Degrowth Summer School 2018 – two weeks of conviviality, decolonising knowledge and expanding imaginaries

I had the fortune of attending the Summer School on Degrowth and Environmental Justice from 24 June to 6 July 2018, which has introduced me to a subtlety yet also radically different lens to understand and examine the world. Themed ‘Making sense by democracy, non-violence, and conviviality’, the two weeks of critical learning and discussion was held at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and at the village of Cerbère, France.

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Group photo of participants and lecturers outside ICTA-UAB’s eco-friendly building. Photo Credit: ICTA-UAB

For me, coming from a natural sciences/ecological background, it was an interesting foray into the social sciences. Words/concepts such as ‘discourses’, ‘pluralism’, ‘ontologies’, and ‘post-‘ (e.g. post-development, post-growth, post-extractivism…) entered my vocabulary and speech, and I realised this critical eye and evaluation of the world was what has been missing in my education thus far.

As with most summer schools, we started off with some ice-breaking activities and introduction. One of them was an adaptation of the usual name game, where a person starts with their name, and the next person repeats it before adding their name, and so on. Here, after saying our name, we also had to add something that we wished would disappear from our world, and there were responses like ‘cars’, ‘capitalism’, ‘deforestation’, ‘extractivism’, and ‘monocultures’… A pretty interesting start to the summer school, exercising our imagination to envision a different world, and a prelude of what was to come.

Over the next few days, we had lectures on democracy, environmental justice, equality, economics, ecology, feminism and technology, all with the idea of building a better world that’s not based on economic growth, and one that is more just and equitable. According to members of Research & Degrowth, the academic-activist association that organised this summer school, “[s]ustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions.” It is rather an all-encompassing term, representing an idea (that this relentless obsessive pursuit of economic growth has to stop) but with multiple facets, pathways and realisations.

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The snail is usually associated with the degrowth movement, as a symbol (I think!) that degrowth is not trying to put ‘an elephant on a diet’, but simply be different. Image taken from: https://entitleblog.org/2016/10/25/naming-the-radical-movement-for-alternative-economics-d-e-growth/

Economic growth-at-all-cost has wreaked tremendous havoc on individuals, society and the environment, costs that are apparent to us now in the mental health crisis, increasing inequality, and climate change/habitat destruction from extraction and cash-crop monocultures. Recognising the debilitating effects of neoliberal capitalism, and wanting to replace it with a completely different political-economic-social model, degrowth lies mainly at the intersection of two academic fields, ecological economics and political ecology. As opposed to environmental economics, which attempts to internalise externalities in the market economy, ecological economists base the economy firmly within the environment and ground their measurements in biophysical and social metabolic flows of the economy, while political ecology examines power structures in ecological processes that shape human-environment interactions, investigating who has access to and control over natural resources.

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Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era is a useful resource to get started on degrowth ideas. Image taken from: https://vocabulary.degrowth.org

It is too much to expand on each of the lectures and discussions we had, so I will just highlight my main takeaways. Having an academic background in ecology/conservation, I thought I understood the issues of natural resource extraction and habitat destruction fairly well. My training had focused my attention on issues like where destruction was happening, using satellite imagery and monitoring, who/how it was done, using statistical or other kinds of models, where were the best cost-benefit locations for conservation etc. What it missed out on though, was the deeper, broader, political-economic contexts for all the environmental havoc that was being wreaked. The younger, more naïve Jocelyne read What is Conservation Biology by Michael Soulé (1985) and thought she had a good grasp of what conservation was about and stood for 😳. It’s been a radically different path I’ve been on since, immersing myself in texts from disciplines that are all engaging with different facets/angles/scales of natural resource extraction and human-nature/human-human relations – I will probably write a separate post on this.

So, here’s a quick list of ideas/concepts that have stuck in my head since:

  1. The concept of environmental justice, the links between natural resource extraction-based and debt-fuelled economies (thanks to the structural adjustment programmes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, among others), the empowering of local/indigenous communities to protect their rights to resources and livelihood, the ecological debt owed from the ‘global north’ to the ‘global south’
  2. The decolonisation of the mind, allowing ideas and ways from ‘global south’ to flourish without interference from westernised models of development, to develop their own economies that suit their culture and history, possibilities of a different way of life like Sumac Kawsay Buen Vivir in South America, or eco-swaraj in India.
  3. The illusion of scarcity (we should redistribute whatever little we produce to be shared equally such that everyone feels like we have enough) and myth of tragedy of the commons, ‘use’ values vs ‘exchange’ values, limited and diffuse renewable energy sources demanding lower energy consumption and material production (as opposed to fossil fuels)
  4. The need for everyone to be an active citizen, for collective action (not just individual choices) to make political changes. The concept of participatory democracy where everyone takes part in the decision-making process (as opposed to the current dominant representative democracy where we elect somebody to speak on our behalves) – this reminded me of Ent moots, particularly in the amount of time it takes!
  5. The concept of social metabolism, using material flow/energy accounting to examine our economy/production-consumption – seemed to me a really different yet necessary way of examining our society.
  6. Feminism means a lot of different things to different people and is really complicated (sorry I’m not doing this topic much justice but honestly speaking, most of it was lost on me, I’ll need more time to digest these works), but it gives us different perspectives to look at issues, highlights inequalities such as unpaid-for care work that is vital to social reproduction
  7. Most of all, that we should stop looking for a silver bullet, or a panacea. But embrace pluralism and diversity, and what we need is concerted effort at all levels from all peoples.

There was much more that was covered over the two weeks, including lectures on technology and artificial intelligence, and activism. And of course, in the ensuing months, I’ve just been absorbing a whole new world of literature, while trying to figure out what next (for a PhD). I think I’m coming to a stage of understanding, and hopefully more engagement will come.

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View of Collserola Parc from InOut hostel in Barcelona

Locations and logistics (some brief notes)

The first week was in Barcelona, with sessions mostly conducted at ICTA-UAB, though we had a few ‘field’ sessions too – one day of lectures conducted at Can Masdeu and another half day of walking tour of cooperatives around the city. ICTA-UAB is not near the city centre, but half an hour FGC (regional train, not local train) ride away from Plaça Catalunya. Fairly accessible, and most of the participants were staying at the InOut Hostel, located within the Parc Natural de la Serra de Collserola, which is in between ICTA-UAB and the city centre. The park has an interesting history, with community-led efforts to preserve it and prevent further development/gentrification and their community agroecological garden. The hostel was also an interesting experience; it is ‘a non-profit organization whose mission is the integration of people with disabilities, which form the professional staff who work there’. We’ve overheard some people complaining about the inadequate service provided by the staff, but honestly I think they’re just being fussy. The kitchen for our use was insufficiently equipped (chatted with a long-time visitor to the hostel that it used to be better but they refurbished it and all the useful equipment had disappeared) and we had to share the seating/eating spaces with paying guests (since the hostel also functioned as a event space) – so that was less great. And though the hostel is up on the hill, it’s not too much of an effort, just perhaps of a surprise/shock if you were unprepared.

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Compost toilet with a view at Can Masdeu

Can Masdeu is a pretty cool social project, we had our day of ecological lectures there, quite fittingly. Located within the same Collserola park but a different area, it used to be a leper hospital but fell into disuse for ~50 years, and has been squatted since 2001. The squatters were involved in a court battle and non-violently resisted an eviction, and are now still squatting there (occupying a space without the legal right), running a social centre with various events particularly in the summer and a community garden. The community practices consensus-based decision-making and ecological living, and it was really interesting being able to visit such a community and experience some aspects of it. We had communal locally-sourced dinner there, kindly prepared by the community, for which we contributed some amount of money. And we could buy their home-brewed beers too!

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Legit home-brewed beer with its own label (apologies for the bluriness)

The second week was held at Can Decreix, in the French village of Cerbere, just across the border with Spain along the coast. Intentionally chosen to overlook a fairly big train station instead of the sea, Can Decreix represents a real-life experiment of ecological, simple, degrowth living. It is a bit of a walk up a hill, which posed problems to our group of participants as we had some with mobility difficulties – a point many in our group felt was exclusionary about a movement that is supposed to be inclusive and welcoming to all. I’m not sure how the organisers will react to that comment for future events, but apart from accessibility issues, Can Decreix was refreshing for me to see how some people could live. We used solar ovens to bake our bread, washing up was done in a hot-water-for-dirty-dishes -> rain-water-for-scrubbing-with-ash -> tap-water-with-a-splash-of-vinegar-to-kill-germs method, urine was separated from poop for watering plants and making compost respectively, and a fair amount of wild plants (including seaweed collected from the shore) was included in our diets. Oh and there was a cycle-powered washing machine, using again, ash (soap?) instead of detergent.

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Steps leading up to Can Decreix. There’s also a vehicle-accessible road from the back, though cars aren’t really a thing with degrowth.

We didn’t actually stay at Can Decreix, though the volunteers who arrived a few weeks before us to prep the place did (much thanks to them, without whom we couldn’t have been there!). The participants were split between a hostel (where you need to bring your own sheets) and a hotel (Hotel Belvedere, really more of a service apartment, with 4-6 in each apartment which had hobs). Lectures were also split between Hotel Belvedere and another hotel in the village, which had rooms large enough to accommodate our group, so really it was only meals and chill time that we spent at Can Decreix.

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Solar ovens with bread dough left inside. Note how they’re facing different directions as a timer! Vineyard from which raisins and wines are made in the background.

The two weeks were very well-spent, and I think, no where else will I be able to find a group of such different yet like-minded people, bonded by a shared desire for a fairer and sufficiency-living world. It’s not often that a group of ~30 people makes it a point that everyone should have a chance to speak, inviting more quiet participants to voice their opinions, rather than the usual talking over/at each other. To know that there are others out there who are trying to make real, positive changes in the system gives me hope for our collective future, and I’m glad I’ve stumbled across the post-growth/degrowth community. The degrowth summer school was a vital starting point in this journey, one that will probably last my lifetime.

For more general reading on degrowth, check out the following articles:

Degrowth considered

Beyond growth

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

Scientists warn the UN of capitalism’s imminent demise

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