Economising smiles

Knowledge brokering27 Mar 2010

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from this morning’s poster tour, perhaps an artistic interpretation of research or some beautiful photography of eco systems. After some deliberation I settled on the ‘Degrowth beyond Europe and the West’ tour, which comprised of ten presenters, with both digital and paper posters of varying interest and quality. Not much in the way of creative art, but crammed full of details about their various areas of research. It was information overload as each attempted to tell us about their research and work in ten minutes, restricted only to a one page poster, or what were in many cases a single overweight powerpoint slide. I had selected this panel hoping to finally find some conversations about degrowth perspectives in the Global South.

Karen Bell of Bristol University kicked off the session explaining what we can learn about degrowth from Cuba. After experiencing massive degrowth overnight in 1989, the Cubans introduced a number of measures which are an interesting study for degrowthers. The imposed blockades hit the country badly, halting its heavily dependent trade routes. On being forced to look internally for solutions a number of policies were adopted which focused on social well being, free education, health care and an energy revolution, particularly relevant from an environmental justice perspective. A new energy revolution began – an approach which involved giving CFC free fridges to families, using energy saving light bulbs and the use of renewables and decentralising energy.

Social transport systems suffered significantly at the beginning and so bicycles were introduced and bike factories set up to produce them. Eventually a modern bus system developed and a car buying quota where people had to justify the use of a car on work grounds. Karen’s poster displayed a photo of an agricultural plot of land in central Havana where people were encouraged to develop big urban gardens which were organic because there was no access to chemical fertilisers.

But there is no doubt that Cuban people suffered terribly from the blockades and many went hungry. Karen argued that perhaps rather naively the Cuban government also adopted some capitalist policies which have really bought problems to the country such as nickel mining and tourism. Degrowth, she said, needs to be outside of capitalist policies. I liked Karen’s perspective, that she was being explicitly political in her argument, however there just wasn’t enough time to consider the case in detail and because of this I felt we could be in danger of over romanticising the Cuban example.

Luis Rico Garcia–Amado from Ecologistas en Acción later took the floor to outline work he and his colleagues are doing in the Bolivian Amazon to measure what we can learn from Indigenous people about whether consumption of market goods relates to well being. The study had an interesting methodology which measured well being though questionnaires, interviews, monitoring consumption and, my personal favourite, the number of times interviewees smiled or laughed whilst the researchers were with them. Perhaps not surprisingly the study found that there is no link between consumption and well being, an important pointer for the poverty concept of degrowth. Inequalities however were found to make people unhappy. The study concluded that a degrowth in luxury good will actually increase happiness.

Despite some really interesting presentations it was a shame for me that this session focused almost exclusively on Latin America, we did leave the continent briefly at the end to talk about Turkey’s societal systems which seem to support a more sustainable way of living through … such as recycling and extended family support networks. But where was Africa? Where was Asia?… indeed where are the people from these continents at this conference? I do wonder how a session with a title ‘beyond Europe and the West’ could not include such vital perspectives. That said it does rather feel like this conference is building something, perhaps it is a community or a definition of degrowth, perhaps it’s a path towards policy makers and the mainstream. If Luis were to carry out a smile survey today in the leafy courtyard where participants were eating a vegetarian paella in the sunshine, I think his results would be off the chart.