So much is happening in the onlineverse/onlinesphere that it becomes tricky to choose what to attend and when you’ve had too much screen time. I chose to sign up to the online Degrowth Vienna 2020 conference (29/05-01/06) as I’d hoped to attend the Manchester conference in-person but this has been postponed until 2021. This conference was focusing on moving the the what to the how, providing strategies of how degrowth could come into being.
What is degrowth?
Degrowth is a word to capture how we might transform our current social and economic systems for the benefit of all by reducing growth, although the word ‘degrowth’ is heavily debated. I agree generally with the shared thoughts and discussions that form the degrowth movement, but terminology and language is always tricky and contested.
The majority of our social systems are currently dominated and impacted by a capitalist, growth-based economy, working outside of our planetary limits, i.e. using more finite resources than can sustain us into the future and destroying ecosystems as we go. The aim of transformation is to reduce growth and therefore reduce the speed and impacts of the current social, ecological and climate crises that we face as global, national and local societies and communities. The need to address these crises is now recognised by many governments and international bodies, and there is a need to provide a multiplicity of ways forward.
The aim of the transformation of our systems is to create a ‘good life’ for all. A key part of degrowth is also conviviality, which refers to valuing the quality of relationships between people and between people and the world in order to live together. We need to identify what truly matters beyond growth.
Degrowth is a social movement and an academic discourse that involves practitioners, activists, academics and artists.
The word became widely popular and used after the first conference in Paris in 2008. The word degrowth has been critisicised for being anti-ecology where growth is generally a positive, however even within ecology there needs to be balance. For instance, a population of deer cannot go on growing unchecked by predators as this will cause damage to the ecosystem through overgrazing. Similarly, as the predator population increases, the deer population decreases so the predator population can no longer grow and must shrink.
You could view degrowth as a way to regain the balance of our systems which are growing unchecked. This seemingly limitless growth is to the harm of many humans and non-humans. We are not separate from the planetary and local ecosystems and cannot remain in the idea that we are seperate from, able to dominate and control the natural systems. Greed for growth has global connotations where harmful production is outsourced across all continents.
There are other cultures which retain the wisdom and knowledge to live in balance with the world and the western grasp on other cultures must be questioned, giving freedom to those who choose a different path whilst questioning our own.
How is degrowth relevant to the commons?
I first heard of degrowth through mentions in academic literature whilst I have been reading about and around the commons. Commons and commoning are viewed as an alternative to a growth capitalist economy where people mostly work within a top-down hierarchy valuing profit rather than in ways that value collaboration and connectedness.
Commons are rooted in collective action and collaboration within the related community – a commons-community. This collective action revolves around the sharing of a resource or resources to benefit everyone through self-organisation and self-governance, i.e. the community negotiates and makes decisions.The community includes both humans and non-humans (species, ecosystems, landscapes) as actively involved in the processes.
Commons are not necessarily easy to manage, they are a process of ongoing negotiations between the people involved, which can be challenging. Creating and maintaining space for negotiations is vital.
However, commons are in our collective heritage globally and have a great potential to be a new/old way forward for our future.
I want to highlight some sessions, presentations and people that I found inspiring at the conference.
I attended a few book launches, which were held as panel discussions about the books. One is called The Degrowth in Movements and is freely available. This brings together some of the other social movements which could be considered allies to Degrowth and how knowledge and practice might be shared. The examples in the book include transition, commons and climate justice.
There was a session on Limits, Ethics, Unsustainability and Change where Anand Pandian, an anthropologist, told a story as his presentation and I was instantly gripped. Story puts people in a place of imagining what the world could look like, stepping out of the current situation into what could be. I asked Anand how we might use storytelling to create transformation in a world seemingly shaped by policy. He responded by saying that storytelling is a way to “short-circuit policy drivers” to reach people and put them in a new, imagined world that they might want to be part of. It is experiential and embodied and is a “critical force of creative expression.” It helps to explore the impermanence of life and how change can be possible. That’s a whole other essay though…
The session on Agriculture, Gardens and Commoning was also particularly connecting for me. Sachiko Ishihara is researching Japanese culture and I am excited to be connecting with her about ethnographic methods which I also plan to use in order to allow people to speak about what they feel is important. Daniel Gusenbauer provided really useful links on Agroecology and the importance of knowledge sharing spaces for farmers, including the Horizontal production of knowledge in Latin America and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) knowledge hubs and Farmer Field School.
Having a conference online
The Degrowth Vienna team undertook the epic task of moving a whole conference online. Even people in the organising team were sceptical about whether this would work, and I felt very unsure as to how a whole conference could be coordinated online. It turns out that overall, it seemed, everyone was pleasantly surprised. There are core issues with being online that can’t be overcome, including the need for in-person conversation and participation to create convivial and buzzing spaces. Time zones limited participation from various places where many sessions would have been running overnight and some people lack any or a good internet connection.
There were also several benefits to being online including people being able to attend who otherwise wouldn’t have (including me). Halliki, one of the organising team, also described a flattening of hierarchy in participation, where more diverse voices were heard instead of white, middle class male academics dominating conversation. An interesting benefit I wouldn’t have noticed having not attended a previous degrowth conference. Another benefit is that sessions are available online and there is a new online community from this creation. You can also make bread or sit in your garden and attend a conference at the same time!
The closing panel of the conference was powerful. It was a panel of women who were speaking of injustices and the importance of addressing them. A collaboration between organisers and participants created a solidarity statement with those protesting systemic racism in the US and around the world.
There are many threads of conversation, social movements, practices and much more which were brought together as part of this conference. Far too many to name in a single blog like this. However, I would encourage you to find out more about degrowth if you’re interested, including through the links I’ve identified. What excites me about being part of events like this is the shared knowledge and collaborations that can happen towards the benefit of all and the creation of spaces that allow these conversations to happen.