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What could a post-growth society look like and how should we prepare for it?

When I booked two weeks in advance for the Beyond Growth Conference in Berlin this year it was easy to get a seat, they only expected 1,000 participants. However, at the closing session on May 22, and to everyone’s collective surprise, organizers said nearly 2,500 had participated in the event – an unusual outpouring for supposed radical ideas. Most of the individual workshops had at least 100 participants, many up to 300. Plenary sessions were gigantic.

By the numbers it’s now clear that post growth thinking has arrived in Germany and it’s difficult to believe that it won’t soon be a major political force. More than 50 organizations were supporting, funding and promoting the event – including several prominent think tanks and foundations. Witthout a doubt it was a major convergence.

The host, ATTAC, (the Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions to Aid Citizens), is growing throughout Europe. For a number of years academics developing ideas around social justice and ecology as critics of globalization have been joining. Many different strands of political opinion from hard left to post growth green can be found in ATTAC’s ranks. They have succeeded in engaging European trade unions, many of which were fully involved in the discussions. A few years ago there was difficulty bridging the division between the ecological and environmental politics of the greens and the social and other focuses taken up by the left and trade unions, but ATTAC, who embrace broad diversity, have been able to lift partisan actors above the fray. While there are still divisions, they’re handled non-acrimoniously and, as a major union there said, it’s clear there is now an explicit consensus that social and ecological problems must be worked on together.

The Wealth of Degrowth

The influence of the global south at the conference was powerful. Vandana Shiva opened the congress and made a major statement about how Indian growth is rooted in a host of destructive practices and processes. Her main point was that growth is only a measure of financial activity, not well-being. When you look at what is growing in India you find that the pains of development are damaging to the least powerful, and are effectively polarizing wealth. Growth is not the answer she said. What is needed is a different development model – one that is socially just and not ecologically destructive. What this alternative development model can be or should be in the global south became a major theme of the gathering. Degrowth, or post growth economics, is different from being driven into poverty in the interests of the finance and banking sector. It is a different vision and a different development model – framed as a positive alternative. In that respect this conference shared something with the idea of the Transition Movement and the French Decroissance (degrowth) movement that argues that while contraction will have to happen, we must focus on shaping the process of contraction in a positive fashion. Also particularly influential at this conference were voices and ideas from Ecuador and Bolivia. In the search for overarching visions and goals for a post growth economy, activists in Germany have picked up on the voices of indigenous communities in South America, especially the idea of Buen Vivir – Gutes Leben in German – Good Life. The starting point for this idea of Good Life is the cosmology, philosophy, culture and political economic ideas of a diversity of indigenous communities and tribes in the Andean region. The culture and thinking of these communities are reemerging after centuries of colonialism, Catholicism and the impact of having their economies subordinated to resource extraction.

Buen Vivir: A Vision for the Future?

The indigenous communities of the Andes already have the alternative to growth. It is their traditional notion of Sumak Kawsay, a Quecha word that is translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir. Sumak Kawsay puts the relationships of humans and communities to nature as their central point. It is an idea that existed prior to colonialism and the corresponding development of the ecologically damaging extraction industries and plantation monocultures. The idea is based on the visions and ancestral traditions of many different tribes and communities and decisively breaks from Western concepts of development. For this reason the summary words, Good Life, nowhere near adequately convey what is meant to an English speaking or European readership. The fact that these ideas are coming forward now and are influencing the politics and constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia is incredibly important. It not only gives rise to states that explicitly reject growth and “development” as their goals, but reflects a neo-emancipation process. The indigenous people in the Andes have for centuries been repressed and marginalized but now are able to put their own ideas into the political process. (In Bolivia 55% of the population are indigenous peoples, from 36 different ethnic groups. White people are a mere 15%. In Ecuador the indigenous population is 35% of the total population). It seems obvious to say that common ways of thinking about growth and development among the population of the industrial countries assumes that people in poor countries would want to develop along a similar path to that followed in the industrial world – this is the direction of “progress” and reason. That is, after all, why they are called developing countries. However, for indigenous peoples development and growth has actually been a long history of colonial exploitation, suffering, racism and oppression of women, not to mention the destruction of Mother Earth. It is thus by no means the case that all of these people see their further development as a desirable future and we should stop assuming it. On the contrary many indigenous peoples have reason to counterpose the current state of things and celebrate their traditional lifestyles as having an important contribution to prevent an economically suicidal path for the planet.

Is Consumerism Really a Part of Human Nature?

I recall an email exchange with a Financial Timesjournalist who was certain that poor people everywhere wanted to have electrical household appliances, a car, and all other sorts of modern stuff. This assumption that consumerism is a natural and inevitable feature of human nature is not something that one can assume of Buen Vivir. For example, Elisa Vega from Bolivia, who leads the department for de-patriachalization at the Ministry for Decolonialization, was sure about the quality of life associated with traditional ways of living when she spoke at the conference. Her grandfather lived to 110 years and was active to the last day. He did not save money but saved up plentiful reserves of nonperishable foodstuffs. Elisa said that indigenous peoples were not consumption orientated. There was no point in having more than was necessary. If you saw her again, she said, it would be wearing the same traditional dress and the same jewelry as the day you first met her, the jewelry being centuries old. Things must be protected and made to last. What was important to indigenous peoples were family and community relationships – and the relationship to Mother Nature, Pachamama. In this respect Buen Vivir is very different from any kind of individualistic idea of Good Life. It is only conceivable in the social context in which people live. It involves striving for harmony and balance rather than dominance. This is important because the concept is rooted in plurality and a coexistence based on respect – both of human communities and of nature. Thus decolonization in the Andean region is not tending to the creation of a new monolithic point of view but is seen as needing to be built on a diversity of cultures. Nor is it about a simple return to ancestral and traditional thinking. Buen Vivir not only allows differences but actively seeks them out. Thinkers from the Andes communicate with other cultures as well as with dissident Western thinkers and make reference to philosophers like Bloch and Benjamin, as well as Aristotle and the philosophers of deep ecology. So what does this Buen Vivir consist of? The general principles can be summarized thus:

Harmony and balance of all and with all. Complementarity, solidarity and equality. Collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic needs of all in harmony with mother earth. Respect for the rights of mother earth and for human rights. Recognition of people for what they are and not for what they own. Removal of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism. Peace between people and with mother earth.

This is the very antithesis of the idea of consumerist wellbeing – which is largely focused on material possessions so that people can organize themselves within a status hierarchy over and above others. One is reminded of the book by Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, which shows clearly that well-being and health is directly correlated with the degree of equality in a society. Social harmony is important to Good Life, and is enhanced by greater harmony with nature.

The Rights of the Earth

Let us now turn to the rights of mother earth, or Pachamama. It was on the basis of the rights of mother earth that the Bolivian government rejected the Copenhagen compromise and then went on to organize their own conference in Cochabamba where they put forward and agreed a Charter for the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010. To understand Pachamama properly one has to understand “Pacha” as a key concept for cultures in the Andes. It is an ambiguous concept that refers to the totality of being. It includes not only space and time but also forms of life that transcend space and time. “Pacha is not only time and space, it is the ability to have an active participation in the universe, to immerse in it, to be in it. Manqhapacha is the telluric (earth related) dimension of the Pacha, it relates to the inner earth as the origin,” Thomas Fatheuer writes. Indigenous people not only do NOT see the earth as a resource store that belongs to them – they see themselves as part of the earth, they are walking and living pieces of the earth. They do not have an anthropocentric world view with humans as the peak of creation and its owner – their view is nature-centric with humans as participants and parts in this world. According to the Cochabamba Convention of 22 April 2010 the following rights of mother earth were suggested:

The right to life and to existence. The right to be respected. The right continue its cycles and life processes free from damage caused by humans. The right to protection of its identity and integrity as a diverse, self directed and interrelated being. The right to water as the source of life. The right to clean air. The right to all round health. The right to freedom from contamination and pollution by toxic and radioactive wastes. The right not to be impaired by genetic modification or having its structure modified, which would threaten its life and health functions. The right to speedy and complete rescission of human activities which breach the principles of the declaration.

This is not sustainable development, nor can it even be described as designing and arguing for a green economy. Neither is it the same as putting decarbonizing the economy into focus as a central aim. It puts into question all our European concepts of modernity in which nature is ‘out there’ as an external store of resources and a sink, available for human use. This is a different voice, coming from a different cultural viewpoint outside the Western tradition. This civilization pradigm, with its assumed superiority, is now challenged.

Resisting the Pressure to Exploit

But what of the practice? Ecuador and Bolivia have been making their own path in South America but they have not been able to completely sever themselves from the processes of capitalist development. Both Alberto Acosta and Elisa Vega explained how hard it was in practice to oppose the priorities and pressure of global economic forces. The global economic stresses are experienced in their countries as a drive to open up to exploitation for mining and energy interests they said. And as Thomas Fatheuer argues, it is an irony of history that it turns out to be Bolivia of all places that has the world’s greatest reserves of lithium, a strategic resource of the future – necessary for batteries for mobile phones and electric cars. The temptation to mine is overwhelming. When the Bolivian government negotiates with Japanese interests for a strategic economic partnership it is reproducing another form of what was repeatedly called ‘extractionist economics’ in the Beyond Growth congress. It remains to be seen how this will work itself out. There are dangers of Buen Vivir being pressured into a compromise of Buen Vivir Lite. There are also some economic models to discourage the easy-money pressure of resource extraction in developing countries, but they would involve richer nations taking an economic hit. An example in tune with Buen Vivir principles is whether to open up exploitation of oil reserves in the Yasuni area of Ecuador, which is part of the rainforest and has a high level of biodiversity. Alberto Acosta has suggested that Ecuador leave the oil in the ground and be compensated by rich countries for doing that – however at a price much under the world price for oil. So far no developed nations have shown a willingness to take up the offer. What I took from this discussion was the need to stop assuming that development is either necessary or that it is what everyone naturally wants – including people in poor communities. Perhaps especially in many poor communities. I recall a description of how in Ireland the people living on the west coast adjacent to the Corrib gas field rejected onshore development even though they were offered a lot of money. The truth is, and this was also expressed by Vandana Shiva, most development leads to the expropriation of poor people, poisoning of their living environment, immense suffering and precarious alternative forms of employment – with the benefits going to a smaller group and the corporate elite.

Ecology and Socialism Unite

For many of the left-wingers at this conference the problem of growth is a problem of capitalism in so far as capital is driven by competition and profit maximization to continually increase monetary valuations for the owners of the economy. As a simplification one might even say: Of course the left would be against growth, because growth means more capitalism, with all its effects. But this then raises the issue of what is the alternative. I did not notice anyone here arguing for the ideas that were in circulation a few decades ago – a centrally planned economy, whether led by a party hierarchy or under some form of worker control. If Buen Vivir was part of a discussion about the alternative vision for society beyond growth (a vision clearly needing adaption to conditions in the industrial countries) what are the alternative means of delivery for a post growth and therefore, for the left, a post capitalist economy? For many here the buzz term was Solidarity Economy.

Endgame Optimism

But what of the state? What chance is there for meaningful top-down change? What can be gained from political engagement and activity? There was much talk of the need for democratization to facilitate the post growth economy and to support its new and emerging arrangements. However there was also great skepticism for how much can be achieved at this time. The grip of big corporate lobby interests over politics at national and European level is simply too great. This is important to consider when evaluating green growth. Of course green growth is a corporate agenda. Its assumption is that state policies to promote clean technologies, improving the efficiency with which natural resources are used, can achieve a drastic decoupling whereby the consumption of natural resources and energy is reduced, even as the growth process continues. This was doubted because the state was simply not strong enough against corporate interests. As Tim Jackson from the UK said in this workshop, there is no doubt that relative decoupling can take place (reduction in resource use per unit of production) but absolute decoupling (a real reduction in resource use) requires falling production, and that requires a system change. Indeed most of the presenters here agreed that the problems we face are systemic – sometimes seeing systemic in Marxist terms, sometimes not. Whatever. There is no doubt that the state is part of the system too – bound in by the interests of big corporate groups – and in current conditions absolute decoupling is not going to happen. The state is a weak instrument for the kind of change that has to happen. It is a little better in the more democratic societies perhaps. But too weak nonetheless. In these circumstances where are we to see the possibilities for real change occurring? How do we get the necessary top-down to support the bottom up? My own view, expressed in the decoupling workshop was to argue that systemic change from one system to another is not like the adoption of a policy, rather it is a much more far-reaching process. One way of looking at it is to compare it with the reconfiguration of a computer which must be switched off – and then on again – if reconfiguration is to take place. Perhaps the nearest that we will come to this will be the chaos caused by peak oil. I pointed out that a few months ago a department in the German army had produced a document that foresaw chaos because of peak oil – particularly the possibility that it would lead to a financial system collapse. I suggested the need to think about what program would be needed to prepare for the surviving of a ‘]switching off and on again – what political economic ecological program would help us start again in a very different direction toward a solidarity economy?

In the concluding session of the conference an ATTAC spokesman said he felt the discussion at this Beyond Growth congress had been much more positive than other events he had been to where there had been gloomy or alarming predictions of collapse. Collapse prophecies can put people off (though, at the beginning of the conference Nicho Paech argued that we have to prepare people for what is to come). Perhaps we can and must combine both perspectives. A contraction is coming whether we like it or not. But by preparing we can shape what is to come, rather than being passive victims. Perhaps we might even find that we are able to create a society in which Good Life is possible.

Brian Davey is a freelance ecological economist who lives in Nottingham, UK.

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