Degrowth promotes cultural as well as economic shifts

The authors of a new book about degrowth have revealed, in an online public discussion, how the theory and practice of degrowth promotes not only an economic reconfiguration but also grassroots and cultural transformations towards a post-growth world.

The meeting, ‘Exploring Degrowth and Pandemic Solidarity,’ hosted by the SEARCH Foundation in Australia, featured authors Anitra Nelson, Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute, and Vincent Liegey, engineer, researcher, and spokesperson for French and international degrowth movements working from Budapest. (A third speaker, Marina Sitrin, author of Mutual Aid during the Covid-19 Crisis, was unable to attend.)

Discussing their book ‘Exploring Degrowth, A Critical Guide’, Liegey and Nelson explained that despite the bad press and misunderstandings to which degrowth is often subjected, degrowth prioritises meeting everyone’s basic needs while also caring for the Earth.

This would, they confirmed, require relocalising economies, but with an important caveat.

Nelson explained: “We’re not talking about closed, isolated communities. This is an especially important consideration in a world where climate change is already resulting in vast migrations of people, which means a higher level of engagement with people from diverse cultures is needed. So we’re looking at developing really strong networks. In degrowth, this is referred to as open relocalisation.”

“We live in a world that has an unsustainable environmental footprint. [Once] I realised that we had gone the wrong way, I became very interested in degrowth,” said Liegey, reflecting on his early years of research and discovery. “I don’t focus so much [now] on the physical limits to growth, but more on the anthropological and cultural limits. Degrowth is not only clear and bright on the environment and the challenges that we face but also brings a narrative about how we have gone the wrong way from a cultural point of view. And it also brings together practice and theory,” he added.

Liegey explained how degrowth theory informs the ongoing development of a social cooperative in Budapest called Cargonomia, which focuses on sustainable logistical solutions and local food distribution using cargo-bikes, and which Liegey helps coordinate.

“It started with a group of friends. We were living together and are all quite different; we all brought different types of projects and ideas and we started to think how to connect them together. I brought degrowth theory and a political agenda. Others brought more concrete projects like organic farming, agroforestry, cargo-bike usage and delivery logistics, the low-tech know-how for constructing our own energy solutions, how to bring back biodiversity and healthy ecosystems within the city, and so on. Step by step we started to implement a type of cooperation. It’s a participatory, self-organised, political think tank and research centre.”

The philosophy of Cargonomia and of degrowth, he suggested, embraces localisation, ecofeminism, conviviality, autonomy; in all: “how to reappropriate the enjoyment of life [without] burning barrels of oil every day”.

Among several incisive questions from the 40+ members of the audience was one enquiring whether the speakers believed the capitalist economy could deliver — or permit — the changes required.

“Capitalism doesn’t have any operating process for remaining stable, let alone going backwards,” said Nelson. “If we’re looking at a degrowth future we have to look at post-capitalism.”

Liegey and Nelson’s book — which features a forward from London School of Economics anthropologist Dr Jason Hickel — can be purchased from Pluto Press.

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