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Radical Ecological Democracy: Some More Reflections from the South on Degrowth

By: Ashish Kothari


From our project "Degrowth in Movement(s)"

The multiple crises that humanity is facing are becoming increasingly visible: in the form of disasters related to ecological damage, the stark inequalities between a tiny minority of ultra-rich and the vast numbers of desperately poor, the health epidemics related to both deprivation and affluence, mass refugee migrations in many parts of the world, and the scarcity of several once-abundant resources. Countries like China and India are fast joining the already-industrialised nations in putting even more stress on the planet, or in colonizing less powerful regions of the earth.

There is no doubt that as a species we have to downsize if we are to respect the limits; not only for ourselves but —just as importantly— for the millions of other species that co-inhabit the earth with us. It is timely, therefore, to talk of degrowth in the context of humanity as a whole, and most certainly in the context of the Global North which is overconsuming and overdumping.

But is degrowth, or the reduction of material and energy uses for human use, a valid and viable strategy for the Global South, i.e. countries and populations that have not reached an excessive or even acceptable level of prosperity? Perhaps not. What is needed is for these regions to find their own home-grown visions and pathways of change. I will talk here of one such example: ecoswaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED), which is emerging from practical and conceptual processes prevalent in many parts of India.

Ecoswaraj as a response to the social and ecological bankruptcy of the currently dominant development and governance system

India currently sees itself as entering into the elite league of economic superpowers. Along with China, it has enjoyed the world’s highest growth rates in the last couple of decades. But this has come at a horrendous cost to the environment, and to hundreds of millions of people who are directly dependent on the environment. It has also created an increasing schism between the rich and poor, so that 1% of the population now owns more than 50% of the country’s wealth, while at least two-thirds of its people remain deprived of basic needs, and employment scarcity is staring at a hundred million young people who have recently joined the workforce.

The problem lies partly in the growth fetish. An economic policy that assumes that growth will magically translate into the poor rising above the poverty line and everyone getting productive jobs is fundamentally flawed and ignores the fact that many of the gains of growth could be cornered by the already rich

Communities and citizens in India are, however, not taking all of this lying down. At any given moment in the last couple of decades, there have been several hundred small to large resistance movements, from a few families refusing to part with their land for the industry, to thousands of people protesting a mega hydro project; from dalit (so-called ‘untouchables’, the lowest in the caste hierarchy) and women’s demands for basic human rights, to students protesting the decline in public support for educational institutions. Simultaneously, people are also coming up with innovative, positive transformations in their lives, on their own or with support from civil society organisations and occasionally even governments.

The term swaraj can be loosely translated as ‘self-rule’ —though it is much more than just a governance concept— and refers to a combination of individual and collective autonomy, mutual responsibility, rights, and responsibilities. Although older than him, the concept was popularised by Gandhi as part of India’s freedom struggle against British colonial power. I have added ‘eco’ to integrate the principle of ecological wisdom and resilience into this political and cultural ethos. Ecoswaraj or RED envisions a society in which all people and communities are empowered to be part of decisions affecting their lives in ways that are ecologically sensitive and socially equitable.

Ecoswaraj or RED is an emerging framework for communities and organisations exploring alternative visions and pathways

In the drylands of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in southern India, small farmers — including have transformed their lives by reviving organic farming using their own seeds, achieving full food sovereignty, collectivizing resources and labour, securing basic rights, forming cooperatives or companies to negotiate better returns, forming community-run media (films, radio), and throwing off the traditional social stigmas associated with them. In the forested landscapes of Maharashtra in central India, several communities such as Mendha-Lekha back control over their surrounding forests, initiated sustainable harvesting of bamboo and other forest produce, converted the earnings into enhanced energy, livelihoods, and food security, and in at least one village, turned all private lands back into the commons.

These are just very few examples and of course, these initiatives are not perfect: for instance equity for traditionally unprivileged groups is weak in many; there are huge gaps in coverage, and for the most part they are small and scattered. But they increasingly show the potential of alternatives, and several have demonstrated larger spread by influencing policy changes and networking.

Having visited, documented, or supported several such initiatives, and having been a part of resistance movements in the last 35 years, I believe that the most important task is to learn the essence of these initiatives, and to see if the values and principles emerging from them can suggest a cohesive framework for challenging the currently dominant mindset and practice of growth-centred ‘developmentality’.

Challenging the mindset and practice of "develompentality"

In a series of dialogues and confluences starting in 2014, called Vikalp Sangam (‘Alternatives Confluence’), several hundred practitioners and thinkers have discussed such a framework and agreed on the following crucial elements or pillars of a transformation:

  1. Ecological sustainability and wisdom, including the conservation of nature (ecosystems, species, functions, cycles) and its resilience, ensuring that human activities are based on environmental ethics and are within planetary limits.
  2. Social well-being and justice, including lives that are physically, socially, culturally, and spiritually fulfilling, where there is equity (including gender equity) in socio-economic and political entitlements, benefits, rights and responsibilities, and where cultural diversity is celebrated and promoted. Attempts to bring back ancient Indian beliefs in ‘enoughness’, voluntary simplicity or austerity, without falling into the trap of bigoted religiosity, are part of this.
  3. Direct democracy, where decision-making starts at the smallest unit of human settlement, in which every human has the right, capacity and opportunity to take part; envisaging larger levels of representative or delegated governance that are downwardly accountable, defined on the basis of ecological and cultural contiguity and linkages (‘ecoregions’ or ‘biocultural’ regions).
  4. Economic democracy, in which local communities have control over the means of production, distribution, exchange, and markets; where localization is a key principle and larger trade and exchange are built on it. This is the basis of several initiatives at producer companies and cooperatives, and producer-consumer linkages in fields such as food and crafts. The re-invention of non-monetised exchanges (barter and other forms) and local bazaars, infused with equity principles that may have been weak in the past, has to be part of this process.
  5. Knowledge commons, where the generation, conservation, transmission and use of knowledge (including traditional and modern forms) are collective processes, not confined to formal sector ‘experts’ or to state or corporate run institutions.

It is important to note that the above does not fit into any prevalent political or economic ideology. We use ecoswaraj because the Gandhian concept of swaraj has many aspects that are relevant, but learnings and struggles based on Marxist ideas, those of the dalit leader BR Ambedkar, of Rabindranath Tagore and others are also essential parts of the heritage of these initiatives. Crucially, though, indigenous visionaries, communities and others base their actions and thoughts on their own diverse situations, and what emerges is a set of common values that transcend any particular established ideology. Such values include: collective working and solidarity, respect for diversity and pluralism, the dignity of labour, empathy and respect for the rest of nature, simplicity, equity and justice, rights with responsibilities, self-reliance, and others.

The principles of ecoswaraj and degrowth resonate, and there is potential for further cooperation

From what limited understanding I have of the concept and practice of ‘degrowth’, I believe that in many of the above ways, RED resonates well with it. But there may also be crucial differences, given that a blanket proposal for degrowth is unlikely to be appropriate or acceptable within the Global South for whom deprivations of basic needs is a reality.

Some of the crucial questions that could be posed in this context include: What are the historical factors that are common to the experiences of the Global North and what are the crucial differences? What are the principles of process that underlie initiatives striving for an alternative to currently dominant systems? Which of these are common to the Global North and South, and which are different ? What are the commonalities and differences in ethical values? Of course, these questions should be posed and answered not in abstraction, but on the basis of an understanding of practical initiatives grounded in different settings.

This kind of collaboration is also important for us to collectively advocate fundamental alternatives to the ‘green economy’, ‘green growth’ and even ‘sustainable development’ agendas that are being promoted globally, showing that there are other viable pathways that do not restrict themselves to capitalist or state-dominant frameworks. For this it is necessary to work more closely together, pro-actively understanding each other’s contexts and initiatives.

The diverse set of locally embedded frameworks can inspire each other

Each alternative worldview or framework arises within a particular socio-cultural, ecological, economic and political context, and cannot be replicated or applied as it is to another context. I do believe, however, that broad principles and values, and learnings about process, can be fruitfully applied. The emphasis of the degrowth ‘movement’ on the need to scale down, for instance, can be useful in the context of classes within the South that are over-consuming, or overall for economies in the South that may already be unsustainable in some aspects. Similarly the North may have much to learn from indigenous traditions and others in the South that continue to show ways of living within nature, where some aspects of simple living still survive, or where holistic knowledge systems combining experiential, spiritual, and scientific elements are still strong.

The deepest meanings of swaraj, with its complex integration of freedom, collective responsibility, self-reliance and autonomy, could be something many Northern democracies and human rights regimes could learn from. Conversely, there is much in the solidarity economy models emerging in Europe and elsewhere that we in the Global South could gainfully absorb. And of course there is plenty of exciting scope for southern worldviews to engage with each other; imagine the power of buen vivir and sumac kawsay and swaraj and ubuntu and myriad other such worldviews coming together into an internally diverse but coherent whole, presenting something attractive enough to engage people currently mesmerized by the consumertopia?

We do have opportunities to move this agenda forward

It is not easy to envision ideal futures in any detail beyond the generic wish list of sustainability, equity, justice, peace, etc. But envision them we must if we are to keep hope alive, find our bearings, and guide grassroots practice. However, the even harder task is to figure out specific and workable pathways to reach such a future, for these have to contend with the complex web of problems we are currently enmeshed in. Most challenging is the powerful resistance to fundamental change by those who occupy positions of power, not only within governments but also in the private sector, and within the dominant sections of society, which in the Indian context is uniquely characterized by caste as much as class, gender, and other forms of inequity and discrimination. As high as these hurdles are, the growing number and reach of peoples’ initiatives to resist the system and create alternatives are a source of hope. Peoples’ movements and civil society organizations will have to be the primary agents of change.

A historical conjunction between the local and the global

One great opportunity provided to our generations is the historical conjunction between the local and the global. At one level are the localization movements, examples of which I have cited above or in referred texts. At the other is the growing mobilization around global issues, such as climate change, the global financial system, the industrial monopolies on food and agriculture, and the hegemony of multinational corporations. More than ever before, we are members both of immediate communities and also of the community of humanity, or —even broader— the community of life, just as local ecosystems are part of one global ecological system. Greater awareness of our interdependence comes with each new global crisis, and with it the possibility of greater common cause. If the emerging movements around the world, based on multiple but overlapping worldviews (old and new) and transcending orthodox ideological standpoints, can come together, then there is much hope that pathways to a saner future will be forged, and walked. --------------------------------

This article is a shortened version of the piece on degrowth and Radical Ecological Democracy in the our Degrowth in Movement(s) project. Read the full article here!

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Ashish Kothari

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