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Notes from the Round Table on De-growth/post-growth Economy

Written By Unknown on Sunday, December 07, 2014 | 10:30 PM

At the Round Table on De-growth/post-growth Economy on November 12, 2014, Julien-François Gerber, a de-growth researcher referred to De-growth as a ‘missile’ word and contested the consensus around sustainable development, productivism, efficient technologies. He flagged the possibility of a solar civilization, emergence of ‘commoning’, steady state economy and barter system. 

He said, degrowth is first and foremost a critique of the growth economy. It has been defined as a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions. It seeks to re-politicize the consensus on “sustainable development”, a notion that has transformed environmental problems into technical issues and promoted the impossible goal of perpetuating “development” without impacting the environment. It does not simply advocate “negative GDP” but it symbolizes a civilizational change. It calls for the decolonization of public debate from the economistic language the abolishment of GDP growth as a policy objective. It means a society with a smaller metabolism, but more importantly, a society with a metabolism that has a different structure and serves new functions. It does not call for doing less of the same. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with democratic, equitable, and localized economies. In such societies, material accumulation no longer holds a prime position in the population’s imaginary. Sharing, simplicity, caring, and the “commons” are central features of how such a society might look like. There is a failure – including in the Left and the labour movement – to come up with new responses that go beyond productivism and growth. Whether green, sustainable or inclusive. In the Global North, activist and scholarly debates on degrowth are receiving increasing attention. In the Global South, most critical debates are concerned with redefining “development”  But Indian activists have been for a long time at the forefront of degrowth like Deep Gandhians. 

He argued that degrowth or post-growth activism has the potential to become a common denominator to many social movements:  Environmental justice / environmentalism of the poor indigenous movements, peasant movements, Marxism / socialism, anarchism, feminism and progressive spiritual movements. Environmental justice is a natural ally of degrowth. Quoting Prof. Joan Martinez Alier, he said, “In the South, anticapitalist struggles are often ecological struggles”. It fights the impacts of growth and the unequal distribution of environmental goods and bads. Environmental justice is today a major socio-political force in the global South.  While Marxism has suffered for a long time from productivism and a fascination for large-scale industrialisation, things are changing. Powerful alliance between environmentalism and Marxism possible as has been argued by J. Bellamy Foster and E. Altvater. 

He observed that David Graeber noted that anarchism has by now largely taken the place Marxism had in the social movements of the ‘60s.  Think “Occupy”, decentralization movements, alter-globalization movements, WSF, and… degrowth are evidence of the same. The critique of GDP growth – and associated masculinistic values to become a World Leader – is central in many ways to feminism. Deep immaterial needs as fundamental as somewhat shallow material needs. J.C. Kumarappa, the green Gandhian was perhaps the most sophisticated proponent of “degrowth” in India.  His “economy of permanence” was a source of inspiration for the modern critique of growth for Ernst Schumacher and Ivan Illich.  The “economy of permanence” has been extended into several social movements and organizations. To get rid of the growth model will be a difficult task in view of the growth addiction of capitalism.  Capitalism is a credit economy that requires growth to occur in order to pay interest. GDP growth is not just a neutral measure. It embodies a way of organising society based on the idea that increasing market-based exchanges best reflects the needs of a given society. Replacing GDP with something else will be a political project, not just a technical one. 

He posed the question: Can growth become sustainable through cleaner or more efficient technologies, structural shift towards services and renewable energies? And responded dematerialization is unlikely to come through new technologies because of the “rebound effect” (Jevons’ paradox):  The more technologically advanced and efficient an economy becomes, the more resources it consumes because resources get cheaper. Service-based economies shift costs elsewhere and are not materially light. Renewable energies (RE) are cleaner and should be encouraged, but existing sources of RE have lower energy return on investment (EROI), than fossil fuels: huge amount of conventional energy needed in a hypothetical large-scale transition to RE a solar civilization could only support much smaller economies a transition to renewables is a degrowth transition! He referred to the link between soil fertility and human fertility. 

Quoting Thomas Piketty, he said that economies grow while social and income inequalities keep rising along with new poverties and social exclusions. It appears that economic growth is the problem rather than the solution. But poor economies need to grow some more until basic needs are satisfied. It seems that only a “degrowth” of rich economies would leave enough environmental space and resources for poor countries to grow some more. Degrowth in rich economies should be not be promoted in order for the South to follow the same path  It should instead liberate conceptual space for poor countries to find their own trajectories according to their own definition of the good life. At present in India, there are thousands of grassroots alternatives – local, community-based activities:  urban cooperatives local ecosystem management gardening farmers’ markets community energy projects decentralised water harvesting local waste management repair and maintenance services etc. They share 4 features:  Target local consumption “Commoning” processes (whereby mutual relationships have an intrinsic value). No built-in dynamic to grow. Less carbon content and material throughput than state or market systems offering the same services and goods (even if less efficient).
Notably, Piketty‘s book Capital in the Twenty-first Century has once again underlined that inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism.

Commenting on Julien’s presentation as a discussant Dr Sudhirendar Sharma of The Ecological Foundation (formerly with World Bank) underlined that the one who sets the framework is at advantage. He was sad to note that the statistics of experiments undertaken by social movements do not add up. He worried about the diseases of gigantism and remarked that social movements are looking for a language and an idiom to articulate the critique of developmentality. He seemed to recommend a new pitch for movements.  

Vinay Baindur, a noted urban affairs researcher from Bangalore spoke about development fundamentalism and how religious organizations colonizing peoples’ sector and how growth is ridden with mega scams and illegitimate profits. 

Alex Jensen of Sambhaavnaa Institute, Himachal Pradesh said that growth economy is inimical to well being and even when the last tree will be cut economic growth will happen in a business usual manner. He expressed worries about the disappearance of environmental regulations. He underlined that left wing critic of growth share the idea of growth in the global South. Growth consequents in inequality, redistributive economics can reduce inequality.  

Carsten Krinn from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation argued that world is guided by the forces of class struggle. He contested the theory of misery wherein it is contended that if people suffer enough they will rise up. He asserted that left and environmental movement does not have an answer which can capture imagination. 

Dr Rajeswari Sarala Raina, Scientist, NISTADS – CSIR said, “my child is a victim of asthma-is he a victim or a beneficiary? How many of us even know that in Delhi, with all this talk about Swatch Bharat, 7 out of 10 children are asthmatic?’. It raises macro-micro questions. De-growth is about valuations, relations-valuation of worker, work for instance. Most environmental movements are mainstream they do not draw on rich tradition of valuations. We are part of growth syndrome. The elite class is a promoter of legitimization of poverty. Communities are being decimated. Nutrition cycle is being destroyed. What is development doing to us? How many earths can we consume each year?    

Dr Sharma said, Our social space is getting colored and is shrinking. The voices from the conflict between beneficiary and the victim are not getting amplified. Advertizing industry is targeting each member of family separately. The notion of ATM water and tap water is occupying urban imagination instead of the plight of water sources themselves. The education system is creating youth cluster of a certain norms and values which are sponsored by the state and the corporations. 

A K Jain, former Chief Engineer of Damodar Valley Corporation and a well known whistle blower said, it is difficult top sell the degrowth idea in a corrupt environment.        

Carsten said, what frightens me is that social and environmental movement is being infiltrated. 

Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA) and a native of Bihar argued that it may be a good idea to frame the discussion in India around a post growth narrative.  The Round Table was convened as part of the efforts underway to interrogate the episteme of linear economic growth at least since 17th century and its pre-determined destination for well being in general. He referred to the hydro power scandal in India. He drew on John Kenneth Galbraith's The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time to submit that 'fraud' of the mainstream economists, policy makers and journalists lies in their failure to see the divergence between 'approved belief’ or conventional wisdom and the reality'. Galbraith had observed how the use of GDP as the standard measure of economic and larger social advance. GDP measures only producer-influenced production, to the exclusion of the valuable 'cultural, artistic, educational, and scientific aspects of life. The failure to redress social hardship through sound economic policy and the dominance of war-making in our economic life constitutes 'the decisive human failure'. He underlined the challenge of contesting the popular imagination of economic growth and development which is guided by global forces. This is possible if the moral imagination of a critical mass can be captured.  

Julien said, it is a precise moment for de-addiction to growth and promoting post growth thinking in India.   

The other participants included Irfan Ahmed, a leader of hawkers and vendors and a Member, State Committee, Communist Party of India, Shree Prakash, Urban Development Forum, Indore and Mamta Kandari of Azim Premji University, Bangalore  

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