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Reflections on dynamics of strategy in degrowth

By: Susan Paulson


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Plurality vs. strategy, integrity vs. expediency: mutual exclusion or fertile tension? 


My engagement with degrowth has been fueled by an affinity for the principles of process prioritized in many initiatives—inclusion, participatory democracy, commoning, sufficiency, conviviality. Like the trajectory of degrowth movements, the wandering journey of my own career has been characterized as insufficiently strategic. And I wonder in what ways my prioritization of means has been driven by an aversion to competitive scheming toward ends. My longtime disinclination to strategy (conceived as political-military gameplans designed to achieve objectives by beating opponents) has been unsettled by participation in the conference "Degrowth Vienna 2020 - Strategies for Social-Ecological Transformation” and the book Degrowth & Strategy: how to bring about social-ecological transformation (2022). Now I am open to wondering whether and how integrity and expediency might coexist in fertile tension.


Conference organizers and editorial team members encouraged everyone to explore strategies to accelerate progress toward desired outcomes of degrowth. And participants around me responded with moves to expand scales and realms of action; to interconnect different kinds of struggle; to pursue alliances previously condemned as unholy or avoided as awkward; and to establish common frameworks, goals, and measures of progress.


Prefigurative exercise 


The Degrowth & Strategy volume makes a case that, to bring about shared goals of eco-social transformation, we need to collaboratively bring together, honor, reflect critically on, and deliberate about a wide mix of approaches. And that we can do that in orchestrated processes directed toward achieving shared objectives. In light of that vision, the co-creation of the book has been a prefigurative exercise par excellence, engaging strategically in new modes of organizing and activism for change, and planting seeds for desired futures.


During 18-months, eight editors with diverse perspectives and positions interacted to envision the collection, select and contact authors, review drafts, and revisit evolving understandings of strategy and degrowth. While consciously struggling to enact the kind of processes that I cherish—dialogic, inclusive, non-hierarchical—the editorial team also played a successful endgame resulting in a magnificent book that takes on tough political, structural, and cultural barriers; conceptualizes key ideas in vital ways, and shares inspiring examples of new ways of living together, producing, and consuming. I especially appreciate the book’s attention to sociocultural systems that produce and reproduce people, communities, and landscapes. 


Multiplying energies 


Neither the conference nor the book have overcome the dilemma at the heart of degrowth, feminisms, and allied currents: How to wed strategy with plurality? But they have brought vital questions to the table, and experimented with modes of response. How can we honor multiple voices and perspectives in dialogues that are pluralistic and thought-provoking, yet also implement projects cohesive enough to bring about change? How can progress toward degrowth goals be strengthened and coordinated without sacrificing the diversity of positions and approaches involved? 


The Vienna experiments in orienting collaborative processes toward strategic outcomes are already inspiring other forums. At the October 2022 Lund Feminisms and Degrowth workshop, sixty participants from a dozen countries explored ways of engaging issues raised therein. In a session on challenges and strategies for non-hierarchical, collaborative, and nurturing ways to do scholarly publishing, Ekaterina Chertkovskaya discussed difficulties and rewards of knowledge production processes among editorial team members who co-produced Degrowth & Strategy, together with insights from experiences in the two-decade journey of the journal Ephemera.

Seeds of diffusion were also planted as the editorial team of Degrowth & Strategy nurtured and brought into dialogue forty contributing authors with diverse positions and approaches. As one of these contributors, I am grateful for the extraordinary editorial care extended through the writing process, a kind of accompaniment that motivated and empowered me to advance the mission in new ways.


Strategic entanglements


The chapter I contributed explores strategies for forging alliances across differences and uneven ground, amid seemingly antagonistic forces. One force is the conviction that degrowth horizons are broadened by the celebration of a rainbow of knowledges, cosmologies, and vital worlds, conceptualized as components of a pluriverse. Another is wariness of the challenges and risks raised by plurality in contexts in which institutional powers favor authoritative knowledge, and where political successes are bolstered by unified positions. 


Recognizing that it is unlikely (and perhaps not desirable) for degrowth to develop into a banner of mass mobilization or an umbrella coordinating diverse movements, I explore possibilities for strategic entanglement. This approach starts with acknowledging that we are all tangled in webs of interdependency, which position and (dis)empower us in dissimilar and unequal ways. Alliance-building based in such understandings plays a different role than the impulse to blindly embrace all-comers, saying “I don’t see race, class; or gender, north or south; we are all sisters and brothers.”


Degrowth analyses acknowledge historical inequities of colonialism and globalization, implemented through racialized and gendered exploitation. And degrowth proposals demand, for example, that the Global North work to repay debts and reverse social and ecological burdens imposed on the Global South. How do we express such commitments in alliance-building? In collaborative processes of knowledge production and social action?


A good first move is to foster mutual learning and nourishment among interlocutors and collaborators in qualitatively different positions and places. A related, sometimes painful, move is to heighten awareness of relations of power and difference among us. That means explicitly addressing concerns not only that degrowth activists and thinkers might be co-opted by powerful forces, but also that degrowth processes might co-opt or encompass other visions and pathways. Such strategic entanglements support participants to name and engage head-on the tough challenges of balancing respectful plurality with effective impact. Decisions about what kind of actions and processes to prioritize---including how to even make such decisions---can no longer be reduced to a rational calculus of efficiency, but must play out with acknowledgment of tensions between integrity of degrowth processes and expediency in achieving degrowth objectives. Finally, I dream of making entanglements strategic by taking care to nourish conviviality and mutual joy along the way. 


About the author

Susan Paulson

Susan Paulson is professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida; she previously taught in Latin America during fifteen years, and taught sustainability studies in Europe for five years. Paulson finds inspiration and connection in Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance. She is co-author of The Case for Degrowth (2020), now translated into eight languages, and author of Masculinities and Femininities in Latin America’s Uneven Development (2015) and Masculinidades en movimiento. Transformación territorial (2013).

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