November 2016

Reflections on the Degrowth Conference in Budapest

The signs from the Degrowth Conference have now been removed from the walls of the portentous building of Corvinus University, and the streets of Budapest emptied from the stalls and the babble of the Degrowth-Week.

The time is ripe for a first-round evaluation. The conference can be assessed from diverse perspectives — with disparate outcomes, I suspect. Even if I am relatively new to the degrowth scene, I am strongly persuaded that this is a decisive time in the evolution of the European degrowth intellectual and activist movement. For this reason, I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the current direction of the degrowth community, to take its pulse.

It seems to me that a key variable in the complex equation for the success of the degrowth movement is an effective and rewarding mutual fertilization between degrowth scholars and activists. The current prevailing assessment in the community seems to be that there is ‘too much academia and not enough activism’. Even if such a critique of ‘sterile intellectualism’ should not come as a surprise in the framework of the friction-prone — yet, let’s face it, indispensable — alliance between the academic and activist spheres, my concern is that bridging the two spheres requires a more focused, deliberate, and constructive approach than such a simple rebuff. Failing to build a strong bridge between these two worlds poses two parallel threats to the degrowth discourse:

1. Politicisation, in the narrow sense of the word

‘Degrowth’ becomes a corporatist banner seeking to rebuild a radical left as a political force to replicate the well-worn strategy of seizing state power as a means to attain radical social change. The imploding Latin American ‘left turn’ and the backfiring SY.RIZ.A. experiment in Greece are possibly the historically closest and clearest examples of the inherent limitations of such a strategy.

Entering the game of political struggle would be the wrong battle to fight, one that seems doomed to failure within current socio-political and cultural arrangements, at least without compromising on the key tenets of the degrowth discourse(s).

Rather, degrowth should seek to challenge these arrangements, institute a platform for a pluralistic debate on a socio-ecological transformation, and move away from identifying with a particularistic political identity and a pre-packaged repertoire of ideological or identity preferences. As Robert Brulle has argued, that precisely was the mistake of the hippie movement in the 1970s: believing that they would change the world by contagion. Instead of reaching out to the world, they intended to attract the world towards them. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Now, in order not to repeat this historical mistake, the degrowth movement should avoid putting all of its eggs in the basket of alternative cultural or political niches, and seek also to engage a wider plethora of cultural and political agents instead, including civil society organizations (CSOs), progressive funders, think thanks, churches, etc., as well as state institutions and international organizations.

2. De-politicisation, in the broad sense of the word

The understandable — yet inadvisable — eagerness for ‘translating Degrowth into practice’ (now!) runs the risk of diluting Degrowth by merely super-imposing a new ‘fashionable’ label to business-as-usual activist practices. Worse, this could prove counterproductive, insofar as it tends to reinforce the currently prevailing definition of reality instead of challenging it. As a friend put it to me, “planting lettuce to save the world” is surely a valid action in and of itself, but largely misses the specificity of Degrowth ideas and reinforces the feeling that there is nothing that could be done beyond what is already being done. Ultimately, this could unwillingly contribute to reproducing the ‘post-political’ setting (Chantal Mouffe) pointed out by Federico Demaria in his opening speech at the conference. Degrowth is political in nature, and its job is to expose the problems of the pillars of the currently prevailing socio-economic system. It should come into a potent complementary relationship with, say, the permaculture or slow food movements…not be swallowed by them.

How to avoid these dangers? In my understanding, the interface of movements and scholarly endeavour towards challenging a continued growth-path in society at large remains under-explored. Several thinkers have put forward concrete proposals towards undermining growth-dependency, such as policy initiatives, and collective and individual practices (including political practices, in the broader sense of the term). See, for example:

These are worth serious consideration as guidelines for the action of degrowth-supportive movements, which now number over 150, according to the project Degrowth in Bewegung(en). There are, of course, many other sources of inspiration for a more fruitful taking of ownership for Degrowth by civil society agents. The pocket book Re.imagining Activism – A practical guide towards the Great Transition, for example, contains tailored reflections and tools for NGOs and SMOs to assess and redesign their organizational outlook and strategies to fit the challenge of a “Great Transformation” on a Polanyian scale.

While the world can be changed through myriad micro- and macro-level strategies, from alternative sub-cultures all the way up to international regulatory frameworks, the specifics of degrowth are in seeking ways of breaking the vicious cycle of economic growth, private profit-maximizing, and consumerism. This cannot be achieved either by pushing a degrowth party into power or by shouting out to an unresponsive world “make love, not war”, but rather by creating cultural and economic infrastructures that — to borrow Uwe Schneidewind and Angelika Zahrnt’s expression — ‘make it easier to live the good life’ for the many. Movements and NGOs, as well as the academia, have a big role to play in this.