More than 300 people gathered in Vancouver to envision a healthy society without an expanding economy.
A notion of sustainability catching on globally.
As rain splattered the windows of a small studio on the edge of Vancouver's port last Sunday, a cluster of people listened to Rex Weyler describe the early days of Greenpeace, the global green organization he and a handful of others launched in this city 40 years ago.
Weyler regaled his listeners with the tale of the daring voyage to Amchitka, Alaska, in September 1971 that led to the halt of U.S. nuclear testing at the site. This day, however, Weyler was more interested in talking about the future than the past. The veteran of green activism was among more than 300 citizens who attended the Vancouver DeGrowth Conference, meant to examine "what a viable economic, social and ecological system will look like."
With runaway global warming looming, a mass extinction underway and untold tonnes of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every hour, they came together to challenge the logic of growth economics embedded in the DNA of capitalism.
Degrowth's many voices
With this conference, Vancouver is again out in front of an emerging movement in North America. Organizer Conrad Schmidt explained that the weekend-long gathering at One Two One Studio and the W2 Media Arts Centre, was the first of its kind on the continent. But degrowth is not really a new idea, nor are its meaning and implications uncontested.
The Club of Rome famously warned of The Limits of Growth in 1972, and it is a theme that has been present in the environmental movement over the decades. Related ideas have been popularized by "ecological footprint" creator William Rees of the University of British Columbia, as well as other like-minded ecologists and economists, and reflected in studies like "Prosperity Without Growth: The Transition to a Sustainable Economy" recently published by the UK's Sustainable Development Commission.
A rich tradition of thought links anti-capitalist ideas with ecology, from Murray Bookchin's social ecology to the more recent eco-socialism of Joel Kovel. University of Victoria professor of environmental law Michael M'Gonigle, another early key member of Greenpeace, has written in The Tyee about the need to "power down." And York University environmental studies professor Peter Victor has made waves in public policy circles with his book Managing without Growth. In a paper modeling a no-growth Canada, Victor argues that "economic growth in developed countries is neither necessary nor sufficient for meeting specific policy objectives such as full employment, no poverty and protection of the environment."
Other schools of thought intersect with ideas of degrowth, as well, from "primitivists" who advocate the tearing down of civilization in toto to neo-Malthusians who always seem keenest to limit the reproduction of those who do the least damage to the environment, the world's poor.
From Paris to Cochabamba
In 2008, Paris played host to the Economic De-Growth For Ecological Sustainability And Social Equity Conference, which defined degrowth as "a voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society." A follow-up conference was held in Barcelona this year, and the Vancouver organizers are consciously following in these footsteps.
I first heard of the term 'degrowth' when I met up with French journalist Herve Kempf in the summer of 2007. France is a country where you can still find the odd iconoclast and dissident in the pages of its mainstream press, and that's why I met Kempf at the Paris offices of Le Monde, where he has written for over a decade about the world's ecological crisis. The solution, as he explained it to me, is as straightforward as it is daunting: humanity must "consume less and share better".
What this means is spelled out in Kempf's unsubtly titled How the Rich are Destroying the Earth: "Growth has become the great taboo, the blind spot of contemporary thought. Why? Because the pursuit of material growth is the oligarchy's only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. In effect, growth creates a surplus of apparent wealth that allows the system to be lubricated without modifying its structure".
Kempf, like many in the degrowth camp, puts a premium on social and economic equality. So he insists that while conspicuous consumption by the super rich must be reduced rapidly, the poor actually need to consume more to meet their basic needs. A just and sustainable leveling will also mean a reduction of consumption for the world’s middle class but, according to Kempf, this need not mean a decrease in quality of life. On the contrary, human development and wellness need to be measured differently, and a different philosophy of life encouraged.
When I told Kempf that his ideas reminded me of those advocated by Bolivian President Evo Morales, he replied that he was "honoured" by the comparison. Likening world politics to a soccer match, Kempf said that "Bolivia has the ball right now."
Morales is a head of state unlike any other who emerged from his country's powerful social and indigenous movements. Re-elected overwhelmingly in December, Morales is one of a number of leaders pushing for a "socialism of the 21st century"; he has led the refounding of Bolivia as a plurinational state that guarantees the rights of its indigenous majority.
Last month, Bolivia became a global beacon for climate justice advocates and environmentalists, convening 30,000 activists to a 'People's Summit' to fight climate change. In opening the summit, Morales put the issue in stark terms: "Either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies." Morales and other Bolivian leaders insist on the need for a new model of development that prioritizes vivir bien, living well, rather than focusing on the accumulation of material wealth and consumption.
'The elephant in the room'
Claudia Medina is a filmmaker and social activist from Powell River, B.C. She was at the Vancouver conference to screen clips from her forthcoming film Life After Growth: Economics for Everyone, which she is co-directing with Leah Temper of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Having participated in the global justice movement that emerged around neo-liberal trade and investment deals and, more recently, lived in Europe and met degrowth activists in France and Spain, Medina has, for years, been eager to take on the shibboleth of unlimited growth. She also finds hope in the recent climate summit in Bolivia.
"I was happy to hear Evo Morales pinpoint the economic issue," Medina says. "The elephant in the room is an economic system based on the absurdity of unlimited economic growth."
Matt Hern, a local activist and writer, was facilitating one of the conference sessions at One Two One. After a lively if somewhat unwieldy discussion -- the relevance of the long-departed Technocracy movement was debated -- Hern concludes with the class question, "When we speak about degrowth, we're really talking about redistribution. . . we're really talking about who gets degrowthed."
Getting 'back to basics, back to the grassroots'
As history teaches, the effort to degrowth the rich and powerful will be long and arduous. And, as Weyler acknowledges, in an era of "greenwashing", it won't always be easy to predict who will end up on which side of the barricades, "Some well-established environmental groups have cut deals that are not in the interest of the ecology, or of the people."
It is plain to see that Weyler still has the passion required to inspire people to take action. He remains optimistic despite the challenges, "Back to basics, back to the grassroots. Private citizens can stand up and make the change we need. The people are going to rise up."
With the enthusiasm of a neophyte activist, Weyler brought the DeGrowth Conference to an end with an announcement that plans are in the works for a flotilla in the fall to express public concern about the fact that crude oil is being shipped through Vancouver Harbour.. A clipboard with a sign-up sheet was passed around for those who wanted to be involved in this direct action. Everyone wrote down their contact information. Then they were off to bike home through a pounding Vancouver rain.
And so -- from France, to Bolivia and to its humble early steps in North America -- the degrowth movement is growing.