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Budapest Degrowth Conference opens with clear solidarity message for refugee struggles

By: Christiane Kliemann



In his welcome address at the opening plenary of the 5th International Degrowth Conference, Federico Demaria from Research and Degrowth made explicitly clear that immigrants, refugees and their struggles must be integral part of the degrowth community: "Refugees and the other oppressed shall always be kept in mind while imagining degrowth and the socio-ecological transformation we are walking. They, we, are very much part of the degrowth community. Welcome and enjoy!"

While generally introducing the term "degrowth" and its history, Demaria stressed that in a post-policial space and within neoliberal conditions, the aim of degrowth must be to re-politicize the debate on sustainability by identifying and naming different socio-environmental futures. In this context, the question "How can degrowth gain legitimacy in the public debate" must play an important role. He suggested a multi-dimensional definition of degrowth and even talking about different degrowths. Such definition comprises of critique by "challenging the hegemony of growth" and proposal by "calling for a democratically led redistributive downscaling of production and consumption in industrialized countries as a means to achieve environmental sustainability, social justice and well being." In this sense, Demaria described degrowth as a politicized framing process for a social movement set up by diagnosis (What are the social problems? Who is responsible?) and prognosis (What can we do about them? How shall it be done? Who is going to do it? For whom?).                

Allies for degrowth

By naming a very broad range of possible allies of degrowth, Demaria stressed the emancipatory, inclusive and diverse nature of degrowth as concept and movement:

- LGBT+, feminists and the ecofeminists - La Via Campesina - Zapatistas and Kurdish in Rojava - Those who struggle for Environmental Justice including Climate Justice - Anti-colonialists - Anti-racists and those who are for open borders - Those who believe in the sacredness of nature - Those who in their own religion find a place for Degrowth and for environmental justice - … and all the oppressed and subalterns fighting for justice

On another note, Filka Sekulova gave a quick overview of the broad but dispersed and scattered degrowth-movement itself, stating that the overall movement is growing and that there are various degrowth-hotspots in almost all European countries and some places outside Europe such as India, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. Particularly Germany, after the large Degrowth Conference in Leipzig two years ago, has seen an explosion of degrowth-related projects captured in the Stream towards Degrowth.

Academic challenges and, again, a claim for open borders

In the academic arena, Giorgos Kallis, identified three main intellectual battles over the last two years. These were:

  1. Debunking the illusion about decoupling and green growth
  2. Defending the name of degrowth
  3. Denaturalizing the concept of economic growth

Regarding the first point Kallis particularly mentioned the very comprehensive study "The material footprint of nations", proving that absolute decoupling is still far from happening – despite contrary claims in the context of last year's climate summit in Paris.

Also Kallis, like Demaria, defended the moral obligation to open borders from a degrowth perspective, thereby disagreeing with ecological economist Herman Daly who claims that rising immigration rates to industrialized countries lead to the "tragedy of open access commons" and thereby to an increased overall environmental footprint. Kallis stressed that, when using the picture of life-boats, the whole Earth is one life boat where we cannot differentiate between people. He also added that including immigrants in the societies of the global north can be a means to repay our ecological debt to the south.

Degrowth in semi-periphery context

For the first time a degrowth conference is taking place in an Eastern European country which is a very interesting setting: on one hand Eastern Europe is home of degrowth pioneers such as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Karl Polanyi and Ivan Illich, and on the other hand it is a post-socialist region where degrowth ideas have a difficult stance. So the task of the opening panel on degrowth in semi-periphery context was to highlight the obstacles and chances for degrowth in this specific situation.

Hungarian Political economist Zoltán Pogátsa explained why it is so difficult to talk about degrowth in former socialist countries: The overarching narrative in Hungary for example was that of a linear development towards western capitalist lifestyles and consumption patterns that were highly desired. After the transition from communism to democracy all available narratives were about catching up with western countries. In such setting it was very difficult to come up with alternatives. However, over the last years this has changed because the linear narratives of capitalism being the superior system have crumbled. Young Eastern Europeans travel more, read the internet in English language and read about ideas of sustainability, social equality and big businesses controlling states. They realize that their countries might be closer to the so-called developing world than Austria for example, and that Austria has its own problems and is not as attractive as everybody was imagining.

Danijela Dolenec, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb, explored the question whether the European semi-periphery has any agency in building up alternative structures or whether it simply follows along. She emphasized that these countries combine features of both the industrialized West and the global South as well as modern liberal ideas and traditional ones, and added that by definition semi peripheries are geopolitical spaces that are open and can very quickly move. From her perspective, it is time to acknowledge that semi-peripheries have interesting experiences and knowledge to offer to the degrowth movement: for example the tradition of growing one's own vegetables, sharing practice outside the market and convivial ways of spending time together. In addition, the areas of  former Yugoslavia for example have good practices and experiences in self-management. There's as well a widespread egalitarian orientation in the region which is also important for a degrowth context. This could help debunk the thesis that only the materially prosperous show environmental concern because social equality is the missing link here..

"The moment where democracy really challenged the status quo it was crushed."

Giorgos Kallis spoke about the Greek experience which, for many people in Europe, was a breath-taking moment where a country in the periphery was going to take a different path by claiming an alternative. This alternative, of course, was not degrowth, but it was at least an opening. One important lesson learnt from this is, however, that the material neoliberal structures in place must not be underestimated and that people might have to pay a very high price to escape from them. Another one is the difficulty to start a fundamental change from the periphery, as the EU for example treated Greece differently from how it treats the UK now. Therefore, such changes need to start in the centre, Germany or France for example.

Kallis also stressed that it is obvious that degrowth was only a very small part of these alternatives and that its main objectives were to bring growth back to Greece. This is why the degrowth community might have to make strange compromises amidst confusing political dynamics and why a distinction between degrowth and recession is needed. He sees no way that degrowth just comes along as an alternative vision and considers it much more likely that the transition will happen through stagnation. Therefore the important question is how stagnation can become degrowth?

Danijela Bosanic added from her side that the failure of the Syriza project in Greece was a crucial moment of defining how we see things: "The moment where democracy really challenged the status quo it was crushed."

The full video coverage of the opening sessions is available here

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Christiane Kliemann

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