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By Louisa Clarence-Smith
Montréal, Québec, Canada: The International Conference on Degrowth in the Americas interrupts the neoliberal monologue with propositions for economic, social and environmental reform from the roots up.
Degrowth is imagining a world post-corporate capitalism; one which accepts that not all areas of the economy can grow. A society which is able to select and organise collective limits will be well-placed to build and thrive in the future.
The global pursuit of the “American Way of Life”, the dream that everyone can be a millionaire, conflicts with the scientific knowledge of physical limits on the natural ecosystem’s ability to support material growth.
Writer and co-founder of the Centre for a New American Dream, Juliet Schor, in an interview with the Extraenvironmentalist, charted the increase in American consumption and disposal leading up to the 2008 crash – what she calls the “fast-fashion” model of a capitalist society.
Campaign slogans such as “more of what really matters” and “more fun less stuff”, describe the Centre for a New American Dream’s practical response to the harsh economic realities which increasing numbers of Americans are facing.
More directly, the Centre’s website offers alternatives to the problematic economic trajectory of economic growth: how-tos for communities interested in shifting towards collaborative consumption; from time-banking to the trade of used goods; promote savvy use of the resources already plundered from the natural ecosystem.
The “striking range of new initiatives which are emerging online”, Schor forecasts, are “the beginnings of what I think will be a very significant new regime of shared, collaborative, connective consumption and production.”
But it’s not all change. As well as material acquisition, Schor observes that “the American Dream has also meant opportunity and the chance to have a good life if you work for it”.
In the contemporary climate, where the majority of wealth is confined to the 1% at the top, the “new American Dream means fighting for a new economic system which is ecologically sustainable, socially sustainable and equitable.” “For me and growing number of people, those values are at the core of what the American Dream is and should be.”
If the global path to endless growth is a flawed route, we need an impetus to re-direct the course of human progress. At Degrowth Montreal, the independent film “Journey of the Universe” sought to recompose the human narrative. By producing the film, Mary Evelyn Tucker aims to launch “a new sense of the story that brings us all together as planetary people.”
Applying this philosophy to the international context of the Degrowth movement she explains, that despite coming from very different cultures and growing up with very different world views, “we need something which unifies us.” Because we are all in this together, “the current and future generations are depending on the decisions we are making now.”
Viewers of “Journey of the Universe” will take inspiration from the human accomplishments of the past. Tucker puts today’s global stagnation in the face of “immense disease and disruption” down to “willful ignorance” and “feelings of disempowerment”.
The film transmits the message: “we are in this together, and we are going to break through it.” She cites the ability of our species to survive two world wars, earlier societal collapses and changing civil rights as proof in recent history that we have the power to alter deep-rooted societal defects.
The story of our generation has been of growing up with the idea that our natural resources are limitless and ours for the taking. As a student in the United States thirty years ago, Tucker recalls the sense that “nothing’s gonna run out and we are entitled to it because we are creating one of the greatest societies on earth. We never saw the consequences.”
She predicts this story will be hard to change because the American Dream, which has been adopted around the world, is such a powerful one and is connected to patriotism. “When you have economic interests as powerful as corporate interests are, it is very difficult to change the story.” What’s more “mainstream media is contributing to the solidity of this story.” Adopting a tone of realism, she admits, “It’s going to take decades to change.”
Trumpeting the successful implementation of media in the Tunisian Uprising and Occupy Movement, Tucker is optimistic about the possibility for alternative news to create a narrative with a positive end – one of a population which lives in ecological harmony with the planet.
Tucker’s American Dream now, represents a reformed education that’s more “vibrant” and “nature-based”; “a sense that community matters instead of isolated individualism”; and “a shared, equitable economy that provides housing, education, health and infrastructure for societies that aspire to live in a sustainable way.”
The finance actuary Gail Tverberg has seen indicators that change is happening. “The transformation of capitalism is taking place within capitalism”, she said in an interview with the Extraenvironmentalist. “The corporation has built into its structure of operation an engine of growth” she explains. “If corporations are going to get capital moving towards them, they are entirely dependent on the ability to generate growth.” So, “for a corporation to operate within Degrowth, means to not be a corporation, as the term is currently understood.”
The success of Degrowth requires an agreement amongst corporations “to say that they are part of the cultural exchange which needs to take place to go from the current economy to a degrowth economy.”
Tverberg also questions how individual values are involved in decision-making and how intrinsic values that we all share can be triggered. She is optimistic about the power of social networking to stimulate mass consciousness and action. And points to future technologies which will have the power to raise our awareness – in particular, Good Guys, a Californian company which allows you to scan a product for social, economic and environmental impact, and which forces us to carry the burden of the impact of our choices with us.
Degrowth addresses the problem that the capitalist economy produces for profit, not for social necessity. The heroic but tragic nineteenth century explosion of production, spurred on by technological advances and new methods of industrialisation produced a twentieth century economic model which was completely alienated from the natural world. The foundation of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the 1940’s, followed by the parting from the gold standard, imposed the model on an international scale.
In a world dominated by a single legitimate knowledge, nature is transformed from Mother Nature (living, nutritious) to inert material (dead and malleable). A shift to environmental economics requires a review of dominant scientific theory, an individual cultural disposition towards responsibility, and an advancement of the forms of democracy to stimulate greater participation.
Degrowth represents a difference of opinion from those who hold that the environmental question has an autonomous significance; environmental economics asks to put the physical and biological world at the centre of every political action.
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