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Do Less with Less, and Love It

That's the message of Vancouver's Degrowth advocates, who scoff at city hall's 'greenest city' pledge.

By Justin Ritchie 12 Dec 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Justin Ritchie covers energy, ecology and human behavior on The Extraenvironmentalist, which airs on CiTR 101.9 FM and in podcast form online. He works at UBC as the Sustainability Coordinator for the Alma Mater Society where he'll soon be finishing his MASc in Materials Engineering.

Unless you attended a debate, snatched up an inaugural copy of the Vancouver Degrowth newspaper, or caught sight of one the few Degrowth flyers around town, you might have missed Vancouver's newest political party this past municipal election.

Running under the Degrowth banner, Chris Masson, Ian Gregson and Chris Shaw lost out in an election dominated by Vision Vancouver. With a budget of $1,300 to cover the cost of the newspaper and election registration fees, the three collectively received just over 20,000 votes -- less than half of what the candidate with the lowest number of votes elected, Adriane Carr, received.

Yet the party doesn't see their candidacy as failed. As Degrowth council candidate Chris Shaw puts it, "What we wanted to do was to start a discussion about how reliant our economic system is on economic growth -- a reliance that will impact everyone harshly in the near future." 

The newly-minted Degrowth Party is the newest incarnation of the Work Less Party, which received over 12,000 votes in the 2008 municipal election. The party, notorious for its "Work Less Party parties" on Commercial Drive, moved to rebrand late this September.

"'Work Less' seemed frivolous to a lot of people, as if all we wanted to do was just bang on the drum all day," says Degrowth council candidate Shaw. "It didn't convey the image that we wanted to provide... more quality time for the people you love and freedom to engage in civic activities. The terms 'Degrowth' and 'Work Less' embrace truly green principles that contrast with what the term 'green' has become -- empty and meaningless."

Based on a movement with roots in Europe, the Degrowth Party is taking their message beyond the election with the hopes of debunking Vancouver's image of being a sustainable, green city. They hope to convince citizens that a new economic vision is possible -- however difficult that may be.

"We intended the term Degrowth to be challenging," says Shaw, "because it gives us an opening that allows a discussion of the limits to growth."

Degrowing Vancouver 

Conrad Schmidt, a local filmmaker and author of Workers of the World Relax and Efficiency Shifting, collaborated with Work Less Party members and local critics of economic growth to hold the first Vancouver Degrowth Conference in 2010 and a follow-up conference in May 2011. At both events, talks were given by advocates of Degrowth, like UBC professor and inventor of the ecological footprint Bill Rees and French Degrowth activist Jean-Claude Besson-Girard, director of the Journal of Theoretical and Political Study of Degrowth.

"The first reaction [to Degrowth] is usually hostile; the follow-up reaction will likely be extremely hostile," says Schmidt, of the city's general reception of the party. "Yet we were able to speak the truth which other candidates were unable to. Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver are putting forward a green fairy tale. We can say that we're becoming greener and greener, but we have to look at the numbers."

Shaw adds, "It takes a lot more than a few chickens in our backyards to be truly sustainable."

"Vancouver is becoming the greenwashiest city in the world, and no one is challenging the notions of green that are being put forward," Schmidt continues. "Vancouverites really want to believe that they are living in the greenest city, but our ecological footprint is growing faster than at any time in the city's history."

He admits the party is faced with a tough audience.

"Vancouver is probably the worst place in the world to introduce the concept of Degrowth. Our city's social fabric is all about social status, and the streets are filled with BMWs and Porches while expensive condos tower overhead." 

La Décroissance!

What exactly is Degrowth? The modern concept started in the early 1970s, when a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to model the interplay between global economics and global ecology. 

Out of this work, the World3 model was developed to examine the global economic system's ability to cope with five variables: industrialization, pollution, food production, world population and resource depletion. In 1972, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William Behrens published the results, The Limits to Growth. 

The study claimed that if our planet's economic and political systems were reliant on exponential growth, it would collapse in the first few decades of the early 21st century. Critics of the study pointed out that the World3 model failed to include the potential for human technological adaptation and ingenuity, and many in the mainstream conversation considered the study sufficiently debunked. Still, after reading The Limits to Growth, others felt the importance of finding an alternative economic paradigm.

As MIT scientists were using computer models to explore the consequences of economic growth, Romanian mathematician and economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen published The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in 1971 while at the University of Vanderbilt in Tennessee. Georgescu-Roegen tied economics to the Laws of Thermodynamics by reformulating the assumptions of modern economic thought in terms of "bioeconomics," the precursor to today's field of ecological economics. 

He argued that the economics of infinite growth would be subject to the limitations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics; every time energy from coal, oil, wood or other sources was burned to run an industrial process, the entropy induced would yield a portion of that energy useless to the economy. As the process of exponential economic growth continued, it would face depleted energy availability on a finite planet, causing economies to fail. 

When Gorgescu-Roegen's articles were translated into French in 1979 under the title Demain la décroissance, they sparked the creation of the French Degrowth movement. 

Now, the monthly paper La Décroissance, published by the French equivalent of Vancouver's Degrowth party, has reached a circulation of roughly 60,000 in its 10th year of publication. Articles regularly target consumerist values and the tenets of sustainable development. Regular features include tips to embrace simplicité volontaire by identifying the piece of junk to avoid buying each month. 

Fred Collay attended the recent Vancouver Degrowth conferences and was involved in French Décroissance efforts before moving to Vancouver. On the focus of the French Degrowth paper, Collay says, "What is amazing about their articles is they don't just target the SUV or the usual consumer goods, but they go after the bicycle and the train." La Décroissance challenges mainstream environmental impulses by saying that fancy bikes tailored to very rich people and that shiny new trains do not result in saving the environment. 

As well, to highlight special achievements in environmental hypocrisy, the paper designates a particular individual as an eco-tartuffe, referring to Moliére's 1664 play about a man named Tartuffe who uses his reputed religious holiness and zeal to gain the confidence of others before defrauding and seducing.

Collay explained, "The writers of La Décroissance have recently targeted photographers like Yann-Arthus Bertrand, who published beautiful pictures of our planet in The Earth From Above and directed the film Home with the stated intention of raising environmental awareness through beautiful imagery of our planet." The editors of La Décroissance designate Bertrand an eco-tartuffe because he regularly uses a helicopter funded by multinational corporations that oppose measures to reduce environmental harm to capture images of Earth. In addition to highlighting the hypocrisy of individuals, the French Degrowth paper closely tracks promises from members of the sustainable development community, to see if they are delivering on stated claims.

Other European nations such as Spain and Italy have Degrowth movements based on similar principles. Spain's Basque region is the centre of a corresponding decrecimiento movement, which finds support in an area with a long history of resistance to the model of modern capitalism. Italy's Decrescita works to organize conferences and publish articles about the values of Degrowth. 

Vancouver Degrowth's Shaw pointed out the importance of allying with the international aspects of Degrowth.

"Re-designating Vancouver's Work Less Party under the banner of Degrowth brings it in line with the Degrowth movements already underway in Europe," he says.

The limits to degrowth

Though Spain, Italy and France may have movements that promote the idea of Degrowth, they are all considered to be on the political fringe.

Vancouver's Degrowth Party faces a similar challenge. UBC's Rees has been challenging economic growth throughout his 40-year teaching career. He acknowledges Degrowth is hard to accept.

"People aren't prepared to make major changes to their lifestyles unless they are compelled to do so, and so far in this country we don't have that compelling evidence." 

But, he adds, household debt is at an all time high in Canada. 

"People are beholden to the existing system, because it is the only means by which they can continue to pay down the indebtedness the system has induced them into."

Evidence of unsustainable growth is rampant in Vancouver, Rees points out. While the city has magnificent scenery, great parks and excellent environmental quality, "we've bought and sold our own myth of being a green city by mistaking livability for sustainability. Most of the things Vancouverites do that are unsustainable have their immediate impacts somewhere else."

He adds that Vancouverites have among the world's largest ecological impact per capita. 

"Currently, the average Vancouverite's impact is three times larger than his or her fair allocation of global carrying capacity. We are a livable city because we offload our ecological footprint on the rest of the planet, leaving us with clear air, water and a wonderful place to live." 

Pointing out that most people aren't concerned necessarily with the issue of economic growth but with economic security, Rees continues by saying, "People are generally not willing to accept economic changes to establish a sustainable society unless they can be assured of more security. 

"The course we are on promises greater economic insecurity through job loss, economic volatility, and ecological instability through climate change, so it is ironic that people are unwilling to choose something else."

Degrowth 'a bit of a distraction': CCPA's Klein

Members of the Degrowth movement make a case to reduce economic growth, measured by the gross domestic product (GDP) in order to save the environment. But is their campaign the best way to establish equity and reduce our ecological footprint?

Seth Klein researches poverty, inequality and economic security at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He's concerned that Degrowth isn't the best way to communicate the importance of redefining our economy so that it operates within natural ecological limits.

"I think it is important that we're talking about Degrowth, but I also think the debate is a bit of a distraction." Although there's no disputing that we're running up against ecological limits, Klein says debating whether to grow the economy or not confuses two concepts.

"GDP is just a measure of income growth. The people talking about Degrowth are actually more concerned [about] material throughput," he says.

The question remains whether GDP must decrease in order to reduce our ecological footprint. But is there a way to decouple income growth from material use? To address this, Klein draws on the issue of climate change to demonstrate how it could work.

"As we get serious about climate change, there's no doubt that we have to reduce our consumption, look at re-localizing production and realize declines in net exports. Though the challenge of climate change is so great, we will need significant investments in the public and private sector to reach carbon neutrality."

To meet the challenges of climate change, he says, private investments and government spending may need to increase so dramatically, it may even have a positive impact on GDP.

But, he adds, we should move past the evaluation of government performance based on GDP.

"Let's deal with what we're actually concerned with: GHG emissions, material use and waste. We'll see what impact that has on economic growth. GDP is a measure that doesn't really matter, and we should move on. Nor, do I think we should obsess over shrinking it."

Reflecting on his presentation at the 2011 Vancouver Degrowth Conference, Klein says that, "when you go to these conferences, you realize that there is a broad agreement [within the Degrowth Party] along the lines of what I'm saying, but when broadly talking about degrowth in society, the nuance is lost. I'm worried that our ability to engage the population at large about how to rethink our economy under natural ecological limits is impaired by Degrowth."

The link between economic activity and ecological footprint reduction shouldn't have to scare people away, he says.

"This is really more about redefining our understanding of the good life. Material consumption and overconsumption leaves a lot of us cold. The more we can talk about this in terms of quality of life, the better."

Cultivating an audience

Both Shaw and Schmidt hope to see support for their party coming from the greater than 60 per cent of Vancouver's population that didn't vote in the recent election -- and with those that are choosing to live with less.

"There are people across the city who are starting to practice voluntary simplicity," says Schmidt. "Everyone saying, 'I don't need to buy it' or 'I don't need a European vacation' is our ally."

Though overall election turnout improved in 2011 from 2008 (35 per cent vs. 31 per cent respectively), Shaw said such low numbers indicate the apathy of the general public.

"Most people don't expect the system to deliver anything, and you have the absence of actual election reform because it is in the interest of the major parties to fight the battles in the centre rather than engaging a broader segment of the city," he says. "Degrowth won't be able to influence the agenda at council, because the only way the city will respond is if there are actions, people in the streets and people using their own initiative to create their own parallel structures. This government won't deliver it."

The party plans to further the conversation on Degrowth by publishing a regular newspaper. The first issue of Degrowth Vancouver launched Friday, Nov. 4, featuring articles on local aspects of the concept by party candidates and conference attendees. 

"We need a newspaper because we've lost the news. Our headlines fail to tell the story behind why our economy is contracting and European nations are experiencing debt crises," says Schmidt. Another issue is planned for early 2012.

Schmidt sees the Vancouver Degrowth party as the way for our city to start living up to Vancouver's goal of being the world's greenest city. Though none of the party's candidates were elected, he maintains that by furthering the dialogue on infinite growth, the party is off to an excellent start.

"We didn't have to choose Degrowth," he says, "because it will happen to us regardless."

[Tags: Politics.]  [Tyee]

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