In the middle of the hottest European summer on record, under the sun glimmered a dozen solar panels installed on the ground, surrounded by rows of white tents and people from different countries walking by, many barefoot. That was my first impression of the Degrowth Summer School 2018, which took place from the 29 July to 2 August 2018 at the Climate Camp Leipzig.
I was a delegate from Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Vietnam who came to the Summer School to learn about the Degrowth movement in the Global North, what it was about and what it looked like. Degrowth is a very new concept to developing countries like mine, if not never mentioned before. It has seemed to be more popular in developed countries in the Global North, which are rich enough to satisfy their citizens’ needs and thus further economic growth requires more and more pointless consumption. Even in the Global North, degrowth is still rarely mentioned, seemingly pushed into the background by the ideas of sustainable development or green growth, which, after all, still pursue the idea of infinite economic growth, just in a different way.
It’s not hard to understand why the idea of degrowth is still not very well known or discussed, and is almost taboo, even four decades after its birth, which was ignited by the publication of the report “The Limits to Growth” in 1972 (link).
At the first sight, it looks like a negative concept, perhaps because of its prefix. People might perceive it as recession, or giving up all modern convenience and going back to the stone age, or being anti-progress.
Looking at the life at the Climate Camp, it seemed they did have a point: All meals were vegan with little choices, cooked and served by volunteers. Toilets were dry compost. There were no fans or air conditioning to provide relief from the heat of the summer sun. How uncomfortable and inconvenient it would be, if this was what a post-growth life looked like.
But if it is truly uncomfortable, why was it that every person I met at the Climate Camp looked so happy and free?
It turned out, through the several workshops I got to attend at the Summer School, that the key to degrowth is not about hampering development or going back to stone age, but about moving the spotlight from economic growth to the well-being of humans and nature.
When I came to think about it, the reason we pursued economic growth in the first place was because we thought it would help to raise the living standard of everyone, and that we would then be happy with more possessions and convenience. So happiness was the goal, and economic growth was a mean—one mean among others. But we have become so obsessed with the mean that we forgot the ultimate goal. And by putting growth as the goal, natural resources are exploited, the environment is trashed and vulnerable people are driven into suffering. This is not a happy picture. Just by changing the focus, we can change the whole course of action toward a much more effective and sustainable direction, and also bring more genuine happiness into our lives.
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates
I also observed that the general ideals behinds different workshops were quite similar. When we shift the focus from economic growth to the well-being of humans and nature, it can be manifested in many different actions and systematic changes, but the roots are the same.
One of them is the localization of markets, which would lead to multiple benefits: For goods consumption, it helps reduce carbon emission caused by transportation, especially via aeroplane, and reduce waste and damage incurred along the way; even for renewable energy, a network of neighbours with rooftop solar photovoltaic panels is better than relying on solar power plants, as electricity is lost during transmission and many supporting constructions have to be built or upgraded to support the smooth connection of a new solar or wind power plants to the grid.
Another important common value is the strengthening of connection between humans and between humans and nature, which was also the idea behind my presentation at the Summer School with the title “Empowering youth as green change agents in Vietnam”.
In a globalized world dominated by capitalism, we are disconnected from the true cost of our consumption, the hidden prices that nature and vulnerable groups had to pay, as we do not know how our products were made and where they would go after we discarded them. By telling the life stories of different products on social media and training courses, I hope to strengthen Vietnamese young people’s connection with nature, realizing how much we depend on it for our survival and prosperity, and respect the stuff we have instead of going for disposable things; on the other hand we can also be aware of the human cost and raise our voice for fair trade and decent work places.
Even though degrowth is more about developed countries, who have to assume their responsibilities for putting the whole planet at risk for their past—and current—development process, seeds of a post-growth world are now being seen in many places in the world. In Vietnam, I know business people who were successful by many measures, who decided to leave their jobs to build their own natural farms or social enterprises, promoting the regeneration of the country’s ecosystem. There are new businesses established by young people to develop good-quality, natural and eco-friendly products made in Vietnam, such as natural soaps, bamboo straws or cloth sanitary pads. These businesses cooperate and share the resources with each other instead of competing, and they have mutual bonds like a community working to build better lives, not as companies trying to maximize their profits.
It can be seen that, while a post-growth vision can only be achieved by the joint efforts of all, the transition is driven from the bottom up rather than top down. Radical changes will come from each and every individual whose actions are driven by their inner values and understanding of the big picture. Whether the world can survive through the current ecological crises and move to a post-growth future, it depends on each of us to be the change we want to see.
Dang Thuy Duong has been working on youth empowerment for sustainable development in Vietnam since 2014. For more information on the Degrowth Summer School and the FES climate project in Asia, visit the FES Vietnam website and follow their daily updates on the Facebook fan page.
The views expressed in this articles are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of FES.
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