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Ontgroei en de schildpad-analogie

Toen ik klein was, gaven mijn ouders me een kleine schildpad. Na enige tijd ontdekte ik dat het was gestopt met groeien voordat het te groot werd voor het aquarium. We besloten toch om een groter aquarium te kopen en de schildpad hervatte zijn groei. Maar nogmaals, het stopte voordat het de ruimte om hem heen uitgroeide. Hoewel het stopte in omvang en gewicht, bleef het niet stoppen met het veranderen van zijn verhoudingen, kleuren, gedrag en andere kwaliteiten. Ter vergelijking: de wereldeconomie van vandaag lijkt op een gigantisch beest dat op planetaire schaal hulpbronnen vergaart en verslindt, bergen afval terug in zijn habitat loost en de ecologische verwoesting niet tegengaat door zijn eigen vraatzuchtige impulsen te beteugelen. Er is een evolutionaire transformatie nodig voordat de economie haar groei opzettelijk kan vertragen – laat staan terugbrengen naar duurzame niveaus.

In dit 8 minuten mini-lezing voor de Universiteit van Amsterdam, leg ik de basisprincipes en ideeën achter degrowth uit.

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Blogs Talks

A Degrowth Movement in The Netherlands

During the 8th international degrowth conference in The Hague next summer we will pay attention to the potential for a degrowth movement in the Netherlands. In this Key Conversation we will seek to facilitate a space for exchange between initiatives (on food, housing, energy, mobility and money) that are aligned with degrowth principles, to generate momentum for degrowth thinking, practice and political mobilisation in The Netherlands. Here’s a short video message about our aims for this Key Conversation. For more details, please see below.

The emphasis for this Key Conversation is on networking and generating momentum for degrowth thinking and practice in The Netherlands. We plan to approach and invite existing initiatives and networks (local, provincial, national, and in different sectors) that possibly share and (implicitly) pursue degrowth principles, such as redistributing, caring, de-commodifying and commoning. We will seek these potential alliances in different sectors or spheres of work (food, energy, mobility, housing, money, etc.). Initiatives and networks would be invited to (1) discuss if and how they adopt/pursue these principles, in order to generate common ground, and (2) explore shared experiences of the challenges of a transition away from current growth-based social, cultural and economic forces. Our observation is that there is a myriad of relevant initiatives, but that these initiatives are not always able to find each other or work within their respective silos. We think that by opening a space for these initiatives to meet and connect under the umbrella of degrowth, we can foster exchange, learning and collaboration between them to acknowledge their common struggles, consider alternatives solutions and increase their collective power and impact. To contribute to these endeavors, we have come up with a range of possible activities, for which we will collaborate with the Dutch Degrowth platform Ontgroei. Activities could include:

  • Constructing a simple overview of degrowth objectives, principles and policies to help interested initiatives to recognize degrowth in their activities . 
  • Building a database of initiatives and networks in the Netherlands that could potentially participate and/or help organise the conference, as well as in long-term alliances within a wider degrowth movement.
  • A pre-conference session in early 2021 to start discussing degrowth with interested initiatives/networks (per sector).
  • Further recurring and informal networking opportunities throughout the conference rather than one single event, e.g., through ‘Dialogue Walks’ to discuss shared visions and challenges (experiences would be gathered through video/audio fragments), and/or through local/decentral meeting places outside of The Hague.
  • Thematic sessions around different degrowth principles, and then scalar or sectoral break-out sessions . Initiatives would be encouraged to contribute around relevant themes, not just to participate.
  • Create a collaborative map of the initiatives and networks.
  • Keynote, e.g., in the form of a carousel-type event (5 or 6 ‘portraits’ of initiatives in a sequence of short dialogues, facilitated by a moderator).

We see these activities as stepping stones towards building a degrowth movement in the Netherlands. Post-conference follow-ups include:

  • Create a community of practice page on ontgroei.nl, with quotes from the initiatives on “degrowth”, or as signatories to a degrowth manifest.
  • Digitalise and share the collaborative map (see above).
  • And much more… Stay tuned via Ontgroei, the Dutch degrowth platform.
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Talks

Degrowth and social equity

A talk on the social equity from a degrowth perspective at Saxion’s Studium Generale with colleague Jordy Willems.

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Blogs

Degrowth in the Netherlands: An Overview

Through a degrowth-course at the University of Amsterdam and meetings with like-minded people, the Dutch degrowth-platform Ontgroei was established. Co-founder Crelis Rammelt reports about the state of degrowth thinking and its movement in the Netherlands.

“Just act normal, as that’s insane enough as it is,” we tell each other here in the Netherlands. We are quick to judge those who do not follow normal behaviour. But when normalcy has led us to social injustice and environmental destruction, it would be insane not to act abnormal!“ To understand the state of de-/post-growth thinking and its movement in the Netherlands, we need a bit of context. Our dominant social imaginary has long been firmly rooted in socially unjust and ecologically destructive growth fetishism. Read more…

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Strong correlations between economic growth and environmental impacts

Perpetual economic growth is incompatible with a finite planet. To some extent, innovation can reduce throughput, thus ‘decoupling’ economic growth from environmental impacts. However, the level of decoupling has been ‘relative’, which means that impacts still grow, just not as fast as the Gross World Product (GWP) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Gross World Product (GWP), World primary energy consumption and World consumption emissions (based on WB 2020; BP 2020; GCA 2020).

An indication of a strong coupling between economic growth and environmental impacts is suggested by a strong long-term correlation between the two (Figure 2). The GWP growth rate is strongly correlated with both world primary energy consumption growth (Pearson correlation coefficient: 0,88) and world consumption emissions growth (0,75).

Figure 2. Growth rates of GWP, primary energy consumption and consumption emissions (based on WB 2020; BP 2020; GCA 2020).

Sources

British Petroleum (BP) (2020). Statistical Review of World Energy. Retrieved 21 Aug, 2020, from https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html.

Global Carbon Atlas (GCA) (2020). CO2 Emissions. Retrieved 21 Aug, 2020, from http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions.

World Bank (WB) (2020). World Development Indicators. Retrieved 19 Aug, 2020, from http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD.

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Blogs

Is degrowth about bringing down GDP?

In a thought-provoking piece in CASSE’s Steady State Herald, Brian Czech worries that many degrowthers seem agnostic about GDP degrowth. But should degrowth be about bringing down GDP? My answer: not primarily. We had an interesting exchange of ideas on CASSE’s website (Below, I have tried to summarise some of the points. For full text see here).

Me: GDP is just a blunt aggregate weighing scale. You can make yourself sick by eating too much apple pie, but it also matters whether the pie contains too much dough and too few apples: a pie of the right size can still be unhealthy. Degrowth efforts are likely to bring down GDP because socially and ecologically undesirable economic activities that count towards GDP are deliberately replaced by socially and ecologically desirable economic activities that don’t count towards GDP. In other words, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Other activities that currently count towards GDP, e.g., in health care, education, welfare and other public services, should be preserved—like apples in an apple pie. Degrowth is therefore not primarily about bringing down GDP; it’s about downscaling what is unhealthy, unfair and unsafe. GDP-degrowth cannot guide us there.

Brian: … GDP growth with healthy and happy services proliferating everywhere would still entail an expanding trophic base … In seafaring terms, when she’s loaded to the Plimsoll line it doesn’t matter if you add a puppy or a skunk; either way your ship is sunk! …

Me: I agree with you that ‘healthy and happy’ services also contribute to throughput, and therefore to our ‘sinking ship’. But I’m still not 100% convinced about GDP-degrowth, because it lumps together what should be downscaled and what should be preserved. Another metaphor: just as GDP growth is sailing by a wrong compass, so too could GDP-degrowth lead us astray. So for me, we are left not with GDP-degrowth, but with biophysical degrowth towards a steady-state (AND the ‘degrowth’ efforts I have noted).

Brian: I am very tempted to say, acknowledging but the merest tinge of exaggeration, that there is nothing more biophysical than GDP! …

Me: The growth rates of GDP and material throughput are indeed very strongly correlated. No disagreement with you there.
However, we are primarily concerned with lowering material throughput, not the indicator of GDP per se. Material throughput must shrink, which will undoubtedly bring down GDP. But we should not put the cart before the horse. For me, as a Degrowth scholar, the matter of how we shrink material throughput is key, and GDP-degrowth as a policy goal doesn’t help—especially as we begin to partly decommodify economic life, reclaim the commons and work towards other ambitions linked to the degrowth movement.
I already referred to preserving (or even growing) essential basic services (more apples and less dough in the cake). Adding to that, it would be beneficial if the material standards of living of the ‘poor’ go up (on a side note: this type of growth is not equivalent to GDP growth in the global South, which tends to happen at the expense of the poor). In a world of limits, growth of throughput by the ‘under-consumers’ demands more degrowth of the throughput by the ‘over-consumers’.
These are just some examples of why we need more targeted degrowth strategies (as opposed to GDP-degrowth in the aggregate). Of course, in the aggregate, we also need to make sure that we downscale to and remain in a safe steady state. But I doubt that World GDP is the best indicator to help us make that assessment (especially if we start to transform the economy as mentioned above). To track our aggregate biophysical impacts, we might want to look at the planetary boundaries framework, for example.

Brian: I don’t view the choice as either/or. I am all for targeted throughput caps, starting with oil at the wellhead… The main point of my article is that it is misleading and counterproductive to call for degrowth while wavering on the implications for GDP. When we cap oil at the wellhead, we will (ceteris paribus) be lowering the rate of GDP growth… On the other side of that exact same coin, … efforts to lower the rate of GDP growth … will absolutely lower throughput. Take just three examples:
– Removing tax code incentives for having more children than two.
– Sectoral salary caps (see today’s Steady State Herald (later today)).
– Keeping the Federal Reserve (or whatever monetary authority) out of the growth game and purely onto its original mission of fighting inflation.
These and many other fiscal and monetary reforms are throughput droppers as surely as wellhead capping, and with crystal clarity of intent—vis-à-vis GDP—for all to see.

Crelis: Thank you for this clarification Brian. I fully agree with you on the first point. It would indeed be counterproductive not to recognise that a reduction in throughput brings down GDP. I believe we are on the same page there. For me, the discussion was more about the second point, regarding the policy focus on GDP-degrowth.
There is a difference between saying “we need to reduce GDP” and “we need to understand that GDP will be reduced as a consequence of all this targeted degrowth stuff we‘ve been talking about.” It seems to me that the monetary/fiscal reforms you mentioned intend to do much more than to lower the indicator of GDP (even if that is going to be one of the outcomes). But maybe I am splitting hairs.
In any case, your article is in part about why some degrowthers are not engaging with a GDP-degrowth policy, or failing to take a clear stance. While I don’t speak for them of course, I was trying to provide examples of some of the ambitions in the degrowth movement for which GDP-degrowth doesn’t provide a very useful compass. At the same time, I do see the importance of debunking the GDP fetish. So of course it is not an either/or choice. We need to tackle the problem on many different fronts. But that is exactly the point I think; there are different fronts.

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Towards a Degrowth Society: a panel with members of the Dutch Degrowth platform

The COVID-19 pandemic urges to develop a new economy – one that can do without incessant growth, one that generates human wellbeing without the destruction of our ecosystems. A panel of some of the members of Ontgroei (the Dutch Degrowth Platform was hosted by XR to discuss what a future without economic growth would look like. The recording can be found here, or below. Both movements are looking forwards to continuing the conversation.

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Recovering from COVID-19? Let’s do it without GDP growth

COVID-19 has infected both our bodies and economies. On March 12, Mark Rutte compared the Dutch economy to ‘a patient’ requiring treatment. The next day, his government was ready with a rescue plan for major firms, such as Air France-KLM and Schiphol. Just as our bodies need oxygen, the economy needs money – so the theory goes. Other European governments are also preparing to inject credit, and a lot of it, to ensure their economies’ survival.  Yet, this cure is limited. It presupposes that our economies need growth in order to flourish. If we do not steer away from this limited paradigm, then the cure we apply now will become a liability by giving rise to potential crises in the future. Read more…

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Degrowth on Rebel Radio

Returning to work after a relaxing holiday, you make a resolution not to get caught up in the ratrace again. A week later you find yourself right back in. Why? Because the conditions haven’t changed. The corona crisis is a terrible ordeal, but it has also been a period of reflection. Let’s work to change the structures, institutions and rules, so that we do not return to a system that was environmentally destructive, socially unjust and generally terribly unstable. In these two interviews with XR’s rebel radio, Crelis Rammelt (Assistant Professor Environmental Geography and International Development Studies, UvA) and Julia Karch (student, UvA) reflect on the crisis from a degrowth perspective.

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This isn’t the type of downscaling that degrowth thinkers have in mind!

In the early 17th century, the bubonic plague is said to have played a crucial role in popping the tulip bubble in the Netherlands. Today, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is leading not only to a health crisis, but also an economic one. The outbreak is sparking realistic fears of a deep global downturn. Our globalised, just-in-time, cost-cutting, risk-taking and profit-maximising economy has shown a rather limited ability to absorb shocks. In a time of crisis, the instability and fragility, but also the inequality of the economic system becomes painfully obvious. Read more…