Saamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.
There are few who believe that all is well with the world and that we can just carry on as before. Where there is disagreement, it seems, is on how much needs to change. Amongst the leading political parties in the UK, it seems the answer is “as little as possible”. But at the 2nd Degrowth Conference (or Decreixement in Catalan), held in Barcelona this March, we got a flavour of a broader range of answers to this question and, indeed, potentially a new social movement. The concept of ‘green growth’ (investing in renewable and new technologies allowing economic growth without exceeding physical limits) has all but been abandoned by this community – demonstrated to be an insufficient answer to environmental crises by nef’s The Great Transition and Growth isn’t Possible and by the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth.
Rather the debate centres around what more should, or needs to change, along with an end to economic growth. Is capitalism compatible with degrowth? How about markets? Indeed the entire modern world and industrialisation were questioned by some at the Conference.
Two years ago, attending the first degrowth conference, the concept was somewhat an academic curiosity. Now, with 500 attendees from 40 countries, there is a sense of a degrowth movement, albeit one that is trying to find its direction and a common narrative. The range of attendees – from academics to activists – was a strength; the conference reminded me of the European Social Forum, and the changes degrowth calls for cannot be achieved without such a range of actors. But it was also a challenge, with expectations from the conference so disparate. Whilst some attendees work closely with public bodies to explore aspects of degrowth, others were disgusted that even academic economists had been invited to the event.
So what common narrative may emerge? Well, degrowthers certainly recognise the fundamental role economic systems play in the environmental, social and economic crises we face. Furthermore, groups within the conference lay at least partial blame on the economic system for several other issues, including war, gender inequality, cultural imperialism and, of course, flat-lining well-being. This ‘joining the dots’ is key. There are many rally calls for social change. Where degrowth appears to be different is that it brings together so many apparently disparate issues. It is, as nef fellow Nic Marks would say, a platform with many doors. People are brought to it for all sorts of reasons. The shared understanding is of the primacy of the absurdities of the economic system – one which values a prison above an ecosystem, one whose own success leads to the redundancy of labour, and one which relies on the myth that infinite growth is possible on a finite planet – and the futility of attempting to tackle other problems until this economic system is contested. This understanding may help unite these different causes and concerns into a single and potentially powerful drive towards a Great Transition.
Coming back to the UK from Barcelona by train, we stopped at Cerbère, the first town in France as you come up the coast. Sharing its name with the dog that guarded the gates of hell, there was a sense of a place on a knife-edge. On the one hand it’s a dump, a town that grew out of the need to change train gauges on the border with Spain. A once famous hotel now looms in disrepair over the train tracks, the path from the centre to the train station appears to go through a sewage tunnel and, while we waited for our connecting train, someone set fire to some rags and through them onto the train tracks. But watching two strangers, a young black Frenchman and on old, probably American, man, with a guitar and all the air of a blues player from the 60s, meet, jam together and seemingly become friends, I got that cheesy warm sense of the good nature of humanity. There may be some differences and disagreements within the degrowth movement, but overall, it stands out as the most radical yet robust attempt to mobilise support for a better world – a more intelligent and coherent successor to the anti-globalisation movement of the nineties and the noughties. If that’s true, then we might just be able to turn back from the gates of hell.