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People, planet, care: A personal reflection on the Zagreb Degrowth week

People, planet, care: A personal reflection on the Zagreb Degrowth week

By Remco van de Pas
on September 12, 2023

I ‘ve just been to a place that not only dealt with a war in the nineties, but in more recent times also with an earthquake,  flooding  ( in 2020 and again in 2023), a summer storm that damaged 10.000 trees, a heatwave, the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as economic instability and inflation. The country  also introduced the Euro this year – another expansion of the liberalised Eurozone. In recent years German supermarkets and drugstores have invaded the market here. The municipal government of the semi-peripheral capital of Croatia, Zagreb (where I just returned from), was close to bankruptcy last year. There’s however also another side to the story, on which I will elaborate in this blog.

The Zagreb Degrowth Week

From Aug 29-Sept 2, the Institute of Political Ecology, with support from Zagreb’s Green – Left coalition government, hosted the 9th International Degrowth Conference, under the heading ‘Planet, People, Care: It spells Degrowth’!  What made it special is that it was not just an academic conference, but embedded in a free and publicly accessible ‘Degrowth Week’ with several cultural, scientific and political events. This is a strong indication that overcoming multiple crises requires much more than merely techno-scientific debates. At the opening event, Zagreb’s mayor clarified that rather than inviting foreign capital to invest in real estate projects in the city, the municipal government tries to re-purpose and refit older buildings, such as the Zagreb Fair where most of the events were held. With decent social protection policies, assessible public services and art facilities, and price caps on consumer goods to counter inflation, the municipal government has opted for public investments rather than austerity measures to weather the (numerous) crises. This policy approach is a (somewhat liberal) echo of the Socialist Federal Republic (SFR) of Yugoslavia and an interesting political project to follow in the coming years.

I mainly attended the Degrowth week to make (more) connections with actors working on, and understand more profoundly, the nexus of ecological and sustainability economics, social and environmental policies, and health and care in their broader sense. Only a small group of about 5-10  health researchers and practitioners attended the conference (among the around 600 participants in total), an indication that the fields of (planetary) health and ecological political economy are still rather separated. We presented a paper on the need to bring  these two domains together. The Degrowth week was also a follow-up of the Beyond Growth Conference organized in the European Parliament last May. For this reason, several foundations of particular parties and MEPs were present and organised sessions, notably the European Greens, who run 3 projects on Post-Growth.

This blog cannot summarise all the diverse and rich themes that were discussed in the sessions, also because many of them ran in parallel. I focused mainly on the ‘Decolonial and Feminist ecologies and their alternative economies’, ‘alliance and solidarity building’, and ‘Degrowth as a political project’.  As interest in, ànd the Degrowth movement itself, are gaining momentum in Europe there is also a need to formalize structures. An International Degrowth Network was created with a proposal, finalised during the Degrowth assembly in Zagreb, as its foundation.

In the principles it is stated as follows:

‘We understand degrowth as a plural concept that could include all the ideas and movements that criticise growth-based societies, and propose post-growth and post-capitalist alternatives. We recognise that a degrowth transition requires a significant democratic reduction of material and energy use by high-income countries and wealthy individuals to enable a good life for all, through an economic system that prioritises the well-being of the Earth and its inhabitants rather than growth for growth’s sake’.  It is in line with the Zagreb’s organisers case for Degrowth.     

In the opening session, Diana Urge-Vorsatz (vice-chair of the IPCC) explained that the climate chaos experienced this year across the globe was predicted. Still, she argued that some of the recent escalation such as the warming of Antarctica and the North Atlantic Ocean are also unprecedented in the eyes of climate scientists. IPCC working groups now also consider Degrowth and other alternative economic strategies as necessary strategies, although the concept didn’t appear in the policy synthesis of the IPCC 6th assessment report. Diana Urge-Vorsatz largely endorses Degrowth principles and strategies, but recommends – for communicative and political reasons – to use another framing. This is also what Yanis Varoufakis of Diem25 argues for.

In my opinion, this is the core issue for the political strategy in the coming years: how to render Degrowth strategies relevant within and outside a non-European context? Although Degrowth principles include anti-patriarchy, anti-colonialism, community care, participatory decision making, conviviality and autonomy, they lack – at least according to me – (sufficient) attention for the democratic erosion,  matters of historical and social justice, and structural state-powers and the global politics that foster a rampant capitalist globalisation and financialization of economies. Kohei Sato, an academic from Japan stated in a keynote that the late Marx paid attention to ecological disruption, notably by referring to a ‘metabolic rift’, a rupture in the interaction between humanity and the rest of nature that is a key feature of capitalism. Kohei hence argues for ‘Degrowth communism’ as a socio-political strategy. Paul Stubbs , a sociologist based in Zagreb made the compelling analysis that the Non-Aligned Movement (SFR Yugoslavia was a founder) and its push for a New International Economic Order could provide a useful template for an eco-socialist geopolitical alternative in the 21st century.

But what would this imply for a Decolonial perspective? Roland Ngam, from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation South-Africa, underlined that a Global South perspective first and foremost requires climate justice, reparations, a new Internationalism and solidarity, no-more offshoring of the Global North’s polluting industries, and economic delinking and localism. Françoise Vergès , a French political scientist focused on the colonizer’s historical practice of (literally) denying the oppressed to breathe and speak, something that continues in our times through heavy air and chemical pollution. She considers (the right to) breathing a revolutionary act. Donna Andrews (who works with the Rural Women’s Assembly in South-Africa) stated in a panel on geopolitics that most of the Global South are already living in a kind of ‘degrowth state against their will’ . Several other commoning, agro-ecology, care, feminist, indigenous and decoloniality practices and principles were discussed in Zagreb, indicating the pluriversity of initiatives that exists.

Graffiti by Banksy; photo by Bruce Krasting (shown at the conference)

Final observations and a few critical remarks

I end this blog with 2 additional observations, and 2 critical remarks on how to advance Degrowth principles, networks and collaborations. The first observation is that health systems development, in it is formal sense, requires much more attention in the Degrowth analyses. While health and wellbeing are crucial objectives for Degrowth strategies, the ongoing trend towards privatised and ‘growth-oriented’ health care services  remains sort of a blind spot. Likewise health equity advocates could engage with Degrowth’s alternative economic models to argue for localised, participatory,  comprehensive primary health care and health promotion strategies. Along these lines, I recommend for example a paper by Jean Louis- Aillon and colleague that provides an overview of Degrowth and Health considerations in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The second observation concerns the political agency that can translate Degrowth proposals into actual policy proposals. The Greens increasingly  align with Postgrowth objectives, also in anticipation of the European elections in 2024, thus positioning themselves versus the European Green Deal.  Speaking of the latter,  Manon Aubry, from The Left in the European Parliament, indicated that, despite all the merry “green” framing, current Free Trade Agreements, The Stability and Growth pact, carbon markets etc, in short European macro-economics, still remain focused on a capitalist, productivist, growth-based system. She considers the European Green Deal in essence a new strategy for economic growth and asked the audience to think through how to start the radical economic shift needed, beyond the current buzzwords used. She argued for a post-growth economy that tackles inequalities and climate change at the same time.

In The Double Objective of Democratic Eco-socialism, Jason Hickel makes a similar case,  ‘to achieve democratic control over finance and production, and organize it around the double goal of well-being and ecology’.  He also argues for a new internationalist agenda: ‘ Excess energy and material use must decline in the capitalist core (implying the high-income countries, but he’s also targeting powerful elites in Middle and Low-Income Countries) to achieve ecological objectives, while in the periphery ( i.e.most LIC countries and citizens in the Global South, but also the precarious in richer countries) productive capacities must be reclaimed, reorganized, and, in many cases, increased to meet human needs and achieve development’. This requires some nuance, as contemporary capitalist imperialism is by no means restricted to actors coming from the US and EU alone, it also increasingly includes several other emerging states and powerhouses (some BRICS and oil-rich Middle Eastern countries for example). Nevertheless, it’s more than relevant to read the recent  ‘The African People’s Climate and Development Declaration 2023’ which state that ‘‘Rich nations have historical responsibilities for the climate crisis and should fulfil their obligations and fair shares, as per enshrined principles of ‘Common but Differentiated Rights and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC)’’.

The two critical remarks are the following. The demographics of the Degrowth movement (still) point to a mostly European, white, academic community. Julia Steinberger mentioned in the final panel that there is a risk for the community to become complacent with oneself. She asked the Degrowth community to care more about the rest of the world and engage with citizens’ day-to-day realities and possible strategies for a real shift. Which brings me to a final remark. The ecological, mostly European Degrowth community is currently still rather disconnected from other, often longer existing, networks that share similar values and principles such as social justice and health movements, international trade unions, Black Lives Matter and indigenous activists, the Internationalist solidary networks, and the numerous Global South networks that foster a plurality of approaches & paradigms. A good place to start is the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, an initiative seeking to create solidarity networks and strategic alliances amongst these alternatives on local, regional and global levels. The Tapestry was presented at the Degrowth week. No doubt this (inter-) ‘weaving’ of pluriverse, alternative approaches to the ‘Growthism’ mindset will require substantial organisational work in the coming period.  

In the end Degrowth is a term ànd a movement that criticises the paradigm of economic growth. Decades ago already, the ‘Limits to Growth’ (1972) kicked off increasing resistance to this capitalist development model.  But resistance only takes you this far; it has turned out a lot more difficult to have people imagine and engage with economic alternatives. The latter requires the decolonialisation of our mindsets, especially, but not only, in the EU and US, as Ashish Kotari (an Indian environmentalist) would argue. We need to let go of an Imperial Mode of Living.  Did this paradigm shift make some progress in Zagreb? At the very least it sowed some seeds!

The Degrowth week ended – appropriately and in style – with a great public concert by Darko Rundek  that triggered good vibes and moves because ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution’ (Emma Goldman)!

Official logo of The Zagreb Degrowth Week

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