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August 27, 2018

Another Step Towards a Better World: Malmö Degrowth Conference 2018

Geoff Garver, August 27, 2018

The 6th International Degrowth Conference for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Malmö, Sweden, August 21-26, was my fourth degrowth conference – and another big success in the degrowth movement. The distinguishing hallmark of the Malmö conference was that it took place in Folkets Park, a lively public space clearly beloved by the stunningly diverse people of Malmö (over 40% of Malmö residents are of foreign ancestry). The immersion of degrowth folks in a bustling site of daily life in Malmö very much resonated with degrowth themes of social equity, community and inclusion.

Another inspiring and very evident feature of the Malmö conference: all those engaged, committed and energetic young people! I felt like an old guy – which didn’t keep me from shaking my booty at the closing party. The youthfulness of degrowth is a good thing.

Like other degrowth conferences I was part of, in Montreal (2012), Venice (2012) and Leipzig (2014), the Malmö conference was full of rich and stimulating ideas, as well as a healthy dose of edgy discussion of unresolved issues. Some highlights:

  • Sweden’s rightward tilt: Speakers at the conference opening made sure we understood that despite its progressive reputation, Sweden has been on an increasingly neo-liberal path in recent years, with Europe’s highest growth in income inequality, rising privatization and deregulation (e.g. woeful deregulation of education to allow “free choice”), tightening borders (permanent residency is harder and harder to get) and a big consumption-based ecological footprint. The conference took place in the lead up to national elections on September 9, and on the final day, we joined a demonstration that started at Folkets Park and ended with a public dialogue in Malmö’s main square with representatives from several Swedish political parties.

         

  • Law and  Degrowth: I gave a presentation on the need to move from environmental to ecological law in a very well attended session on law and degrowth the first day. I hope the welcome inclusion of a law-focused session in Malmö continues and expands in future degrowth events – and I’m on board to help make that happen. I highlighted the joint law and governance research initiative of the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) project (now becoming Leadership for the Ecozoic – L4E) and the Ecological Law and Governance Association (ELGA), framed around the need to transition from environmental to ecological law.
  • Giorgos Kallis’s new book Degrowth: Giorgos Kallis presented his just-out book Degrowth, a welcome, cogent and accessible addition to degrowth literature. I’m using it in a course on Environmental Thought at McGill University this Fall. Giorgos shared an admirably humble assessment of key (difficult!) themes he’s not sure the book adequately addressed: 1) the material feasability of degrowth (e.g. land and other requirements for solar and other renewable energy), 2) potential political trajectories consistent with degrowth (e.g. juggling often clashing visions of eco-modernists and those more skeptical of the role of technology in a degrowth world) and 3) how to respond persuasively to conventional economists’ arguments that value can be sufficiently decoupled from material and energy throughput in a socially and ecologically sustainable growth-insistent economy. Lynne Segal and Alf Hornborg kicked off discussion with thoughtful reflections on the book, opining, e.g. that more attention is needed on the “crisis of care” caused by increasing monetization and marketization of things like child rearing, and that general purpose money is at the root of the social and ecological crises to which the degrowth movement is responding.
  • Inge Røpke on the need for a new economics: Denmark’s leading ecological economist gave on overview of the need for radical transition to a new economics with: 1) a new energy basis underlying a new social metabolism tailored radically to our “full world”, 2) a new response to population trends and the global ecological crisis, and 3) new societal goals based on frameworks like the planetary boundaries and Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics”, with progress assessed according to metrics using material and energy flow accounting, human appropriation of photosynthesis (HANPP), ecological and carbon footprints, etc. Her central theme was that markets are inevitably regulated and therefore should be constructed and regulated purposefully so as to prevent demands (and monetized exchange of incommensurable values per market fundamentalism) from exceeding real ecological and social capacities. My favorite line: “Ownership doesn’t contribute anything.” Inge is kind of low-key, but she’s a rock star!
  • Tension between anarchist and “managerial” perspectives and approaches: It was impossible not to sense persistent tension in the degrowth community between anarchist perspectives with approaches suspicious of formal, hierarchical structures and institutions for addressing social and ecological dilemmas (especially at state and international/global scales), and perspectives and approaches more accepting of some inclusion of local-to-global structures and institutions for collectively “managing” those challenges. A related tension persists between those wanting degrowth to be completely unencumbered by currently dominant social imaginaries (e.g., tainted by colonialism and other persistent types of unjust power dynamics) and others more willing to pragmatically use existing managerial structures and institutions, at least in initial stages of the transition to a world grounded in degrowth values.
  • A rich session on “limits”: Barbara Muraca, Ulrich Brand and Christina Plank led a stimulating workshop on limits-based framing of the current human-Earth dilemma (e.g. planetary boundaries) and how to respond to it. Do the planetary boundaries and Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” overly favor a “managerial,” primarily top-down, local-to-global structure that inadequately includes local perspectives and approaches? Does it exclude ground-level, locally empowering responses to social and ecological dilemmas that move past persistent patterns of colonialism, unjust domination, etc.? This is very clearly an evolving discussion in the degrowth community that will go on for some time.

And some other special moments:

  • Andreas Malm saying to rousing applause that it’s time to move from protest to resistance.
  • Stefania Barca suggesting replacing “Anthropocene” with “Whitemanocene.”
  • Ruby van der Wekken telling the story of time sharing in Helsinki – seeds of a degrowth world have been planted and are taking root!
  • The Festival of African Culture that took place in Folkets Park on the last day of the conference.

I took my first flight since July 2016 to be part of the Malmö conference. I hate to spend that carbon, but I think it was worth it!

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