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|Blogging at the 2012 Degrowth Conference in Venice|
A series of four blogs give a colourful insight to the 3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity held in Venice, with speakers including Helena Norberg-Hodge, Serge Latouche, Silke Helfrich and Arturo Escobar among others. By Rob Hopkins.
24th September 2012 - Published by Transition Culture
19th September 2012
I’m in Venice at the 2012 Degrowth conference. I’ve never been to Venice before, it is really quite an extraordinary place. Even in the rain. It took me 17 bleary hours on various trains, but that was time well spent. This is the third Degrowth conference, and it has brought together people from far and wide, with its theme of ‘The Great Transition: degrowth as a passage of civilisation’. The conference started this afternoon, in the Teatro Malibran, a beautiful old theatre.
It began with opening remarks from the Mayor of Venice, the Rector of the University Institute of Architecture of Venezia and the Rector of the University of Udine, welcoming people to the city and to the conference. Then there was a brief talk by two people (whose names escape me) from Montreal, who will be hosting the next DeGrowth conference in 2 years time, a bit like how the Olympic Flame is handed to whoever will be hosting it next time. Then we were into the main speakers.
My spoken Italian is pretty good, but not as good as I thought it was, and I had expected to be able to follow more of the talks than I was actually able to. So apologies for the fact that it wasn’t until halfway through the first of the main speakers that I actually got hold of a headset and was able to follow it fully.
That first speaker was Serge Latouche, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Universite d’Orsay, near Paris. What follows is based on my notes, so any mistakes are entirely mine. Europeans, he said, have to be brave, and have the courage to abandon the Euro. He described the Euro as being a “monstrosity” from an intellectual point of view. Money should be at our service. Free competition is a fraud, and protectionism protects no-one but multinational corporations. What we need is a kind of protectionism that protects the poor and the environment.
We need also to get away from the idea of liberalisation. The Troika are playing this massacre at the European level. We need to write off debt, default on our debts, then we can escape this terrible hell, and move to a society without growth. We need to reject both austerity AND growth, we have to escape the imperialism of growth. History is littered with governments and nations that defaulted on their debts, and the world didn’t come to an end. Our first objective has to be to solve the most tragic problem, that of growth. Local initiatives should be protected.
We need to go back to organic farming, as current practices are terrible. We need to learn to do without pesticides and produce food in a different way. We must reconvert energy. We are approaching the end of cheap oil, and we need new sources, not shale gas and nuclear, but truly renewable energy. We need also to cut working times, working less to live better and to have more time to dream and to live. Words are easy, deeds harder. When we reach the bottom of this current crisis, the things that at the moment seem like a Utopia will in fact seem very realistic.
The next speaker was Helena Norberg Hodge from the International Society for Ecology and Culture. She said that for her, Degrowth and the Economics of Happiness are the same thing. Although there are things that offer encouragement over the last 4 years, this is still a huge crisis. It is useful to keep in mind the global picture. Through working with countries around the world, this picture has become clear.
Globalisation has been in fact a deregulation of finance, removing the rules that protect society from big business. She read recently that the Economist magazine was founded in order to fight protectionism. ‘Protectionism’ is about protecting people and the environment, and governments oppose the idea. This concept is found in books, on TV, it is the dominant system, a view that tears apart society and the living world. It has undermined our democracy. The EU exists to serve the needs of big business and to reduce diversity.
Growth has come to equal trade, and trade to equal global trade. The distances between trading nations grows greater and greater. If tomorrow, people sat down to a breakfast produced entirely in their region, no money would flow to corporations, but lots would flow to local farmers and growers, and we would have clean, safe, healthy food. Now, food from far away is cheaper than local food. Organic food is more expensive because of the way subsidies skew the system towards industrial agriculture. Localism is not about ending trade and tourism.
One of the biggest myths of the past 10 years is that the best way to end Third World debt is to give microcredit. No-one stopped to think that this debt, accrued by women in rural communities, moved economies away from subsistence to being able to buy consumer goods, driven by the power of satellite TV. This pressure to consume is based on the idea that young people have to conform: the right jeans, right shoes, or they won’t be loved. Every child longs to be loved, to feel approval. Consumer culture has perverted this so that young people won’t get approval without these things. But it has created the opposite, leading to alienation and loneliness.
Localisation is happening, it’s not just an idea. It’s about decommercialisation and rebuilding relationships between producers and consumers. The movement for local food is the most powerful. Urban farmers, CSAs, school gardens etc. What we need to do is to bring the economy home. We also need local business alliances, where local businesses link up to support each other. What we need to grow is the number of businesses, not the size of them. While industrial production of rubber balls makes sense, for apples it doesn’t.
Local food movement is exploding the myth that large agriculture is needed to feed the world. Local agriculture can feed more people and produce more food with a diversity of crops. Localisation has now gained such momentum that the New York Times recently spoke of ‘localising the future’. Time magazine has also spoken of ‘locanomics’, driven by the rising cost of oil and of labour costs in China.
The Transition movement is one of the fastest growing movements in recent times, but another far bigger but also very important is Via Campesina. This opposes globalisation and is now the largest social movement in the world. Healthy food equals healthy soil. That link is deep and has been with us since the beginning of time, it’s how we evolved. It is, she concluded, the economics of happiness.
Next was Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen of University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Wien. The theme of her talk was subsistence. Transition, she said, is achieved by small steps. She began with a fairy tale. It’s 2099, and humans are getting ready to celebrate the turn of the third millennium. People are happy, they live in a time of peace. There is no famine, no war. People have confirmed their commitment to the future and to happiness. People now live in small cities and village surrounded by vegetable gardens, flowers, woods, which are owned by communities.
Fountains, lakes and rivers are treated live revered grannies. Everyone is convinced that every area and every human being can offer a lot. It is a time of happiness. The main economy is people making gifts. People prepare songs for the celebration, some have gone on pilgrimage. Many more move towards Venice where in 2012 the foundation was laid for the Great Transition towards a happy society.
If we want peace, we have to resolve the economic crisis. The principle of growth has invaded the brains and hearts of people. We need to decolonise the culture that puts economics at the centre. My contribution is the perspective of subsistence, highlighting the economics of subsistence. My aim is to eliminate the idea that we get all we need to live well from a consumer society. Subsistence is not ‘under-development’. After World War 2, racism took new roots, being ‘underdeveloped’ becoming seen as being inferior.
Let us adopt subsistence. What do we need to live well and be satisfied without always needing more. In subsistence, satisfaction comes from civil society, not from governments or corporations. She has noticed a change in Germany in recent years. When this idea was raised, until recently people saw subsistence as something for just the 3rd World, about going back to live in caves. Now it is a real topic for discussion.
Transition initiatives are now underway in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Another important movement is urban gardening. Let’s access as much urban land as we can and cultivate it. The ecovillage movement has also been promoting subsistence for over 30 years. In Bidefeld (where she lives) we have been preparing a meal once a week for whoever wants to come. People who depend on food banks are invited. Also people who would otherwise be eating alone. Loneliness is one of the worst things in our society.
Some people say that this isn’t politics, it won’t make an difference. Or “it’s only for food, nothing to do with economics”. This is true, it’s not politics. However, in other ways it is, moving away from being Homo economicus, and this shift is necessary to create degrowth. It doesn’t depend on money. It relies on groups of friends.
Growth supports one single culture. The United Nations’ Millenium Goals intend to eradicate poverty and cut people suffering from hunger by half. However this has already failed and hunger in the world is rising and will continue to do so. So, I would like to ask, you, which is the most realistic, my fairy tale at the start of this talk, or the United Nations Millenium Goals?
I was then the final speaker, and for my talk I remembered to turn on my recording thing, so here it is.
[See original source for audio recording]
When the evening was over I walked back to where I am staying through the Venice streets at night. Beautiful. Tomorrow is workshops with some really interesting-looking topics. I’ll do my best to take some useful notes…
The theme of the first full day of ‘The Third International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity’ in Venice was ‘Commons’. For me there were a couple of key highlights of the day, so I will give a thumbnail of all the talks today, but more detail on the highlights. As with my notes from yesterday, the following is compiled from my notes, and so are entirely fallible. Apologies to any of the speakers if I have got their message wrong. The first speaker was Gianni Tamino of the University of Padova who argued that in the context of depleting resources, the commons are essential for living, we can’t postpone the end of growth.
Collective ownership is our only way forward, because private property is leading to disaster. All renewable resources, he said, need to be considered as collective, we must fight against patents, and intellectual property. Our real wealth comes from our human relationships.
Next, Silke Helfrich of the Commons Strategies group gave an overaching take on her sense of what we mean by the commons. What people imagine as the commons, she said, are things like the air, the water, biodiversity, things not produced but given by nature. Then there’s things like language. Should we have to pay for a licence to speak Italian? Other things we imagine as commons are things that have been created to be given away.
Property is always about exclusion. Commons are tied to communities and networks. However, commons doesn’t mean that something belongs to no-one with no rules. Fairness means limited access for all. Elinor Ostrom said “commons work everywhere”. People communicate with each other, they negotiate, they establish rules, they are able to co-operate. Can we make institutions that make it easy to co-operate rather than compete?
One example of ‘commons-based peer production’. Here people set a goal together, set up rules and sanctions, contribute (voluntarily or by contract), and then there is possession instead of property. Commons work because they are user driven and socially rooted, we can make our own decisions in a socially shared process.
Next was Gustavo Soto from Bolivia. He talked about what is happening there, as the indigenous people fight to protect their commons. He spoke of how when Evo Morales came in there was great hope, but that he is now acting very differently. A part of the Amazon with protected status is being opened up to foreign multinationals to extract minerals and clear the forest and the local indigenous people are resisting.
Alberto Lucarelli of Frederico II University talked about, in the Italian context, the big push to privatise services and resources previously seen as common. He talked about the increased need for participatory democracy, and how the government is abusing its rights by selling public asset. What we need is a new dimension of democracy to ensure the commons, new powers of referenda to block these kinds of sell-offs, and the Italian constitution changes to prevent these assets being sold off.
Then, after a coffee break, it was workshop sessions. I went to one about co-housing, which was OK, but nothing I hadn’t heard before. So after lunch, rather than going to the second part of the workshop, I went for a big walk around Venice in the sunshine. Beautiful. Someone put a comment yesterday asking to see some photos of Venice, so here you go…
And all accompanied by the sounds of a completely car-free city. Now there’s a treat. I got back to the venue in time for the last plenary session of the day. The first speaker was Artuto Escobar of the University of North Carolina. I have to say, his talk was the most insightful of the day for me. I hope also to interview him while I am here for Transition Culture. His talk looked at how Degrowth looks different in the global North and the global South, and had some interesting insights for the Transition movement.
His theme was ‘Transition politics’. How can we link debates about degrowth with debates on alternatives to development in the global South? In the global North we have Degrowth, which is about post carbon, post materialism, post economic, post capitalist approaches. In the South, the focus is more on alternatives to development: post development, post/non-liberal, post/non-capitalist, alternatives to modernity.
What, he asked, might a post-development era look like? First, we must stop describing Asia, Africa and Latin America as ‘in need of development’. We need a radical questioning of the ideas underlying ‘development’. Moving beyond a reliance on expert knowledge, valuing indigenous, and other knowledges. A more profound vision of alternatives, grounded in the historical terrain of cultural differences. But we must also seek concrete answers to the serious problems of poverty, environmental destruction and social justice.
Recently, the Bolivian government enshrined the ‘rights of nature’, which is very important. It began with the indigenous movements in the Andes. They are creating a genuine alternative to the Occidental model, which is at the borders of, but engaging with, modernity. It is about broadening the notion of rights to include the rights of nature. It involves decolonisation and depatronisation of society. We need to recognise that it is our relationships that make us up, nothing pre-exists the relationships that constitute it.
Next was Francois Schneider, and industrial ecologist, and one of the key figures in the promotion of Degrowth. A while ago he walked with a donkey across France (see photo below), holding public meetings as he went and raising a lot of awareness about Degrowth. He started by saying that the idea of Degrowth has gone from being a ‘missile word’ to something that touches people. It is becoming common ground.
He said that the word Transition (as well as permaculture, Buen vivir and others) doesn’t capture the idea of consuming less (something I rather disagreed with and discussed with him after the talk). Growth is about pushing the limits, rolling out new and big infrastructure, deregulation, the creation of artificial needs.
So what, he asked, is Degrowth? It is a democratic, collective decision to consume less, which began with radicals and then grew to encompass researchers/academics. It creates a dissidence to existing economic representation, demystifying growth and creating an alternative frame for a new social movement, one that is rich in debates.
It is defined by multiple sources, from ecology, sustainability, simplicity, real democracy. He put up a quote, I don’t remember who from, that “inequality creates endless frustration and a vicious circle of status seeking through material possession”. Degrowth needs a variety of actors, activists, academics/researchers, political activists.
He talked about the diversity of strategies we need on different scales. On the local scale we need alternatives to growth, voluntary simplicity, opposition to some technologies, small co-ops, while on the large scale we need to develop new institutions, challenge some institutions, defend some institutions and transform some institutions.
We need to show opposition to new airports, roads, inappropriate waste management and so on, while also creating alternatives to growth in all its dimensions, co-housing, localisation, renewable, appropriate technologies and so on. There is no silver bullet, rather a combination of many things.
The final speaker for the day was Marcelo Baros, a Liberation theologian and biblist. He talked about how he was in Brazil a week ago at a demonstration by farmers and other groups in one of the large favelas there. He was asked to be involved in a meeting, and he said he couldn’t come as he was going to Venice for a conference on Degrowth. “What’s that?” they asked. When he explained, they asked how it would be possible for them to do that, as they already have nothing. “How can you have less than nothing?” they asked. “How can we degrow?” Many people there thought that it would be good, however, for Europe to degrow.
What matters, he said, is that we have an awareness of constraints, environmental constraints, the limits that we can’t exceed. At Rio +20 the question of constraints to growth wasn’t mentioned. If the population of India and China, who, combined, are half of the world’s population, all had a car, the world would explode!
This links with inequality. This was only referred to once at Rio +20. The most important movements are those that call for poverty to be declared illegal. In Latin America today there is no point speaking of Degrowth. Degrowth has to start with considering our neighbours, understanding that I can only exist if you exist. This subject is so important that it can’t be left in the hands of governments, given that they are so heavily dependent on big business. The true governments of the world today are multinational companies. This is why Rio +20 failed. We can organise demonstations, movements. This is not something sad, rather wellbeing is something full of joy, a path to peace.
Later in the evening the rather wonderful ‘Un altro mondo e possibile’ choir sang by the side of the Canale della Giudecca as a yellow crescent moon hung low in the night sky. They sang beautiful songs of many cultures in a great diversity of voices, all from one community somewhere near Venice. Fantastic stuff. And not a car in sight.
21st September 2012
The theme for today was work. The first plenary session featured four speakers. The first, Gilbert Rist from Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes in Geneva, was a pretty forthright dismissal of economics as it is practiced today. We need, he said, to free ourselves of the dominance that economics has over peoples’ will. There are two reasons why it is fatally flawed. The first is that it is based upon a mechanistic model which makes it impossible for economists to understand present ecological and environmental problems, especially in the biosphere.
Why? Economics as we know it was born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which means that there was a time, not that long ago, when it didn’t exists, and people actually lived without economists and the so-called expertise of economists. Economics thinks of itself as a science, and they like to give a scientific flavour to their theories, as one economist wrote, they wanted to make economics “as true as maths or astronomy”. Economists wanted to be respected as scientists, but failed to notice that advances in physics made many of their ideas redundant. They think that if there is a shortage demand is stimulated and the demand is met. This theory is totally blind to ecology.
The second reason is the myth of scarcity. Economics has scarcity as a founding myth, but it is a false hypothesis that is about to come true. Scarcity leads to violence as it creates competition for scarce resources. The only answer then in growth, which becomes necessary to supply more and more to meet needs.
Degrowth, he concluded, must not only care for biological agriculture, public transport and so on. To reach our objective, we have to raise a battle against economic science as it is taught in universities and in the media, i.e. that it is a science which it isn’t, and that it should have the last word in all debates. Do you know of any science that has failed to change its paradigm for over 100 years? Degrowth is not about the past, it is about the future.
The next speaker, Maurizio Pallante, began by stating that he believes that jobs and employment are not the same thing. We have forgotten the idea of work. Housewives are considered non-workers, they produce good but are unpaid. Employment is not necessarily the same thing as work. Degrowth is not interested in creating employment for its own sake, for example making weapons and bombs is employment. We don’t just need more jobs, we need useful jobs. Jobs that take us towards degrowth. In Italy, the number of workers in the 1960s was around 20 million. Today the population has grown significantly, GDP has grown, but we have roughly the same number of people in work.
The other facet of growth is the huge public debt that it has generated. It necessitates both the public sector and households to go into debt. There is no way out of this mess using current thinking. Degrowth says that we need to find the money for more investment without generating more debt, and this must come from reducing waste. This doesn’t mean sacking public sector workers, it means curbing our wasting of natural resources such as energy. This creates jobs.
The much touted ‘green economy’ is just an attempt to relaunch growth. We should invest massively in energy efficiency, which would create lots of skilled jobs. This would lead to less fuel use, which would show as a drop in GDP but which would surely be a good thing.
Next was Mario Agostinelli, of the Association Energia Felice in Milano, who I have to admit, spoke very loud, and the translation headsets were very quiet, so I missed most of what he said, other than his stating that we need to get the Trades Unions on board with these discussions.
Last up was Antonella Picchio, of the Modena and Reggio Emilia, a radical feminist academic. She stated that she believes the paradigm shift has to start with women. She stated that her task is very difficult, to bring about a change in the discourse. She stated that as a feminist she has to be critical of Degrowth. She doesn’t see herself as a gender economist, rather as a feminist economist. She is interested in why the system has created the inequalities that it has. The problem, she stated, isn’t that men didn’t care about women, but that they didn’t care about themselves and expected women to do that for them.
She also spoke up for housewives, stating that when people talk about the global economy and so on, no-one talks about the 8,000 women injured every year doing housework. It is important that we all question our own lifestyles, asking who it is who makes what we do possible? We need to also understand the problem of unpaid work for immigrant women. Her conclusion was that we must make an effort to be honest and search for deeply rooted causes, the true enemy is the link between salaries and welfare. The financial markets dictate out lives. We have to recognise the fight for women. Domestic violence is on the rise as the economy worsens. These things must be in the public debate.
Then I went to a workshop on bioregionalism that wasn’t especially earth-shattering, apart from a quick overview of a study-in-progress for the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, rather similar to the ‘Can Totnes and district feed itself?’ study I was part of, looking at the extent of self-sufficiency that might be possible in the bioregional context. After lunch I did an interview with Arturo Escobar which I will post here as soon as I get it transcribed.
As yesterday, instead of going to the second half of the workshop I went for a walk around the city. Here, again, for the person who asked for them the other day, are some of today’s pictures of this impossibly lovely place.
Today’s afternoon plenary session was called ‘Scenarios’. First speaker was Luca Mercalli, a climatologist at the Italian Meteorological Society. He started by stating that growth is simply no longer possible. The earth appeared 4.5 billion years ago, human beings emerged 20,000 years ago, and we’ve had economics for 200 years. We have no option, we cannot trade with thermodynamics. There is clear evidence that we are now living beyond our means. We are pushing the limits. Yet all of this is treated by the media as though it were a football match or something.
The number of articles warning of disaster is growing and growing, such as one in Nature recently called ‘Approaching a state shift in the Earth’s biosphere’. Ought that title alone not have triggered a huge public debate? We know that this year’s CO2 concentrations is unprecedented. The melting of the glaciers is unprecedented. This year’s Arctic ice melting is unprecedented. It is far worse than the worst case scenarios of 20 years ago. Degrowth, he concluded is not about going back, but it contains a good view of a future where we turn our backs on fossil fuels.
Next up was Erik Assadourian of the Worldwatch Institute. His talk was called ‘Getting to a Sustainable Society’. Every year Worldwatch Institute publish their ‘State of the World’ report, and every year the tone gets more concerned. Over the past 40 years there have been loads of great ideas, clear reports, plans for how to create a more sustainable world, but we haven’t done it. What we have is the concept of ‘green growth’, which will just do what we do more, with carbon capture, geo-engineering and so on, the idea that we will be able to solve all the problems that growth creates.
We’re currently using 1½ of our biocapacity. Do we appreciate how much we actually need to cut back growth if we are to live within our limits? For example, if everyone in the world lived like Italy we would be able to support a world population of 2.8bn (presently it is nearer to 7bn), if everyone lived like the US it would be 1.4bn people. If this were fairly distributed we’d need to live on $3-4,000 a year all over the world. We still tend to think in terms of ‘Degrowth-Lite’, but that’s the implications of really doing what needs to be done.
A truly Degrowth society would be people living in small, multi-generational homes, no private cars, no flying, very few family pets, a food-based economy. It would require 60-70% of the population on the land growing food. It would require abandoning the consumer society. I admit it’s not appealing but, compared to having an elite population consuming while the rest live in poverty alongside catastrophic climate change it’s the best of the two options I’d say.
There are a few key steps towards degrowth. We need to deregulate tax havens, redistribute tax burdens, outlaw junk food, put taxes towards public good and towards preparing for ecological changes. We need to better share income and time through a more even distribution of work hours. We need to cultivate a plenitude economy. We need to make it feel as natural to live sustainably as living as a consumer does today. We need intentional strategies to normalise a consumer society, we need to change it to normalise a sustainable culture.
The big question though is, is it too late? We need to establish a missionary-philosopher-like approach now, things like Transition Towns are a great example of this. Why have movements like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, lasted for thousands of years? Because they create a sense of community, they produce social enterprises and so on. We can learn strategies for change from them.
Last speaker was Ugo Bardi from University of Florence, who may be familiar to Transition Culture readers as the Chair of ASPO Italia, and poster of occasional comments on these pages. Peak oil, he said, is complex. Where are we now in terms of peak oil? Well, the oil peak was in fact reached some years ago. It has now passed. We are now on the Degrowth half of the classic peak oil bell curve. For me, speaking about peak oil for 10 years has been like a Zen experience, like becoming enlightened! More than I might have done with a Buddhist master!
I learnt about peak oil from Colin Campbell. In 1995 he said we’d peak in about 10 years. He got it from M.K.Hubbert who had said in 1956 that we’d peak in 50 years. Reading the papers you might think it’s never going to happen. The window is now closed however, the peak has now passed.
The oil peak has led to things like this being built (see picture below)…
The tar sands, the extraction of which requires trucks this big, has enabled us to mask the peak, in the same way, he said, that some members of the audience have masked the fact that their hair has turned grey by dying it a different colour. Maugeri recently published his paper to say peak oil is nonsense and it made it into the Italian press. We used to think that peak oil would solve climate change, but no-one thinks that any more. It would have been had we accepted the consequences of peak oil and found alternatives . The fact that we didn’t was a huge blunder that will influence the 21st century. We all hoped that peak oil would lead to Degrowth. But we are still using resources that pollute more for the same output. Climate change is happening, you know that.. you see the changes happening, but we still believe that a tree only has value when it has been felled.
Climate change is like a thief in the night. I leave you with a question, one to which I don’t know the answer, which is why I am asking it. Peak oil has made the problems worse, so do we really think that Degrowth can solve these problems?
Then, after a walk and some food, I went back to the Central Tent for what was billed as a ‘Meeting of International Networks and Movements’, which I thought was going to be an opportunity to meet with activists from different networks and to discuss ways to better collaborate. In the end it was a rather disappointing 2 hours of people sat on the stage behind tables talking. I was asked to say a few words at the end on a Transition take on that, but it still felt like a huge missed opportunity, and that some good facilitation could have led to a really useful discussion.
I walked back past the tented area by the Canale where there have been stalls and events over the past few days, and there was a band playing, people dancing, the wine was flowing, the conversation happy and lively, and I wished I had spent the previous two hours there instead.
As I stood chatting with people, drinking some very nice organic local wine, one of the huge cruise ships that have taken to frequenting the harbour in Venice, much to the outrage of local people given their sheer inappropriateness in that historic setting, and the damage they do to the Canale itself, drifted past. The band stopped playing, and many members of the crowd on the canale-side launched into a song about not wanting them there, and about give us back out waters.
The enormous ship, all lit up, and about 5 times taller than even that tallest building in Venice, slowly sailed past and on down further into Venice. Last week there had been a big protest against big cruise ships coming into Venice, due to the impacts they have on the Canale itself, the pressure that so many tourists (Venice already has about 100 million tourists a year!) put on the city, and the air quality impacts when such big ships come into the city’s waters. If we are talking about Degrowth, that ship, and others like it, seemed like one pretty obvious place to start.
22nd September 2012
The theme of Saturday, my last day at Degrowth2012 (although it is continuing tomorrow also) was ‘democracy’. I arrived late for the opening session, due to having been woken several times in the night by a very persistent mosquito, and after I had lovingly posted my write-up of yesterday, for you dear reader, I was running a little bit late. So I missed Marco Deriu, and arrived half way through the talk by Salvor Nordal, Chair of the Iceland Constitutional Council and the University of Iceland. She had been speaking about how the financial crash of 4 years ago in Iceland has led to a very creative process of reimagining democracy in Iceland.
It led to the setting up of various commissions, one that looked into what happened in the banking crisis, and another, which she was part of, which explored the ethics and morality of what occurred. In the end, the final report, with the reports of the various commissions, ran to 9 volumes.
This in turn led to a revision of the constitution which has been unchanged since it was created in 1874. A national forum of 950 people was brought together, picked at random from the Electoral Register. A committee of experts then collated this into a report. Then a constitutional council, consisting of 25 citizens from very diverse backgrounds and not representing political parties set out to report to government, and consulted the public as much as possible.
What emerged was the need to strengthen democracy, increase transparency and direct democracy. 10% of the population can now demand a referendum. The council’s proposal was handed to the government in 2011, following what she described as a unique process that embodied a very powerful process. Its drawbacks have been that the role of the committee and the forum were not very well designed, it wasn’t clear what would happen afterwards, and the politicians have been reluctant, there is no consensus what to do next. It is hoped that next year there will be a referendum on the proposal.
Her conclusion was that the crisis has generated investigations and broad discussion about Icelanding business, government and culture, that still is discussion and investigation of the past event, that revision of the constitution is an attempt to look forward, that Iceland is moving towards a more open society.
The next speaker was Alfredo Pena-Vega, a sociologist from the Institut International de Recherche, who is a specialist in complexity theory. We all want change, he began, dramatic change, a bright new paradigm. But that will require a new cognitive structure, a theory of complexity, a science of complexity. The word democracy has been used so much that it has lost much of its meaning. We discuss it, but don’t know what we are talking about. We love democracy, many have fought for it on our behalf, but we don’t know how to re-fascinated, re-enchant it.
If we are going through a crisis of democracy, it is a crisis of politics as well. Politics has got lost. Why? It is not equipped for a world of uncertainty. We cannot discuss what to do without also discussing uncertainty. But how did we get here? The uncontrolled development of industrial civilisation has impacted the biosphere and out lives. It has led to the disintegration of social solidarity as we knew it. Between elections there is no engagement, and when there are elections turn-out is very low.
We need a new concept of politics that goes beyond development. We have two options for the future. One is to rush into disaster. The second is to approach change. We are approaching a metamorphosis, for Degrowth this means that the challenges we are facing are intertwined and we have to prioritise our responses. On the one hand we are a society of needs, on the other a society of desires. We must come up with a version of transition that will be accepted also by our enemies. We have to have a transition with a high degree of acceptability. We have a long winding road ahead, and it is up to us whether we have a politics of hope, or a politics of fear.
The last speaker of the session was Marco Revelli a historian and political scientist from University of Piemonte. He started by stating that democracy has allowed us to make a lot of mistakes but we can’t carry on making those kinds of mistakes. We have to recognise limits. Democracy emerged as an idea in societies that considered themselves limitless.
So what happens to democracy in a capitalist society which is growing economically? Growth has become an exponential explosion of wealth. How does democracy fare in that context? Actually it is on the verge of collapse. We have ended up with a ‘people-less’ democracy, and democracy without confidence is nothing. This affects Italy most severerly. After the recent referendum on the privatisation of the nation’s water industry (where the people rejected the proposal) there was a simple poll conducted. Only 18% of those polled felt the government were doing well. In terms of the opposition, 83% felt they were doing badly too. So, around 90% of people don’t recognise themselves in either the government or the opposition.
Another poll found confidence in parliament somewhere between 8.5% and 11%. Italy is a parliamentary democracy, yet only 1 out of every 10 people trusts the government. In the West we hear about indifference to democracy in many places. In Spain 70% of people don’t trust the government, in Germany it’s 84%. This is not a safe situation. Why? The behaviour of politicians is to blame, but politicians have also lost a lot of power as they are overwhelmed by financial and corporate power, they have been deprived of power. Social media also now means that often the electorate are better informed than the politicians. Also, we are now in a time where the greater the amount of electoral fund money you have, the more likely you are to win. In the last America election, the combined amount spent by the two candidates topped $1bn for the first time. This applies to all countries though, whoever raises the most generally gets in.
This means that the current system lacks legitimacy. The modern economy is a ‘homeless economy’, it is abstract, it is without foundations. So where do we find democracy? People tend to give up when they feel powerless, and tend to focus on ‘surveillance mechanisms’ to hold politicians to account. This, driven by anger, is a self-devouring mechanism. We need new networked policies of resistance, defused relational structures, and ability to co-exist well. Resistance from the grassroots can foster the emergence of a counter-democracy.
After the coffee break I did an interview with Silke Helfrich, which I will post here soon, and then after lunch went to a talk by Mary Mooney, an economist at the University of Northumbria about money, which was very interesting. I did take some notes, but she told me that Transition Newcastle have filmed four lectures of hers about different aspects of money which will be online at the end of this month, so I will let you know when they emerge.
The final session, for me, really brought into focus the serious limitations of the ‘4 speakers on a stage for 2 hours, no questions’ format. The first, Alicia Puelo, an ecofeminist philosopher, stated that she was concerned that the shift into degrowth had the potential to undo much of the good work done by feminism, what she termed “a patriarchal counter-reformation”. She talked about what feminism is, describing it, which I rather liked, as “machismo, but for women”.
It has taken thousands of years to get where we are today, a nearly equal society, but that is very fragile. She is concerned that discussions around population can end up being counter to feminism. There are places where feminism overlaps with Degrowth, such as an end to advertising, and the aim to free people from consumption. She lost me a bit when she said “women are committed to the cause of animals”, which struck me as a rather sweeping generalisation … there must surely be some women who can’t stand them.
Anyway, next was Antonio di Luca (above, right), who used to work at the Fiat factory as a metal worker and who is a trade unionist. He talked about the situation in the south of Italy, where most of the heavy industry is closing down. In the south, he said, we are on the verge of a tragedy, with 20% unemployment, 52% for women. Young people are leaving. He talked about how the factory was like a village, it was the social hub, it was the community. We must prevent the exploitation of men by men. He argued for a coalition of the Left to really stand up for those who are being left behind.
The last speaker was Majid Rahema, a Professor at Claremont University, who rambled all over the place and from whose talk, I must confess, I failed to glean anything other than that I really wanted to be out in the evening air taking in this fine city for my last night here. So I did. Now I must prepare some slides for the talk I am giving in Parma on Monday. Tomorrow I am going on a boat trip to Ferrara with members of various Italian Transition groups which will be fun.
On my way home I will write some thoughts from Degrowth2012 in terms of what Transition can learn from Degrowth and what Degrowth can learn from Transition. It has certainly been a fascinating few days, and I feel really honoured to have been here and to have met so many great people. I hope this documenting of the event has been useful to you, and that you have managed to make sense of my notes and of my reflections. This is Rob Hopkins, your Transition Network Degrowth 2012 correspondent, signing out….
Before I go though, here is a bit from Italian TV about the launch night on Wednesday, in which I make a fleeting appearance:
[See original source for video]
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