Report from Degrowth 2014 in Leipzig: The rally point of all alternatives

Art installation in the yard of Leipzig University (Credit: mac42 on Flickr)
Art installation in the yard of Leipzig University (Credit: mac42 on Flickr)

The transition>>lab  and the whole Thinkfarm (I’ve met at least twenty of them!) seemed to be at the 2014 Degrowth Conference in Leipzig. As a matter of fact, the Degrowth conference was a huge mix of activists, researchers, social entrepreneurs, transitioners, ecovillagers, etc. With 3000 participants (750 were international), this was a huge crowd with over 50 sessions running in parallel twice a day for 3 complete days!

Rally point. Degrowth appeared as a rally point for scores of communities that are thinking or living the alternative to the a global productivist economic model that is conflagrating with planetary boundaries and sparking huge inequalities. This was illustrated by the opening keynote of Naomi Klein who is currently writing a book on climate change (after her bestselling anti neo-liberal pamphlet The Shock Doctrine).

Diversity. To illustrate the diversity of the conference, here is an excerpt of what I could observe (see the huge program here):

  • rather traditional critiques of the neo-liberal and productivist economic model emphasizing political resistance and civic disobience;
  • activists from the environmental justice movement which struggles against deforestation, large fossil fuel infrastructures, GMOs;
  • experience feedback from local initiatives like Ecovillages, Transition Town initiatives, or cooperatives like Mondragon;
  • a strong presence of the commons movement with two keynotes by Silke Helfrich (in GER, min 12:55) and Michel Bauwens (min 10:00).
  • hands-on workshops on how, for example, to set up a permaculture garden;
  • a hippie caravan village in the neighbouring park where Paul, the vegan French baker, made an excellent sour dough (organic) bread out of his mobile baking oven;
  • and the very recent addition of techies proning open source hardware, open maps, peer production, convivial technologies, etc.;
  • a few sessions and talks about the role of spritual development on the road to degrowth;
  • and more around sharing, giving economies.

Commons as a degrowth practice. This was the perfect place for my presentation exploring the role of grassroots in producing and maintaining digital information commons without relying on market solutions to enable local sustainability/degrowth/post-growth initiatives. transition>>lab was also there to support the official international launch of Transformap, an initiative that seeks to map all alternatives, local socio-ecological innovation using Open Street Maps (in contrast to the propietary Google Maps). In the end, for me, the most inspiring input came from Michel Bauwens and his analysis of the current transformation of capitalism in the age of the internet seeing the emergence of netarchical capitalism (Facebook…) and decentralized capitalism (Bitcoin…). He called participants to unite and ensure they contribute to building a global knowledge commons that would serve local communities to produce the goods they need locally, but avoiding to build only local resilience in a selfish way. He proposes a commons-based economy that would reorganize global flows of knowledge and material production along the principle of “what is light can be global, what is heavy has to be local”. He concluded with a proposal to develop a commons-based reciprocity license that would ensure that for-profits do no freeride on such global knowledge commons (like Open Source Software).

Degrowth entrepreneurs. Jasmin Wiefek from transition>>lab presented with Bernd Sommer from University Flensburg, their findings on degrowth-neutral businesses in Germany. They showed that many of those businesses suffer from the amateurism in business management of their founders, that is compensated by their access to a wealth of social capital, an organic growth pace, and their access to niche markets. A concrete example of degrowth oriented entrepreneurs was the presentation by Sinnwerksatt and Waschtumswende of a new online network to provide an online platform for degrowth-oriented grassroots initiatives.

Slow conference. The organization of Degrowth 2014 itself was a quite of a model of how these huge events can be organized differently. Food was provided every day twice by a local grassroots cooking group (Volksküche) enrolling participants to chop kilos of local organic vegetables. Only two time slots a day were reserved for scheduled sessions. The rest of the time being used for plenary keynotes, book presentation, film projections and a very lively open space.

Controversy. The most controversial moment of the whole conference (in German) was the debate between the German counterculture popstar Harald Welzer and the more institutional Uwe Schneidewind from the Wuppertal Institute. The two seemed to play a ‘good cop, bad cop’ game: Welzer proning the construction of a radical alternative outside of the mainstream (counterculture), not being afraid of clashing with the current order and calling for untraditional political alliances (eg. between degrowth movement and conservatives); while Schneidewind, described the vast amount of policies happening at various levels of governance (especially local), the crave from German young greens frustrated by their Green Party politics, and scores of bottom-up initiatives as a more consensual way to organize a transition of the current system.

For more:

On twitter: #degrowth14, 

The youtube playlist of the Extraenvironmentalist

The conference website

View of the conference yard (Credit: Till Westermayer on Flickr)
View of the conference yard (Credit: Till Westermayer on Flickr)

5 thoughts on “Report from Degrowth 2014 in Leipzig: The rally point of all alternatives

  1. @blindspotting: well to my knowledge (I wasn’t everywhere, and that was a big conference!) there wasn’t so much controversy, in the sense of heated debates. There was quite some discussion though indeed about whether using the word “degrowth” is counter-productive as it is perceived as negative (or self-defeating as you say). The pros arguments lie in the idea that “degrowth” is a ‘”bomb-word” that triggers debates about the necessity of growth, the way to define it etc. Another argument to use “degrowth” is that it can hardly be used for greenwashing like words as sustainability or soon transition.
    Regarding systemic change, I think the diversity of models (ecovillages, transition movement, solidarity economy, commons, P2P production, etc.) being represented at Degrowth 2014 goes in that direction of, as you put it, “necessary flourishing of valuable new patterns of activity”. Reading you, I’m sure you would have appreciated the conference, as I didn’t see so much “anti-growth dogma” and rather a wide diversity of initiatives. This is I think something that was new at this edition. There were not so many theoretical discussion about growth but more about concrete alternatives; again I wasn’t everywhere, that my own bias 🙂

  2. Good reply; great description of degrowth as a ‘bomb word’! What it blows up is the possibility for green ideas to go mainstream via policy. Consequently the diverse models that you mention remain stranded at the margins of their potential. The irony is that if all the concrete alternatives that have been paraded under the degrowth banner actually happened at scale the outcome would be not only the necessary flourishing but also a bonanza in economic activity.

  3. Blowing the possibility to go mainstream: it is possible that it is a poor political strategy; others talk of a New Economy…
    Regarding the statement that if all alternatives happen at scale it would produce a growth bonanza, I would be much more cautious. While this might be rather straightforward for the solidarity economy, economy for the common good, I think that commons-based peer production is much more ambiguous in its relation to growth. Have you read the last books of, respectively, Rifkin and Bauwens (I haven’t yet)? They develop the argument that the perpetual increase of productivity leads to zero margin costs for production of goods and services, which would lead to the destruction of capitalism. The paradox is that while we’re able to do much more (output) with much less work, capital (input), that output may actually turn so abundant that its monetary value would collapse… I think that perspective is worth considering.

  4. Political lock-in to growth is rather relentless, so a change of name without actual change of strategy would leave almost all green proposals in the same place – the policy rubbish bin. This continues to waste the potential of a movement that should have gone mainstream 4 decades ago.

    I’m not sure I follow the destroy-capitalism argument. Is it that our capacity to meet people’s needs and to solve societal problems is so vast compared to the needs/problems that prices of products and services would tend toward zero? If so this would be the sort of theory that makes green proposals look like dreams in fairytales.

    The commons suffers from the same strategy error. Seeing commons as a war with capitalism ensures we continue to lose it. Seeing commons as an opportunity to redesign capitalism allows a vast expansion of commons and hope for both survival and growth. Please see the p2p outline of my proposals as strategy for commons.

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