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Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, 2-6 Sep 2014 in Leipzig

[Ruby van der Wekken] Siemenpuu is participating in the fourth international conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig, Germany. The conference is bringing together some 3.000 people under main themes of Organizing society; Building a social and ecological economy; and Living conviviality. Beyond analysis it wants to bring concrete alternatives to the forefront. Daily entries below:

Day One

During a preparatory discussion today partner South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy SADED mentioned how it wants to bring the significance of degrowth leader Gandhi’s thoughts to the conference held in growth discourse stronghold Germany. On Friday 5.9 SADED and friends will be holding a discussion under the title of “Post growth Society, how to get there”, and among other the issue of selfrule, Swaraj, countering corporate control of state and market will be brought to the table.

Alberto Acosta – scientist and politician from Ecuador and an active proponent of post-extractivist debate – enthusingly spoke this evening during the opening event of a change in the degrowth movement which is establishing more connections between South and North, and realising the similarities of struggles. Acosta spoke that Degrowth must be explicitly connected to post-extractivism, and spoke out also explicitly on the challenges posed by the discourse of the Green economy, with its creation of fictious markets as those of carbon credits. Acosta raised up the need for utopias to guide, and the practices which are being made visible under inspiring notions as Buen Vivir.

Naomi Klein via a video connection from Ontario, spoke of Degrowth as being a core conversation of our time. She opened up on her new book, which she told starts from the premise that we have majorly failed to address the climate crises, which is something bound up with what has been too little explored : the triumph of neoliberal ideology during the late 80’s which systematically has undermined any responses to climate just when the issue became critical. Naomi called climate change a wake up call, pointing to the need for a completely new economy; and climate justice a discussion also about radically expanding the commons. 

With regards to the commons, Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies Group, Germany asked the question during the Opening plenary of this eve – can we give rise to an economy that does not grow compulsively? Drawing on the contribution of the commons discussion, Silke pointed out that this is an economy which goes beyond the market, and the guiding question then becomes to produce what is needed, not what want to sell. The more commons and commoning (the social practice of participating and contributing and sharing of responsability around a commons), the less pressure to grow. The commons do not entail the logic of capital valorisation.

This first evening of the conference ended on that tricky note of the language we use, a discussion not unknown also to Siemenpuu – what are the notions that capture and mobilise all that is wanted to be said and made alliancs around? Degrowth, Climate justice, Ubuntu, Commons, Ecological democracy or Economy of Permanence – Buen Vivirs in plural?

Day two : Facing the current crises – critique and resistance

During the opening key note speech on this second day at the Degrowth conference, Haris Konstantatos (Harakopio University of Athens) spoke on the potential of the rise of initiatives in Southern Europe taking discussions beyond market and state as family farms, cooperatives and complementary currencies, and noted that whilst spoken can be that these intiatives lack the critical mass necessary to develop real alternative modes of consumption and production, they are actually at the forefront adressing a central question in the discussion around social and ecological radical transformation : who produces what, for whom and how? Konstantatos said there is a growing realisation on this, also among rising Left political forces in Souther Europe, and called their signing on to the Last Call : A Manifesto for Transformation as being testimony to this.

Gustavo Garcia-Lopez, European Network of Political Ecology (ENTITLE) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona working on socio-ecological movements and community-based initiatives for the protection and autonomous management of environmental commons in Mexico and Puerto Rico, started the session Challenges to growth from the South: Conflicts and alternatives by answering the question as to why this discussion on the South was organised at this conference in Germany : The global South is the frontier for Growth, and at the same time a source of inspiration on the alternatives.

Irina Velicu, Post-doctoral Researcher ICTA-UAB, elaborated on the anti-mining movement in Romania, and the struggles around Rosa Montana, Transilvania. In 2000, Canadian company Gabriel Resources opend the largest open pit mine in Europe using cyanide. Once home to some 800 families, today the some 100 families remaining are supported in their mobilisations by national activist movements. The towns people talk on the curse of the mine, who has been taking its toll as several suicide deaths are called to be tesitomony to : “Never take more from the mine then the mine is offering you! Otherwise can kill you!” Whilst the families are carrying on with their small scale farming, no one is talking with them about their mine.

Gustavo Garcia-Lopez called Puerto Rico a perfect example of striving behind the growht paradigm, with its endeless pushing of growth of urban areas and tourism, and countering this discourse then Gustavo put well the “Commons as a space for developing different socio-ecological relations “commoning”, but that their enclosure requires that we move constantly between commoning and conflicts to defend the commons.”  Speaking on two particular areas and struggles in Puerto Rico, Gustavo said that in both cases, the Commons were a spatial barrier and frontier against expansion of tourism industry. Important to the struggles were also that Commons are a cultural heritage, as well as a natural heritage. The struggles are also striving towards a Commons Economy, which is rejecting profit over ecological sustainability and over equality, gathering behind it a broad network of actors against privatisations. A striving also towards a Commons democracy, challenging cronyism and inequality, and aiming beyond traditional participation methods towards the developing co-management of commons by communities and public sphere.

And what about Buen Vivir then? “The Government of Ecuador has been calling the struggles of indegenous peoples as pre-modern or anti development, and has with this delegitimised the transformative potential of Sumak Kawsay, ” said Lucia Gallardo, ICTA-UAB, Ecuador. “Thinking of Sumak Kawsay as something new or as something belonging to the past produces a double silencing : it de-historizes and de-politicizes the resistance of indigenous peoples… Sumak Kawsay has long had a transformative non-capitalist character which has already meant living non-capitalist values in a capitalist world.”  

Day three : Building alliances

“Energy should be looked at as an enabler, to bring about transformation. Can solar energy be organised via decentralised mini grids ? This is not cheap nor easy. To enable this, we need a global agreement, a global feed and tariff regime.” said Sunita Narein, CSE India, during her keynote speech “A right to grow? Meeting the needs of all within the planetary boundaries” on the third day of the Degrowth conference, which continues to gather a full main auditorium in the mornings of the conference.

Narein stressed the need to make a difference between environmentalism of the rich, and the environmentalism of the poor. “The environmentalism of the rich, of us middle class, deals with the environment after becoming rich. We are garbage managers at most… However, the environmentalism of the poor, which are witnessing allover India, takes the form of large protests by people around forests and lakes. These protests are not a luxury, but are linked to survival. This environmentalism of the poor is forcing us to rethink what is growth.”

Asked for a commentary to Nareins keynote, Bhuwan Patak, SADED, said it should be pointed out that as Gandhi has paid tribute to, in India there are many peoples who consciously are living other livelyhoods which could be referred to as degrowth lifestyles, which will not necessarily be defining themselves as poor.  

Is alliance building between Global South and North possible under the concept of Degrowth?  Beatriz Rodriguez Labajos, Ejolt/R&D, opened this session up on the question are there commonalities between Ecological Justice campaigns and Degrowth? Commonalities there are, as in common enemies. But when asking organisations affiliated with Ejolt, no common position appeared towards Degrowth. A group of actors thinking critically and acting against environmental injustice including Winnie Overbeek of Siemenpuu partner World Rainforest Movement was asked to address degrowth. The outcome was that an alliance between environmental justice campaigning and Degrowth is not as obvious as thought. Degrowth is not necessarily an appealing idea in the South. ‘Growing’ is also part of Ejolt’s agenda : the growing of healthy children, of organic food crops. Austerity can then be seen as a degrowth strategy for poor people. The term is also not used in the South, and can be perceived as Eurocentric.

But the main argument was perhaps Rodriquez Labajos said, that Degrowth was not perceived as radical enough by the respondents. Is Degrowth anti-capitalist? and asked was, why then not move the discourse towards eco-socialism, re-commoning, or a Nature’s centered perspective? 

Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh, India compaired radical ecological democracy with degrowth. Ashish brought up the concept of Swaraj, selfrule. Not the corporation, not the market, but communities stand core. Swaraj can be described by pointing to its four main principles : Direct and embedded political democracy; Economic democracy and self sufficiency; Social justice and equity, as well as Open, diverse knowledge and cultures – and these with an ecological base. Ashish explained that issues facing ecological democracy are then questions as what are the key agents of transformation? How to create critical political mass out of scattered movements? What is the nature of the State and its challenges? What about local-to-global relations and governance? And what about the Individual versus the collective : how to manage creative tension?

Ashish then concluded there are certainly commonalities between ecological democracy and degrowth as their common values; both are about holistic transformation, and both require cross-overs (between forinstance red and green, traditional and modern, global north and south, indigenous and others). But also differences. There are large scale deprivations in the South, and Degrowth as such will not resonate widely. Also, there is the need for own vocabulary – a conclusion which is not unfamiliar to discussions held also in Finland regarding the use of any terminology. Ashish brought up the process known as alternatives confluence. Can there be a confluence of movements, regardless of what concepts used?

Day Four : Visions and Strategies for transformation

Michel Bauwens, P2P foundation, started off this Fourth day of the conference with the example of the nutrient dense project in which citizens, farmers, scientists engage in knowledge production. The process is not one of wage labour, nor production of commodities, but the involved are engaged in open participatory process of knowledge producing not a commodity, but a commons. These types of commons then are often subsumed by the corporate structures, as happend often with Open Knowledge and value appropriated by the corporatein, or then they can be stood around by anothother type of economy actors, solidarity economy actors, protecting, strengthening and furthering commons.

Euclides Andre Mance, solidarity economy theorian,Brasil, continued in his keynote Economy of Liberation, Solidarity economy and Good Living (bem-vivir) on the importance of Solidarity economy by juxtaposing it to capitalism in which monetary accumulation is main aim. Mance pointed to ‘Liberation Alternatives’ and pointed to the fact that millions of people are engaged globally in solidarity activities which put other then monetary values first. These actors generate billions, they state out governments – Yet, they are stil upholding capitalism. Therefore there is the need to build more horizontal collaborative network, including all the power of these actors. Good living, Buen vivir then is the purpose of Liberation.

How then to get to a Post-Growth society?  Marko Ulvila, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakan network, Finland started off this full session with a perspective on income based classes, and lined out four eco-social classes, and their relation to degrowth.

Rajni Bakshi, Gateway House, India, continued by speaking among other on different forms of exchange, and that in the methaphor of bazaars, which historically have played important roles, lies a crucial difference with the market : that of exchanges embedded in social mores, which communities deliberate on. Ashish Kothari then asked the question, but what about the issue of power, the issue of inequality in the bazaars?  I linked onto this with the experience of Helsinki Timebank, starting from the Solidarity economy framework, and currency as a commons in an envisioning of a currency commons tool as a pedagogical tool to work towards a new economic paradigm.

The action’s of German’s energy company Enercon were put under the loop and critically addressed by Leena Gupta, Society for promotion of waste land development, India, as the construction of windmills by the German energy giant with an international green reputation in the Kalpavalli community conserved area has caused controversions due to its local impacts in terms of socio environmental changes, lively hood destruction. Critique then to the UNFCC , which by giving out carbon credits to the company inspite of the communities objections to all of this was showing how it is putting business before people.

The word growth causes confusion, said Bhuwan Patak, Himalaya Niti Samwad, in India, in the South. He highlighted the conflict for the common man in determining what development means to him and the difficulty in understanding its parameters and boundaries. Using an example close to home, Bhuwan spoke of a time when people in his village were told 30 years ago, that their agricultural practices were outdated. Governmental and aid agencies had insisited on the use of fertilizers and modern implements for food sufficiency then, while now they were being told how the earliersystem was detrimental to the environment and local community and the shift needs to take place towards oranic produce. Being a mainstream politician as well as an environmetal activist, he also spoke of his marginalization within the activist and political circles.

Pawan Gupta (Society for integrated Himalayan development ) talked about Gandhi. When Gandhi returned from England, and was first time arrested, the judge asked him, are you guilty?. Gandhi said something that baffles many indian activists still today : “yes, my lord. But according to your law”. And stepped out of the framework to plead his case. We often have fear to step out of the framework, said Pawan, discrediting the fact that tendencies would not be reversable. Gupta reminded us of Hind Swaraj.

Talked about political situation in South Asia, Vijay Pratap, SADED, India mentioned how all parties seem today to be pro cooperative-democracy, pro capitalism. Vijay gave the concrete example of Nepal, where everyone including maoists, communists, parliament  is speaking of establishing market order before addressing the issues of capitalism. This however is necessary.

The session generated a lot of discussion – and commented forinstance how good it was to bring (neo)colonialism into the debate, and the struggles of Leena and her colleagues were carried a warm heart to by the large German audience.

Day Five : Closing morning – what happened?

Some facts of this conference gathering some 3000 practitioners, academics, scientists and activists, in more then 400 events. Of the 606 speakers,  38,5% were female, 46% male (16% not specified). 20% of the participants were from abroad, including 74 nationalities. Some 7000 people followed online the opening panel. 383 papers are available on the conferences online working space,  and 100 papers are public. As to food and drinks, some 1250 kg vegetables were chopped up onto 2800 plates, and 32kg coffee made. The budget of the conference : 370.000 euros expenditure.  41% of the budget was covered by registration fees, the rest by partner organisations and others.

Nicola Bullard, Focus on the Global South, put well  during the wrap up morning session what felt to be a prevailing sentiment that ”Degrowth is a difficult word,  but a very interesting word. It seems to be a process of deconstructing growth through many different perspectives, levels and ways of seeing the world. ”

During the morning participants then answered the question : Is Degrowth a social movement for you? What are you taking with you out of conference?

Reported was also from the General Assembly process of the conference, which had working groups meetings around some 20 themes. So the redefining value group brought up the Economy of Permanence, asking the question who decides on values?  Self determination and self realisation for all came out as core for a process towards degrowth, with the aim being reciprocity between people and the rest of natural world. Needs should be met, but wants are to be faded out with regards to consumption.

Unconditional basic income was put forward by the basic income group as allowing for the testing of meaningful life styles, to liberate from forms of social pressures of not having enough, and as such to enable the moving towards a needs based economy.

Regarding the Commons, stated was that  capitalism exploits the commons. A reclaiming of the commons as such is necessary for a degrowth society, with commoning a necessary principle for a degrowth society. 

On Democracy, put forward was the need to an alternative to the representative democracy that runs today, and should be a combination of direct democracy and delegated democracy. Degrowth should connect to emerging direct democracy structures.

The Money and Finance group came to consensus on the facts that money should be less important in degrowth societies; that to come to a stationary or shrinking economy in a peaceful way we need corrections to the monetary system; and that Cooperative banks managed by communities and complementary currencies could play a good role in a  degrowth society and should be allowed to develop.

Looking forward, panelists spoke of need for cross fertilisations of different movement strands. Greetings were shared from World Social Forum organizers in Porto Alegre. As was commented – we should not get stuck in struggling with the different concepts our movements use. The need is to talk to the people not part of the movements.  Question for Degrowth then is, how can Degrowth be popularised ? The German Degrowth movement said to be looking forward to 2015, to the COP 21 in Paris, and talk is of joining degrowth and movements gearing to there, with strategic alliances to be found on issues as energy, mining. A looking forward also to the “Solidarity economy congress on post-growth economies” planned for Berlin in 2015.

..and a looking forward to this afternoons Demo : Enough is enough for all!

Ruby van der Wekken
Programme Coordinator with Siemenpuu Foundation