The Degrowth argument: what has changed from the 1970´s?

Development Policy29 Mar 2010Tom Green

On Sunday I join the working group on political strategies. The two dozen people assembled in the courtyard repeatedly return to a big question that begs a satisfactory answer in order to develop viable political strategies for degrowth. Back in the 1970´s, there was a movement to get the industrialized world to recognize ecological limits and to live within them. It obviously failed. What is different now, how can degrowth do better?

Various answers emerge. Up until the 1970´s, it seems the average person was benefiting from growth, but since then the benefits of growth have been much more modest (and people´s wellbeing stagnated despite a more than doubling of per capita income), while the costs have become more evident. People are starting to see that consumer lifestyles are alienating, that wellbeing has more to do with friendships and community connections than the haul from a visit to some big box store. In the 1970´s, while there were localized environmental problems, global scale environmental problems were largely in the form of predictions. In 2010, global-scale problems confront us on the daily news. The IPCC has made clear that humans are inducing climate change. Farmers struggle with droughts the likes of which they have never seen, Newfoundland fishing boats sit idle as a result of overfishing the Northern Cod, the magnitude of the biodiversity crisis is hard to ignore. The ways in which the raw material demands of northern consumption is affecting those who live in areas where natural resource are extracted are better documented (if still invisible on the evening news).

Theorizing on the unending economic growth is much more advanced today. In the 1970´s, there was the much misinterpreted and mischaracterized Limits to growth report of the Club of Rome and a few papers by scholars like Georgescu-Roegen and Daly, while today it would be difficult indeed to keep up with all the journal articles on various aspects of limits, their economic implications and what might be done. Growth is also failng to deliver the jobs that it supposedly promises. The financial crisis has shown how a growth dependent system can quickly switch to a state that causes massive social dislocation and requires costly intervention. And in the 1970s, the solutions were largely theoretical, while today, we see solutions being put into place, everything from transition towns to community gardens, car sharing, better bicycle infrastructure… Energy conservation and renewable energy technologies are much further developed and have been proven in large scale instalations. The fact that improvements in energy efficiency and green technologies on their own won´t get us out of this pickle are becoming clearer, as we see many of the gains of eco-efficiency being eaten up by the rebound effect (with a more fuel efficient car, people can decide that since they save money on gas, it makes sense to travel further). This means that the “technology will save the day” argument is less and less plausible. The web is mentionned as improving the ability of social movements to organize. Nodes of discussion on degrowth are spreading from country to country, as the international character of this gathering makes clear. Yet no one in this gathering is unaware that convincing people that the rich countries need to swap their macroeconomic operating system from Growth 2.0 to Degrowth 1.0 and then some form of Steady State is going to be the ultimate in tough sells, while each day of delay in making such a change compounds the ecological losses and makes today´s children face a biosphere that is going to present them with tougher and tougher challenges. There is hope that with the right political strategies, societal recognition of the need for change does not need to wait for an instructive moment of severe and widespread catastrophe.

The gathering in the courtyard does not come to a completely satisfactory answer to this big question on differences between 2010 and the 1970´s. The evening ends with a dinner and concert hosted by a local band, Gadjo. The music is fantastic, as is the mood. We dance until the last possible moment to catch the last metro. Some of the musicians from Gadjo end up on the same train and we end up with an impromptu concert on the way back downtown. I´m going to miss Barcelona and the dedicated people who assembled here this weekend to seek solutions.