Book Review of Degrowth in Movement(s)

This book review was first published by Brototi Roy in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography and can be accessed here.

Corinna Burkhart, Matthias Schmelzer and Nina Treu (eds), Degrowth in Movement(s): Exploring Pathways for Transformation, Alresford: Zer0 Books, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-78904-186-6 (paper); ISBN: 978-1-78904-187-3 (ebook)

The subtitle of Degrowth in Movement(s), edited by Corinna Burkhart, Matthias Schmelzer and Nina Treu, Exploring Pathways for Transformation, situates quite clearly the main focus of the book. It aims to investigate the concrete ways in which degrowth ideas are being applied in different practical alternative projects and social movements. A lot of attention is thus paid to the synergies and contradictions that degrowth ideas face while being taken up by multiple movements focusing on socio-ecological transformation.

            The editors are very explicit in claiming that they don’t see degrowth as the social movement bringing much-needed systemic transformations, but rather that “the next cycle of a larger counter-hegemonic bloc of social movements and political forces opposing both neoliberal globalism and authoritarian nationalism should integrate key critiques, perspectives and proposals from the degrowth discussion” (p.24).

            The idea of this book emerged during the 2014 International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig, and the book was officially released during the Degrowth Vienna 2020 conference on Strategies for Socio-Ecological Transformation. The long gestation period of the book is evident in the clarity that each chapter has in addressing the main aim of the book.

            It is divided into 22 chapters, with contributions from activists engaged in a mosaic of alternative projects and movements such as solidarity economy, urban gardening, free software, food sovereignty and radical ecological democracy. Each chapter has a specific section dedicated to the overlaps between the respective movements or initiatives and degrowth to reflect strategically for building a larger alliance towards global socio-ecological justice and equity.

Possibilities for Alliances for Broader Systemic Transformations

Each of the chapters illustrate the different ways in which it is possible to build an alliance. For some chapters, the overlap is understood as employing degrowth principles. For instance, the chapter on basic income by Ronald Blaschke (Chapter 4) explains how it engages with the degrowth principles of social security and redistribution, democracy, solidarity economy and individual and collective time sovereignty. The chapter on buen vivir by Alberto Acosta (Chapter 5) discusses an alliance between degrowth in the North and post-extractivism in the South.

            The book also highlights the different strategic implications of forming such alliances. For example, in the chapter on commons, Johannes Euler and Leslie Gauditz (Chapter 8) question whether the commons movement should be a part of degrowth or vice versa. The book also does a good job of showing contradictions and overlaps when movement with seemingly different ideologies come together. For instance, Jana Flemming and Norbert Reuter in their writings about trade unions (Chapter 21) argue that despite the inherent contradictions between degrowth ideas based on phasing out fossil fuels and trade unions of coal companies, an alliance could be formed based on ideas of work-time reduction and economic democracy which would allow employees to have a stake in the decision making processes of companies. This would in turn benefit degrowthers since trade unionists have extensive expertise on implementation of political demands.

Insights from Self-Reflections of the Movements

A chapter by the editors (writing with Dennis Eversberg) condenses insights from a number of movements (Chapter 9) to reflect on the differences that each movement has based on five key aspects – moral frame of references, engagement with anti-capitalism, the scale aspect of the transformation strategies, reflections on power structures and internal hierarchies, and organizational structure and ways in which each movement forms alliances with the others. In addition to this, there is an element of self-reflexivity in most of the chapters as well as engagement with other movements, which I found very refreshing. For instance, on ecovillages Christiane Kliemann (Chapter 11) reflects on the criticisms they face as being apolitical as well as drawing parallels with the discourse on care work.

The Need for a Decolonial Degrowth for Real Change

In the recent past, the need to account for global dimensions of degrowth so as to not continue colonial patterns has been put forward (Dengler and Seebacher 2019). The ultimate aim of degrowth’s socio-ecological transformation should be decolonization (Tyberg 2020) which can be met by critical analyses of how structural inequalities and power hierarchies work, as well as by incorporating more voices from the majority world (Hanaček et al. 2020).

            In this context, Friederike Habermann’s chapter on Peoples Global Action (PGA) (Chapter 15) explores what counts as a truly global grassroots resistance and how voices from the global South protesting against the current growth and development model for more than three decades must be properly acknowledged. She argues that “today it comes as no surprise that former PGA activists, and consistently dissident grassroots movements from the global South – for example, against the Narmada Valley dam in India, or the Kuna of Panama movement – have established contact with or are part of conceptually similar parts of the degrowth movement” (p.238). She further warns that “if activists from the global North remain surrounded by their own kind, the consequence is the threat of climate colonialism and environmental racism” (p.240).

            Olaf Bernau also brings much needed insights from the refugee movement and the obvious link with degrowth ideas since migrants’ movement directly or indirectly stems from a capitalist growth imperatiave (Chapter 18). Despite that, he shows concerns about the lack of inclusivity in the degrowth movement. Providing examples of the degrowth summer schools, which were organized from 2015 to 2018 in German mining areas to seek socio-ecological transitions with participants from various social movements, he points out how “despite a clear display of solidarity … the social composition was somewhat unsettling: predominantly white, young and academically qualified” (p.282).  

            Although most of the chapters were quite critical and self-reflective in terms of dismantling in-built and new power hierarchies, contradictions between ideas and actions, and being careful to offer voice and space to people from multiple backgrounds without any form of explicit or hidden discrimination, I found a couple of chapters where this could have been expanded further.

            Living in Barcelona for the last three years, I have spoken to many activists and participants of the 15M mobilizations and heard first-hand accounts of both the good and the bad experiences faced. Eduard Nus’ account of 15M (Chapter 2) seems to gloss over much of the pitfalls that the movement faced in terms of processes of decision making. A more critical, self-reflective piece would have added more value to understand the nuances of such a largely unorganized movement and how degrowth can draw inspiration from it by not repeating the mistakes.

            John Jordan’s chapter on artivism (Chapter 3) would have gained much from being critical about who can afford to be an artivist. I missed the self-reflective angle which most other chapters contain, since this chapter didn’t mention at all how the magnitude of danger faced by non-white bodies is much different from that faced by white bodies carrying out artivism.

            All in all, I found the book to be very informative about how a broader alliance for socio-ecological transformation can be forged. I found it very interesting that in a lot of chapters, there were examples and analyses of how different movements speak with each other, and not just unilaterally with degrowth. For example, open software, ecovillages, solidarity economies, food sovereignty and repair cafés all mention how they learn from each other. It would be interesting to further investigate how all these multiple movements cross-pollinate, beyond solely their alliances with degrowth.

            I must congratulate the editors of the book for a very commendable job of bringing together insights from degrowth activists involved in different movements (although mostly focused on Europe). The book also takes on the very important job of raising awareness about the need to be more critical of visible and invisible patterns of inequalities and power dynamics within degrowth. With its multiple examples and accounts, the book shows how this to be an essential first step towards the ultimate aim of a forging a world of social and ecological justice and equity, breaking free of colonial patterns of extraction of resources and knowledges.

References

Dengler, C. and Seebacher, L.M., 2019. What about the global south? Towards a feminist decolonial degrowth approach. Ecological economics157, pp.246-252.

Hanaček, K., Roy, B., Avila, S. and Kallis, G., 2020. Ecological economics and degrowth: Proposing a future research agenda from the margins. Ecological Economics169, p.106495.

Tyberg, J., 2020. Unlearning: From Degrowth to Decolonization. New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung

Decolonising Degrowth: voices from the majority world

The Degrowth Talks was organized by the team of the UK Summer School in April-May, 2020.

This was the second in the series, where Mladen Domazet, Miriam Lang and Brototi Roy discuss what degrowth stands for in the majority world, sharing their experiences from eastern Europe, Latin America and the Indian subcontinent.

Universal Basic Income in India- a promising experience

This article was first published by Brototi Roy in the degrowth.info blog and has been slightly modified here.

In recent years, the debate around universal basic income has gained much popularity and coverage. The recent past has seen many successful models of basic income, both universal and targeted such as Alaska, Iran and Brazil (Bolsa ) along with an active movement in many European countries to adopt pilot experiments. India has also witnessed enthusiasm in trying out similar studies in the country to evaluate the viability of such an unconditional cash transfer to ensure social security to its vulnerable citizens. Even mainstream economists, such as the distinguished Pranab Bardhan stated the following during an interview when he was asked whether he favoured some sort of universal basic income for India:

‘This (universal basic income) is even more important in India because we mess up on distinguishing the poor from others. Below poverty line (BPL) lists in most states exclude many poor people while many well-off families manage to bribe their way in. …. .But if you move towards universal transfers, you can avoid the inefficiency and corruption in classifications such as BPL’

Degrowth and Basic Income

From a degrowth perspective, a universal basic income makes sense. The capitalist idea of ‘trickle-down’ effect has been disproven time and again. If we are to seriously contemplate living sustainably on this planet, the only way is to find alternatives to the growth mania. And one of the major criticisms one faces when explaining the need to degrow, in India in particular and the global South in general, is how would you help those living in abject poverty and destitution. A universal basic income provides a strong answer to that. In a country where close to 270 million people live below the poverty line, out of which more than 216 million people are in the rural areas, it becomes very important to ensure that each and every possible step is taken to reduce poverty and improve the lives of the people.

There are, however, two strong criticisms of this system of basic one. Firstly, critics state that this system would lead to a reduction in labour, as more people would be motivated to be ‘free loaders’, and secondly this system isn’t financially viable.

Universal Basic Income: Indian Context

In the Indian context, the criticism that basic income leads to free-loader problem has been proved to be wrong by extensive evaluation of the pilot experiments conducted in rural India.

In 2011, a pilot project called the ‘Madhya Pradesh Unconditional Cash Transfers Project (MPUCT)’ was launched in rural Madhya Pradesh through Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), in collaboration with UNICEF. Under this project, for between 12 to 18 months, over 6,000 individuals received ‘basic income’. There were two pilot studies conducted under this project using the Randomized Control Methodology. In one study, 8 villages received the basic income, while 12 similar villages didn’t. In the other study one tribal village received the income while another tribal village was taken as control group. In the beginning, in the 8 villages, each adult received 200 rupees a month and each child got 100 rupees a month. After 12 months, the amounts were raised to 300 rupees and 150 rupees respectively. In the tribal village, the amounts were 300 rupees and 150 rupees for the entire period of 12 months.

The project evaluated the situation in the villages before, during and after receiving the basic income. This was done using multiple rounds of statistical surveys, and then by evaluating them against the villages in the control group that had not received the basic income transfer.

In total, the surveys covered over 15,000 individuals. In addition a hundred in-depth case studies were carried out with recipients over the period of the experiment as were community level surveys, interviews with key respondents, along with a tracking of children’s weight for age (as a proxy for nutrition) and their attendance and performance in schools to assess if these outcomes were influenced by receipt of the basic income.

There were three main features of these grants: they were universal (as opposed to being provided to a targeted, generally economically backward group), they were unconditional (there was no imposition on what commodities or services the money could be spent), and they were individualistic (instead of providing the cash transfers at a household level). There were to ensure that there is no harassment or corruption which often follows conditional cash transfers, since one need to get verification of how the money is spent to receive further grants, along with ensuring financial inclusion of women, children and the elderly which might not have been possible if the grants were given at the household level.

The results of these pilots published in the book Basic Income: A Transformative Policy for India. (2014, London: Bloomsbury) showed many encouraging implications, and were a positive step in debunking the myths that basic cash transfers in rural India wouldn’t be helpful as either it would lead to a decrease in labour work or money would be wasted away in alcohol consumption and other trivial pursuits by the villagers.

A few of the staggering results, as mentioned by Guy Standing[1] are written below:

  • The basic living conditions, starting with sanitation, better access to clean drinking water, improvements in cooking and lighting energy sources, improved significantly.
  • There was a major increase in food sufficiency, improved diets, better nutrition and reduction in seasonal illnesses. However, there was no evidence that this cash transfer had led to a rise in alcohol consumption, contrary to popular belief.
  • Better health of children also led to higher school attendance and improved performance. The basic income also facilitated spending on school uniforms, books and stationery.
  • The cash transfer also facilitated small scale investments such as buying better raw materials and equipment, which resulted in higher income. There was also a shift, especially in the tribal village, from wage labour and bonded labour to invest in own farms and other forms of self-employment.
  • Women empowerment was another significant outcome of the pilot studies, as it improved their participative power in the economic decision making in the household.
  • These experiments also had a direct, positive impact on the debt structure. It facilitated reduction in debts, as it enabled the villagers to both borrow less from the moneylenders (at a high interest rate) and pay back to the money lenders with the basic income.

As far as the second criticism goes, according to Renana Jhabvala, who has long been associated with the Indian Basic Income Network, basic universal income is financially viable too. She states that currently the Government of India spends more than 7 lakh crores on subsidies and welfare schemes for the poor, with little to show for results. If, however, the same money were allocated to be used as universal basic income, every family in India would receive 2500 rupees each month. And if this were to be transferred to only the lowest 60% income level families, it would rise to 4000 per month. This would provide a majority of the poor population of our country to get out of the destitution resulting from social and economic vulnerabilities. In the current economic situation that India is, even a basic income of 1000 rupees would go a long way in providing the citizens with a life of dignity and freedom.

Thus, these experiments showed that a universal basic income would bring about essential and positive changes, and should be taken seriously by policy makers to be a viable way of attaining progressive social reforms in India. It would also be monumental in paving a way for degrowth thoughts and action in the country. Under the current political regime, where there is relaxation of environmental laws for mining projects, curbing of freedom of press and educational institutions and widespread rise in commodification, it is extremely essential to facilitate debates for alternatives to growth and reach at solutions though solidarity and collective action if we are to attain socio-ecological justice in the country.

[1] Standing, G., 2013. India’s experiment in basic income grants. Global Dialogue3(5), pp.24-26.

Consuming our Waste: Anatomy of a problem

by Priyanshu Thapliyal

Nestled between the snow-capped mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Kheer Ganga offers travellers a picturesque view of the Himalayan stronghold and hosts hot water springs that can ease away any qualm or pain. The once pristine forests might have been an isolated sanctuary for the diverse Himalayan wildlife at one point of time, but it has since evolved into a go-to holiday destination brimming with our urban bourgeoisie. Long gone are the days when it used to be a peaceful trek through the pristine forest; now the trek bustles with delusional hippies and Café music.

During my recent visit there, I was on a mission. I, along with a handful of nature lovers, environmentalists and concerned citizens had volunteered for a Cleanliness drive of the hippie trail. The event aimed to raise awareness about the looming threats the valley faces due to the unceasing inflow of trash each year. An unabridged trail of plastic waste now lines the walking path; ignored by most like a mere overgrown verge. The problem was that it wasn’t a problem at all.

While rummaging through the seemingly endless sea of plastic, we deliberated on effective solutions to dispose of the collected waste. We had already assumed that trying to reduce the generated trash was a banal attempt and our solutions should rather focus on its efficient management.

We willingly plunged ourselves into the filth, hand knitted jute garbage bags around our waists, and picked up as much trash as one could with unimpeded enthusiasm. The initiative was a great success and yet again proved the power of people to bring about change.

Volunteers scoping the valley for more thrash as they struggle to hold on to the overflowing garbage bags.

Well intentioned, no doubt, but does this initiative provides the end solution to the problem of the continuously increasing waste in Kheerganga, or anywhere else for that matter?

To a lot of people’s displeasure, the answer would be no. It might be a mitigating intervention but waste management alone cannot provide us the luxury to turn a blind eye to our much more significant problem of waste generation.

To tackle this problem of waste, one first needs to understand it. Only when we peel through the façade of convention, the root cause behind waste generation becomes clearer. And this cause; which is often missing from our common perception of waste; is much needed to be debated on. We do not have to look for solutions from our authorities or experts. Their solutions mostly buy us some more time before we eventually start feeling the inevitable repercussions of our continued ignorance. The policies treat us as a hopeless generation of consumers and undermine your ability to change. Or is it that they don’t want you to change?

But I haven’t lost faith in you yet. That’s why I am talking to you now. In hope you will understand and acknowledge the solutions that have always been within you.

So let’s talk about waste and how can we minimise it.

As a species, we can well agree to the fact that ‘waste’ is everywhere. It is the omnipresent god of modern century. Reincarnating itself into the plethora of everyday products as soon as we flush it down our rivers. This is the waste that is a waste since its inception. This is the waste that we consume and then wait to be taken away from our sights. You need to identify this waste first.  

Multitudes of Waste wait patiently in Cafés of Kheerganga for tired unsuspecting travellers

The countless number of plastic bottles and wrappers collected from the Kheerganga trail give testimony of the waste we are persuaded to buy. You have been conditioned to forget the costs that we actually incur to create these marketable waste.

Why would the palm oil companies willingly tell you about the thousands of acres of rainforests they have burned down in South Asia? As things stand, the burden of justifying this massive destruction sadly lies on you.

Corporations may simply work on concerns over profit and loss. But you are not an organization. You are no machine. We are people. And you can afford to think twice before making that purchase.

Try it. It’s free! ~ Sad consumer joke~

In the witch hunt for resources to satiate our never ending desires; we are mining away our landscapes, cutting down our forests, hunting down our wildlife, polluting our rivers and changing our climate.

It won’t stop until you do.

It is time to address the basic issues with your lifestyle and wants.

Our landfills will eventually overflow, water bodies would choke and there would be nothing left to dig out from the Earth. This is the future our current model of consumption is leading us to. The perceived growth of our civilization runs on our expertise of resource consumption. It’s something that has been engrained in your mind since childhood. You are led to believe that you need that burger, that bag, that I phone.

The constant fear of crippling our invisible growth makes us comply and play our part in the market economy. Allowing corporations to pillage our Earth and create waste.   

Yes, I agree it’s not easy to give up all the pleasures that our economic rise may provide you in the long run. But in the end, our decisions as a species should also consider the limits of our Planet.  

Acceptance is the first and hardest part. The road from there is easier and fulfilling. From one manufactured consumer to other.   

We should also not forget that while dealing with our own direct waste, our concerns for its effective management should immediately follow our retrospection.

Do remember – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle; for a hopeful future. 

A thought etched out somewhere in Kheerganga

DISCLAIMER – The article doesn’t aims to provide one-stop solutions but simply puts forth an alternate way of perceiving the problem. The idea is to provoke thoughts and debates among readers rather than preaching. The readers are also advised to do their own research and then take decisions

The Real Utopia

This article was originally published in Digital Development Debates, Issue # 19 on Hope.

By definition a utopia is a place that does not exist. Around the world though, activists are working to stop the destruction of our planet: Meet the degrowth movement.

2016 celebrates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s inspirational book Utopia. More introduced the term ‘utopia’, which has captured human imagination for five centuries now.
At the crux of utopia is the idea that by envisioning the possibility of a better, we empower ourselves to work towards creating it. Many scholars and researchers have since then debated the fundamentals of a utopia, about how vague or concrete it might be, about whether it is a realistic concept or merely a figment of our imaginations.
In his book published in 1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Darko Suvin described utopia as a “verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where socio-political institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle that in the author’s community”.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote that utopia “possesses this other meaning- which, far from being necessarily abstract and turned away from the world, is on the contrary centrally preoccupied with the world: that of going beyond the natural march of events”. Portuguese sociologist and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos said that “many of our dreams have been reduced to what exists, and what exists very often is a nightmare, therefore to be utopian is the more consistent manner of being a realist in the beginning of the twenty first century.”
Each of these above quotes resonates strongly with degrowth.

The Degrowth Utopia

According to the definition given by Suvin, degrowth is a utopia because it wishes to repoliticize the debate on socio-ecological transformation to form a society with better institutions, norms and individual relationships.
Degrowth also fits with Bloch’s definition of Utopia because it wishes to go beyond the natural march of events today, which is that of the capitalist modern societies based on neoliberal ideologies. And the nightmare, as per Santos’s definition is that of our blind obsession with economic growth, and the utopia of degrowth provides a more realist alternative.
The obsession with economic growth is indeed one of the most frightening things of today’s time. Economic growth was promised as the only way for achieved prosperity and equality for many decades. The dream for a better life was reduced to the existing nightmare of measuring well-being in monetary terms without taking into account diversity, inclusivity, conviviality etc.

The need for Degrowth

However, this model of economic growth has reached its limit. In 1972, the Club of Rome report ‘Limits to Growth’ sent out the warning that the earth and its resources will not be able to sustain economic and population growth in its present form for much longer.
Despite the findings, extraction of natural resources at the cost of human life and loss of habitat has been allowed in the countries of global South because it promises higher GDP rates, which according to the elusive trickle-down theory would ultimately benefit everyone in the country.
I call this theory elusive, because there isn’t a single documented evidence of this ever working, but governments and policy makers keep on believing in it, and also in the fact that economic growth will result in better quality of life.
Yet, all that this model of modern growth has done is produce various socio-ecological conflicts: increased income inequalities, depletion of resource and loss of biodiversity, and benefited only a tiny section of the society, shifting the majority of the costs to vulnerable people and places due to asymmetric power and political relations.
The editors of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era aptly write that the current era is one of “stagnation, rapid impoverishment of a vast part of the population, growing inequalities, and socio-ecological disaster.”

Degrowth intends to reignite this passion for promoting social and ecological sustainability.

In such a scenario, Degrowth can well be thought of as a practical utopia, providing alternative hope and practical solutions for positive change. It started in the beginning of the 21st century, as a slogan against economic growth, and soon became a movement of academics and activists who wanted to change the growth-centric status quo, fuelled by the vision of a society which has equality and justice for the planet and its people, and rejecting the current capitalist, consumerist system.
David Harvey in his 2000 book Spaces of Hope stressed on the need to ‘rekindle and reignite utopian passions once more to galvanize socio-ecological changes’.
Degrowth, which was born as a proposal for radical change intends to reignite this passion for promoting social and ecological sustainability. It attempts to find and connect the various alternatives, both old and new, which have sprung up in different parts of the world as a reaction to the growth model.

…degrowth fits the utopian perspective.

Degrowth is sometimes referred to as an ideology which has a set system of ideas and values. Yet degrowth scholars consider it too narrow. Instead, they consider it to be a larger frame with a variety of concerns, aims, strategies and actions.
Karl Mannheim, in his seminal book “Ideology and Utopia” published in 1929 in German identified ideology and utopia as two different ways of perceiving the world while hiding the perceivers. He said ideology allowed those in power to believe that their position is secure, whereas utopia allowed those out of power to believe that they can change the system. According to this definition too, degrowth fits the utopian perspective.

The vision of Degrowth

The vision of degrowth is the vision of a world with environmental sustainability, social justice and well-being. The dream of degrowth is to have a society of conviviality, frugal abundance with stronger societal bonds and prosperity without growth. It is not a one point agenda of criticizing economic growth, but rather a confluence of different alternatives to reach a better if not perfect society.
The degrowth utopia embraces multiple philosophical sources. These multiple sources can be classified into six categories, which are ecology, critiques of development and praises for anti-utilitarianism, meaning of life and well-being, bio-economics, democracy and justice.
The first source stresses the need to preserve ecosystems because of their intrinsic value and not because of their importance as resources. The second source calls for economic transactions based on sharing, gifts and reciprocity, where social relations and conviviality are the central pillars. The third source criticizes the current consumerist lifestyle fuelled by the need to work and earn more as a mark of well-being and discusses alternative narratives of a good life. The fourth source stresses the importance of natural resource consumption and the impending ecological crisis if they are not managed properly. It questions the claim that technological innovation can overcome the biophysical limits to ensure infinite economic growth. The fifth source calls for direct, participatory democracy, where every member of a community’s voices are heard, and power asymmetries due to class, race, gender etc. which are often imbedded in every society are not able to overshadow the representation of certain sections of the community. The sixth source has multiple steams within it. It implies on changing how we compare lifestyles based only on money terms. It also implies resource and wealth redistribution between and within the global North and South, along with repairing past injustices, and promoting equality between the different strata of society.

Degrowth as a practical utopia

Degrowth can be seen as a practical utopia because it is dynamic meta-movement connecting various different activism and research projects such as urban gardening, common currencies, agroecology, climate justice, cooperatives as well as transport and alternative energy sources. Be it the Indignados movement in Spain, or the Ende Gelände in Germany, be it Reti di Economia Solidale (Solidarity Economy Networks) in Italy or the upcoming basic income experiment in Finland.
The various keywords that form the ecosystem of degrowth aren’t just thoughts and writing, but rather practical experiments in the hope of a better life. Degrowth actors aren’t just envisioning a better future; they are activity organizing themselves to obtain it.
All these incredible work can be classified as Nowtopias, a term coined by Chris Carlsson to explain the resistance and rebellion to the current growth based economic structure by self-organizing to undertake innovative ‘unpaid’ work for practical improvements in their lives.

We must be careful not to fall for “utopian social engineering”…

These Nowtopian projects under the umbrella of degrowth envisions to open up alternative narratives and imaginaries of finding pathways towards a society based on equality and justice for all, by rejecting the hegemony of growth.
It hopes to build a society formed as a culmination of a variety of ideas and proposals from different parts of the world. We must be careful not to fall for ‘utopian social engineering’ which aims to remodel the entire society in accordance with a blueprint for a better society. Scholars such as Karl Popper and Friedrich von Kayek have criticised utopian engineering to be flawed because each society is so complex and dynamic that one cannot expect to formulate a master plan of socio-ecological change from the outside.
The vision of degrowth should be to allow each society to find its own utopia in a democratic manner, with trails and errors on its way. Utopia is a journey. The vision of a better world will keep on shifting depending on where you currently stand. Degrowth utopia is the journey towards socio-ecological justice, and not a predetermined destination.

Book Review of the Degrowth Vocabulary

This review was orginally published by Brototi Roy in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography and can be accessed here.

For those not familiar with the history of the degrowth literature, the English term “degrowth” was adapted from the French word décroissance, which started as an activist slogan in the early 2000s in France of a movement for voluntary reduction in production and consumption for socio-ecological sustainability, and was officially introduced in 2008 at the first degrowth conference in Paris (p.3). Since then it has evolved from an activist slogan into an academic research domain, incorporating diverse approaches and dynamic ideas (p.xxv).

            The fact that degrowth has multiple definitions and interpretations makes a transparent exchange of ideas difficult (see van den Bergh, 2011). However, the editors fully accept the claim that degrowth is a “network of ideas and conversations, strongly rooted in the radical and critical traditions, but open-ended and amenable to multiple connections”, and consider this versatility a strength “where different lines of thought, imaginaries, or courses of action come together” (p.xxi).

            Their book consists of 51 short entries on these various ideas and actions, along with a longer introduction and epilogue written by them. The editors are all associated with the Autonomous University of Barcelona and members of the academic network Research & Degrowth (http://www.degrowth.org/). Although the 53 contributors come from different ideologies, most of the ideas were formed within a reading group of Research & Degrowth in Barcelona (p.xxii).

            The chapters are divided into four broad categories–“Lines of thought”; “The core”; “The action”; and “Alliances”. It also has a foreword by Fabrice Flipo and François Schneider, co-organizers of the 2008 Paris degrowth conference, which discusses the need for degrowth, what it stands for, and the risks it faces. They state that degrowth is an “exploratory avenue” (p.xxvi) which “opens up all sorts of debates that were previously closed” and “stirs emotions” which will prevent it from ever becoming an “issue of secondary importance” (p.xxv).

            Each chapter title is marked in bold throughout the book for easy cross-referencing, and it is suggested by the editors that readers should find their own way through the book, instead of following the “standard linear way” (p.xxi). The chapters aren’t just about the different ideas and initiatives of degrowth, such as autonomy, simplicity, co-operatives, eco-communities, and urban gardening, but are also critiques of the present system, reinforcing the reasons for degrowth, such as commodity frontiers, capitalism, growth, and commodification. The chapters are diverse, and some aren’t as concretely connected to the degrowth movement as the others, such as those on pedagogy of disaster and steady-state economics. Not surprisingly, however, a majority of the chapters are focused on initiatives and actions from the global North, except for the last section on alliances which discusses the Latin American concept of Buen Vivir (“good living”) from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador; the Indian theory of the “economy of permanence”; and the African philosophy of Ubuntu which states that a human being exists interdependently with others, and is not an isolated, individual entity.(“human kindness”

            The book recognizes that the viability of the term “degrowth” in the global South continues to pose a big question. Many researchers and activists who are aware of planetary boundaries and understand the need to respect human and environmental rights are not ready to use the term because of its downright critique of economic growth, which is still considered as the only way to get rid of poverty and unemployment in the developing countries. However, as the chapter on Ubuntu mentions, “the point is not whether the North has to degrow for the South to grow, but whether we can leave space for alternative native imaginaries to be part of shaping the future” (p.213).

            Being a resident of urban, metropolitan India for more than half a decade, I have seen an alarming rise in commodification and the consumerist culture (which has become the yardstick to measure affluence), and not nearly enough urban initiatives based on degrowth principles to counteract it. Concepts such as sharing, simplicity, conviviality and commons, which were the essence of traditional living even 20 years ago, are fast being lost in most of urban India. However, there are a lot of grassroots initiatives emerging in India, too, which might not use the term degrowth, but follow the same principles of respecting the planet’s limits and pursuing the core values of equity and justice, and are often called Ecological Swaraj, or Radical Ecological Democracy, initiatives (see Kothari et al. 2014).

            The book thus becomes an essential resource to initiate the much needed debate for socio-ecological justice across the planet, and not just in the global North, because although I understand the reluctance to use the world degrowth in the South which faces such abject poverty and unemployment, a lot of that stems from inequality and injustice–and a capitalist economy has done precious little in the past to change it. Under such a situation, by connecting the movements from the North and South, under the umbrella of degrowth, which already confesses to being a frame of different co-existing ideas and initiatives, we can think of making some positive headway with the help of collective action beyond just the local level. One such scenario is the proposed alliance between degrowth and environmental justice movements (Martinez-Alier 2012), and because degrowth is such a strong critique of growth, hopefully it won’t encounter the same failures that the previous concepts of sustainable development and green growth did.

            A good book is supposed to make you think more critically and raise more questions. After finishing the book, I would have liked to know more about the degrowth activities and groups in various parts of the world mentioned in the book from Poland, Portugal, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Romania and elsewhere (p.3) to get a better sense of what degrowth transitions around the world look like, along with a sense of the challenges they face and how successful they have been in the past. But, as mentioned in the foreword, this is not an exhaustive work, and hopefully it will give rise to more collaborations and reflections on how to repoliticize the socio-ecological justice debate. The book has already been translated into ten languages, expanding its reach, and considering that many countries including China have questioned the relevance of degrowth within their national borders (Xue et al. 2012), and the numerous peoples’ protests that have been staged across the world in recent years, be it Occupy Wall Street in the US, the Indignados in Spain, or the current Nuit Debout movement in France, I can only hope that the editors’ vision of providing the 51 keywords to aid in current political debates for adopting degrowth-inspired proposals is realised, and we have begun the process of moving towards a more socio-ecologically just society.

References

Kothari A, Demaria F and Acosta A (2014) Buen Vivir, Degrowth, and Ecological Swaraj:       Alternatives to sustainable development and the Green Economy. Development    57(3/4):362-375

Martinez-Alier J (2012) Environmental justice and economic degrowth: An alliance between     two movements. Capitalism Nature Socialism 23(1):51-73

van den Bergh J (2011) Environment versus growth–A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for   “a-growth”. Ecological Economics 70(5):881-890

Xue J, Arler F and Næss P (2012) Is the degrowth debate relevant to China? Environment,        Development, and Sustainability 14(1):85-109

Degrowth in India: Necessity, Actions and Initiatives

The context for a degrowth movement in India differs significantly from that of the Global North. Although founded upon the same philosophical, and ideological basis, the differences in scope between the two are sharp. For India, what is of central importance is the preservation of the “degrowth” paradigm in practice, rather than the establishment of it as a novel paradigm. Traditional Indian ways of living have always been in consonance with core ideas of degrowth. Values and cultures imbibed through generations have often focused on maintenance of communitarian bonds, minimizing wastage, and limitations in material desires. Non-chremastic values, reverence and dependence on ecosystems, and communitarian ways of living are widely practices till date, especially in rural and tribal areas. Thus, ideas of conviviality, sharing, frugality, and sufficiency have existed as a part of daily life. Reverence for ecosystems is prevalent and ‘Sacred groves’ exist throughout the country- often regarded as Gods embodiment in nature. One example is that of the Dongria Kond tribe who ensued a decade long struggle to prevent destruction of the Niyamgiri hill which the tribe considered to be the abode of their God. The promise of development, creation of jobs, schools, roads, other infrastructure etc. bore no regard for the tribe at the cost of destruction of the local ecosystems and biodiversity.

When India attained Independence in 1947, Gandhi proposed Swaraj as the founding ideology for the new nation. “The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint… (Swaraj) will be the fruit of patience, perseverance, ceaseless toil, courage and intelligent appreciation of the environment… A bloody revolution will never perform the trick.” Other scholars such as Kumarappa, spoke of an Economy of Permanence, rather than an economy predatory upon nature; and Tagore advocated conviviality, sharing and the need for commons.The vision was of a society guided by the principles of self-sufficiency in production, self-restraint in consumption with numerous localized and decentralized economies.

However, in 1991, India opened up to neo-liberalization and economic growth, and is today one of the fastest growing economies. With increasing economic growth, one significant tangible which has increased is consumer goods, and the associated consumerist culture. This can be clearly seen among urban populations, a significant percentage of which is youth.

The lure of affluence is strong, both to the youth that are exposed to the consumerist culture, as well as to people that have lived their lives in abject poverty- to whom growth is presented as the only available option for an escape from poverty.

Hand-made boats used for traditional small-scale fishing in the Sunderbans, West Bengal_Brototi Roy

Unfortunately, externalities of growth- both social and ecological- are often imposed upon marginalized communities, tribal and indigenous people. For instance, New Delhi currently has one of the worst levels of air pollution in the world, and destruction of rich forests for mining has resulted in extreme and violent conflicts over the years in many parts of the country. The social impacts of lopsided economic growth can also be seen in urban areas with large numbers of slums, income inequities, materialism and individualism on the rise.

Luckily, there are various movements against such trends. Although these are not specifically termed as “degrowth” movements, they align strongly with the concepts of “degrowth”.

Some examples are the participatory self-governance – shwayamshashan– in the village of Mendha Lekha inhabited by the Gond tribe; the Navdanya network of organic food growers and organic seed exchangers; the Local Futures relocalization of food production initiative in Ladhakh, introduction of community currencies in Tamil Nadu between a network of 16 villages; and urban organic waste reduction program by communities in Bangalore. On a larger scale, there is a strong movement in the state of Kerala against GM crops with campaigns such as ‘March Against Monsanto’. This has resulted in banning of not just the production of GM crops within the state borders, but also field trials of GM food crops and represents a unique case where farmers have decided to take a stand against larger economic benefits for ecological preservation.

 Thus, there are movements against hegemonic growth, however these are scattered and highly localized. Furthermore, these movements are rural, often tribal, in origin by people directly affected in access to resources for livelihood sustenance. However, there is an urgent need to reintroduce these concepts, which are quickly being lost, especially among urban populations and to create a space for interaction, discourse and action with the aim of preserving notions of degrowth. A series of informal debates and discussions amongst a small group of activists and ecological economists convinced us of the need to create such a platform. This eventually culminated in the foundation of the Degrowth India Initiative which is intended to be a forum to explore degrowth practices across India and to bring these ideas to a broader audience. It is meant to be a platform to build closer relationships between researchers, citizens and activists in the discourse and action on the ideas of sufficiency, conviviality, and ecological boundaries.

This article has been published in Moins! 

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Moins! Article

First Discussion Session on Alternatives to Growth

The Degrowth India Initiative was started in August this year after a series of informal discussion between Arpita and me, two students of Ecological Economics, who along with countless other researchers and activists across the globe accept that in a finite earth with finite resources, infinite monetary and population growth is an impossibility. This Initiative aims to provide a small platform to bring together people who are looking for alternatives to growth for a socially and ecologically just India.

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In our quest for alternatives to growth we hosted a discussion session on “Alternatives to Growth” with the authors of Churning the Earth-The Making of Global India, Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari in Delhi last Monday. The reason why I am writing this article is because during the course of this article, both the authors, along with Dr. Rajeshwari Raina, who had co-organized the first symposium on Degrowth in India last year, had some very interesting stories of successful alternatives to growth that are being practiced in different parts of our country, and which I think the youth of today needs to be made aware of.

Be it the farmers of Kerala who have voluntarily shunned fertilizer intensive cropping, despite being aware of the lower productivity of organic agriculture, and banned the production of high valued GM pepper due to its harmful effects on the soil health and environment, to Vani Murthy’s initiative in Bangalore which has converted several thousand households in the city to composter and rooftop gardeners, encouraging them to stop throwing out their wet waste, India, both in her cities and villages, has numerous examples of such bottoms-up approach which converges with the ideas of alternatives to growth. Local initiatives such as mobilization of people for the protection of the lakes of Bangalore, collective action by the villagers of Medha Lekha in Maharasthra to be the first village to be granted community forest rights, mobilization of Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh for sustainable farming and other such decentralized approaches for attaining better quality of life and land are examples of how the people of India have a long history of looking after themselves and their environment without any top-down approach being enforced upon them.

Yet, despite a plethora of decentralized movements which although do not conform to the formal definition of growth still continue to improve the social and ecological standards of an area, a large section of affluent India is increasingly dissociating itself from environmental well-being and social connections. What the society in general, and the youth in particular need to focus is to learn from these examples to find new ways which allows not just the poor and the vulnerable, but also other species (and the environment in general) to flourish by resisting against destructive development of one section of the society at the cost of others.

One of the key takeaways of the discussion was the need for a proactive youth movement which understands the social and ecological consequences of our greed for a technologically rich, yet culturally and socially degraded life. Dr. Shrivastava also pointed out that our current approach for solving the climate change problem and other environmental issues is to either depend on the international discussions and meets, or to expect decentralized action by tiny communities, whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. However, we keep forgetting that is a whole set of other levels of governance, such as the municipality, district level and state level governing bodies, who must be involved in these decision making and implementation of alternatives.

We also had a long discussion on the significance of the COP21summit which will be held next week, and both Kothari and Shrivastava were of the opinion that the only thing this summit will be successfully implying is that we cannot depend on our national leaders alone to solve the dire ecological and social problems challenging the world today. You and I need to come together and work for a society of sufficiency, finding ways to reduce our individual ecological footprints and the footprints of the society as a whole.

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The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Report 2015, which was released earlier this year, was the final document, reporting the progress of the MDGs for the last fifteen years. Although, there were a quite a few positive outcomes, one of the biggest challenges that the world, as a whole, faces today is that of conflicts which poses the biggest threat for human development. The report acknowledged that “despite many successes, the poorest and most vulnerable people are being left behind”. The obvious question which then arises is that if we are consistent in our economic growth (as measured by our GDP), and yet the poor and the vulnerable are being left out, then who are the benefactors of this growth, and why is it not percolating (as proposed by the trickle-down effect theory) to the sections of the society that need it the most?

The answer is to this question lies in the fundamental flaw with our definition of economic growth. We measure economic growth in terms of flow of money, but what is the purpose of this flow is never put in the spotlight. To provide a simple example, the money earned from an increase in the sales of a consumer product, such as toys, adds to the economic growth just as much as the foreign aid received after a natural disaster strikes. The answer to the obvious question in the previous paragraph thus becomes self-evident once you familiarize yourself with the concept of economic growth as it is being currently viewed. A lot of scholars, researchers and activists in the West understood this early on, and in their quest for alternatives to growth, started a movement seeking radical change in an attempt to re-politicize the debate on the socio-ecological transformation, which was named the Degrowth Movement. India too, over the last few years, has seen an increasing number of scholars questioning the growth paradigm, and looking for alternatives to growth for a country with social and environmental justice.