events, News

Announcement about the Manchester Degrowth and ISEE conference

The Manchester 7th International Degrowth and 16th International Society for Ecological Economics Joint conference was due to be held in September 2020.  It will not come as a surprise to you that given the global Covid 19 pandemic we have been forced to postpone the conference.  We do so with deep regret.  The conference is now planned to go ahead in the week of July 5th 2021.  The conference will retain is existing overarching theme of ‘Building Alternative Livelihoods’. It will also keep existing subthemes.  However, clearly the overarching theme has new importance in the light of the global pandemic.  We will be sending out a new additional call in September 2020 looking more specifically at the implications of the Covid 19 pandemic for building and rebuilding alternative livelihoods.   It is planned that the conference in July 2021 will have a much larger virtual component than the original conference planned for September 2020.  Given the new arrangements we those who submitted proposals for contributions the following options  for  their proposals

1.    leaving their proposal as it is for consideration for the 2021 conference in Manchester;
2.    resubmitting  a revised version of their proposal for the 2021 conference in Manchester
3.    submitting a new proposal for the 2021 conference in Manchester
4.    withdrawing their proposal.

Those choosing the first option will not need to do anything.  It will be automatically considered for the July  2021 conference in Manchester.  Anyone wanting to pursue one of the other options please let us know by April 30th.  We will leave the call open for resubmissions and new submissions after this date.   Please also  let us know if you would like to present your session virtually or at the site in Manchester.

We do deeply regret having to postpone the conference until next year.  The team at Manchester did explore the possibility of doing the conference as a virtual conference in September 2020.  However, given the lockdown in the UK and after discussion with the conference administration at Manchester University,  it become apparent that the capacity did not exist to do this in September 2020.  The plan is to have a larger virtual component to the conference in 2021.  We do plan to offer a small online symposium in September 2020 specifically on the implications of Covid19 for ecological economics and degrowth.    We will announce further details about this colloquium later this year.

We would like to thank you for your patience in waiting for this update.  We are sorry we could not get back to you sooner.  As you can imagine it has been very difficult to reorganise the dates of the conference in current conditions.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes

The Local Organising Committee, Manchester

News

Message from the Manchester Degrowth Conference

This text is going out to those who have submitted to the conference.


Thank you for your submission to the Manchester degrowth and ecological economics conference. 

As you will be aware we are facing an unprecedented situation with the global coronavirus pandemic.

We are therefore reviewing options as to how to progress.

We have decided not to open registration until we have more certainty in the coming weeks. Meanwhile we have extended the submissions deadline until the end of March. 

Thank you for your patience, we hope you all understand this organisational challenge and wish you all the very best during these extraordinary times.

events, News

Degrowth and Ecological Economics conference, Manchester, Open Call now live

We are pleased to share the Open Call for the Degrowth and Ecological Economics conference in September, here in Manchester:
http://www.confercare.manchester.ac.uk/events/degrowth2020/open-call/
It can also be reached via  a link at the bottom of the main page http://www.confercare.manchester.ac.uk/events/degrowth2020/

Submissions from activists, policy people and politicos as well as scholars and academics are welcome.  The deadline is 15th March.

See you there!

Critique, Republished pieces

Open letter to Fridays For A Future. It’s time for action, but, what action?

Open letter by Marga Mediavilla to Fridays For A Future.  reposted from 15/15\15.

“There is one thing that worries me. In your speeches on climate change you can find demands for very ambitious decarbonization objectives…..

According to my knowledge and according to the studies we are making in our group, such ambitious goals as these would require very drastic measures which go far beyond the usual proposals such as investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles or energy saving and efficiency.

Therefore, I think we have to be very realistic about the decarbonization objectives and the measures we demand in order to achieve them. If we do not, our leaders can happily silence the protests, by using exclusively technological cosmetic measures that do not solve anything, and the hopes of many young people with good intentions may be frustrated.” 

Mediavilla goes on to explore decarbonisation scenarios using the MEDEAS simulation model.  The findings indicate the relevance of the degrowth perspective rather than technological optimism.

Read the whole post HERE.

Climate strikers in Manchester
Climate strike protesters in Manchester last September

books, Republished pieces

Utopian thinking in the ether: an interview with Boris Frankel

This interesting interview appeared in the Australian journal, Overland. It is relevant to many of the concerns discussed here. Frankel’s open access book, Fictions of Sustainability, is very good.

Thanks to Zacharias Szumer for this. Here is the beginning of the interview – follow the link at the end for the rest of it.

Is utopian thinking akin to casting a net into the ether – collecting the unimaginable and dragging it into the realm of the possible? Or, by neglecting to consider any parameters of the possible, is it a fanciful distraction from meaningful politics? Well, perhaps it depends on the type of utopian thinking. In Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-Capitalist Futures, social theorist Boris Frankel takes aim at certain types of utopian thinking: proposals that he argues are unrealisable or unsustainable regardless of whether political obstacles have been removed or transformed.  Throughout the book, which was released earlier this year, Professor Frankel seeks to ask the difficult questions surrounding concepts such as green growth, degrowth and post-scarcity, not with the aim of opposing radical solutions, but to facilitate the development of more plausible and effective policies. Political-economic dilettante Zacharias Szumer met with Frankel recently to try to get his head around this somewhat heavy going but important book.  

ZS: In the conclusion of Fictions of Sustainability, you write that one of your aims in writing the book was to “bridge the political and theoretical chasm or ‘analytical apartheid’ that characterizes so much socio-economic policy on the one side and environmental analyses on the other.” What do you mean by analytical apartheid? And how did you attempt to bridge this chasm?

BF: In the past, conservatives, liberal Keynesians, Marxists and anarchists were divided over how to analyse capitalism and debated its virtues and failings. Today, it is not enough to have a knowledge of political economy, whatever the political perspective, if it excludes crucial environmental issues. On the other hand, you’ve got many people who are active and concerned about environmental issues, but who neglect political economy. The ‘analytical apartheid’ I refer to is that environmental issues cannot be separated from political economy yet, political economists and environmentalists talk past one another and rarely consider one another’s issues and positions. Despite environmental crises being highlighted for over fifty years, traditional political economists and many on the left still treat environmental issues as marginal to the main issue of capital versus labour. This is now changing. But you’ll still find many leading political economists are completely silent on environmental issues. It’s important to bridge these two worlds. Similarly, many committed environmentalists have a detailed understanding of the damage being done to so many ecological habitats and the need to transform existing consumption and production. But apart from generalised ‘wish lists’ have a very limited understanding of how existing political institutions and the economy of capitalism works. So, in order to achieve their environmental goals, it’s critical that they become more familiar with the political economic debates that have been developed by non-environmentalists.
Click this link for the full interview on Overland.

Critique

Is the Degrowth Movement Delusional?

See also this article by list member Andrea Grainger:
In defence of degrowth: The climate movement and socialist movements must come together to build a new progressive movement.  Open Democracy, 5 September, 2019.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Is the Degrowth Movement Delusional?

by Steve Gwynne

In his latest article, Leigh Phillips, a strong advocate of ‘Socialist Growth’ and ‘Luxury Communism’ condemns the Degrowth Movement as delusional with an array of arguments that suggest unlimited growth is technologically feasible.
However, despite his technological utopianism, his most poignant omission is the fact that most developed countries in the world are in ecological debt.
As a result, ecological debtor nations are highly dependent on less developed ecological creditor regions for materials and resources in order to sustain and maintain their unsustainable economies. In turn, these import dependancies and the vulnerabilities that they create gives rise to Western foreign interference, whether through the market or through military or diplomatic intervention, in order to appropriate, protect and distribute raw materials into ecological debtor nations.
Unambiguously, the Degrowth Movement recognises this vicious circle which emerges from ecological debt, a vicious circle which not only seeks to sustain the unsustainable through the appropriation and exploitation of foreign resources but also seeks to limit the ability of weaker nations and their impoverished populations to sustainably develop adequate infrastructure that enables them a dignified and secure way of life.
By ignoring the ramifications of ecological debt, Leigh unwittingly justifies the market and military interventions that keep millions of people impoverished whilst rich nations copiously consume.
Since non renewable resources are by definition not renewable and therefore finite in quantity and quality, the international Degrowth Movement advocates a just and equitable contraction and convergence of
Population,
Affluence,
Consumption and
Technology,
in order to help bring ecological debtor nations back into ecological credit. Through the communicative tool of IM=PACT, the main intention is to allow less developed ecological creditor nations to use their resources for their own development rather than them being used for the continued growth of unsustainable ecological debtor nations such as the UK, the US and other major European nations. As such, in opposition to Leigh’s assertions, the Degrowth Movement advocates human impact contraction because it recognises that the planet is home to a diverse array of limitations which cannot be transcended by technology.
Leigh’s article argues the opposite. It proposes that the limitations posed by the availability of non renewable resources can be overcome by technology without specifying how except through human ingenuity. In essence, the author is claiming that technology will avail us of our natural, societal and human limitations by being able to produce a diverse array of unlimited materials from the atmosphere we breathe.
This of course is an intriguing science fiction idea and would no doubt if realised bring some relief to growing global resource scarcity and a growing global ecological debt but unfortunately he does not explain how the impacts of an atmosphere that is transformed into tangible substances will affect ecospheric processes so perhaps should be viewed with extreme caution.
Meanwhile, whilst waiting for this ground breaking technology, humanity is faced with the hard realities of limitations and the fact that global ecological debt needs to be reversed if human flourishing on a global scale is to be sustained. This means focusing our attention and our national policies towards ways of life that are materially sufficient for our needs and our development rather than orientated towards unlimited growth. See https://goodlife.leeds.ac.uk/
It is clearly unjust for countries which are in ecological debt to appropriate resources from nations in ecological credit when their basic infrastructures, infrastructures which we take for granted, are hardly in place whilst in comparison, we enjoy unimaginable luxury. This therefore means a strategy of contraction and convergence so that limited global resources are equitably shared for the utilitarian benefit of all.
Ultimately, PACT contraction is unavoidable even if we choose to continue using economic and military power to appropriate ecological credit solely for ourselves since eventually these resources will too run out. In other words, unlimited growth can only ever lead to collapse.
The only logical alternative to growth is sufficiency, however much it might pain us to let go and sacrifice our unsustainable ways of life for the global common good. So the Degrowth advocate Jason Hickel, is correct, we must rid ourselves of the unnecessary and build our systems around what is necessary for a dignified life for all.
In this regard, Degrowth literature is rich in diverse ideas by which to navigate the difficult and sacrificial path towards sufficiency which Leigh has conveniently referenced in his techno-utopianism piece. So for all those willing to take the sacrificial degrowth path, we need all hands and heads on task if we are to avert a climatic, environmental and ecological disaster of our own unintentional making.
___________________________
Do you have a response to Philips or other misconceptions and misrepresentations of degrowth / post growth thinking?  We’d be interested in covering them.
News

7th International Degrowth Conference: Call​ ​for​ ​sub-themes

Update  January, 2020

The call for subthemes generated a great deal of interest.  We have consolidated them into 14 themes: see the conference website.  The open call for contributions will be announced there in later January / early February.

The 7th International Degrowth and 16th International Society for Ecological Economics Joint Conference – Manchester

Building Alternative Livelihoods in Times of Ecological and Political Crisis

Call​ ​for​ ​sub-themes

Panorama of Manchester from the North
                                                                                                              Manchester, from the North (Mark Burton)

updated with some missing text, 19/9/19

We are delighted to announce that the first ever joint conference between the International Degrowth Research Network and the International Society for Ecological Economics will take place 1-5 September 2020 in Manchester, UK. This conference will bring together academics from the Degrowth and Ecological Economics communities, voices from the Global North and Global South, civil society actors, activists, artists and policy-makers. It aims to break down silos and stimulate dialogues between and within different perspectives, disciplines and social movements.

Building Alternative Livelihoods in times of ecological and political crisis is the overarching theme of the conference. Economic systems have always co-evolved with social, environmental and technological systems. The worsening ecological and climate crisis means we must urgently abandon practices of production and consumption that drive ecological degradation and that rely on unsustainable extractivism. We must develop alternative livelihoods which are harmonious with planetary limits and safeguard material living conditions.  We must invent and trial new ways of working, providing for everyone’s needs, caring for each other and democratising the economy. We must seek clarity about the systems of provisioning which will be utilised in a society beyond growth where states and markets play more peripheral roles in the allocation of resources. In short, we must ask what are the alternative livelihoods which ensure the future conditions of societal wellbeing.

The construction of alternative livelihoods entails a radical transformation of economy, culture and society. What are the institutional arrangements which safely provide for basic needs, social stability and democratic legitimacy in the transition to environmental sustainability? How can both social and ecological justice for the populations of the Global North and the Global South be ensured? How can political support be mobilised for the necessary transformations? How can the transition to environmental sustainability be made politically viable and democratically legitimate?

We list below some of the topics that the conference could cover. We also look forward to ideas beyond these, which would expand the geographical and thematic scope of degrowth, as well as advance and further substantiate current debates and dialogue within and between degrowth and ecological economics.

  1. the economy beyond states and markets
  2. the future of employment,  work and care
  3. debates on degrowth, green growth, the circular economy, and decoupling
  4. the democratisation of the economy and alternative models and forms of organisation
  5. the production and conservation of energy
  6. low carbon and low energy futures
  7. forms of decommodification and non-capitalist modes of resource allocation
  8. commoning resources
  9. money, debt and the financial system
  10. financing the (transition to a) post-growth society
  11. monetary and non-monetary measures of prosperity and well-being
  12. a universal basic income or universal basic services
  13. the green new deal
  14. the decentralisation of power
  15. decolonization and feminist economics as challenges to power
  16. post- growth policy-making, law and governance
  17. how to respond to the ethno-nationalist environmentalism and anti-environmentalism of ascendant populist groups
  18. the politics of transitions to sustainability and the lessons to be learned from past socio-economic and cultural transformation
  19. spatial issues: planning, housing and the future of cities
  20. diversity: class, race, gender, abilities
  21. Sustainable Development Goals
  22. conflict resolution processes and socio-ecological transformations
  23. biodiversity, ecosystem services, and sustainable livelihoods
  24. social metabolism
  25. political economy and ecological economics/degrowth
  26. sustainable livelihoods and ecological sufficiency
  27. languages of valuation and ecological conflicts
  28. extractivism, environmental justice and illicit activities
  29. social ecological economics
  30. production and consumption
  31. slow science and degrowth of publication economy
  32. strategies for degrowth transformation: lessons from the Vienna conference

Submission Procedure

There will be two stages for the call for academic and activist contributions. The first stage is a call for sub-theme conveners. Academics and activists who wish to actively participate in these sub-themes or suggest new sub-themes for inclusion in the conference should submit a proposal by 30th September 2019. Descriptions of the sub-themes should speak to the overall conference theme. It should be sent to degrowth2020@manchester.ac.uk

Each sub-theme can go from one to four sessions, with up to four papers or other contributions per session. There are many formats which a session can adopt, including the traditional format of paper presentations with a specific thematic​ ​focus, roundtable discussions, and participatory sessions encouraging reflection on a particular topic using an open format​ ​(e.g.​ ​discussion​ ​workshops,​ ​dialogical/reading/planning​ ​sessions,​ ​walks​, ​etc.). Sub-theme conveners will be given full autonomy and responsibility for the organisation of sub-themes.

Sub-theme conveners should present the following information in their proposal:

  1. theme title;
  2. convenor(s);
  3. presenters/roundtable participants anticipated;
  4. subtheme abstract (1 paragraph, maximum 250 words);
  5. how does this subtheme relate to the overall conference theme (maximum 100 words);
  6. format (paper presentation, round-table debate, etc.);
  7. live or remote or both;
  8. number of 1-2 hour sessions anticipated. 

Successful sub theme proposers will hear by 30th October 2019

Once sub-themes have been selected, we will announce a second deadline for individual papers. The main language of the conference is English, but we will review submissions in other languages​ ​also. For​ ​any​ ​questions,​ ​please​ ​contact​ ​us​ ​at:​ degrowth2020@manchester.ac.uk

News

7th International Degrowth Conference – Manchester September 2020

Building Alternative Livelihoods in times of ecological and political crisis

7TH INTERNATIONAL DEGROWTH / 16TH ISEE INTERNATIONAL JOINT CONFERENCE

Manchester, September 1st to 5th 2020

Download the first call for activists and campaigners.

Come to Manchester in September 2020 to meet with other activists, artists and scholars to explore how alternative livelihoods can respond to the worsening ecological and climate crisis.

We face a worsening ecological and climate crisis and that requires an urgent transformation of the the ways we organise, produce and consume. Alternative livelihoods could be the key to this in a democratic society that has gone beyond economic growth.

How can we ensure both social justice and ecological justice for the peoples of the Global South and North? How can we mobilise political support for the necessary transformations? How can we make the transition environmentally and socially sustainable, politically viable and democratically legitimate?

This conference will bring together academics, policy-makers, artists and activists in order to discuss these many challenges. There will be workshops, debates and discussions, artistic performances, walking tours and installations on the themes of the conference. It will also seek to contribute to local activist initiatives. It will strive not only to demonstrate and explore cutting-edge thinking on alternative sustainable livelihoods but also encourage political mobilisation amongst academics, activists, artists and policy practitioners.

The conference will include events and discussions, all underpinned by the search for social and ecological justice, will include topics such as,

  • The future of states and markets,

  • The future of employment and work,

  • Cutting carbon emissions: degrowth versus green growth,

  • The production and conservation of energy

  • Non-capitalist modes of resource allocation

  • Democratising the economy and alternative forms of business ownership

  • Re-commoning and de-commodifying resources,

  • Non-monetary measures of prosperity and well-being,,

  • Welfare arrangements such as basic income or jobs guarantee

  • Decentralising power,

  • How to respond to the threat of racist, nationalist populism,

  • The politics of transitions to sustainability

  • The lessons to be learned from past socio-economic and cultural conflicts.

The conference website is now live at http://www.confercare.manchester.ac.uk/events/degrowth2020/

Critique

Green New Deals – the degrowth perspective

Cover from the NEF Green New Deal report, 2008.
Cover from the NEF Green New Deal report, 2008.

Most recent update: 18 May,, 2020

The idea of a Green New Deal (or New Green Deal), despite first appearing more than 10 years ago, has become very popular in recent months. These Green New Deals “make an analogy to the response to the Depression of the 1930s with an idea today that with greater state expenditure a huge effort can be put into developing the infrastructure of an economy based on renewables and a decarbonised energy system. This would simultaneously create jobs...”(1). There is a lot to agree with, given that a massive transformation is needed towards a clean economy.  However, these proposals all assume continued economic growth, albeit “green growth”, and as we know, this is problematic since the material and energy flows entailed are what got us into ecological overshoot in the first place.  A number of pieces from across the degrowth community have raised various questions about these Green Deals and we thought it would be worth putting together a collection of links (3).  If you spot others, do let us know and we’ll add them.

A Green New Deal for an ecological economy.  Leah Temper and Sam Bliss at degrowth.info  Explores what the discipline of ecological economics (degrowth’s academic cousin) can bring to the formulation and implementation of Green New Deals.

What Kind of a Green Deal? The implications of material and monetary flowsMark H Burton  at Steady State Manchester     alternative link

This piece covers much the same ground, delivered as a talk at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Future Economies launch, 12 September, 2019: Six problems for Green Deals, Mark H Burton.  Another short piece written for a permaculture audience: Should we be supporting a Green New Deal?

A Green New Deal Between Whom and For What? by Nicholas Beuret at Viewpoint Magazine.  More recent than most of these cited here, so it includes many of the points made in others while offering a very good overview of the concept and its problems.

Energy and the Green New Deal: The complex challenge of powering societies. by Tim Crownshaw at Uneven Earth.  A clearly written and well referenced reality check on the energy assumptions of the Green Deal narratives.

Green New Deals….yes….but what does that mean? Brian Davey at FEASTA

That Green Growth at the Heart of the Green New Deal? It’s Malignant Stan Cox at Green Social Thought

Climate breakdown is coming. The UK needs a Greener New Deal  Jason Hickel at The Guardian

The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism  Asad Rehman at The Independent

And in similar vein,
As the left wakes up to climate injustice, we must not fall into ‘green colonialism’ by Dalia Gebrial at The Guardian

A Green New Deal beyond growth. A concise summary of the central dilemma, by Riccardo Mastini at degrowth.info (the English language section of the German degrowth network site).

A Green New Deal beyond growth (II) – Some steps forward, by Elena Hofferberth. Also at degrowth.info. Following Mastini’s piece, this helpfully identifies both commonalities between GNDs and degrowth and looks at their different emphases.

Between the Devil and the Green New Deal – by Jasper Bernes.  From Commune magazine.  A forceful critique that pulls together a number of themes including the reliance of the GND on unprecedented and carbon-intensive mineral extraction and manufacture and its political and economic implausibility under capitalism.  This version lacks references unfortunately.

The Green New Deal: What’s Really Green and What’s Really New?  by Brian Czech at CASSE blog: focussing on the question of the scale of the material economy in the USA political context.

Degrowth vs. the Green New Deal.  A very helpful “compare and contrast” piece by Aaron Vansintjan on Briar Patch magazine.

Degrowth and the Green New Deal. Another article comparing and contrasting the two and distinguishing among variants of the Green New Deal, by Gareth Dale in The Ecologist.

John Bellamy Foster, while not specifically allying himself with the degrowth movement, makes a number of similar points to those in the more explicit degrowth pieces collected here.  In his Monthly Review piece, On Fire This Time, focussing on GND proposals in the USA, he distinguishes between the original Keynesian New Green Deal, and the more radical variants emerging from a variety of social movements.  It is capitalism itself that imposes the limits of possibility for the GND.

False hopes for a Green New Deal.  by Rufus Jordana on Open Democracy.  “If the ‘Green New Deal’ is our best answer to the climate crisis, then we have no answer to the climate crisis.”

The Green New Deal’s contradiction – new infrastructure and redistribution may boost carbon emissions.  A point made in more detail elsewhere but here succinctly and via historical comparison with the original New Deal’s boosting of emissions and urban sprawl.  By Matthew Paterson at The Conversation.  Michael Jacobs, who is not in general a supporter of degrowth, also makes this point, citing Paterson, in a helpful overview of the challenges facing a GND in the UK.

A Green No Deal? A Terrestrial examines a Modern document by Christine Dann on her website.  She also makes the point that the US Green New Deal proposals imply “green growth”.

The problems of eco-capitalism. By Calvin Jones at Undod: Radical Independence for Wales.  Calvin problematises the GND a modified form of capitalism which is supposed to rescue us from the destruction brought by capitalism’s endless accumulation.  He also brings in a radical localist, Welsh, dimension.

In some versions of the New Green Deal, the growing GDP is rather hidden but it is, nevertheless there (as Burton discusses).  However, one of the pioneers of the approach, Robert Pollin, celebrates the role of “green growth” contrasting it with the degrowth approach in a highly critical article in New Left Review.  Responses have been made to this piece by Giorgos Kallis at TruthOut and by  Mark Burton and Peter Somerville in New Left Review (2) {Version in Spanish, Aqui}.

Also see this by Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis: “Is Green Growth Possible?” In the journal New Political Economy.

For a collection of well argued critical material on Green Growth, there is this excellent book:
Dale, G., Mathai, M. V., & Puppim de Oliveira, J. A. (Eds.). (2016). Green growth: Ideology, political economy and the alternatives. London: Zed Books.

None of us are saying that the degrowth alternative is an easy option.  It is just that the biophysical realities mean that the New Green Deal could inadvertently make the situation worse by continuing to destroy the physical and biological systems on which life depends.

What we need to work on is an ecologically and economically literate Green Deal.  The expertise is there in the degrowth movement, so what’s stopping us? Perhaps the arguments are getting through: the Green Deal for Europe consultation paper, released September, 2019, includes this intriguing passage.

“In addition to phasing out Europe’s existing carbon-intensive energy systems and infrastructure, aggregate energy demand must also be reduced by scaling down material production and throughput. The [Green Public Works] supports this transition by shifting income and welfare creation from industrial production to social and environmental reproduction: maintenance, recycling, repair, and restoration of environmental and infrastructural resources, as well as education, culture and care — for both people and planet.”

post updated 18 May, 2020

Notes

  1.  The quotation is from Brian Davey’s piece, quoted above.
  2.  The NLR articles are behind a paywall.  If you can’t access them, then contact us and we can help.
  3. Thanks to Riccardo Mastini for spotting some of these and sharing them on twitter.
Republished pieces

The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they also hold the key to a better future

Repost from The Conversation

Community managed micro-allotments, Malmö (photo M Burton)

The typical suburban backyard of the future?
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne and Brendan Gleeson, University of Melbourne

Suburban affluence is the defining image of the good life under capitalism, commonly held up as a model to which all humanity should aspire.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Yet with the global economy already in gross ecological overshoot, and a world population heading for more than 11 billion, this way of living is neither fair nor sustainable.

To live within our environmental means, the richest nations will need to embrace a planned process of economic “degrowth”. This is not an unplanned recession, but a deliberate downscaling of economic activity and the closely correlated consumption of fossil energy. We don’t argue this is likely, only that it is necessary.

You might naturally assume this will involve pain and sacrifice, but we argue that a “prosperous descent” is possible. Our new book, Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, envisions how this might unfold in the suburban landscapes that are currently emblematic of overconsumption.




Read more:
The ‘simple life’ manifesto and how it could save us


The well-known documentary The End of Suburbia presented a coherent narrative of a post-petroleum future, but got at least one thing wrong. There is not a single end to suburbia; there are many ends of suburbia (as we know it).

Reimagining the suburbs beyond fossil fuels

Suburban catastrophists such as James Kunstler argue that fossil fuel depletion will turn our suburbs into urban wastelands. But we see the suburbs as an ideal place to begin retrofitting our cities.

This won’t involve tearing them down and starting again. Typically, Australia’s built environment is turned over at less than 5% per year. The challenge is to reinhabit, not rebuild, the suburban landscape. Here are some of the key features of this reinvigorated landscape:

  • Suburbanites can and should retrofit their homes and develop new energy practices to prepare for an energy descent future.
  • Households must be encouraged to downshift consumerism, swapping superfluous “stuff” for more free time and other sources of meaning and well-being. An economics of sufficiency involves borrowing and sharing rather than always buying and upscaling.
  • We should reclaim and reimagine areas of the built environment that are misused or underused. The vast areas dedicated to car parking are but one example.
  • Finally, and most importantly, we should realise that change must come via grassroots political organisation, rather than waiting for growth-fixated governments to lead the way. This is not to deny the need for “top-down” structural change. Our argument is simply that the necessary action from governments will not arrive until there is an active culture of sufficiency that demands it.
Sharehouse food production.
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

What social forces might produce this necessary but elusive urban transformation? We think it can be driven by two broad social groups: the disillusioned middle class and the exploited working class. These two groups, which already blur together along a spectrum, can potentially become a cohesive urban social movement of transformative economic and political significance.

The disillusioned middle class: radical downshifters

Our first groups consists of employed professionals, bureaucrats, and tradespeople who have secure housing, earn decent wages, and can direct significant portions of their income to discretionary spending. This sector of society participates, consciously or unconsciously, in what is often called “consumer culture”.

This consumerism often fails to fulfil its promise of a rich and meaningful life. The consumer class has been sold a lie, and many affluent consumers are now developing what social scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist” goals and values. This emerging way of life involves seeking purpose and satisfaction in life through things other than material riches, including deeper community engagement, more time to pursue private passions, or even increased political action.

This is significant, for three reasons. First, history shows that social movements tend to be sparked by dissatisfaction with the status quo – otherwise, why would people resist or seek alternatives? The deep disillusionment with materialistic lifestyles provides an incentive to explore alternative, more satisfying ways to live and self-provide.

Second, by withdrawing their spending from the market economy, this emerging social movement can undermine that economy and fast-track its transformation.

Finally, a “radical downshifting” in consumption could allow people to free up their time by working less. This will provide people with more time to participate in building new forms of economy and engaging in collective action for change. The “voluntary simplicity movement” already numbers as many as 200 million people, although its potential depends on more organised and radical expressions.

The exploited working class: economic builders

Radical downshifters will never transform the economy on their own, and this is where our second group comes in. Working-class urbanites, while also drifting into superfluous consumption, are typically characterised as individuals and households who are “battling” to make ends meet.

Again, a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo provides the incentive to seek and participate in fundamental change. We are often told that Australia’s economy has grown uninterrupted for a quarter-century, yet many people feel their personal circumstances have stagnated.

There has indeed been growth, yet almost all the benefits have been siphoned away by the wealthy. Why would the working class owe any allegiance to a system that only benefits the rich? As the battlers realise they are being oppressed and duped by an unjust system, they threaten to become a dynamite class of explosive potential.

As economic crises threaten to intensify in coming years – including the challenge of automation – we maintain that the exploited working class may be driven to explore alternative ways to self-provide. As incomes become more meagre and jobs less secure, more people will need to seek alternative ways of meeting economic needs “beyond the market”.

A suburban home complete with mini market garden means fewer trips to the shops (for your neighbours too).
Retrosuburbia.com (with permission)

Whether through necessity or choice, we foresee a growing number of people beginning to participate in informal, non-monetary, and local economies, including the sharing economy. Just as radical middle-class downshifters will help stifle economic growth by withdrawing their discretionary spending, those who are less affluent could begin to lay alternative economic foundations, and provide a post-capitalist social safety net.

Working together

We contend that these two social groups – the disillusioned middle class and the exploited working class – can conceivably form a cohesive movement with similar goals. The capitalist system isn’t working for many people, even those who are “winning” the rat race. Furthermore, historic growth trajectories seem to be coming to an end, due to both financial and ecological constraints.




Read more:
Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it


Already, a diverse range of movements are working towards a new urbanity. These include local farmers’ markets and community and home gardens, urban agriculture projects, freecycling groups, sharing communities, and repair cafes. It also includes the growing pool of climate activists, divestment organisers, permaculture groups, transitions towns, and progressive unions.

There is the small but vocal “save our suburbs” network, in which we see the seeds of something more progressive. And it includes the energy frugal households quietly moving towards solar, batteries and increased energy self-suffiency. One by one, these households are undermining the fossil fuel industry and subtly disrupting the status quo.

As financial and ecological crises deepen in coming years, the social consciousness needed to develop new systems of production and cultures of consumption will become compelling. Together these social groups (and others not yet imagined) could form an urban social movement that withdraws support for the existing system and begins building new economies on our suburban streets.The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne and Brendan Gleeson, Director, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.