Coronavirus and degrowth

Degrowth
New critical guide to degrowth argues that we can improve people’s lives simply by sharing what we already have more fairly and investing in public goods.

Another world is not only possible but also preferable.

This is proving a remarkable year for all the worst reasons. First, we experienced Black Summer, the most severe season of fires in Australia’s history. (The 173 fatalities of the Black Saturday Australian bushfires on 7 February 2009 retains the record for most deaths).

Then Australia experienced floods: on one hand, a mercy after the drought and snuffing out the fires, but; on the other hand, it brought its own human and social destruction, pollution and despair. This happened at the same time as the record-breaking three months of severe winter flooding in the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic endured an ‘unprecedented heat wave’. Brewing, simultaneously, was the public health and economic crisis of Covid-19, or coronavirus.

Capitalocene

Given half a chance, many of us would time-travel to 2021 in a wink. Yet, how quickly will we be free of these crises?

In significant respects, these are ‘unnatural’ disasters linked to the ways we live in the Capitalocene. Human activities have caused the rise in carbon emissions resulting in global warming and climate change.

This means more intense, extensive and unpredictable weather events due to the wider spectrum of temperatures endured in different places right across the planet.

Consequently, floods, fires, coastal inundation, melting ice and sweltering weather threaten various populations, especially those in coastal cities

Such conditions also predispose us to pandemics such as Covid-19. Efforts to slow the spread and contain this coronavirus highlight the fragility of urban living, massive socio-economic inequities, of production for trade, a fragmented and globalised supply chain and just in time supplies — all characteristics of advanced capitalism.

Indeed, it is substantially the totalising economic effects that have dominated the perceived nature of this crisis. 

Response

Neoliberalism has led to under-resourced and overburdened health systems relying heavily on global supply chains that have fractured and warped as borders and work places close — colliding with urgent and massive demand.

No crisis could so sharply throw into relief the fragility and precariousness of capitalist societies characterised by globalised production for trade and profits; weak states led by bureaucratic elites; and a citizens experiencing anomie, individualism and alienation. But this is not a wholly new crisis, rather just a variation on an old capitalist crisis theme.

Anti-capitalist, post-growth and post-capitalist movements such as Occupy and Extinction Rebellion have made headlines in the last few decades in response to growing global economic, political and social crises. Another such movement is ‘degrowth’.

Degrowth is neither a familiar word nor a well understood idea in English speaking countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. So, in 2019, we collaborated on writing Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (Liegey and Nelson, 2020).

We wanted to promote the idea of degrowth and an understanding of the degrowth movement in the English speaking world, given that degrowth evolved in Europe and has been mainly written about in other languages.

Activism

Degrowth is often referred to as a ‘provocative slogan’, but it comprises a distinct line of thought that highlights the dynamic contradiction between productivist economic growth and Earth’s material limits. 

The degrowth movement has flowered with a panoply of collaborative experiments of living more with less — think ‘small is beautiful’ and ‘small is necessary’.

Vincent Liegey is an engineer, interdisciplinary researcher and teacher, and has a wide-ranging knowledge of the development of degrowth as theory and practice. A well-known spokesperson for the French degrowth movement, he is an active member of Cargonomia, a centre for research and experimentation on degrowth, a social cooperative for sustainable logistical solutions, and distributes local food using cargo-bikes in Budapest.

That’s why Anitra Nelson, an Australian degrowth advocate and FireWorks book series editor for Pluto Press (London), approached him to be lead author of a short book on degrowth.

This is far from the first book on degrowth to be published in English, but it is the first book to concentrate on degrowth activism and in a singular way on degrowth as a movement.

Equality

In the book, we explain how the theoretical founders of degrowth developed clear conclusions from analysing how the limits of Earth’s resources have been breached specifically by growth economies — thus the move to changing the ways we live, i.e. degrowth.

The story of degrowth theory is populated with founders who we would now refer to as activist-scholars and became famous intellectuals, such as Ivan Illich who developed the degrowth concept of conviviality — a cooperative, mutual, sociable and sharing approach side-lining experts and technocrats.

Degrowth might, at first glance, make you think of a movement involved with economics and economies. Think again. A first principle of degrowth is to address inequality.

A driving philosophy in the politics of degrowth is ‘autonomy’ à la Cornelius Castoriadis, who considers agency and subsidiarity central. Direct and local rule is particularly appropriate to building a society around ‘frugal abundance’ — the only type of abundance that exists for the degrowth movement.

But the degrowth movement is far from puritan and, instead, convivial and celebratory. Frugal abundance is also referred to as ‘happy sobriety’ and the ‘enjoyment of life’.

Local

Like many other radical twenty-first century movements, the degrowth movement operates as an open, decentralised and horizontal network, particularly compatible with ‘open relocalisation’ — focusing on local production by locals exercising direct democracy in ethical decision-making over what is produced and how it is produced.

In this way humans can nurture the earth as it nurtures us. All of which returns us to the current health and economic crisis of Covid-19.

If we had systems of production by locals for locals, simply satisfying our basic needs — no more but no less — there would be few economic repercussions in applying social distancing and isolation to slow down and contain a global pandemic. We would live as collectively sufficiently as possible and self-organise to observe health-safe protocol in our modest livelihoods.

The risk of pandemics would be lower too. Degrowth advocates using one’s legs, bicycles and, to a small extent, public transport. In contrast the current coronavirus pandemic has clearly been spread much more rapidly due to travellers using aeroplanes and cruise ships.

In short, another world is not only possible but also preferable.

These Authors 

Anitra Nelson is an Australian activist-scholar affiliated with a university in Melbourne. Vincent Liegey is a spokesperson for the French degrowth movement.

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