Unsustainable is a word that must explode, not creep, into our everyday vocabulary. Our economies, as they currently are measured, cannot continue to grow.
I chose décroissance over degrowth for the title because the French word hints at the verb décroire – to disbelieve. This is important because, for the concept, it is necessary for one to disbelieve in the current capitalist model that demands growth as its life blood. On both sides of the Atlantic, those who pretend to lead in the great drama of politics extol economic growth as the basis of national success and happiness. Growth is measured by an outdated parameter called Gross Domestic Product, a measure that does not care how the jobs and productivity are created. The classic example of its failure is that, from the aspect of GDP, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill off the Alaska coast in 1989 was a “success.”
David Suzuki, who, based on a 2004 CBC poll, is considered the 5th greatest Canadian ever and, by a process of biotic elimination, the greatest living Canadian, has, since the 1980’s, been a high-profile advocate for reducing our impact on the environment. Thanks to Suzuki and other caring thinkers, many now kind of “get” the fact that we in “The West” pamper ourselves by using up precious resources in obscene amounts to provide very special goods and services. We consume too much of everything (energy, minerals, meat, fish, forests, chemicals, drugs and yes, even health care) and have grown to believe that these relative luxuries are things to which we in the West are entitled.This “entitled” feeling battles with the growing guilt and, if we are honest about it, usually wins.
In the 1980’s I read Suzuki’s weekly science column in the Globe and Mail until that paper stopped carrying him because he had been devoting too many of his columns to environmental issues. They printed his last column on June 10, 1989. I noted this on June 12, my first diary entry on the environment. Suzuki’s parting shot referred to about a dozen writers and organizations, including the 1972 publication, Limits To Growth, paid for by Volkswagen and sponsored by the Club of Rome, a group of world leaders and thinkers that included the Canadian PM, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Two of my diary notes then:
“Sustainable development” is a terrible illusion.
Lees calculates that every 5 minutes… a major shipment of toxic chemicals is sent off to be disposed of somewhere.
Suzuki had referred, in my second note, to Andrew Lees of Friends of the Earth, London. One “somewhere,” back in 1987, happened to be a place called Koko, Nigeria. A local businessman there illegally stored 18 000 drums of Italian chemical toxins on his property for the modest sum of $100 per month. Koko is in the Niger Delta, a tragic oil-cursed part of Nigeria about which National Geographic wrote this shocking article and I, having been deeply moved, wrote this song.
There were environmentalists before Suzuki, of course. Suzuki says that Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, was one of “two books that changed my life.” Carson, among other things, took on the US chemical industry over the aerial spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes and inspired the creation of the EPA.
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a Romanian-American, wrote The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in 1971 in which he pointed out that human activity, “simply” because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, reduces the amount of useful energy on the planet at an alarming and unsustainable rate. He is considered by many to be the creator and main theoretician of the Degrowth Movement. A series of his articles and thoughts was published in France in 1979 under the title, Demain la Décroissance; here the term décroissance was first used.
And we can go back to Saint Francis of Assisi whose special relationship with the components of our biosphere was beautifully expressed in his Canticle of Brother Sun in 1224.
Some of the ideas that I present in this post result from my 25 years of reading and caring about the environment. The new ones are from (yet another) CBC podcast called The Degrowth Paradigm, produced by Richard Swift and aired in December on the CBC’s wonderful week-nightly program, Ideas.
In the program, Swift interviews several people, among them:
Jim Merkel, one member of an alternative community in Belfast, Maine motivated by vicarious guilt after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez tragedy to sell off all his “stuff” in 13 garage sales at the age of 30.
Bob Thomson, an Ottawa engineer involved in environmental issues for 45 years who volunteers in France at Can Decreix (see below).
Eric Pinot of la Université du Québec à Montréal, who spoke at the third world conference on Degrowth that was held in Montréal.
François Schneider, founder of the Can Decreix experiment: a community in Southern France that survives (with no fridge) on things like fresh and dried fruits and porridge. Most members follow a vegetarian diet, an essential part in making refrigeration unnecessary.
Filka Sekulova, a great interview, who has worked with Schneider since the community was founded.
Joan Martinez Alier: a Barcelona professor who is a major degrowth thinker and founded the International Society For Environmental Economics. Catalans associated with Professor Alier have become very strong leaders in the movement, attracting many international thinkers to join and work with them.
The above-listed folk that Swift visited in Maine, France and Catalonia are setting up small, embryonic communities in order to learn how humans might continue to live on the earth with a footprint light enough to be sustainable in the long term. A world without areas called First, Second or Third. A world in which the unsustainable capitalist economic model is replaced by a system in which co-operation and sharing of locally grown and manufactured goods between neighbours is commonplace. These new global societies would appear poor when compared to what we Canadians are used to. We cannot hold on to our current way of life. We must replace accumulation with dispersion, substituting less for more. No household can physically use all its possessions all the time. The inhabitants of our descendants’ new world would possess little and have few luxuries but, hopefully, might be content – perhaps even proud that their ancestors sacrificed much to dodge the final bullet of human extinction preceded by violent wars of scarcity and starvation.
What do these communities look like?
- They are small communities that grow crops and have some animals.
- They are locavores – eating locally produced food
- The majority are vegetarians, realizing that one acre of land growing plants will sustain as many humans as 10 acres devoted to raising meat (energy loss up the food chain decreases by a factor of 1o between each trophic level – contemporary grade 10 science, folks)
- Some, like the Barcelona commune, aggressively do things of which the government might not approve, like squatting and finding creative ways to pay as little tax to Mammon as possible. Alier’s group have produced a manual on what they call “disobedience.”
- They borrow stuff from their neighbours and barter, reducing their dependence on money
- They appear ready to face some deprivation of the things that we assume to be our right, such as costly medical care, another of our first world goods whose cost grows asymptotically
- As a result of this last item, my guess is that they are mostly below 65 years of age 😉
What do they believe?
- They are convinced that equity between all world peoples requires Degrowth
- They all believe in a helping, more generally capable society with less division of labour
- They believe in voluntary simplicity – deciding that they need fewer goodies
- They believe more in “relational goods” (community interaction and sharing) – and less in material wealth
What have I done over the years?
- Down to one car since ~2009 – a hybrid new in 2007
- One big fridge
- Use no chemical pesticides
- Avoid buying bottled water
- Occasionally march
- Eat less meat
- Use my bike for small errands, sometimes…
- Write letters
- Grumble at the news
- Preach – i.e. tick off my family
Yeah, not nearly enough, I agree.
What am I gonna do?
Think some more, then let you know…