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Rich should degrow so poor can prosper

By Rajni Bakshi
September 26, 2014 16:32 IST
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Current forms of economic growth are widening disparities, leaving hundreds of millions of people to live in poverty, says Rajni Bakshi.

In the first week of September 3000 people gathered in Leipzig for intensive discussions on how to free the global economy from its obsession with endless growth. The Fourth International conference on Degrowth attracted a combination of academics and activists from 74 countries.

Since the term ‘degrowth’ seems odd and mystifying to many people, its votaries have come up with some quick and catchy explanations.

Such as: “Your recession is not my degrowth” and  “The rich must degrow so that the poor may grow”.

These catch-phrases are intended to clarify that the Degrowth platform is not about shrinking economies. It is instead about creating different forms of economic dynamism which are in synch with two hard truths.

One, there cannot be infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

Two, current forms of economic growth are widening disparities, leaving hundreds of millions of people to live in poverty.

While there is wide spread awareness about these realities, there is no agreement on how to tackle them.

At the very least the Degrowth platform aims to counter the dominant idea of our times – namely that economic growth is the only way to end poverty.

‘Degrowthers’ also challenge the notion that ‘Green Growth’ will stem  environmental decline. Their contention is that as long as the emphasis is on growth with environmental concerns given lower priority, green growth would not help to resolve the global ecological crisis.

Historically, the Degrowth idea can be traced to the influential “Limits to Growth” report produced in 1972 by the Club of Rome, a global think tank. This report showed that exponential growth was not possible within a finite eco-system.

However the contemporary mobilisation around ‘degrowth’ began to take shape in 2008 when about a hundred academics, mostly from western Europe, gathered in Paris to ponder the future of the idea of growth.

By coincidence, later that year the financial crisis that began in the USA put the global economy into a tail spin. Subsequently a wider variety of people, both in academia and business, have been keen to re-examine concepts and think outside the box.

Thus when the second Degrowth conference was convened in Barcelona in 2010 some 300 academics and activists showed up. When they reconvened in Venice in 2012, the attendance jumped to 900. These conferences are facilitated by an academic association called ‘Research and Degrowth’ whose motto is: “ Research and actions to consume less and share more.”

The seriousness of this platform should not be judged by the numbers of participants who show up at these regular conferences. Its significance depends on the depth and range of intellectual enquiry about questions that have no easy answers.

For instance, in what ways will the notion of value have to be redefined in order to be more compatible with the reality of a finite planet? At present everything in the market place is valued almost entirely in monetary terms. There is a growing space for the idea of ‘triple bottom line’ – namely generating value in terms of money, social well-being and environmental good. But for the most part the money dimension dominates the global economy.

A wide variety of panel discussions and papers presented on the Degrowth platform attempted to grapple with varied dimensions of such intellectual challenges.

According to Frederico Demaria, author of a forth-coming book on Degrowth and a member of the organising team, the concept of Degrowth is at the junction of several streams of thought and as yet has no comprehensive definition.

Degrowth is at the same time an ideology, an economic concept, a framework, a paradigm and a social movement.  So far over a 100 academic articles have been published in a variety of journals by scholars who are part of this platform.

Skeptics of the concept have suggested that for the moment ‘degrowth’ is a political slogan with theoretical implications. Naturally, this term has little or no attractions in countries where extensive growth is required to ensure that basic needs of the entire population are met.

This was emphasised by Sunita Narian, who heads the New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment. Addressing one of the plenary sessions of the Leipzig conference, via Skype, Narain stressed the need for economic growth in India. The challenge, she said, lies in crafting a model of growth that can meet the needs of all within planetary boundaries.

Climate change cannot be tackled just by reducing carbon emissions, Narain added. Responding to climate change requires that the rich within each nation share growth with the poor, and rich nations do the same in relation to poorer nations. The thunderous applause which followed Narain’s presentation indicated the tenor of this forum.

It was significant that the bulk of the audience was made up of young Germans who are questioning the means by which their affluence has been created. Such a critique of conventional economic growth is far from being mainstream in West European societies.

However, the growing interest evoked by the successive Degrowth conferences indicates that this line of thinking is not quite on the fringes.

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Rajni Bakshi

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