Visualising degrowth

Development Policy29 Mar 2010Louise Stoddard

I have had some trouble visualising what a degrowth future could actually look like. Yesterday Richard Register from the NGO EcoCity Builders, helped me out. The title of the session was ‘making it real. Practical transformations towards degrowth’. ‘Cities are the foundation of the ecological system’ said Richard as he embarked upon a fantastical tour of alternative city images from around the world. Inspired by the work of Paolo Soleri, who has designed and built an alternative model for a city Arcosanti in Arazona. Richard has travelled the world photographing and documenting examples of good and bad city design and developed his own theories of how we should collectively live together in the future.

The problem is the distance over which cities spread. It’s a case of ‘auto kind versus mankind’. So would a greener car help? No, says Richard, that would just perpetuate the problem. It’s a psychological issue, we are very attached to cars. The amount of land that it takes to grow one car tank of bio fuel could feed a person for one year. Public transport can utilise the same power directly from power plants that cars have to carry in heavy batteries. Bicycle highways can move people around cities faster and roof top gardens can grow us food. Food production in cities need to be increased and more green spaces. Such as Hundertwasser haus in Vienna Austria (see photo) where roof top greenery is grown over eleven stories of public housing including a school and a dentist.

The key issues, he argues are agricultural systems (we eat too much of the wrong things such as meat that takes up a lot of land) other issues connected to the built infrastructure and sprawling cities must be dealt with in addition to population – we need to seriously look at family planning and reducing the mass of human beings.

Later over another vegetarian meal prepared in the courtyard of the university Richard explained the difficulties of his job. Many people are interested in the concept of sustainable cities, they think that the idea is great but as soon as it involves changing behaviours or giving up cars attitudes change. It’s a case of NIMBY- ism (not in my back yard) but also a fear of facing up to reality. ‘It’s really frustrating said Richard ‘because the solutions are in many cases extremely attractive but it is only now that the threat of climate change is very real, that we are even starting to look at them’ As Richard headed off to his next session and I joined the queue for washing up dishes and felt like i had just met the first person at this conference who had really succeeded in selling me a vision of what the future could look like.

Back in this morning’s panel another vision of ideal living was being presented by freelance Ecologist Debal Deb, whose presentation on lessons from pre industrialised societies caused some controversy. Another very visual presentation peppered with songs – ‘imagine there’s no heaven’, ‘power to the people’. Debal described indigenous groups in India who were preserving natural areas and species as an integral part of their culture. Sacred habitats, groves and animals meant that the natural environment was flourishing. He also highlighted the principle of hunting and gathering only what was entirely necessary as a lesson transferable to degrowth theory. The problem with industrialised society, Debal argues, is that it has no community memory, no lessons passed down through the generations which value the natural environment around us. Discussions about the economy never take into account ‘existence value’ – that something is valued just because it exists, trees, rivers etc. We all give them a positive value, but this is impossible to measure.

Following this a few members of the audience questioned his view of the ‘Nobel savage’ and criticised him for over romanticising indigenous approaches highlighting that various tribes had wiped out species from over hunting in the past.

I agree that it is good to question indigenous knowledge, but I have been quite overwhelmed at this conference by the number of people and presentations talking about its value and time and time again the benefits of local knowledge have been cited as something which benefits future generations and the planet. But I would like to know how this can realistically be transferred into societies that know little about its values. How do you incorporate indigenous knowledge into western societies?