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Décroissance

February 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Incidentally I am writing this short introduction so that some of you who read it might mention aspects I forgot, or sections which are way to brief or even confusing. Drop me a line.

This is the first blog on “décroissance”. What is it?

I arrived in France in 2001 and became a thoughtful, active, well person in 2002 after my second kidney transplant. According to a recent history of “décroissance” (de-growth in English), the notion was first used in 1972 by André Gorz, although it did not really catch on. It was about when I arrived in France that the “decroissance movement” began to emerge in France, although to this day the concept and the movement are still being refined and actively discussed. The strange thing is that when I found out what décroissance was, it seemed like, in England and the USA anyway, the matters discussed had already been under serious debated and actively pursued for decades. Many of the key texts were written or translated into English at the same time as Gorz was writing. I recently checked with a friend who is right in the middle of such matters, and has been since 1973. He agreed that, although he had never heard of either decroissance or “de-growth”, “we” had been dealing with these matters long before the beginning of the 21st century. So in my mind, none of the questions brought forward by de-growth are questions well-rooted in the late 20th century. But, it has to be said that “naming” something, giving a label to a wide variety of intuitively related subjects, is important. My hope is that some less ugly word, in either French or English, will evolve in the next years.

So what are the issues that are collected under this slightly awkward French concept. They seem to be roughly the following, in no particular order. A life of voluntary simplicity. Measuring success not by quantitative increases of overall production and consumption, but by less production and less consumption by the rich and comfortable, “sustainable de-growth”. Creating methods of health care that are not focussed on high technology and Big Pharma. Questioning whether contemporary global finance capitalism is the only or best way to organise human life. Acute awareness of the environmental impact of waste produced by our life-style. Avidly questioning the efficacy and intelligence of a nuclear family, single dwelling based social life. Inventing locally based organisational forms to increase solidarity, sharing, convivial, intergenerational living and trying to “live the utopia” now, “prefiguration”. Not doing less of the same thing, but doing things redically differently. How to make the “transition” from fossil fuel dependance to an alternative energy use. Increasing awareness of the excessive inequalities of consumption globally. Respecting and increasing “the commons”. There are more.

We learned about these things by our experience in co-ops, communes, communities, networks in the diverse movements that emerged form the 1960s. We also learned and were inspired by various writers. The history of the precursors of de-growth are some of the writers we read from the 1970s onwards, but which are now considered the “forefathers and mothers” of the decroissance movement. Important French writers were Gorz, Castoriadis and Latouche, but only Gorz has been translated widely. English language writers like Georgescu-Roegen, Odum, Mishan, Illich, Schumacher, Meadows were among those who were read by many. Perhaps later I will try to summarize each these writers, but that will be rather hard work, and require a detailed re-reading of their important texts. It would be better to simply talk about the issues they raise, without saying exactly which writers, in which ways, said what first.

A short note about “the origins in France”. In terms of creating a movement, it is quite clear that the editors of both Decroissance and the monthly journal Silence (Alternatives, Non-violence and Ecology) were responsible, through special issues of the latter and the creation of the former, were very crucial in boosting the profile of the movement. It should be also added, that many others, in France and particularly elsewhere, had been “doing” decroissance long before it got a name.

By now you get the general idea of the kinds of writers and ideas there are within the large and fuzzily bounded notion of decroissance. The major point of de-growth, from which many of the other practices emerge is simple. Nearly every political party on earth, nearly every learned pundit and certainly nearly every economist believe is that the key to a happy life is to grow the economy, consume lots of stuff, use the earth’s “resources” to meet our alleged “needs”, and to measure the richness of life by the increase of the GNP. The basic notion of de-growth movements is something like finding a way to consume less, exploit and destroy the earth less, distribute wealth and living needs more equitably, slow down, co-operate to live together in peace, to claim that by NOT growing the GNP, by paying more attention to quality, not quantity, to “flourish”, we can be better off and so will our environment. There are theorists who try to take account of the systemic effect of our practices by seeing the earth (or even the universe) as a living, natural system that must be respected and understood, at least sometimes, as a whole system. Narrow closed minded thinking based on a simplistic view of humans as rational, choosing, self-interested individuals is seen as a disaster. A recent summary of the panorama of decroissance claims that there are five major themes. No doubt there could be four, or six, but this gives an indication of the breadth of the movement, both in actin and in reflection. The themes the describe are limits to growth, de-growth and autonomy, de-growth as re-politicisation, de-growth and capitalism and proposal for a de-growth transition. I imagine that in future blog iMight take one of these for a subject and go on about it.

There are extremists in this movement, as in any other movement. In the modern world, to say anything other than growing economies, producing goods for anyone, anywhere who has the money to buy them, with paying jobs (even if low-paid) of some sort for everyone, is to be an extremist. In my mind, to be in favour of, to promote, and even to mention decroissance is to immediately become an extremist. Just a word on “going back to live in caves”, and “using candles as light”. There ARE, and always will be, quite extreme practitioners and theorists who say something a bit like this. It may be that being able to ignore or mock diverse movements is easiest by taking the extremes as the essence of the movement. So viewing the actual daily life of the truly rich, taking religious terrorists as representing the complexities of a world religion, urging everyone to give up computers and information technology, believing that science and technology will always find “the answer”, or claiming that all our food should be produced locally by local labour make a much more sophisticated and complex argument easy to dismiss. Overall, the vast majority of de-growth practitioners have never advocated candles and caves as the end result of de-growth. If you ever find caves and candles being discussed, leave the room or wait for that part of the conversation to end. Or possibly wait for the words joyful or flourishing or resilience to appear.

It is worth saying that décroissance has a number of levels that attract individuals, although few are so committed as to act at all the levels. The first is the individual level. Here, individuals or families decide they are going to do something in their personal lives to support, by concrete actions, some aspect of décroissance. This might be to recycle household waste, create a vegetable or fruit garden, build a windmill, simplify their lives, look carefully at what they buy, give up a car. All these actions can be done without anyone else noticing, by individual choice. These actions give a sense of satisfaction and the knowledge that however small, those actions help move things in the right direction. The second level is to act in a way that requires the active co-operation of others, a social or cultural action. Set up an organic veg box scheme, share some sort of renewable energy generation scheme, organise an allotment where previously there had been no such option, organise support for a particular organic local producer of food; all actions which can only be done collectively in a shared local space. The third level is to try to change the structures of the world so that they move in the direction of décroissance. This involves direct confrontation or some sort of political activity (probably conflictual) which tries to alter the power balance, the alternatives debated or the nature of the decision-making in the world at large. Without going into details, each individual makes their choices about the level of activity that suits their needs and capacities. It should go without saying that examples of such activities are legion and long preceded the invention of the concept décroissance.

Some would say that the realisations of the whole earth (NASA photos), the rise of ecological thinking, peak oil (later development), discovery of systematic global pollution, the destructive nature of contemporary warfare, were all external factors which contributed to the rise of de-growth ideas. No doubt this is true. Probably when writers already mentioned began to try to convince more materialist or leftist people that they should take account of ecological matters, the beginnings of de-growth became more popular. So environmental concerns, or “ecological realism” could be an important cause of of this movement.

To this day, decroissance is an extremely hot issue within the “alternative” community, those diverse movements and groups who are working to make décroissance a reality, not a fantasy. You can easily fill a room by making “decroissance” part of the title of a lecture, film or discussion, at least in France. On the other hand, to talk of décroissance with any mainstream political or economic group is nearly impossible, and is dismissed immediately as a foolish, unrealistic, impossible or silly idea. How can such deep divisions be so solidly anchored? Are people who are “growth resisters or objectors” (another formulation of the movements) seriously disconnected from the realities of modern life? If it is such an intelligent response to the rape of the earth, why do so many people in power all over the world find it absurd, almost beyond serious discussion?

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein – a Quick Review

February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

This was written to the people in my “difficult text reading group”. So some of you might have to make some conceptual leaps to understand it. And of course the usual leaps to understand me. Sorry about the lack of logical progression. Not much good at that.

So I spoke to James for a few minutes the other day at the end of cake/morning coffee date. He mentioned that the group might carry on with Arendt for one more session, and maybe two (a total of four). Yvette seemed to think nothing had been decided. That was the depth of my discussion. I had only just learned that both the December and January meeting were cancelled. Anyway James mentioned that at a discussion that I would miss (having already decided to wait to return until the you are done with Arendt), the group might discuss reading Naomi Klein’s book, This Change Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. I just finished it a few minutes ago. Although no doubt I might not send this for a few days. Editing and all. And this is not my definitive view, just a quick impression.

It is not obvious to me that TCE (This Changes Everything) would be a good choice. But it is equally obvious that it could be a superb choice.

First of all it is long, 466 pages. That is a long book and if we start reading long books, we might suspect it won’t work for everyone. Took me maybe four weeks to read it, between my real life, reading other “reality items” (Greece and Charlie attracted much time), reading lots of fiction, keeping up with cycling questions, keeping up with politics locally … but that might just be me. Long “reality books” are risky choices.

Secondly, it is easy to read. She intends that “any thoughtful person” might be able to read it and I think she succeeds, although I might not be a random, or representative “any thoughtful person”. Obviously reading 466 pages, not even counting the footnotes, is not choice anyone makes So it not at all “a difficult text” to read. She is a reporter, not a thinker, more a very active and observant reporter/activist with a young child and plenty of income. She also has a way of picking good titles. Shock Capitalism and No Logo are good titles. Admittedly, understanding the whole issue as she presents it, a multi-causal problem that might even need to be “solved” outside the language of “causal”, is rather difficult. Not merely because she makes some mistakes about details (her scope is global), nor because her analytical understanding of the history and nature of the very movements she sees as important is a bit less than perfect. She does not intend to be a great theorist, more a reporter trying to make sense of a complicated question, with the aid of lots of travelling and research and writing. I think she succeeds in writing a book that she intended to write. She really has been around what might be called the “altermondialiste/Occupy” movements for more than 15 years and two other books. So in that sense the book is not “difficult”.

To be a little bit critical, she disses, in two sentences, all that would, in France, and increasingly the larger world, go under the rather inelegant concept of “decroissance. This pissed me off actually. For me this is a major flaw. More later. In addition, there is almost no mention whatever to the new generation of trade regulations now being discussed. I get the initials mixed up between French and English names, things like TAFTA, TTIP, and the Pacific version. Her book was written late enough to mention this and she didn’t. Look in the index under the pacific or the atlantic version of this. This effort, if not stopped, will open up every single market to anyone at all, and deprive the national states of whatever regulatory power remains. Not that the regulations are that tight or demanding, but at least they exist. It is the “sell it anywhere and they won’t let you, sue them” attitude to exceedingly aggressive market mania.

What could be the point of reading such a long book, which is NOT a difficult text? Well, I admit that during the two days I just said to myself that I was “mainly reading Klein all day” I had no trouble reading through a couple of hundred pages, given inevitable intrusions and duties. So it would go quickly enough. I guess the only point would be to see what interested us as questions she touches on. To get a fully in depth understanding of the issue as she presnets it would require a bit of looking at the footnotes. Whew!

Some questions that we could discuss, even if we are not experts in this or that might be:

Is the most important aspect of the book that Klein passes on a sense of hope and optimism in a bad situation?

Is the role of the reformist “Big Green” groups as awful as she suggests, and is it the same in the UK or France?

Is the strongest part of the book when she gets personal (eg chapter on regeneration) or when she is factual in a normal objective sense?

Does she have to provide a solution, a practical plan, to be credible? Does every crtic have to have a Plan B to speak out? And if so, does she?

Is her historical appreciation of successful movements (slavery, colonial revolt) helpful?

Is her optimism about the new environmental movements justified (hope of the future)? Do we know more or less about them than she does?

Does she accept climate change and the human role in it too easily? Arguing about climate change itself is a real minefield especially with a group who might not read the science debates and the scientific politics that makes decisions.

Do we agree that humans have some agency, that we can actually “do something”?

She thinks the “usual government” actions and people and mindset are fundamentally flawed? Are they?

She also thinks that capitalism is BIG problem and will have to be very seriously transformed? If too many of us think that is utopian, unrealistic, naïve, dreaming, then debating the core of her book is going to be very hard.

I would very much like to see what people think decroissance is, and whether that is or is not a FUNDEMENTAL part of the solution set. Personally, I think there is not other possible long term solution to many problems than for us rich people to consume less, make less, throw away less and in general find a way to live joyously with less. If you go here, http://vocabulary.degrowth.org/look you can read various bits of a newish book. The “Introduction” seems to be the shortest and easiest to read “short introduction to Decroissance”. Reading this or something like this, would be important for a discussion of decroissance, which of course would be a good topic in itself. Like other things (anarchism, revolution, complexity …) there is a lot of nonsense being talked about those deviant, outsider, challenging, radical notions. It would be nice to have a chat about decroissance which did not involve the argument of cave dwelling and “going backwards”.

So there are lots of very important questions that come up in her book. If we thought we would have a good discussion of some of those points, then it would be a good book to choose. But as a book itself, it is not as heavy as Hannah Arendt. Not in the same league as most of the stuff we have read. On the depth “quality”, she is below Arendt, who is in turn way below Bateson or Nietzsche. Easy read, great discussions possible. 466 pages, which at times is actually a page turner for some entire chapters.

I also like the power of some of her writing, as she actually visits or lives some of the problems. As a personal memoir of her change from “not caring that much” and kind of “denial” of the problem and her interests, to a caring passionate advocate, it is pretty darn good. Her semi-insider knowledge and perspective does make it easier to follow. In fact at the vary beginning she denies the comment that she is trying to make a revolution by talking about climate change, the unjust accusation of her opponents. Too bad, but they are right. She genuinely wants to drastically alter the world and you can easily get there with the climate change area of concern.

So overall, you can see that it is not obvious whether it is the right book. Maybe someone else will have read it at the discussion you have to make the decision. They might have read a different book. I often find in these group discussions that I simply don’t read the same book that some of you read, when I have indeed read the same book. Strange, but true.

The next theory book I am going to start is Fritjhof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s new book, “The Systems View of Life: a Unifying Vision”. That will also be rather long and certainly “a difficult text”. Chapter 6.3 “Facing non-linearity” 5 pages, Chapter 7.7 “What is Death” 1 page, 8.2 Emergence and Emergent Properties” 4 pages, 13.3 Science vs Religion, A Dialogue of the Deaf?”, 17.2 The Illusion of Perpetual Growth 8 pages! I don’t know if I will get very far in this book, I think it is very demanding and very difficult. I do not yet recommend any part of it for the group.

I have sent, in various emails, a number of suggestions for other reading, articles and short books. Otherwise, I will see you as a group, when you are done with Arendt, and I shall read whatever you choose, for whatever reasons.

Has anyone thought of some reading for the group that they might send to all of us? I

Best,

Tom