With the ‘Greenslide’ and a substantial gain in seats towards holding the balance of power in the Senate, Australian Greens come out of the 2022 federal election stronger and more influential than ever. Similarly, the German Greens gained almost 15 percent of the votes in the September 2021 national elections. They doubled their 2017 election result, even if disappointing those buoyed by pre-polls giving them 25 percent support. The German Greens are a third force in the Bundestag, holding 118 of 736 seats. In both cases, the common factor is that climate action has become a preoccupation of growing numbers of voters. Given the seeming intransigence of climate concerns, Greens in all countries are likely to form an enduring support base and offer cutting-edge policies that might influence all policy makers.
German Greens have lengthy political experience with many ups and downs, becoming less compromising, more system focused, and more pragmatic in recent years. Paths to achieving ecological sustainability are now more readily understood in their social dimensions. Influenced by German activists and sustainability scholars who have made a degrowth turn to the subsistence orientation pioneered by German ecofeminists decades ago, German Greens incorporate strong concerns with equity, reducing over-consumption and modifying work. One of the latest critiques of overconsumption, The Imperial Mode of Living, points to a range of changing work practices beyond just transitions in phasing out work in fossil fuel industries and increasing work in the renewable energy sector. Similarly, the European Union is promoting a European Green Deal, and people-oriented and circular economies, as political, academic and environmental forums explore care economies and relocalisation.
So what’s ‘degrowth’? And, how do degrowth advocates and activists envision changes to everyday work and consumption for an environmentally sustainable future? This article offers an entrée into degrowth in practice at the grassroots and assesses what it might mean for Green policies.
When people first encounter ‘degrowth’ they’re inclined to think poverty and austerity, which is exactly the misunderstanding that critics of degrowth encourage. But don’t be fooled. Degrowth needs to be understood in comparison to words such as decommodification, dematerialisation and demilitarisation. Degrowth is best appreciated in the following terms: degrowth is to growth as quality is to quantity.
The degrowth movement has grown as the limits of growth economies became clearer and multiplied. In our book Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide, we point out that key concepts and theories contributing to degrowth have grown since the 1970s, especially in France. But activists did not gain much, especially international, visibility until early this century. Over the last two decades they have evolved more cohesive and comprehensive ideas and practices to address socio-economic inequities and ecological unsustainability in one stroke.
Degrowth activists want to demolish the blinkered addiction to growth that epitomises late stage capitalism. An addiction, like all addictions, that overpowers and overwhelms. Addiction to growth crowds out all but the insatiable hunger to grow monetarily. As such social and ecological values and relations are subsumed by everyday acts of exploitation and extractivism. We are surrounded by a commensurate centring on pure quantity, which favours scientific study of a peculiarly quantitative kind. Every type of target seems to be set in terms of ‘more’. The biggest is the best. Scaling up is essential. The amount of work done is more important than the quality of the work. To work as slow as a snail is a damning insult.
The symbol of degrowth, the snail, decentres an infinite growth orientation and brings us back to Earth. The snail’s protection, its shell, its home, spirals out as it grows then stops at an optimum size. The snail slip slides along as snails do, secretly, effectively fitting into, and helping recreate, healthy ecosystems. Don’t underestimate the work of the snail in its continuous circular economy, eating rotting leaves, other dead plant matter, animal dung and even snail and slug eggs. Ultimately, snails become food — attracting insects, earthworms, birds and mammals (even human ones).
Characteristics of degrowth
Conviviality in every dimension is at the heart of degrowth. ‘Convivial’ has deeper meanings than simply enjoying togetherness and ease, socialising with other people and food. As developed by Ivan Illich, convivial practices are grounded in cooperative, mutually agreeable and sharing approaches. A convivial society and work selects and develops user-friendly tools and techniques of production, using devices that are easily understood and created and that assist people to fulfil their basic needs.
Conviviality is at the other end of the spectrum to magical machinery, mystical experts and technocratic regulators. Degrowth advocate Andrea Vetter has developed a demonstrative tool for groups making decisions over the appropriateness and conviviality of various technologies. So, the Matrix of Convivial Technology is a convivial tool in and of itself. A convivial approach enables people to directly control what they do. In short, conviviality offers a deep form of everyday democracy and complements autonomy.
Influenced by the works of Cornelius Castoriadis and John Holloway, the political philosophy of the degrowth movement centres on agency and subsidiarity. Individual and collective autonomy highlight powers and skills to define ourselves, and to self-organise. Applied to the workplace, such approaches highlight transparency and open discussion on determining everyday processes, and humane and enabling practices. In terms of political organisation, like many twentieth century social and environmental movements, degrowth has evolved as an open, decentralised, multidimensional network encompassing advocacy, interventions, sharing information and skills, debates and prefigurative experimentation.
Spheres of degrowth activism
In Exploring Degrowth we identify four interrelated spheres of degrowth activism, which centre on: the individual and household; the collective and locale; resistance; and international networking, forming agendas, universal principles and vision. As in all our everyday lives, throughout all spheres, work is a common theme. With respect to work, the book posits a central question: How can we transform the norm of boring, destructive or senseless salaried work doing what we’re told, into creative and constructive work that integrates a diversity of tasks that are all meaningful in terms of both communities and ecosystems?
As individuals and householders, degrowth activists minimise working for money to part-time paid jobs. This way we have time to contribute to housework and care; to build, repair, maintain or renovate housing; and to enhance self-provisioning of the household by growing and preparing food, and by engaging in crafts to fulfil basic needs. We have more time to rest, contemplate and enjoy other people’s company far from the ‘rat-race’. Degrowth activists are equally involved in the collective sphere, a clear example of which follows below, in the ‘Cargonomia’ section. The sphere of resistance embraces resistance to destructive and precarious work supporting growth for growth’s sake. Minimising paid work partly achieves this. But resistance includes being active at demonstrations, occupations and strikes, where creative acts and collective decision-making and other activities prefigure stronger democracy and autonomy.
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In the universal sphere, transformational approaches to common working norms include moderating the formal working week to three or four days, evening out salary levels and making education and training free. One proposal, as a vehicle for transformation, is for an ‘unconditional autonomy allowance’. Questions around the composition of ‘basic needs’ as well as effective, convivial and efficient ways of satisfying them are left to locals to decide within their unique social and ecological environs. The unconditional autonomy allowance is distinct from other basic income schemes because it develops in expectation of a progressively in kind economy. The unconditional autonomy allowance is a right to a growing basket of locally and collectively created and managed goods and services. In much the same way as social welfare payments today allow for free access to medical services, the whole unconditional autonomy allowance is expected, ultimately, to transform into direct rights to goods and services (unmediated by money) and to increase responsibilities to directly contribute to such collective provisioning.
Degrowth is expressed in co-created and co-governed localised economies that are based on access and sufficiency for all. A transition to such sustainable and equitable lives can be driven from the grassroots, as in the activities, inter-relationships and partners that comprise the degrowth social formation Cargonomia. Co-author Vincent is a coordinator of this degrowth living lab and social centre for research and training, which incorporates three small enterprises in and surrounding Budapest, the capital of Hungary.
Cargonomia was co-founded several years ago by Vincent, colleagues, friends, and housemates who were embedded in a very active and creative network of underground alternative bars and social centres in the city centre. Cargonomia emerged organically as a cosmopolitan mix of people lived and congregated in Szalon, a massive workshop-style living space, which offered venues for creative performances and public discussion, and a common place where they could co-work.
Based on a familiar Parisian model, in mid-2013 Adrien Havas, Vincent and Levente Erös created a bike workshop Cyclonomia. Cycle use goes beyond reducing urban car use for commutes to work and enjoying riding and picnicking together. The Cyclonomia team designs, makes and hires out bike trailers and cargo-bikes to carry people, shopping and substitute for delivery trucks. Bikes operated within Covid-19 restrictions when other vehicles faltered. Cycles embody degrowth principles of using fewer of both Earth’s precious and limited materials, and sources of non-renewable sources of energy. As such they are superior to solar-electric vehicles.
As a do-it-yourself bicycle social cooperative, Cyclonomia operates along degrowth principles of conviviality, cooperation, mutual support, and sharing. For a minimal annual fee, members can hire bikes and access a space with all the tools, knowledge and helping hands that they need to repair and maintain their bikes. Access to and use of dangerous tools is carefully supervised. Cyclonomia has built outreach by offering workshops, hosting interns and working with partners. Cyclonomia not only designs and produces convivial, user-friendly tools and enables ecological lifestyles but also embodies a participative approach to the production and the ongoing use of cycles to prolong their life.
Co-founder Orsolya Lazányi has just completed a PhD thesis at Corvinus University of Budapest based on participatory action research, which she conducted as a coordinator of this not-for-profit. Cargonomia is a key hub of degrowth activists and trainers who are very responsive to newcomers and engage with critics. Cargonomia hosts interns, including from the European Union Erasmus+ program. Interns experiment with living degrowth, and the lab offers an ideal space for diverse research on degrowth and associated topics, from care and ecofeminism to low-tech and permaculture, from commons and alternative economic systems to degrowth and engineering. By way of an example, Cargonomia co-created an edible, organic food forest as a public garden in the heart of Budapest with a doctoral research student, in partnership with Budapest’s 14th District Council.
Autonomy, as in individual and collective agency, is another degrowth principle shown in Cargonomia’s enterprise Zsámboki Biokert. This organic micro-farm, 50km from Budapest in the Gödöllő-Budapest region, grows fresh organic vegetables. Drawing on traditional self-sustaining farming methods, key member Logan Strenchock not only farms but also works as the Environmental and Sustainability Officer at Budapest’s Central European University. He trains students on the farm and engages in conscious food consumption movements in Hungary.
Vegetables grown at Zsámboki Biokert and neighbouring partner farms are ferried to collection points in Budapest by another Cargonomia enterprise, Kantaa, which offers a bike messenger and coordinator for the organic food box scheme. Driven by degrowth principles of autonomy and participatory practices, the organisation of the organic food box scheme has household-oriented nodes of groups typically comprised of 25 co-located families. Every group is self-organising, each with a representative facilitating feedback to the coordinator, which enables communication back and forth between farmers and eaters.
Members of the organic food box ordering scheme eat seasonal food and become more in tune with nature by directly engaging with farmers’ challenges. This affordable and convivial way of collective provisioning with fresh, high quality, nutritious organic vegetables characterises the degrowth principle of ‘frugal abundance’, i.e. enhancing an holistic notion of ‘quality of life’ by valuing, respecting, and caring for people and planet.
So, what is the wider significance of living labs such as Cargonomia with its numerous partnerships, producing a co-working space with Valyo and logistics cooperation with Golya Futar? Such initiatives illustrate ‘scaling out’ rather than scaling up — remaining small enterprises but spawning like activities in a variety of directions, spaces, networks and fields. Another example of a multidimensional organisation is the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC), 2010–). CIC uses customised online organisation and distribution platforms, and open access, decentralised peer-to-peer networking to embrace various productive cooperatives, including distinctive shared makers’ labs with living and working communities such as Calafou. CIC delivers to thousands of customers, typically in groups, in the wider Barcelona region. By networking and cooperation, degrowth develops intensively as well as extensively. Regeneration and new generations of regionally distinct and locally consumed creations include home brews, micro-roasted and fermented goods.
Characteristically post-modern wood, metal and stoneworkers economise on raw materials both at source and by repairing, reusing and recycling from buttons to buildings. Unlike standardised and globalised franchises typifying scaling up in growth, degrowth generates scaling out of small-scale enterprises with local cultural distinctions.
Degrowth for policy makers
The influence of degrowth ideas and practices is spreading across policy fields, as well as the social and physical sciences, to offer valuable ways to address current challenges. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 WG III Mitigation Report (2022) not only warns of an urgent need to change direction from a path involving a 3°C average temperature rise, with severe impacts including on people’s food security and heightening risks of flooding, fires and storms. The IPCC report also mentions degrowth on several occasions (247, 525, 784, 2873), criticising GDP as ‘a poor metric of human well-being’, stating that ‘climate policy evaluation requires better grounding in relation to decent living standards’ and that ‘the degrowth movement, with its focus on sustainability over profitability, has the potential to speed up transformations’ (856). Moreover, the report summary (41) acknowledges that: ‘Sufficiency policies are a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.’
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The Covid 19 pandemic, associated restrictions and breakdown of supply chains has sensitised the electorate to the advantages of locally made and supplied goods and services. This to some extent explains the upsurge of interest in advocacy by degrowth and similar movements in relocalising economies and, especially, growing and marketing food close to its eaters. Food for Degrowth, a book edited by co-author Anitra, explores agroecological cooperatives, community supported agricultural schemes and the challenges facing small locally-oriented farms. The activist-scholar contributors analyse Indigenous food sovereignty in practice, city lab initiatives and how multilevel food governance can align local grassroots stakeholders and regional, national and international governance and policy making through engagement, integration and legitimation guiding just, sustainable and resilient food systems.
Adding to top-down pressure for policy changes to improve energy sufficiency and food security, grassroots degrowth activities inspire and point to changes to work practices. Cooperative and collective models for workers who self-organise are ideal. Housing for degrowth advocates argue for ‘enabling’ policies. Policies allowing for simple self-built ecologically sustainable dwellings, and for collective land settlements with neighbourhood energy and water micro-grid services. Policies enhancing social housing with sustainably renovated buildings to preserve history and conserve nature. Policies applying maximum standards for land, housing space and services per capita and limits to non-renewable, toxic and polluting (e.g. plastic) material use. Moreover, the IPCC points to societal, systemic, changes of a degrowth kind that various city councils right around the world are entertaining and implementing.
The Greens candidate in the federal seat of Bendigo is occupational therapist and health researcher, Dr Cate Sinclair, who has resided for a couple of decades in Castlemaine, where Anitra lives. Cate gained 14 percent of first preference votes, more than half of the Liberal Party candidate’s tally. She campaigned hard, highlighting the Greens policy to build one million affordable homes, arguing for free education and wiping out university student debts, taxing billionaires and for grassroots democracy. These policies are compatible with degrowth values of enhancing quality of life for all and reducing inequities.
Castlemaine locals have heard about and discussed degrowth through Mount Alexander Ecohousing Group meetings, Goldfields Library book events, and Allie Hanley’s international award-winning radio show and Saltgrass podcast. In 2019 the House of Representative Greens candidate gained almost 30 percent of first preference votes in Castlemaine North. Many such voters implicitly support degrowth. Initiatives of the Mount Alexander Sustainability Group (MASG) with their aspirational target of zero net emissions by 2025 include a campaign for better bike infrastructure, Castlemaine Repair Café, the Wash Against Waste Trailer (a first for Australia, 2009–) to reduce waste from local events by replacing takeaway crockery and cutlery with hard items washed on site by volunteers, and a program to encourage and support local regenerative farming. Decolonisation is a strong theme of the Wararack initiatives developed to address climate change once the Mount Alexander Shire Council announced a climate emergency.
In short, the degrowth movement offers multidimensional interventions in a range of areas that are core to the concerns of Greens parties. Degrowth activists resist and experiment, degrowth scholars analyse cases and propose alternatives, degrowth advocates offer useful approaches, opportunities for alliances, and grounded tactics. Altogether the degrowth movement facilitates bringing forth a world where we can more easily work together for socio-political and economic justice as well as ecological sustainability.
About the authors:
Anitra Nelson is an Honorary Principal Fellow at University of Melbourne, responsible for numerous publications, including co-editing two degrowth collections for Routledge’s Environmental Humanities series Housing for Degrowth: Principles, Models, Challenges and Opportunities (2018) and Food for Degrowth: Perspectives and Practices (2021).
Vincent Liegey is an engineer, interdisciplinary researcher, spokesperson for the French degrowth movement and co-author of La Décroissance, Fake or Not? (2021) and Degrowth Project: Manifesto for an Unconditional Autonomy Allowance (Editions Utopia, 2013). His works include a recent article in Le Monde Diplomatique (2021).
Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson co-authored Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (2020) and numerous associated articles.