Response to Undisciplined Environments 2016:

by Irma Allen

Degrowth beyond environmentalism: Or shaking the temple of growthism, speaking the growth taboo, and sowing the seeds of generative doubt. – Irma Allen, Marie Curie PhD Fellow, Environmental Humanities Lab, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

Undisciplined Environments, a conference held in Stockholm 20 – 23rd March 2016, was an intensive four-day introduction to all things latest in political ecology. Not surprisingly, considering its exponentially growing significance, the degrowth movement got at least a couple of panels dedicated to it, plus I’m sure a good amount of corridor chat, mentions from speakers, and presence in the form of the Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era publication in the conference’s impromptu ‘bookshop’. Degrowth is growing. But do all agree on what ‘degrowth’ is about and does that matter for the movement?

Going along to one of the degrowth panels I found the papers presented very interesting in their breadth of original data. (Unfortunately I missed most of the first one – which was about degrowth as a movement for peace. Intuitively engaging but I won’t comment as I was not there!)We heard about research that had been conducted on the environmental values and attitudes of a sample of participants from the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth at Leipzig in 2014, pointing out via complex plotted axis on graphs the hypocrisies of probably many of us sitting in the room at the time (shamefully including in large part myself!) – so-called modernist rationalists who say ‘do as I say, not as I do!’  – i.e. fly to international conferences, eat a non-vegetarian diet, and consume technology like there’s no tomorrow (literally). Next up was impressively thorough statistical analysis on European ‘degrowth’ proneness in relation to a series of environmental actions that citizens of a wide number of EU countries might participate in, such as recycling, paying green taxes or using public transport. And finally there was a paper on working-class environments, looking at the cross-over of nine trade unions’ strategies across five or so countries in Europe with environmentally progressive agendas. All super interesting as examples of research into trends towards environmentalism, particularly the latter as working-class environmentalisms get lean attention. Yet – in connecting this to the movement, I found myself wondering what was specifically ‘degrowth’ about these actions? How were they different to other forms of environmental activism such as that propelled by Transition Towns, NGO campaigns, or even government-endorsed programmes to ‘green’ consumerism, the economy and capitalism itself?

It’s not that I think environmental behaviours and actions– such as being vegan, not flying, consuming less, recycling, being pro-renewables, and calling for green taxes – aren’t good things in themselves. They definitely are.  But, there are plenty of other groups and movements that are already focusing on these things. I was also left wondering if all those who advocate for the types of activities mentioned here are themselves aware that they are considered part of the degrowth movement? Would they all sign up to – and use – that term? That is important in considering how crystallized the movement is politically. For many of these actions are often still compatible with capitalist growth in both their individual and co-optable nature – particularly perhaps taxes and green lifestyle choices. It seems to me that degrowth needs to go beyond this, as I am sure many agree. But what does that mean?

Degrowth scholars Federico Demaria, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier (2013: 210) in their article ‘What is Degrowth?’ say that it ‘brings together a heterogeneous group of actors who focus on housing and urban planning, financial issues and alternative money systems, agroecology and food systems, international trade, climate justice, children’s education and domestic work, meaningful employment and cooperatives, as well as transport and alternative energy systems.’ They claim degrowth’s diversity as a strength of the movement. Networking networks, as the authors call it, I agree can be a powerful strategy for generating change. But like them, I also agree that these actions must form a greater sum of parts if they are to equal a broader and visionary ‘degrowth movement’. Campaigning for increased pedestrian or cycle facilities, frugal living, or experiments in sharing economies are positive steps in a useful direction – but, as individual actions they could steer us away from the progressive degrowth society we aspire to if not brought together into a more holistic and radical synthesis. As Demaria and colleagues say (ibid: 206): ‘Degrowth only makes sense when its sources are taken into account, meaning not just ecology and bioeconomics, but also meaning of life and well-being, anti-utilitarianism, justice and democracy. Taken independently they can lead to incomplete and reductionist projects fundamentally incompatible with the ideas of the degrowth movement’.

I would say that the concept of degrowth is a radically challenging and politicizing one. What makes it different (and uncomfortable) is that it is fundamentally anti-capitalist, since a no-growth society, even if not immediately non-capitalist, calls forth new modes of development and organization that are post-capitalist in nature. Unlike ‘sustainability’, ‘green economy’ or even ‘organic’, degrowth is perhaps the one concept that capitalism cannot co-opt and sell back to us. Therein lies its strength – it is a safe space for rethinking the politics of ecology. For some this makes the movement problematic – literally no one will ‘buy’ it (note the growth-centric turn of phrase). I think for sure many won’t – and that’s ok. Not all environmentalists or social activists will sign up to the cause. But by being present in the arena, degrowth can contribute hugely to changing the parameters of what is on and off the table for all involved. That in itself would be a substantial achievement that should not be underestimated

Since its de-politicization by the capitalist spirit of sustainability, the need to articulate what lies beyond environmentalism is a key task for degrowthers. I strongly believe it is a degrowth movement that aligns ecological and social visions, and yet I think if this is to succeed in building something new (even if for sure incorporating elements of the ‘old’) then I would agree with Demaria et al’s statement (which I think slightly contradicts their earlier emphasis on wide heterogeneity as strength) that ‘We need not only agreements within the movement on what it advocates, but also on how to implement the proposals.’ This sounds like a call for a strategy, or at least a number of overarching diagnostic approaches bringing together different insights. What kind? Here are a couple of interconnected initial thoughts…

First, we should view growth from a psychological perspective, seeking to understand why questioning it seems to be so painful. Growth forms a core to constructions of identities, perceptions of ontological security, frames of representation and sense of purpose for many. It is not just an economic process or structure – neither is it simply the accumulated sum of our individual or even collective actions. It is not a purely rational logic either (what is?), but a deeply emotional and subconscious one, even spiritual, with its own rituals, rites and incantations. Thus, I would suggest that growthism can be usefully viewed as a temple of faith with its own language, thought-processes, morals and practices and at which many faithful followers worship. The consequence of shaking faith in growth will be a psychological and existential fallout that is perhaps already occurring. And so, degrowthers must be prepared to be spirit doctors as well as system analysts.

Taking an anthropological perspective, we should also understand and then reframe growth’s wider cultural role. In many parts of today’s world, questioning growth is tantamount to a social and political taboo at many levels. Taboos serve a social function related to maintaining the distinctions between the sacred and profane, between clean and unclean. The taboo on questioning growth maintains a specific social order. Degrowth radically challenges that taboo by speaking its name, unflinchingly and persistently asking ‘does growth really equal progress and prosperity?’ A lot of research points to the negative consequences of growth on social and environmental impacts. Yet, I would suggest that beyond those likely to read this blog post, that negative correlation is not so readily called to mind. Decoupling growth from positive social, economic, environmental and political goods in the minds of many people is work that still very much needs doing. Mainstream party political manifestos tell us so. Championing that research, re-cycling it, re-inscribing it, communicating and re-communicating in amplified forms should be a central task of degrowth. Raising economic and ecological literacy are all part of that task.

Finally, we might wish to come at growth as skeptic philosophers. The degrowth movement should emphasize actions that increase the capacity and propensity to doubt growthism – and at all levels (individual, community, societal, government, transversal). We are here to sow the seeds of healthy doubt – many seeds, thousands, if not millions… To spread them, watch them grow, help to harvest them, tend to them. But the kind of doubt we should be spreading is a creative doubt, a generative one – not a fearful or alienating form of doubt.  One with new, hopeful visions on the other side that yes, draw on ‘old’ and ‘new’ environmentalisms and other progressive strands of thought.

Together, I think these complementary approaches, that could perhaps be more central strands of the movement, could serve to change the nature of the wider debate dramatically.

To this end, I was recently involved in setting up the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth – a cross-party group of UK MPs and Peers who sign up to the idea that ‘we need to talk about growth’. When the group was being created, the majority of those involved did not believe that it would get the requisite number of parliamentary members to make the group official (five), particularly not under the banner of any conception of ‘limits’ to growth. It did: the group has 13 members and it is being launched on April 19th 2016. Growth is being questioned even by those in positions of power. To prevent appropriation by any conservative forces, and, at the same time, bring on board new allies in non-traditional progressive champions, the degrowth movement is well-placed to provide the bottom-up leadership to direct attention towards possible democratic and progressive solutions as more begin to wake up to growthism’s limits. This I think requires more than a network of networks, or individual actions – but a strategy for collective change, including who or what counts as ‘in’ and ‘out’. Demaria et al (ibid: 207) argue that: ‘The movement has an urgent pending task: to elaborate a transition (better called a transformation) path in rich societies from the actual crisis of economic growth to socially accepted degrowth’. Perhaps a possible step for the next degrowth conference in Budapest this September?

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