Reflections on the 9th Degrowth Conference: Key Discussions and Areas for Growth

Reflecting on last month's 9th annual degrowth conference in Zagreb, Croatia, Emma River-Roberts and Alejandro Fortuny Sicart point out some of the most important discussions and areas the degrowth movement needs to focus on going forward. Their critique calls attention to the lack of diversity among conference attendees as well as the need for more concrete strategies to expand the movement's reach beyond academia.

 

Reflecting on the 9th annual degrowth conference in Zagreb, Croatia, that came to a close last month, we have pointed out what we consider to be some of the most salient discussions and key areas the movement must focus on going forward.

In the opening plenary, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz laid out the stark reality for a 2°C planet: that warming of this magnitude would be a death sentence for almost half of the world’s population. Mitigating this requires an uphill battle of dramatically reducing emissions alongside absorbing significant parts of the remaining emissions, which, she reminds us, is still achievable. Yet her recommendations for turning this into a reality caused the wheels to fall off the bus entirely by arguing that there was a need to unite and work with all political parties, and owing to this, the degrowth movement must keep its political agendas less strongly related to its scholarship.

Navigating the Political Landscape and Building Alliances

Her affirmation did raise broader questions about breaking into the mainstream and what steps are needed in order to get there. Creating systems change is a fundamentally political endeavour: class struggle is political, imperialism is political, and the Global North’s imposed extractive relationship with the Global South is political. Centrist attitudes are partially responsible for the decline of the mainstream left, paving the way for the increasing entrenchment of right and far right governments across the globe. To repeat the mistakes of the past would be cataclysmic, and we have to be prepared to be antagonists as and when the need arises.

“Creating systems change is a fundamentally political endeavour: class struggle is political, imperialism is political, the Global North’s imposed extractive relationship upon the Global South is political.”

The path to making degrowth a viable force in mainstream politics presents multiple challenges, particularly the need to overcome rifts amongst various sections of the radical left. Kohei Saito’s discussion left much to the imagination in this regard by offering a path towards reconciling the historical tensions between degrowth and Marxism. Arguing that both can enrich the other, he noted that Marx later came to critically reflect upon his earlier optimism about technological progress and exponential growth, leading to his acceptance of degrowth as the model of a future society to which Western societies need to ‘return.’

Addressing tensions amongst people’s respective communities and with the state was on the agenda for Karin Doolan’s speech. Based on her fieldwork among the working class in Croatia, her talk carried the emphasis that there is a need to understand the existing state of relations if the movement is to make progress, especially within the realm of policymaking. Conflicting beliefs amongst the locals about deserving and undeserving recipients of state support emerged, as evidenced by the belief that the poorest were unfairly benefiting from state funding because they were considered to be culpable for their abject living conditions. It raises the question: how does the degrowth movement intend to grapple with connotations of deserving and un-deservingness, if not everyone believes that redistributive policies should be universally available or available at all? Could redistributive policies be a source of localised tensions in themselves? In the context of rising support for the right and far-right across the globe, it is vital for the movement to conceptualise how it intends to approach irrational policy resistance.

Degrowth Conference logo
Degrowth Conference logo

Focusing on mobilising trade unions and the working class, a panel discussion highlighted how their primary focus was not but rather on the quality and state of working relations, providing a point of departure for building alliances going forward: that a conducive approach would be to build them around how capitalism and globalisation are pushing for a race for the bottom for working conditions. In this light, collaborative relations can be created by showing how another way to produce and organise the economy could be better for essential provisioning within planetary boundaries, in such a way that workers can benefit from the merits of their work.

Amplifying Perspectives from the Global South

As another way to acquire a greater acceptance of degrowth amongst the broader populace, Roland Ngam stressed the importance of Global South perspectives as a rich source of knowledge capable of confronting growth and its exploitative underpinnings—a sentiment that found itself echoed elsewhere during the week: Stéphanie Eileen Domptail and Chukwuma Ume explained how women smallholders in Nigeria established food security outside the capitalist market-based food system through the creation of an alternative non-monetary food system that included elements of a circular economy. Gisela Ruiseco Galvis stressed the importance of confronting growth and the drive to develop in the Global South, making use of interviews from Columbian participants to highlight other modes of being—modes of being where sufficiency was given outside of the growth paradigm.

Ashwin Ravikumar and Esperanza Chairez reminded us of the ecological and social degradation that follows the undermining of such knowledge through their discussion of development programmes in Latin America and the subsequent harm it has inflicted on people’s wellbeing as a result. Addressing the impacts of the National Forest Conservation Program (NFCP), the Peruvian state’s initiative to address tropical deforestation, they highlighted the erosion of local systems for conservation, including an Amazonian tradition of mutual aid and shared labour for subsistence livelihoods.

Expanding Reach Beyond the Academic Bubble

These broader perspectives are a necessary precondition for the movement’s development, both for democratic and strategic purposes. To give credit where it’s due, the organisers clearly made an effort to include a wide berth of different worldviews, including a sizeable contribution of talks from activists during the week. Despite this, the physical presence of underrepresented voices remained nominal overall, leading to a painfully homogenous demographic of attendees being mostly white middle-class individuals from the global North. Reflecting degrowth’s historic trend of failing to attract a heterogenous supporter base, many of us were left asking, Where were our working class comrades? Where were our comrades from the global South?

While there was much to be learned from the discussions that unfolded during the week, they created incredibly limited and Eurocentric analyses of the movement due to these missing perspectives. If these conferences—places of knowledge creation and dissemination, places of influence that help shape the future direction of degrowth—still fail to attract a notable presence of voices from ‘the margins’, it creates a fundamental contradiction in the movement’s raison d’être because we cannot call them democratic. Instead of challenging and overcoming spaces of inequity imposed by the capitalist system—in this context, the privilege that some have over others in terms of entering such spaces and having their voices heard—the degrowth movement is actually abetting the consolidation of inequalities that continue to circulate. As such, no progress is made towards remediating the fact that the movement remains mostly a preoccupation of the Global North’s white middle class, meaning that we cannot ever expect to grow a revolutionary background unless we are able to reach beyond a marginal and (mostly) privileged demographic.

“If these conferences – places of knowledge creation and dissemination, places of influence which helps to shape the future direction of degrowth still fails to attract a notable presence of voices from ‘the margins’, it creates a fundamental contradiction in the movement’s raison d’être because we cannot call them democratic.”

We must stress that we are critiquing the movement as a whole and not the organisers at Zagreb here. It would be incredibly unfair to expect an organising group to resolve an issue that has been with degrowth since its inception, of which there has been little effort to engage in a serious process of critical self-reflection as to why this might be the case, beyond just repeating (with increasing vocality) the benefits of their proposed policy solutions in the hope that it will draw others in with each repetition. In terms of this conference, we would like to highlight our appreciation for placing class front-and-centre in a plenary discussion, in addition to the number of talks held by non-academics during the week. It was an incredibly refreshing approach that we hope will continue.

It is impossible to say what the future holds for the movement. However, the birth of the International Degrowth Network (IDE), a global network of over 25 organisations and groups, during the week represents a promising shift in the right direction. What seems to be a natural divergence from degrowth’s confinement to the white, middle class subject of the Global North (AKA the Barcelona School), this autonomous shift on the part of activists signifies an opportunity for the movement to take strides towards genuine heterogeneity as people branch off to apply degrowth in their own ways whilst still retaining its core principles.

Overcoming the aforementioned issues (along with others) is a task that is both urgent and overdue. Conference attendees carried a pronounced cognizance of the multifarious problems we are yet to create solutions for. Namely, a lack of tangible strategies—how do we reach out to broader demographics? How do we break into the political mainstream? How do we grapple with the dissemination of information to the media or respond to flagrant misrepresentations by others? Perhaps the upcoming conference in Pontevedra, Spain, next year can provide us with some more concrete plans for action, for, as James Scott Vandeventer reminds us, degrowth conversations and activism are yet to change the world. It still burns.


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