at a collapse of society within this century if we continue on this growth path
Ten years ago only a few professors and some activists used the word "degrowth" as alternative to the neoliberal model of perpetual economic growth. Today, "degrowth economics" is an activist academic discipline with dozens of top-quality peer reviewed papers, widely translated books like Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a new era and massive bi-annual conferences - like the ongoing 2016 Budapest Degrowth Conference and Week.
At least one thing unites those activists and scholars: they all agree that the basic assumption of the necessity of economic growth is fatally flawed and in urgent need of correction simply because it undermines the conditions for humanity to thrive.
Sustainable degrowth challenges inequalities and the environmental destruction caused by a growth-oriented development paradigm; it calls for a downscaling of production and consumption, but also a rethinking of human and planetary wellbeing. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.
Degrowth is relevant in North and South alike
To get to this degrowth society, we first need to recognise that we live in a neoliberal dystopia. Then we need to build new narratives and defend those that have been silenced or swept away, like those of repressed Indigenous communities. Then, we need to critically articulate them in diversity and solidarity.
This process caught on in Europe in the past years and the degrowth movement is now finding allies beyond Europe as well. Federico Demaria, researcher at Research and Degrowth and co-organiser of the conference says: "We don't want to export degrowth. It started in Europe and mostly applies to the so-called developed (or industrialized) countries. But we are discussing the synergies between the degrowth movements in Europe, the global environmental justice movement and others. An example is the growing alliance with the climate justice movement, as shown during the Climate Camp in Germany in these last two years at least. We all say - we need system change, not climate change."
Daniela Del Bene, Phd researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says the degrowth debate is also relevant in the Global South as there too "growth" has not necessarily meant improvement of people's living conditions. Think of expropriation of land for mining, the consolidation of arrogant elites detaining political power and huge wealth divides defended by violence and criminalization of environmental justice activists. This is not due to bad management or unfortunate accidents it's the necessary condition for the "easy growth" of some elites.
Ashish Kothari, Indian activist and author of Churning the Earth, voiced a very similar pro-degrowth argument. He said that the focus on GDP growth in India since around 1991 "has not only not helped but further marginalised those who were self-sufficient before."
He calculated that in India, in the past half century over 60 million were physically displaced while some 100 to 200 million people stayed in places where land was taken away from them. This comes on top of the 300 to 400 million who were already in the margins. "You also have to realise that in India, only 7% of all jobs are in the formal sector and that the whole GDP growth was there in that little bubble, often at the expense of the rest. We figured out that in the past 20 years GDP growth in India created only 3 million new jobs while 120 million new people needed a job."
But Ashish Kothari has been very active in uniting different communities around India fighting for a different economy. According to Kothari, no resistance can win without an alternative vision. "From the bottom-up, a new world view is created and it's based on values like generosity, respecting diversity, ecological resilience, equality and justice."
A different kind of democracy
Jason Hickel from the London School of Economics recently wrote for The Ecologist that we must end growth - not just to save our planet but to refocus the economy on meeting human needs. Many academics in Budapest would agree and add that it's not just a moral question but a scientific question: what if the world's best political compromise, the so called "green growth" advocated in many UN circles, is physically impossible according to hard core natural science?
Many of the scientists here have calculated that we are looking at a collapse of society within this century if we continue on this growth path. We now live in a world where the majority of decision-makers decided to go for the impossible, as if they decided that they want to end the law of gravity.
In order to change course, an alternative model is needed and that's what the degrowth discipline is working on. It requires getting rid of a couple of myths. As much as we like the concept of parliamentary democracy, the inconvenient truth is that the majority of the people who represent us through this system are not always right.
Barbara Muraca, Assistant Professor for Environmental and Social Philosophy at Oregon State University told us in a packed plenary session: "More democracy doesn't mean more referenda. Economic democracy is democratic participation in shaping the modes of production and consumption."
Daniela Del Bene applied the same reasoning to energy, saying that "Energy sovereignty is about being able to make decisions on energy along the whole chain, taking into account the impacts your decisions might have in other territories and rejecting the imposition of mega-infrastructure and disruption of the territory."
A lot of the speakers point to the need to take back control of the many things we lost in the past decades of privatisation and deregulation.
Top down degrowth: lessons for policymakers
Whether it is about food, materials, products or energy: plenty of degrowth alternatives to the neoliberal market model exist and in fact flourish already. Just look at local food cooperatives vs supermarkets. The EU funded Supply Cha!nge project brings together 29 civil society organisations that try to alter the course that supermarkets have taken in our society.
In the session "degrowth alternatives to the retail market monopolisation", Supply Cha!nge partners European Environmental Bureau and the Hungarian chapter of Friends of the Earth discussed both neoliberal problems and degrowth solutions in the food supply chain. In just 10 years time, the EU market share of modern retail went from 44% to 62%. Causes include the rise of private brands from supermarkets (they now have a market share of above 40%). Their supply chains are long, not transparent and most often they shift costs to small producers and the environment, using unfair trading practices.
Interestingly, this trend toward retailer monopolies has stopped in recent years in a country like Hungary. More people now buy local, "national" food and the building of new hypermarkets has been made impossible, or very difficult by the Government. The Major of Bristol long ago banned supermarkets in his town. Local and national authorities can choose whether they go for the neoliberal or the degrowth economy. Forget TINA, the myth that There Is No Alternative.
Top down measures need to complement bottom up degrowth alternatives like Cargonomia - a project that combines local organic farms with sustainable distribution by carbobike and do-it-yourself workshops. Another case presented was a shopping basket cooperative in a town of 120,000 in the east of Hungary, where some 60 producers in a range of maximum 50 km around the city supply 2,000 consumers with the cooperative as the only link. Volunteers ensure that the weekly orders are distributed in wooden crates picked up on Fridays.
Field visits create connections between producers and consumers, playing on a need felt on both sides: to restore the direct relations. As the moderator and director of Global Policies and Sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau Leida Rijnhout said: "It's not just about food, but about social cohesion".
The rise of community-supported agriculture should be seen as a good example. This author happens to be in the first CSA farm in Belgium, together with 320 other citizens. Next week we'll celebrate our 10-year anniversary with over 40 other CSA farms that have meanwhile grown as mushrooms out of the ground.
But all these bottom-up initiatives would mean a lot more if the policymakers do their part of the job that needs to be done. One country shows what's possible with the right decision-making. Researcher Julien Francois Gerber has studied the resistance to the neoliberal narrative in neighbouring Bhutan. This is an example where the degrowth economy is implemented top-down. The top three decisionmakers in Bhutan decided that the Gross National Hapiness (GNH) is more important that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and they developed a set of nine indicators to measure progress on the GNH.
The Bhutanese government is very explicit about not going for endless growth: they even have sufficiency threshholds: maximums that they think the country should not go above, like for pesticide use. They forbid advertising, foreign chains that suck money out of the country and cap the number of tourists to limit environmental impacts. All politicians get an obligatory course on this vision of a sufficiency economy - one where there's enough for everybody's needs but not for everybody's greed.
That brings us to another buzzword in these circles: sufficiency. Efficiency helps the economy to grow further and sufficiency helps to live within planetary boundaries.
Activist researcher Joachim Spangenberg said: "sufficiency includes, but is much broader than environmentalism. It's the counter-concept to "higher, faster, further, more".
For those thinking that the degrowth economy will remain a niche forever, it's worth remembering that the neoliberal economists also felt like they were shouting in the desert for 30 years, before getting mainstream. With resources becoming scarcer and both atmosphere, land and oceans getting ever fuller with waste, the big question is whether the degrowth narrative of a sufficiency economy will catch on sufficiently - before it's too late!"
The 5th International Degrowth Conference continues on 2 and 3 September. You can follow through the livestream: http://budapest.degrowth.org/ or with the hashtag #Degrowth2016
Nick Meynen is one of The Ecologist New Voices contributors. He writes blogs and books http://www.epo.be/uitgeverij/boekinfo_auteur.php?isbn=9789064455803 on topics like environmental justice, globalization and human-nature relationships.
When not wandering in the activist universe or his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/nick.meynen is dead, he's probably walking in nature.