Against the backdrop of multiple accelerating crises, certainties are beginning to unravel. What constitutes value, progress, and societal well-being is increasingly subject to heated contestation. A growing number of activists, academics, and others across the world are questioning orthodox models of development and their underlying premise of perpetual growth as a necessity for a thriving society. They provide a wide variety of conceptual alternatives to development and progress and different visions of what is needed to address the environmental, social, and economic crises.
Born in Europe but with roots across the world, “degrowth” aims to interrogate the economic, social, environmental, and cultural ramifications of a turn away from economic growth as societies’ primary indicator of progress.1 Most recently the International Degrowth Conference in Den Haag in August 2021 served as a gathering space for the degrowth community and others to meet and debate.2 This blended-format (online and physical) conference titled “Caring Communities for Radical Change” identified eight core themes, whose linkages to degrowth were explored in sessions: Feminist Political Ecology; Decoloniality; Dutch Social Movements; Embodying Degrowth; Cultural Politics; Green New Deals; Anarchism; and Urban-Rural Dialogues. This report aims to give an overview of some of the key questions, themes, and visions emerging from that conference, ‘on stage’ as well as during informal discussions and debates, adding some of the richness of the event itself.
Credit: Katy Barnard
The Hague conference was the second Degrowth conference in summer 2021, following the Manchester-based ‘Building Alternative Livelihoods in times of ecological and political crisis.’3 This suggests that the concept of degrowth is gaining traction beyond the academic and green-radical left circles that originated it. The two conferences also illustrate two different trends within degrowth. In the words of Julien-Francois Gerber, one of the organisers of the Hague conference:
‘There are two tendencies in the movement, and they were nicely illustrated by these two conferences. Both fulfill an important role, but I believe it is fair to say that there is a strong current in the degrowth movement that goes towards more policies, more dialogue – generally more (academic) respectability and dialogue with economists, interventions in big journals, big newspapers, and the like. Be visible, be respectable, be serious; not too crazy, not too extreme, not too romantic. In a way, this is represented by the Manchester conference. The Hague, on the other hand, follows more in the French roots of Degrowth – with a stronger focus on counterculture, anarchism, and the humanities.’
However, this is not a clear binary and the discussions in the Hague also explored the questions of different tactics and approaches, as well as emphasising the importance of building bridges. In the words of the conference’s official call for participation: The restless expansion of our economies is causing unprecedented crises and threatening our very existence. […] This call is an invitation to build bridges between social movements, art, research, and other practices, bringing together a range of different perspectives and actors. Together, we can create system change!4
Credit: Josch Kuhlmann.
In five days the conference explored critical questions with relevance across the degrowth movement, but also in broader debates about climate action and social change: What is the role of governments in political change? How should movements or activists relate to the state? Who do advocates for socio-ecological justice seek to speak to and connect with? Whose interests do we foreground? What does care and solidarity mean?
This reportage aims to share some key insights from the conference, taking this event as a starting point for reflections about the degrowth community. It is not an attempt to comprehensively document the 150+ sessions of the conference, but draws on certain events to illustrate identified themes. It is based on personal reflections and interactions during the conference, as well as interviews with several of the organisers and aims to contribute to wider discussions both within and about the degrowth community.
Understanding Degrowth: movement, community, framework or networked solidarity?
The conference was a multi-dimensional community-building effort. The first dimension was the organisational process itself which strove towards a conscious Degrowth politics, working in accordance with the principles of horizontality, democratic decision-making, and building relations of care. The political experiences of working in a non-hierarchical manner, relying on collective intelligence as well as sharing and building activist knowledge and self-management were themselves important dimensions of the conference experience for the wide community involved in the organisation.
Representatives of the organising groups shared their impressions. Credit: John Akerman Özgüç
Secondly, while international in nature, the conference was very situated in the Netherlands, aiming to introduce the term ‘Degrowth’ into debates already taking place in the country and to make it more visible. Ontgroie, the Dutch Degrowth platform was one of the main organisers, together with the Institute for Social Studies. Crelis Rammelt, organiser of the Dutch Social Movements thematic stream and co-founder of Ontgroei, explained that one of Ontgroei’s goals for the conference was to expand beyond their current networks, which are primarily academic, by building relationships with diverse initiatives in the Netherlands. In its content and its organisation the conference provided opportunities for this network building, from working with food coops and autonomous social spaces to host events, to providing a platform for discussions of shared struggles across a diversity of initiatives operating from the local to the national level.
More broadly, this effort was reflected in the eight thematic streams of the conference. These sought to give space to diverse movements, frameworks, and approaches in varying relationships with degrowth. The conference structure aimed at building inclusion and bringing degrowth into conversation with different frameworks, political movements/initiatives, and fields of research. The goal was to appeal to academics, activists, and practitioners alike, to lay-people as well as experts, bringing together a range of different perspectives and actors.
Credit: Katy Barnard
Participants and presenters in the in-person sessions of the conference were mainly Dutch and western European, representing a range of NGOs, social movements, social enterprises, and academic disciplines, with very few adopting ‘degrowther’ as their main political identity. This is consistent with how degrowth is often characterised: rather than being a coherent movement, it serves as a gathering point for different strands of critical thinking, a space of convergence where different actors and groups can come together.5 ‘Multiplicity is a key resource and strength of degrowth, and this multiplicity is making degrowth capable of including a variety of converging ideas and movements, while offering them a space for meaningful interchange.’6
How, then, should we understand degrowth? Is it a movement or a network? Is it a community? This question was also discussed at the second edition of the ‘Degrowth Movement Assembly,’ which took place the day before the conference.7 In that space, many advocated for stronger movement formation, beyond the network, or community character. At the same time, most agreed that degrowth remains in formation and is not (yet) a fully-fledged movement.
Among the organisers, Chizu Sato, the coordinator of the Decoloniality and Degrowth plenary, suggested that degrowth can be understood as a “master signifier” that provides a space for numerous movements and initiatives to gather and exchange. Diego Andreucci and Gustavo Garcia-Lopez, two of the coordinators of the Green New Deal thematic stream, argued that due to the lack of a typical degrowth action and other elements that would characterise degrowth as a movement, it may be better to think of it as a broad framework that is being mobilised by groups with diverse ideological positions and strategic preferences. ‘Degrowth is a partially empty signifier that is mobilized by different groups to name, more or less, their vision of how society and the environment should be.’
Crelis Rammelt emphasised that shared ideas and principles are more important than operating under a specific name. Building on the themes discussed during the plenary, he remarked that ‘Beyond identifying shared principles and understandings of what is wrong, there needs to be a better understanding of the process of change and how movements can better build alliances and learn from past failures.’ In situating degrowth, he pointed out that: ‘There are all these initiatives that fit from a degrowth perspective. But they’re not degrowth, there’s no such thing as a degrowth initiative. It is, for instance, people mobilizing around community gardens or community-supported agriculture.[…] Maybe the role for a Degrowth movement is to be a sort of glue, or one of the glues.’
At present Degrowth therefore has a dual character, as an analytic framework and as a network or community of aligned initiatives, causes, and struggles. The different workshops and plenaries of the conference helped to unpack the diverse approaches, tactics, and political orientations of the varied movements and initiatives represented, and to explore the question of how they might collectively form a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Several sessions explored the relationships between individual initiatives, including through the important framework of “solidarity”. If the goal is to build bridges, then solidarity can be understood as one of the central elements that enables the process of bridging between different initiatives and actors. Two workshops unpacked the questions of how diverse initiatives can work together across political diversity.
Events explored various themes such as Agrarian studies and Degrowth. Credit: Katy Barnard
The workshop ‘Weaving a Global Tapestry of Alternatives’ introduced the Global Tapestry of Alternatives (GTA), an initiative that strives to bring, or weave, together numerous organisations and initiatives across scales, sectors, and geographies. Solidarity, here, manifests as a process of mutual support and giving visibility to the numerous alternatives that exist while at the same time seeking to inspire others to create their own.
The workshop ‘Creating Networks of Solidarity’ explored solidarity-building initiatives in food and farming, foregrounding solidarity as a key degrowth principle and building block for future degrowth societies. Solidarity was understood as struggling alongside others by linking diverse initiatives which included collaborations in the UK between researchers and practitioners of agroecology; a Belgian initiative connecting farmers and citizens in food production as well as protests and political actions; a Dutch community farm supporting undocumented migrants, connecting to local farmers, and raising money for diverse initiatives; as well as a Dutch community garden providing produce for low-income families while practicing regenerative agriculture to rejuvenate the soil.
Solidarity therefore manifests in multiple ways. Across these different initiatives, it weaves together the social and the ecological and helps unite a diverse people through shared concerns, principles, and goals. The two workshops illustrated two particular forms of solidarity in the broader degrowth community – connecting diverse initiatives across borders and a performative solidarity bridging the social and the ecological in the food sector.
The full plenary of the Dutch Social Movements panel. Credit: Josch Kuhlmahnn
Strengthening networks of (Dutch) movements
Conference plenaries also provided spaces for proponents of degrowth to interact with representatives of different groups and movements, uncovering opportunities for concrete solidarity and collective actions. The Dutch Social Movements thematic stream, for instance, brought together different initiatives from across the Netherlands. The initiatives were mainly environmentally focused and included a food forest; repair cafes; a platform for new economic thinking; and campaign and strategic litigation organisations. The discussion focused on the political, institutional, legal, and intellectual barriers these diverse initiatives face in their work, lessons learned, and ways in which they could connect and learn from one another.
The Anarchism and Degrowth plenary, meanwhile, provided a space for representatives from autonomous movements and groups from the Netherlands and beyond to share political strategies and ways of ‘organising outside (and against) the state’. Across the conference a diversity of different political approaches and strategies were visible, giving a glimpse of both the complexity and the possibilities of building a wider network, community, or movement for degrowth within a national and international context.
At the same time, some core constituencies were not represented at the conference. Representatives of political parties and certain key social movements and organisations at the Dutch level were not represented. Trade unions and workers’ organisations appeared to be absent as well, as did migrant organisations or other groups primarily representing minorities or marginalised members of society. Issues linked to social and racial justice, migration, workers’ rights and other related topics were addressed in sessions, but representation from these groups was limited. The Roundtable ‘Power struggles – transnational people’s movements, anti-extractivism and degrowth,’ for instance, discussed struggles around movements of unemployed people in North Africa, people’s resistance to the financialisation of agricultural land in Brazil, and grassroots mobilising against Shell in the Netherlands but the conference audience largely did not include people directly involved in these struggles.
Diego Andreucci observed that ‘this is not only about Degrowth but also something that happens in academic political ecology. We tend to leave out groups like the working classes and migrants, the struggles against exploitation and dispossession that we have around us. So, I would really love to see next degrowth conferences, but also conferences in political ecology and so on, include workers unions, migrant unions, migrant co-ops…people like migrant women who clean the hotel where the conference is taking place, you know. These kinds of actors are often left out. And they are really, really important to include in the conversation and for us to join their struggles, even if they’re not explicitly environmental or for degrowth.’
Julien-Francois Gerber described the ‘natural allies’ of degrowth as mostly grassroots activists on social and environmental justice, progressive NGOs, and some progressive governmental actors, like the ‘fearless cities’ initiative.8 He added: ‘It’s interesting … in a way, the allies and the non-allies, the limit is not so blurred. At some point, you’re either in or you’re out. I’m not sure how to shift this boundary later, because it will have to be shifted. But right now, it’s still pretty clear.’
The final section will further explore where this fits into existing debates within degrowth, its implications, and potential ways forward. First, however, we will briefly outline some of the key visions brought forward by participants at the conference, and the interactions between them in this space.
The eight thematic streams provided a variety of overlapping visions, which cannot be adequately summarised here. However, some sessions provided a framework for better defining and understanding degrowth visions.
Musical lunch-breaks at the local Stadsklooster. Credit: Josch Kuhlmann
Urban-Rural Dialogues: overcoming divisions through degrowth
The Urban-Rural Dialogues plenary explored the relationship between urban and rural areas. The discussion suggested that contemporary economic growth produces an antagonistic and extractive relationship between ‘the city and the countryside’. Degrowth advocates therefore seek to rethink the possibility of relations that are reciprocal and solidaristic in nature.
Molly Scott-Cato, economist and former Green MEP, stressed that the transition to a ‘green’ economy necessitates the relocalisation of employment and the creation of green jobs in all communities. The ‘bioregional economy’ model, for instance, is premised on the idea of the best possible life with minimum energy and material input. Moving towards a bioregional economy, Scott-Cato argues, can ‘cure’ the alienation from the world that capitalist models of economic life have engendered as well as responding to the increasing division that positions the rural as a space for habitation, without local employment. This goes beyond socio-ecological imperatives; indeed, it has a deeply spiritual component that centers the need to reconnect with one’s place.
Alies Fernhout, activist and farmer at the Boterbloem, spoke about the struggle surrounding the Lutkemeerpoulder, a historical and fertile rural area between Schiphol and Amsterdam that was marked for business development. Fernhout described the struggle as multidimensional, spanning the political, socio-economical, as well as ecological. Despite 20 years of protest and rising awareness of the unsustainable nature of the project, there is no realisation that this is not a feasible way of planning cities. This, Fernhout stressed, makes opposition even more important. To counter it, efforts occur on multiple dimensions, ranging from direct actions, to working with the media, to legal challenges and squatting and cultivating the land. Beyond opposition, these efforts serve to build a community and illustrate the possibilities within the area.
Lastly, Henrik Erntson dissected the mechanics of ‘green capitalism’ via the electric car, outlining the various underlying processes to appropriate the resources for production and calling into question the divide between urban and rural. He argued that urban and rural should be understood in a dialectical relationship as part of the same totality – the circulation of capital. The urban-rural distinction serves to divide working people, and to ‘cordon off discussions about class struggle.’ Ernstson therefore restated the issue as: How do we take discussions on planetary urbanisation into account when seeking opportunities for reciprocity and solidarity between the so-called urban and so-called rural?
Collectively these interventions presented a vision of a new relationship between rural and urban space which could be fostered by a degrowth perspective. Taking seriously the impacts of growth in both urban and rural spaces can create opportunities for radical new
Arts and Culture: a more than intellectual vision
The conference also sought to incorporate diverse ways of communicating, including arts and culture throughout the discussion, as well as dedicating specific thematic streams to culture, spirituality, and psychology. Chizu Sato, the coordinator for arts and culture of the conference, stated that she wanted to organise something dynamic rather than a ‘typical ecological economics conference’. Aiming to reach beyond the academic roots of many degrowth discussions, the conference organisers aimed to collaborate with artists and activists to build an event that avoided reproducing an exclusionary space or prioritising a single way of knowing.
The format of a ‘conference’ itself was called into question during the planning discussions, with suggestions to organise a festival instead. Whereas the conference format remained, it was suffused with a diversity of arts and culture sessions throughout. Sato aimed to include cultural interventions that stimulate people, helping them to pay more attention to embodied experiences, and connect in a holistic and multisensory way, rather than only analytically. This, she argued, helps to break away from an understanding of struggles that is located purely at the macro level and facilitates a shift towards realising their situatedness in lived reality, opening spaces for alternative practices, imaginaries, and concomitant resistances.
Multiple daily artistic sessions such as ‘Artistic and Multisensory Approaches to a Degrowth Transition’, or ‘The Slow Adventure’ – a three-hour walk imbued with artistic research and activities – gave expression to this philosophy. Plenaries, such as the Decoloniality and Degrowth Plenary, also sought to incorporate alternative methodologies, blending spoken word, music, and live artistic rapportage with more conventional formats.
The Decoloniality plenary included music and spoken word performances. Credit: Josch Kuhlmann
This approach helped to open an important discussion on the role of the arts, spirituality, and psychology in effecting societal change. The plenaries on the ‘Cultural Politics of Degrowth’ and ‘Embodying Degrowth’ were especially vibrant examples. Beyond the need, as Jay Jordan put it, ‘to desert fucking Netflix’, the conference exposed and explored the need for further investigation of the role of hegemonic culture and the way in which it creates consumer imaginaries. Too often, these aspects remain underexposed. The conference sought to open a discussion of what Harald Welzer has previously called our ‘mental infrastructures’ and to explore means of change.9
Cultural Politics of Degrowth Plenary
The plenary tackled the question, how can we mobilise cultural forms, practices, narratives, and identities as tactics for a degrowth transition? British philosopher Kate Soper argued that recognising existing disaffections with orthodox understandings of progress can serve as a template to broaden the appeal of the degrowth movement. To achieve this, Soper outlined several themes that could be prioritised such as challenging ‘the cult of new-ness,’ fostering new forms of skepticism towards technology and its role in culture, as well as rethinking the contribution of the humanities in education. Amsterdam-based artist Teresa Borasino, meanwhile, emphasised the importance of building resistance while simultaneously reflecting on and getting rid of the negativities and many assumptions we have inherited from the ‘old system’ and are continually reproducing. Culture is a way to do this, and to create tactics that ‘touch’ people: ‘Any tactic that doesn’t touch you will fail’. Jay Jordan expanded on this, arguing that joy, gratitude, and friendship lie at the core of successful mobilisation. He stressed that we need pleasurable life-affirming actions that are neither sad, nor sacrificial. This is where artists come in, Jordan argued, since activists and academics tend to underestimate the radical imagination. Indeed, it is not figures and apocalyptic facts that mobilise people, but dreams.
Participants built a Mycelium pigeon tower together. Credit: Josch Kuhlmann
Embodying Degrowth Plenary
The ‘Embodying Degrowth’ plenary had a different emphasis, touching upon both spiritual and psychological questions. Camille Barton, artist, educator, and researcher set the tone for the plenary with a guided exercise in mindfulness, finishing with the question: ‘What do you need in order to slow down and rest deeply?’ Mia Herndon of Third Wave Foundation reflected critically on her own journey as an activist, describing moving away from sole opposition to macro-systems towards effecting change on smaller scales. She argued that personal healing may function similarly to societal change in that we must understand what moves us towards freedom or emancipation, and what doesn’t. This needs to be a collective process premised on sharing and engaging with others. Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe spoke about neoliberalism as a culture that actively works to ‘uncare’ us, boosting our narcissism through ideals of endless self-optimisation; making it more difficult to exercise our caring part; and incentivising living life in a state of ‘disavowal’. With Herndon, she argued instead for a culture of mutual care.
American author Charles Eisenstein reflected on the meaning of wealth and value, arguing that time is central to this. Increasingly, orthodox promises of development are failing even those they are supposed to benefit. Reclaiming true wealth entails moving away from an orientation towards goods and services, and allowing uncertainty, and vulnerability to enter. Admitting to not knowing what a good life entails, being open to exploring and learning from people and places that are considered underdeveloped but which have maintained forms of wealth despite overt oppression and exploitation. Camille Barton closed the session with further reflections, beginning from the premise that capitalism should not be thought of solely as external structures but constitutive of the internal make-up of individuals. Barton emphasised that working with the body is a way of connecting to this, of understanding how external factors interact with internal mechanisms and mannerisms to generate the means of fostering long-term systemic change.
These are snap-shots hinting at the wider array of discussions ranging from psychoanalytic perspectives on degrowth to the potential of religious communities as a source of inspiration, and more. After the conference, organiser Julien-Francois Gerber, who also helped to convene this thematic stream, reflected on how spirituality has generally been met with some skepticism by ‘the radical left’. Like Teresa Borasino and Jay Jordan, he pointed to the limitations of social scientific methods and explanations for mobilising and affecting change. ‘At some point, you hit a wall’. Getting past that and bringing about change may require engaging with different fields and with questions relating to psychological make-ups, individual and collective trauma, and the unconscious.
These discussions are in an early stage, yet they touch upon important political questions. Thirty years after the first IPCC report, the ‘climate’ is starting to suffuse all aspects of life, morphing into a meta-question that shapes and impacts upon other debates and issues. At the same time, this process of suffusion is on-going and uneven within and across societies and occurs against a background of rising emissions and increasingly regular climate disasters, foreshadowing what is to come in the future.
Degrowth highlights that ‘modern’ ways of being are ecologically unsustainable and depend on unequal appropriation of resources and the externalisation of costs – what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen have previously called ‘the imperial mode of being’.10 Increasingly, the need to shift some underlying social values is revealing itself as a particularly thorny issue that is the subject of severe cultural clashes, whether on meat consumption, mobility or, the reactionary fury directed at protesting children who are calling for an end to ‘omnicide’.
Changing peoples’ ways of being will require much more than just rational arguments. At the same time, the conversation about what modes of living could replace the present one must engage a far greater proportion of humanity than the degrowth community can claim to represent today. This includes those who ,in the current mode of aggregate excess, are struggling to satisfy their material needs and are striving for a ‘decent life’ for their families and themselves. It further necessitates a decolonial approach that breaks with imaginaries of singular developmental trajectories, allowing for diverse modes of living and adopting a pluriversal perspective. Artistic, creative, and other less-academic ways of speaking and knowing can help to invite a wider range of actors into this critical discussion.
The Feminist Political Ecology plenary including Stefania Barca, Giovanna di Chirico, and Seema Kulkarni. Credit: Josch Kuhlmann
The comparative novelty of this discussion could be seen in the fact that, while speakers introduced rich and exciting concepts and frameworks, these weren’t always closely linked to degrowth. At times, the diverse themes and perspectives were merely juxtaposed with degrowth frameworks, rather than providing deeper engagement. There is therefore ample opportunity to create new spaces that allow for a deeper and more thoughtful engagement between those deeply embedded in degrowth frameworks and those working on social transformation from other perspectives or theoretical backgrounds.
Building on a background of broader solidarity, it will be important to further explore overlaps and shared principles as well as tensions or diverging visions for upcoming conferences and events. It is a starting point for conversations between degrowth and these different themes, and between diverse themes in a degrowth setting. Understanding and exploring these tensions can be a first step towards building a more cohesive, unified, and radical understanding of degrowth and its relation to other frameworks.
Politics and the role of the state
The conference showcased different political tendencies or perspectives within the world of degrowth. An exchange between Kate Soper and Jay Jordan illustrates one of the key debates. Soper argued that social movements such as Degrowth, Fridays for Future, or Extinction Rebellion exercise lots of agency, and are a significant potential agent of change, but transcend traditional class-based identities. She argued that there is a growing body of people across all classes who are beginning to resent the downsides of current ways of living. In her words, ‘I think they’re beginning to panic about what the future holds for their children and grandchildren’. Soper argued that a coherent political formation such as a political party would be key for bringing these still-disparate actors together for radical change.
Jay Jordan, on the other hand, argued that power needs to be dismantled rather than concentrated. He put forward the idea that genuinely transformative change requires moving beyond the state: ‘The state has always failed us. It’s not the model of degrowth. Degrowth means decentralised, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy. There are examples already such as in Rojava, or the Zapatistas.’ Change, in this account, always comes from the margins. While both speakers agreed on the importance of diversity, and certain critiques of the state, they diverged on the question of whether a degrowth economy could realistically be implemented without a recognised political organisation that could ‘bundle’ the diverse interests of people dissatisfied by the current system.
This exchange exemplifies two distinct visions of the role of the state, which both exist within the broader degrowth community today. (1) Interstitial politics, in line with Erik Olin Wright’s understanding, that mobilise and seek to build alternatives in ‘the niches, spaces, and margins’ of a capitalist society 11 and (2) a push towards ‘non-reformist reforms’ – reforms that can be applied to the capitalist system but that are incompatible with preserving it in its current state, thereby modifying relations of power.12 Rich, lively, and sometimes heated debates at the conference show that these two approaches are both very present in the degrowth community today, without a clear synthesis or consensus in sight. Several of the workshops and plenaries, however, did provide opportunities to explore and elaborate these perspectives more deeply, and build mutual understanding.
Credit: John Akerman Özgüç
The State & Degrowth:
The Anarchism and Degrowth plenary offered a space for autonomous movements with the goal of ‘celebrating and fostering the diversity of positions that exist in Degrowth and seeing how they resonate with the movements that exist here today’. In this space, there was an underlying understanding of the state as a colonial project, entangled with capitalism, heteropatriarchal, violent in institutional and direct ways, and representing a negation of real democracy.
Jorge Durán Solórzano, a researcher at the University of Leiden, spoke about the history of the Zapatista movement and the role of accelerating state repression and violence in its formation. Dilar Dirik of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford spoke about the Kurdish liberation movement and Rojava, a de-facto autonomous region of Northern and Eastern Syria. Dirik described breaking from state authority as a long and arduous process of reducing reliance on it and on the institutions of capitalism. The state, here, becomes synonymous with occupation. Toen Zwartstraat presented a similar perspective when speaking about the struggles of the Dutch squatting movement, which has shrunk over recent years as authorities pushed back more aggressively in defense of property, and Dutch city centers were increasingly penetrated by capital. Lastly, activist and artist Isabelle Fremeaux spoke about La ZAD Notre-Dame-des-Landes, an autonomous area of resistance on the site of a planned airport in France. After decades of resistance by local farmers and appropriation by the state and multinationals, an open letter invited people to squat this area and help to defend the territory. This gave rise to a vast community of commoning that explicitly organises in opposition to capital and the state.
The Anarchism and Degrowth plenary including Jorge Durán Solórzano, Dilar Dirik, Toen Zwartstraat, and Isabelle Frémeaux. Credit: John Akerman Özgüç
Whereas the anarchist plenary problematised the omnipresence of the state and its myriad institutions, interventions in other spaces pointed to a dearth of state action and involvement. During the ‘Dutch Social Movements and Degrowth’ plenary, for instance, Lex Albers stressed that Dutch environmental policy is characterised by a total absence. For Albers and the other speakers, the lack of government action was a key critique. In this vision, at least some aspects of the state were seen as not only legitimate but crucial for the upcoming socio-ecological transformation. The state was understood to have a mandate to govern, and speakers privileged engagement – through civil society and policy-making – that worked within rather than outside the present system.
The ‘Green New Deal and Degrowth’ plenary discussed the potential for bottom-up appropriation of this framework and touched upon some of the critical questions related to working within institutional settings or policy circles. Degrowth scholar Giorgos Kallis argued that the Green New Deal represents a huge advance over previous discussions. It ties environmental questions to social justice and provides a footing for groups to make claims and frame issues. Not denying critical issues with mainstream GND designs, he nonetheless identified it as the most progressive existing political framework for climate action, which is, furthermore, not even close to being realised and facing aggressive opposition from the right. For that reason, he advocated caution in advancing theoretical critique that is not backed up by proper alternatives. Indeed, building oppositional movements to dismantle fossil fuel infrastructure, for instance, should go together with connecting to policy makers and building alliances. Danielle Hirsch, of Dutch NGO Both ENDS, went further, arguing that the rapidly accelerating environmental crisis makes it imperative to look for ways in which the current system can be of use, for instance through divestment.
Human rights lawyer Harpreet Kaur Paul and attorney and climate justice organiser Elizabeth Yeampierre advocated for a broad toolbox of strategies and tactics that nonetheless centers grassroots mobilisation – meaning deep democracy and local level community organising – and emphasises fairness in critical sectors such as health, education, housing and transport. Yeampierre especially, reflecting upon the experience of the grassroots network Climate Justice Alliance in working with larger environmental NGOs and trade unions within the policy sphere, emphasised that crucial political differences on topics such as how to deal with sacrifice zones cannot be disregarded.
Reflecting on this in a follow-up interview, Gustavo Garcia Lopez, the moderator of the GND plenary and one of the organisers of the thematic stream, suggested that there will always be tensions, but that this is not necessarily a bad thing. What is more important, he stressed, is to emphasise the interdependence of different approaches. Referring to a point Elizabeth Yeampierre had made during the plenary, he added: ‘We must work with policy, yes, but we cannot do this without building community power. You cannot have policy activism and lobbying without at the same time building community power and mobilising the people.’
Diego Andreucci, researcher and co-organiser of the GND thematic stream, argued that being mindful of what can be expected of institutional actors – whether these are national governments, municipalities, the UN, or other – is fundamental. Engaging with these institutions can help to bring about progressive policy change. But the most important thing is not to be naïve about it, he argued. We shouldn’t expect the capitalist state to dismantle itself and give the power back to the people. States are there to protect the interest of capital in the long term.
Overall, rather than searching for the ‘best’ strategy, participants emphasised the compatibility of different modes of action. All interviewees were adamant about the need to incorporate diverse tactics and think of these tensions as generative, emphasising ‘complementarity’ as Julien-Francois Gerber put it. This touches on what Andreucci described as a key issue among movements at large. ‘The main challenge for environmental movements and other radical social movements is fragmentation. Environmental movements possess a great potential to change the world. There are many reasons for them to be formed and to be active in the numerous existing and future environmental conflicts. Indeed, the Green New Deal is just such a framework that could be appropriated from the bottom up and to bring together movements.’ Collective discussions, such as those which took place in the Hague, can be critical for helping diverse actors to identify possibilities for collective action and solidarity in the face of differing analyses, perspectives, and tactics.
Many avid discussions took place at local Café Utopie. Credit: Katy Barnard
Beyond questions of political strategy, reflecting on how the degrowth community can grow further and connect to wider social forces is a critical next step, particularly if it aims to consolidate itself as something more like an organised movement, as suggested in the Degrowth Movement Assembly. Touching on the question of who was present and who was absent at the conference, Diego Andreucci quipped: ‘So degrowth is not going to bring the revolution. Neither is academic political ecology. That revolution needs to come from below! For any movement to be politically relevant, it needs to be a movement of the masses, or an idea that becomes appropriated by the masses. Degrowth can become a revolutionary movement if it grips the masses. Now, the question is, how will degrowth as a theory “grip the masses”?’
This comment ties in with a broader discussion taking place in degrowth relating to the key constituencies for political action. Stefania Barca, for instance, argued in a previous paper that degrowth has thus far failed to connect to movements of the dispossessed and populations living in precarious conditions, as well as the working class. Yet, to build political power, it is key to connect with ‘a broadly defined global working class – including both wage labor and the myriad forms of work that support it – and its organizations.’13
For Barca, the alienation of workers from the products of their production sits at the core of the issue and for degrowth to connect, it needs to gain a ‘clear perspective’ on the origins of said alienation, as well as the means to reverse it. Harpreet Kaur Paul and Elizabeth Yeampierre during the GND plenary both emphasised the need for a concrete vision of change – realistic and appealing proposals of what we are shifting towards that can serve as a base from which to mobilise workers. Hamza Hamouchene made a similar observation about the movements of the unemployed in Algeria: people are aware that employment is a means of survival, and that awareness manifests as a demand for jobs in extractive sectors, despite the recognised issues with these industries. These oppositional movements, identified by Joan Martinez Allier as ‘the environmentalism of the poor’14 do not protest for the conservation of pristine nature. Rather, they demand social justice while opposing neoliberal/imperial extractivism and defending the right to decent livelihoods.
Reaching back to the earlier point on active inclusion of workers’ groups and others, a first question relates to the material conditions that would enable workers and others to participate. Taking a week off to attend a conference is not possible for everyone and the ability to do so can be a manifestation of class privilege. Determining the necessary preconditions for participation is an important step towards broader inclusivity of workers, migrants and other marginalised groups in society.
Secondly, what does degrowth have to offer these groups? Andreucci remarked that thus far, degrowth has found it difficult to address the concerns of those living on a minimum wage, in precarity, or struggling to make it to the end of the month financially while paying for food and electricity. Even in the comparatively wealthy countries of the Global North, many people struggle to meet their basic needs, to support their families, and to live a life of basic economic dignity.
This points to further ways for the degrowth community to connect more broadly and branch out. For Julien-Francois Gerber, cooperation on very concrete issues such as debt could be the first step in alliance-formation. Debt is rising, and quickly becoming a major social issue, not only for people but also for municipalities and governments. Possibly, organising around debt could further serve to connect different struggles and introduce people to a more fundamental critique of the current socio-economic system that looks at, for instance, the imperative to grow and the increasing disconnect between the financial and the real economy. In the Netherlands more specifically, agriculture and the farmers working in it are a prime example of a sector that is plagued by indebtedness.15
Mobilising on issues such as debt, land appropriations by business and local governments, rising rent prices, the “crisis of care,” the right to healthy and locally produced food, or visions of meaningful and dignified work for those currently employed in environmentally destructive sectors may be ways to connect with other struggles and broaden the groups involved. As the degrowth community grows, and deepens its analysis through conferences, workshops, and other spaces these questions could provide a meaningful focus for future conversations.