Vincent Liegey is a spokesperson for the degrowth movement, which is investigating and promoting alternatives to our current unsustainable global economic model.
A model which is proving disastrous for our climate and environment while creating growing inequality, instability and misery in societies across the world.
On a recent visit to Manchester he discussed the myriad aspects of the degrowth movement and the upcoming international degrowth conference to be held in Manchester in 2020.
“Going to hell in a handcart” is an expression that often springs to my mind when considering the worlds climate crisis. The handcart is being filled to overflowing with luxury and often disposable goods, by people driven to consume ever more by our current avaricious addiction to shopping. Hell is the future Earth, if average global temperatures rise to five degrees centigrade above normal. A rise that a growing number of climate models are predicting is possible if we don’t change our ways.
The horrors faced by communities across the world dealing with this cataclysmic change will put the current crop of popular post-apocalyptic fiction to shame, with starvation and social conflict dominating a bleak existence on a devastated and denuded planet.
Our current neoliberal ideology-driven global economy believes that infinite economic growth on a finite planet is possible. Despite the growing evidence that this fairy tale, based on ever increasing consumption, creates increasing inequality and will eventually fatally disrupt the environments, ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles that life depends on.
Degrowth is a broad based social, economic and political movement that is joining the dots between our globally dominant economic system and the concurrent social, political, environmental and climate crises facing the planet, attempting to steer humanity away from that future Earth nightmare by promoting global economy alternatives in order to ultimately provide working solutions.
[expand title=”NEOLIBERALISM – CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE”]
“Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism is the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism. While it is most often associated with such ideas, the defining features of neoliberalism in both thought and practice have been the subject of substantial scholarly discourse. These ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980…”
Excerpt taken from Wikipedia’s entry on neoliberalism
Vincent Liegey is a spokesperson for the degrowth movement. Originally from France he now lives in Budapest, Hungary, where he is also a co-ordinator with Cargonomia, a not-for-profit cargo-bike food distributer. He visited Manchester in October to pave the way for the 7th International Degrowth Conference, which will take place in Manchester from 1st September 2020. Speaking with Liegey in a lively Northern Quarter bar, after a meeting to discuss the conference, he described the degrowth movement in more detail, including wanting to switch the current debate from the dominant:
“Continually reductionist approach based on Gross Domestic Product and economics, to go to a much more qualitative discussion on what is a good life. What does it mean to have a meaningful activity? To question what we produce for what kind of usage, and how do we produce these things? What does it mean to be sustainable and how do we reconnect to nature? How do we get rid of rising inequalities? How to reconsider gender equalities?”
Degrowth movement’s origins
The degrowth movement was born in France in the early 2000’s when a group of adbusters based in Lyon, critical of manipulative advertising and marketing, met with a group of academics who were opposed to the development agenda imposed on the Global South.
The leader of the adbusters was Vincent Cheynet. Liegey described how Cheynet quit his job as a publicist at one of the biggest French marketing firms to:
“Open debates about how marketing and advertisement is colonising our imaginations, manipulating people by using very well made techniques based on psychology, social psychology, and cognitive sciences, to make us desire things that we don’t really need. In doing so they use a technique to create frustration, to infantilise the people. So they make us desire things that we don’t need and they also make us unhappy.”
The debates of the adbusters struck a chord with academics, including Serge Latouche and Ivan Illich, who were critical of how these types of marketing techniques had been used to rebrand the Global North’s development agenda (imposed on the Global South) into the much more climate friendly sounding “sustainable development”. Latouche and Illich regarded the development agenda in the Global South as a cultural imperialistic tool that was shackling rather than freeing the countries it was applied to.
[expand title=”SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT – CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE”]
The development agenda first appeared on the world stage with US President Hary Trumans Inaugural address in 1949. He announced that the US would give aid to Third World countries (what we would now call the global south) to put an end to poverty and make the “benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas”. Unfortunately to receive this aid countries often had to agree to an economic plan that cut public spending, and were also weighed down with huge debts and interest payments they were unable to pay off.
Increasing concern about environmental degradations linked to economic growth led the United Nations producing a report in 1987 called Our Common Future which contained added sustainability to the development agenda:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
· The concept of ‘needs’, in particular, the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
· The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
The latest UN effort to tackle the problem are the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015. Dr Jason Hickel has criticised the goals for having two sides that are contradictory to each other:
“One calls for humanity to achieve ‘harmony with nature,’ to protect the planet from degradation, and to take urgent action on climate change… The other calls for continued global economic growth at existing levels or higher through 2030… on the assumption that growth is necessary for human development and the eradication of poverty and hunger”.
Hickel calculates that global growth of 3% a year will make it infeasible to achieve reductions in CO2 emissions quickly enough to stay with the carbon budget of 2 degrees centigrade; the upper limit to average global temperature change the IPPC has set, and created a carbon budget for, after which climate change risks become unacceptably high.
Proffesor Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester also argues that an economic degrowth strategy is needed by wealthier nations to keep within the 2 degrees Celsius limit.
For anyone wanting to know more about the development agenda and its effect on global south countries then Jason Hickel’s The Divide is the book to read.
Liegey described how the nascent movement decided that they needed:
“A slogan. We needed a semantic tool not to be re-appropriated by the system, to question what we believe, what we never question, which is a type of religion which you can hear everywhere in the media, in political discussion: which is growth, the growth mania.”
The slogan they came up with was “decroissance” which has been translated into English as “degrowth”.
The path to degrowth
For Liegey reading the work of degrowth pioneer Nicolas Goergescu-Roegen was a seminal moment in his decision to join the grass roots degrowth movement in France in 2007. Liegey was more familiar with left wing arguments promoting social justice, which were more prevalent in France. It was his move to Hungary in 2000, where the activism was more focussed on environmental justice, that he became more switched on to the green issues:
“At the beginning it was quite difficult for me to make the connection between both the left and the green issues” Liegey explained that as his knowledge of the degrowth movement grew his previous training as an engineer and study of mathematics enabled him to: “Connect the dots between the theories of economic growth and the physical limits to growth. And that there couldn’t be any social justice without considering also the environmental issues.”
The physical limits to growth Liegey speaks of were documented in The Limits to Growth, published by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972. This was the first high profile and widely read study that described the perils facing ecosystems around the world due to the worlds unprecedented economic growth.
The field of research has moved on since then and recent research has quantified how much humanity’s activities impinge on the environmental boundaries that human activity needs to keep within to be able to sustain life on Earth. As can be seen from the image below, where within the blue circle is the safe boundary, we are already in dangerous territory beyond many of these safe planetary boundaries.
It is the multidimensional approach that degrowth takes to the worlds problems that also inspires Liegey in his promotion of the movement. It is not just the physical limits which interest him:
“I think that’s what makes sense for degrowth, it’s how to connect the dots between all the problems of society we face, where we don’t face different types of independent crises, but we really face connected problems which are problems coming from our model of civilisation, which has the belief that ‘always more’ is enough to make sense. ‘Always more’ is driving us to environmental collapse and is also killing us from inside, culturally, psychologically, socially, economically, politically, killing our living together. It is what degrowth is questioning.”
The Gross Domestic Product delusion
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the ultimate measure for the supporters of infinite economic growth and political leaders around the world, who can only contemplate “always more” GDP as being the only acceptable course.
It has become the go to measure of social and economic progress for governments across the world, even though one of GDPs inventors Simon Kuznetz said in 1934, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income”. His criticism has been joined by many other economists, who condemn GDP for many reasons including failing to take into account environmental degradation and rising inequality.
[expand title=”GDP & ALTERNATIVES – CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE “]
Gross Domestic Product GDP, is a measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced by a country, usually measure annually. For example, the GDP of the UK in 2018 was £2.11 trillion. Many environmentalists criticise GDP for not taking into account harm to the environment. Increasing GDP does not necessarily mean there will be a higher standard of living for the majority of the population of a country, and GDP does not take into account growing inequality within a society.
Three alternative that have been suggested to remedy the faults of GDP are:
Genuine Progress Indicator
Happy Planet Index
Better Life Index
Political decisions that may have a negative effect on GDP, but are predicted to have a very positive effect on the wellbeing of a population, are increasingly unlikely to be passed into legislation by a political and economic class under the spell of GDP and eternal growth. The failure of governments around the world, to implement policies to tackle climate change and ecosystem degradation are testament to this inconvenient truth.
The fervour with which the cult of GDP is adhered to by those in power is particularly troubling and fascinating for Liegey:
“It is interesting to analyse how GDP became such a religion: A central tool used by politicians, states, economists and by a lot of journalists – like a totem. Like something that should measure what is a successful or unsuccessful society or life.”
Gross Domestic Product is an indicator or model, Liegey explained, and these can never capture all the information needed, but admits that some can be useful if they are used meaningfully. He cautions wariness in substituting GDP with other indicators to avoid falling again into the same trap, and that:
“Degrowth is not an invitation to decrease our GDP, which would be as stupid as growth for growth’s sake, but much more to make a step aside to decolonise our imaginations, and to switch from an only reductionist quantitative approach to much more complex qualitative approaches, and to make the debates active.”
Here comes the (Technology) Cavalry!
When discussions and debates around climate change are underway you will often hear the argument that there is no need to do anything hasty that may decrease our economic output and GDP. We can carry on consuming regardless, because technology will come to our rescue: arriving, I imagine, like a robotic Seventh Cavalry in the nick of time to save humanity from destroying life on Earth.
It is thinking along these lines that has come up with the idea, presented with the utmost sincerity, that synthetic trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are a viable solution. Rather than concentrating on preserving and planting natural trees that grow and reproduce themselves, and provide a habitat for other wildlife, timber, food and a haven for humans wishing to escape urban environments.
The technology cavalry brigade are a difficult group to reason with, Liegey says:
“Because whatever the argument we are going with to these type of people, they say ‘well it’s not a problem: we will go to another planet’ or ‘’it’s not a problem: we will invent free energy’… The main problem is that usually around them there is a very strong programme, if you see how much money is invested without any kind of political debate or transparency…”
Describing them as “living in a type of religion” Liegey contends they are often not open to the literature available:
“I know we have all the academic literature on physics which shows that infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible, showing that decoupling is a myth that is impossible. Decoupling means that we will be able to still have a strong economic growth while reducing our environmental impact, it never happened, and it is unlikely to happen. [The literature] also shows that all the new tech that we are able to invent and implement are just moving the problem somewhere else.”
Liegey provides the example of the planned roll out of electric cars, where he says much of the pollution generated previously by internal combustion engine vehicles will be shifted to electricity power plants.
Manchester: cradle of the Industrial Revolution and radicalism
“What Manchester does today, the world does tomorrow” said Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1872, alluding to the fact that Manchester played a significant role in the Industrial Revolution. Its premier position within that crucible of innovation led to it becoming the world’s first industrialised city and spawning an industrialised model that spread around the globe.
All those factories to finance and goods to sell meant capitalism thrived in Manchester, so much so that it even gained its own school of thought: Manchester Capitalism, promoting laissez faire capitalism and free trade, which also spread around the world, greatly benefitting industrialised countries to the cost of the many colonised countries in that age of empire.
The Manchester of today is a post-industrial city, but the neoliberal economics that dominate here and across the world contain a lot in common with Manchester Capitalism. Manchester’s rich history and the UK’s current turmoil around Brexit makes the city an interesting choice for the Degrowth conference next year, Liegey says:
“It is the birth place of the Industrial Revolution, of capitalism, of the labour movement. Manchester also went through in the last decades a very difficult time. So it is very interesting to bring degrowth here and to question how a post-industrial city or region could be inspired by the degrowth discussion and debate, in particular with the people who have been fired from their industrial job and what ideas degrowth has to address them, and how degrowth could bring solutions to 21st century challenges, including the question of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
Of course Manchester was also the birthplace of the Communist Manifesto, authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marx went on to write Das Kapital, the ideas in both books spread to many parts of the globe, most notably providing key parts of the rationale for the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union.
Liegey says degrowth is inspired by ideas connected with anarchism, as associated with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and utopian socialism, a branch of socialism that was part of the debate in the early 19th century but was drowned out by the dominance of Marxist-inspired “communism or state communism”.
Robert Owen, a mill owner in Manchester, was a proponent of utopian socialism in those debates. Although he would not have described it as utopian; that was a prefix added to this school of thought later.
[expand title=”CURING THE CONSUMING ADDICTION – CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE”]
We are all guilty, to varying degrees, of pushing that handcart to hell. Ubiquitous advertising and marketing in the global north drives us to consume ever more, to keep company shareholder returns healthy. Consumerism is often described as an addiction, and it is one that doesn’t have a recognised detoxification programme. I asked Liegey what part can degrowth play in curing this addiction. Liegey believes that from a degrowth perspective there are three main points to consider:
1 – “It is not something that is embedded into human nature, to desire more to, to consume more. When you look at the history of civilization, and in particular if you look at the dominant culture , among popular classes until the 1960s or 7os the dominant culture were really exactly the contrary it was much more a culture of simplicity, much more a culture of sharing and reusing, of humbleness.”
2 – “There was a turning point from the 1970-80’s and for other countries in the 1990s, like in central Europe. Which was a social construction which was made from the development of very tricky tools with mass media and advertising and marketing. So we started to transform the dominant culture, and started to impose new dominant narratives about how human beings behave, that we always desire more and we are competitors fighting with each other to always accumulate more. Even with this dominant and strong propaganda, which is also embedded into our educational system we can observe that there is still a lot of resistance in our society.”
3 – “Despite this imposed [consumerist] dominant narrative there are still a lot of solidarities and self-organisation. A lot of things that people refuse to put into the logic of only individual profit or self-interest. I would say it is even rising up more with new generations, amongst the young people there are very interesting movements, and there are a lot of converging surveys showing that mostly in western societies, but not only, people start to rethink and to make a step aside from their consumerism, their consumption habits, or bad habits or compulsions. You see more and more rising movements of people who try to share, who are more into a reciprocity economy, a gift economy. Who try to recycle, to reuse, to rethink when they are pushed by advertisement to buy new clothes or to buy new device, whether they really need it and would rather not buy it.”
Owen was also a founder of the co-operative movement and a textile manufacturer in Manchester in the early 19th century. The Rochdale Pioneers built on Owen’s ideas, to create in 1884 a consumer co-operative, with a strong ethical code, that formed the basis of the modern co-operative movement. Another idea that spread globally.
Liegey describes the co-operative movement as being an inspiration to the degrowth movement, and another good reason for the degrowth conference to be held in Manchester. At the core of co-operatives are the seven co-operative principles, which embed an ethical foundation into co-ops. One of the key principles is democratic member control. Liegey says:
“We see clear convergence between co-operative movements and a lot of related movements like anarchism, like utopian socialism. I would say degrowth is quite a continuity to those movements which were radical critics to capitalism.
“Bringing together the question of the physical limits to growth, the 21st century challenges what we face, coming from productivism and consumerism. So how to re-appropriate limits… how to re-appropriate from a democratic point of view the type of tools, the type of technology, techniques that we use to fulfil our basic needs. How to reshape, rethink our social organisation, on much more original direct democratic structures, and from this perspective to reconnect to the co-operative movement dynamics, and to reopen debates about that.”
The 7th International Degrowth Conference in Manchester
Next year’s degrowth conference in Manchester plans to reach out beyond the usual academic people and debates that characterise most conferences, to become a more socially inclusive event. Liegey says:
“We want to challenge academics. We wanted to make academics to go out of their comfort zone and to meet with activists, politicians, citizens and artists, to develop a different type of platform and different type of media, to experiment with different ways of debating and meeting.”
To co-ordinate the upcoming conference and previous conferences the degrowth movement created a support group which Liegey describes as an “open collective” whose main goals are to “share good practices, to connect people, to bring good tips to other people who are interested in organising such a conference.” During his visit to Manchester Liegey was representing this support group which does not have any particular powers but has a strong set of principles, which Liegey says include: “…democracy, like respect of diversity, no phobias, no racism, gender equality, and all these type of things, which for us are totally obvious. Based on these pillars, we work on how to be creative and how to make this diversity very fruitful.”
On his plans and hopes for the upcoming conference Liegey said:
“The idea is really is to create a type of platform which is open for dialogue, bringing together a very large diversity of people: most of them should be quite sympathetic to what degrowth questions, but we are even happier if there are people who are very critical and sceptical about degrowth.”
Liegey also expanded on how the conference will encourage diversity, by inviting artists and others to:
“Reflect on the debates and discussions, and connect with other types of people who wouldn’t go to a typical academic conference, but will be interested in going to a photo exhibition or a film screening or a participatory discussion with quite creative ways to be inclusive. There will be different types of calls for participation. So calls for special sessions, calls for academic papers, and also calls for activists’ activities, calls for artistic performance… it’s a very creative and open space which is offered to the people, who are asked to appropriate it and to bring their own ideas and creativity.”
Manchester’s rich heritage of creativity, radicalism and diversity is likely to make this degrowth conference an exceptional one. It would be ironic if the cradle of the industrial revolution and capitalism helped to disseminate ideas across the globe that could lead to the reduction of the extensive and growing damage caused by the often-amoral synergy of capital and industry.
We stand at a critical juncture in determining the fate of the world. We can either proceed as we are and create a hell on earth, or we can change our ways and strive for a better society that sees all life on Earth to be of greater value than rising GDP and the bottom line. Degrowth is attempting to steer us down the path towards that better society.
For more information on the 7th International Degrowth Conference at the University of Manchester, 1-5 September 2020 – click here
Conference email address – firstname.lastname@example.org
Steady State Manchester will be helping set up the conference, for their website – click here
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