Negotiating degrowth

Inclusive Economy28 Mar 2010Tom Green

A group of a dozen of us are engaged in an animated debate, sitting around a table in the historic courtyard of the University of Barcelona, trying to combine hard work and at least some indulgence in this balmy day. We have spent the last twenty minutes struggling to achieve consensus on a half dozen words on our proposal for an income ceiling, a proposal that many people see as being integral to a degrowth policy platform. It´s an idea that ecological economist Herman Daly spelled out long ago in his seminal book Steady state economics. Others have advanced variants. Briefly, the idea is that within a society where constraints on material throughput are recognized and implemented, for both reasons of equity, social cohesion and limiting ecological footprints, there should be a cap to the amount of income (and wealth) that any one individual can retain. Perhaps it is a multiple of the average income within a country, perhaps it is a multiple of a basic income guaranteed to all citizens in a society that has subscribed to the degrowth agenda. There are precedents–at one point, the marginal tax rate for the very rich in the US exceeded 90%, something that seems unimaginable today. When one of the participants finally nails wording that everyone can agree to, I heartily endorse their taking on a career as a UN negotiator. And like much of what is discussed before the UN, this proposal is one that very few people in the corridors of power within the private sector or government would even entertain, much less adopt, unless entire cities had been on their feet, stridently demanding something that few people have even heard of.

I once spent 18 months as one of eight negotiators representing diverse interests in a process where we negotiated the wording for forestry standards in my home province of British Columbia, a process that was about as pleasurable as an indefinite stay in a dentist´s chair before the era of topical anesthetics. At least we knew during those long months that our process had a fairly reasonable likelihood of leading to standards that were actually going to be implemented. There is no such expectation here in Barcelona, there is no official body that has convened us and asked for our recommendations, though some might argue that that most important body, we the people, are the convenors. So as I try to use my past negotiating experience to help find pathways to consensus (and as I fight my natural instinct to trade negotiations for a walk on this pleasant spring day), I am wondering why we are undertaking this task, trying to achieve consensus on the exact wording on proposals that are intended to be unveiled to the public and the press on Monday. A quick check of google news suggests that the mainstream press (even the Economist, that bastion of the most up-to-date 19th century economic thinking) is ignoring the conference and there is little sign in the shopping district that surrounds the university that the public at large is waiting for our final draft. Much of Saturday has been devoted to various working groups hashing out working group proposals, on topics that range from money and currencies to zero waste and food sovereignty. Is it that our proposals are intended to be a bold declaration of the other world that is possible? Will people around the world hear of this declaration, be able to intuit the underlying reasoning and draw on it as inspiration to work to get their societies to a more viable path? Perhaps–and if so, all this work is well warranted. Yet part of me fears that by being pushed to achieve concrete proposals in such a short time frame, we may end up with proposals that end up appearing to be naive, in conflict with one and other (since different working groups are proceeding in a parallel manner). We also have less time to spend considering what different degrowth policies might imply, their unintended consequences, to even make sure we all have the same understandings.

The formal part of the day ends with a gathering lubricated with local organic wine, a good way to heal whatever bruises were caused by the negotiating. Then a large group of us sets out through the narrow streets of Barcelona´s town centre to find a restaurant, but small groups keep getting separated along the way. Eventually I find myself with a group of francophones at an organic restaurant. They have been staying in a squat where a parallel, open to the public-at-large degrowth conference has been taking place. Tonight there is a degrowth party, so I follow them home. The squat is seen as fitting with a degrowth future, since it involves making better use of existing (and previously vacant) space. The building is part renovation site (with piles of bricks and debris in corridors, wires and plumbing jury-rigged to provide some basic necessities, toilet bowls lying on their sides), part community centre (a library complete with computers hooked to the internet), part underground club (two dj´s with macbooks playing tunes on decently powerfull speakers while drinks are served at an improvised bar), and part housing (my new friends from France take their leave upstairs and settle into their sleeping bags). Wanting to have a drink and talk with some locals about the squat and the parallel conference, I have to become a member of the society that has been set up to run the squat. (Pulling out the membership slip I took home last night to accurately record here what it is that I joined, I am suprised to learn that I joined a free university). But after about an hour of intense smoke (we are deep in the back of the building and it being a squat, the ventilation system does not seem to be hooked up), I opt for rest over more smoky conversation and head back to my hostel.