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Degrowth conference in Venice

Degrowth conference in Venice

The theme for today was work. The first plenary session featured four speakers. The first, Gilbert Rist from Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes in Geneva, was a pretty forthright dismissal of economics as it is practiced today. We need, he said, to free ourselves of the dominance that economics has over peoples’ will. There are two reasons why it is fatally flawed. The first is that it is based upon a mechanistic model which makes it impossible for economists to understand present ecological and environmental problems, especially in the biosphere.

Why? Economics as we know it was born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which means that there was a time, not that long ago, when it didn’t exists, and people actually lived without economists and the so-called expertise of economists. Economics thinks of itself as a science, and they like to give a scientific flavour to their theories, as one economist wrote, they wanted to make economics “as true as maths or astronomy”. Economists wanted to be respected as scientists, but failed to notice that advances in physics made many of their ideas redundant. They think that if there is a shortage demand is stimulated and the demand is met. This theory is totally blind to ecology.

The second reason is the myth of scarcity. Economics has scarcity as a founding myth, but it is a false hypothesis that is about to come true. Scarcity leads to violence as it creates competition for scarce resources. The only answer then in growth, which becomes necessary to supply more and more to meet needs.

Degrowth, he concluded, must not only care for biological agriculture, public transport and so on. To reach our objective, we have to raise a battle against economic science as it is taught in universities and in the media, i.e. that it is a science which it isn’t, and that it should have the last word in all debates. Do you know of any science that has failed to change its paradigm for over 100 years? Degrowth is not about the past, it is about the future.

The next speaker, Maurizio Pallante, began by stating that he believes that jobs and employment are not the same thing. We have forgotten the idea of work. Housewives are considered non-workers, they produce good but are unpaid. Employment is not necessarily the same thing as work. Degrowth is not interested in creating employment for its own sake, for example making weapons and bombs is employment. We don’t just need more jobs, we need useful jobs. Jobs that take us towards degrowth. In Italy, the number of workers in the 1960s was around 20 million. Today the population has grown significantly, GDP has grown, but we have roughly the same number of people in work.

The other facet of growth is the huge public debt that it has generated. It necessitates both the public sector and households to go into debt. There is no way out of this mess using current thinking. Degrowth says that we need to find the money for more investment without generating more debt, and this must come from reducing waste. This doesn’t mean sacking public sector workers, it means curbing our wasting of natural resources such as energy. This creates jobs.

The conference’s cartoon. The caption reads “I keep thinking about growth, but nothing comes to mind”.
The much touted ‘green economy’ is just an attempt to relaunch growth. We should invest massively in energy efficiency, which would create lots of skilled jobs. This would lead to less fuel use, which would show as a drop in GDP but which would surely be a good thing.

Next was Mario Agostinelli, of the Association Energia Felice in Milano, who I have to admit, spoke very loud, and the translation headsets were very quiet, so I missed most of what he said, other than his stating that we need to get the Trades Unions on board with these discussions.

Last up was Antonella Picchio, of the Modena and Reggio Emilia, a radical feminist academic. She stated that she believes the paradigm shift has to start with women. She stated that her task is very difficult, to bring about a change in the discourse. She stated that as a feminist she has to be critical of Degrowth. She doesn’t see herself as a gender economist, rather as a feminist economist. She is interested in why the system has created the inequalities that it has. The problem, she stated, isn’t that men didn’t care about women, but that they didn’t care about themselves and expected women to do that for them.

She also spoke up for housewives, stating that when people talk about the global economy and so on, no-one talks about the 8,000 women injured every year doing housework. It is important that we all question our own lifestyles, asking who it is who makes what we do possible? We need to also understand the problem of unpaid work for immigrant women. Her conclusion was that we must make an effort to be honest and search for deeply rooted causes, the true enemy is the link between salaries and welfare. The financial markets dictate out lives. We have to recognise the fight for women. Domestic violence is on the rise as the economy worsens. These things must be in the public debate.

Then I went to a workshop on bioregionalism that wasn’t especially earth-shattering, apart from a quick overview of a study-in-progress for the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, rather similar to the ‘Can Totnes and district feed itself?’ study I was part of, looking at the extent of self-sufficiency that might be possible in the bioregional context. After lunch I did an interview with Arturo Escobar which I will post here as soon as I get it transcribed.

As yesterday, instead of going to the second half of the workshop I went for a walk around the city. Here, again, for the person who asked for them the other day, are some of today’s pictures of this impossibly lovely place.

Today’s afternoon plenary session was called ‘Scenarios’. First speaker was Luca Mercalli, a climatologist at the Italian Meteorological Society. He started by stating that growth is simply no longer possible. The earth appeared 4.5 billion years ago, human beings emerged 20,000 years ago, and we’ve had economics for 200 years. We have no option, we cannot trade with thermodynamics. There is clear evidence that we are now living beyond our means. We are pushing the limits. Yet all of this is treated by the media as though it were a football match or something.

The number of articles warning of disaster is growing and growing, such as one in Nature recently called ‘Approaching a state shift in the Earth’s biosphere’. Ought that title alone not have triggered a huge public debate? We know that this year’s CO2 concentrations is unprecedented. The melting of the glaciers is unprecedented. This year’s Arctic ice melting is unprecedented. It is far worse than the worst case scenarios of 20 years ago. Degrowth, he concluded is not about going back, but it contains a good view of a future where we turn our backs on fossil fuels.

Next up was Erik Assadourian of the Worldwatch Institute. His talk was called ‘Getting to a Sustainable Society’. Every year Worldwatch Institute publish their ‘State of the World’ report, and every year the tone gets more concerned. Over the past 40 years there have been loads of great ideas, clear reports, plans for how to create a more sustainable world, but we haven’t done it. What we have is the concept of ‘green growth’, which will just do what we do more, with carbon capture, geo-engineering and so on, the idea that we will be able to solve all the problems that growth creates.

We’re currently using 1½ of our biocapacity. Do we appreciate how much we actually need to cut back growth if we are to live within our limits? For example, if everyone in the world lived like Italy we would be able to support a world population of 2.8bn (presently it is nearer to 7bn), if everyone lived like the US it would be 1.4bn people. If this were fairly distributed we’d need to live on $3-4,000 a year all over the world. We still tend to think in terms of ‘Degrowth-Lite’, but that’s the implications of really doing what needs to be done.

A truly Degrowth society would be people living in small, multi-generational homes, no private cars, no flying, very few family pets, a food-based economy. It would require 60-70% of the population on the land growing food. It would require abandoning the consumer society. I admit it’s not appealing but, compared to having an elite population consuming while the rest live in poverty alongside catastrophic climate change it’s the best of the two options I’d say.

There are a few key steps towards degrowth. We need to deregulate tax havens, redistribute tax burdens, outlaw junk food, put taxes towards public good and towards preparing for ecological changes. We need to better share income and time through a more even distribution of work hours. We need to cultivate a plenitude economy. We need to make it feel as natural to live sustainably as living as a consumer does today. We need intentional strategies to normalise a consumer society, we need to change it to normalise a sustainable culture.

The big question though is, is it too late? We need to establish a missionary-philosopher-like approach now, things like Transition Towns are a great example of this. Why have movements like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, lasted for thousands of years? Because they create a sense of community, they produce social enterprises and so on. We can learn strategies for change from them.

Ugo Bardi takes the floor.
Last speaker was Ugo Bardi from University of Florence, who may be familiar to Transition Culture readers as the Chair of ASPO Italia, and poster of occasional comments on these pages. Peak oil, he said, is complex. Where are we now in terms of peak oil? Well, the oil peak was in fact reached some years ago. It has now passed. We are now on the Degrowth half of the classic peak oil bell curve. For me, speaking about peak oil for 10 years has been like a Zen experience, like becoming enlightened! More than I might have done with a Buddhist master!

I learnt about peak oil from Colin Campbell. In 1995 he said we’d peak in about 10 years. He got it from M.K.Hubbert who had said in 1956 that we’d peak in 50 years. Reading the papers you might think it’s never going to happen. The window is now closed however, the peak has now passed.

The oil peak has led to things like this being built (see picture below)…

The tar sands, the extraction of which requires trucks this big, has enabled us to mask the peak, in the same way, he said, that some members of the audience have masked the fact that their hair has turned grey by dying it a different colour. Maugeri recently published his paper to say peak oil is nonsense and it made it into the Italian press. We used to think that peak oil would solve climate change, but no-one thinks that any more. It would have been had we accepted the consequences of peak oil and found alternatives . The fact that we didn’t was a huge blunder that will influence the 21st century. We all hoped that peak oil would lead to Degrowth. But we are still using resources that pollute more for the same output. Climate change is happening, you know that.. you see the changes happening, but we still believe that a tree only has value when it has been felled.

Climate change is like a thief in the night. I leave you with a question, one to which I don’t know the answer, which is why I am asking it. Peak oil has made the problems worse, so do we really think that Degrowth can solve these problems?

Then, after a walk and some food, I went back to the Central Tent for what was billed as a ‘Meeting of International Networks and Movements’, which I thought was going to be an opportunity to meet with activists from different networks and to discuss ways to better collaborate. In the end it was a rather disappointing 2 hours of people sat on the stage behind tables talking. I was asked to say a few words at the end on a Transition take on that, but it still felt like a huge missed opportunity, and that some good facilitation could have led to a really useful discussion.

I walked back past the tented area by the Canale where there have been stalls and events over the past few days, and there was a band playing, people dancing, the wine was flowing, the conversation happy and lively, and I wished I had spent the previous two hours there instead.

As I stood chatting with people, drinking some very nice organic local wine, one of the huge cruise ships that have taken to frequenting the harbour in Venice, much to the outrage of local people given their sheer inappropriateness in that historic setting, and the damage they do to the Canale itself, drifted past. The band stopped playing, and many members of the crowd on the canale-side launched into a song about not wanting them there, and about give us back out waters.