Tuning into degrowth

Inclusive Economy26 Mar 2010Louise Stoddard

The man sat next to me in the packed conference hall was having trouble tuning in. The first session of the Second Conference on Economic Degrowth had begun and whilst we sat down to discuss de-growth the number of people in the plush wood panelled room was expanding rapidly. It felt more like we were sitting in a church than a university, giant old paintings of royalty and elaborate golden carvings decorated the walls and ceiling of the chamber. My neighbour shook his radio, readjusted his ear plugs and the surrounding rows jumped as the sound of a Spanish music radio station blurts out from his translation head set.

The organisers were experimenting with alternative technology translation transmitted on radios which half the conference hall will be plugged into for the next three days. A lot about this conference is refreshingly alternative, from the eco friendly paper and string name badges and ringing bicycle bell that calls people into each session to of course the content. Degrowth is not easily digestible. ‘we are here to take a critical look at the notion of growth’ said Joan Martinez-Alier (see his blog post on The Broker).

A panel of economists then took the stage and each presented their own individual interpretations of degrowth, what it should and should not involve and whether indeed it was a good thing at all. Peter Victor from York University looked at a potential scenario for the Canadian economy if degrowth policies were to be introduced. His simulations suggest that prosperity is possible without growth however it is not just a question of making changes to an economy, importantly we need to consider changes to our basic ideology. Degrowth he argued is a much greater challenge than slowing growth. ‘we do not need to ask whether another world is possible’ said Richard Norgaard from Berkeley University ‘rather we should ask – how are we going to keep up with the worlds that are out there already?’ We once thought that the future was going to be much brighter than it actually really is. Reality shows that we are not living in such a nice world as we thought, but the economy is still running on this assumption.

‘Help!: what to do with so many interpretations of degrowth’ was the suitably titled presentation from Jeroen van den Bergh from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who argued that we should all just chill out about growth and degrowth. Yes degrowth would probably result in positive results, but just because good policies might lead to degrowth it doesn’t mean that we should introduce degrowth as the starting point. He touched on some of the more radical approaches to degrowth – getting rid of property ownership, exchanging instead of purchasing. ‘Is this really politically feasible?’ he asked ‘or would it just be seen as communism?’. This is a hard concept to sell to the mainstream. We need to get over our growth and de growth fetishism, stop being obsessed with either and focus on the policies.

I was pleased to see panellist Ellie Perkins included amongst the male economists. She discussed theories of how women contribute to the economy and the importance of considering the unpaid economy in degrowth debates. ‘Everywhere we look there are important elements of economic activity that are not considered in GDP or in policy’ she highlighted. We need to stop theorising about degrowth from the position of the male dominated North.

Then it was question time and the hot topic of the hour was GDP. How is degrowth possible in a world dominated by GDP? Jeron van den Berg explained how he had wanted to write a paper on abolishing GDP but couldn’t get it accepted to any journal. Sitting in the audience was Frances Roma from Inclusive Democracy (See an interview with him here) who pointed out that GDP does not fairly reflect price and value, just because people have to pay huge amounts for things does not actually mean they are worth this much he said using the example of high rent prices. Someone else then added that economists need to be the heroes. It’s a challenge for them as they have spent half their lives working with empirical research based on GDP, but we would make huge advances if they can look at something other than GDP something that would be emotionally quite difficult for them.

A small thing I noticed was how many of the panellists and audience got tongue tied when discussing de growth and GDP, often using one word instead of the other. Even my notes were full of ‘DG’ and ‘GDP’… also a challenge I am sure for the hard working radio translators.