The Dystopian Turn
Can we hope for a better world? Many American writers envision the upcoming world, but their novels are full of skepticism and fears.
By definition a utopia is a place that does not exist. Around the world though, activists are working to stop the destruction of our planet: Meet the degrowth movement.
2016 celebrates the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s inspirational book Utopia. More introduced the term ‘utopia’, which has captured human imagination for five centuries now.
At the crux of utopia is the idea that by envisioning the possibility of a better, we empower ourselves to work towards creating it. Many scholars and researchers have since then debated the fundamentals of a utopia, about how vague or concrete it might be, about whether it is a realistic concept or merely a figment of our imaginations.
In his book published in 1979, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, Darko Suvin described utopia as a “verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where socio-political institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle that in the author’s community”.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote that utopia “possesses this other meaning- which, far from being necessarily abstract and turned away from the world, is on the contrary centrally preoccupied with the world: that of going beyond the natural march of events”. Portuguese sociologist and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos said that “many of our dreams have been reduced to what exists, and what exists very often is a nightmare, therefore to be utopian is the more consistent manner of being a realist in the beginning of the twenty first century.”
Each of these above quotes resonates strongly with degrowth.
The Degrowth Utopia
According to the definition given by Suvin, degrowth is a utopia because it wishes to repoliticize the debate on socio-ecological transformation to form a society with better institutions, norms and individual relationships.
Degrowth also fits with Bloch’s definition of Utopia because it wishes to go beyond the natural march of events today, which is that of the capitalist modern societies based on neoliberal ideologies. And the nightmare, as per Santos’s definition is that of our blind obsession with economic growth, and the utopia of degrowth provides a more realist alternative.
The obsession with economic growth is indeed one of the most frightening things of today’s time. Economic growth was promised as the only way for achieved prosperity and equality for many decades. The dream for a better life was reduced to the existing nightmare of measuring well-being in monetary terms without taking into account diversity, inclusivity, conviviality etc.
The need for Degrowth
However, this model of economic growth has reached its limit. In 1972, the Club of Rome report ‘Limits to Growth’ sent out the warning that the earth and its resources will not be able to sustain economic and population growth in its present form for much longer.
Despite the findings, extraction of natural resources at the cost of human life and loss of habitat has been allowed in the countries of global South because it promises higher GDP rates, which according to the elusive trickle-down theory would ultimately benefit everyone in the country.
I call this theory elusive, because there isn’t a single documented evidence of this ever working, but governments and policy makers keep on believing in it, and also in the fact that economic growth will result in better quality of life.
Yet, all that this model of modern growth has done is produce various socio-ecological conflicts: increased income inequalities, depletion of resource and loss of biodiversity, and benefited only a tiny section of the society, shifting the majority of the costs to vulnerable people and places due to asymmetric power and political relations.
The editors of the book Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era aptly write that the current era is one of “stagnation, rapid impoverishment of a vast part of the population, growing inequalities, and socio-ecological disaster.”
Degrowth intends to reignite this passion for promoting social and ecological sustainability.
In such a scenario, Degrowth can well be thought of as a practical utopia, providing alternative hope and practical solutions for positive change. It started in the beginning of the 21st century, as a slogan against economic growth, and soon became a movement of academics and activists who wanted to change the growth-centric status quo, fuelled by the vision of a society which has equality and justice for the planet and its people, and rejecting the current capitalist, consumerist system.
David Harvey in his 2000 book Spaces of Hope stressed on the need to ‘rekindle and reignite utopian passions once more to galvanize socio-ecological changes’.
Degrowth, which was born as a proposal for radical change intends to reignite this passion for promoting social and ecological sustainability. It attempts to find and connect the various alternatives, both old and new, which have sprung up in different parts of the world as a reaction to the growth model.
…degrowth fits the utopian perspective.
Degrowth is sometimes referred to as an ideology which has a set system of ideas and values. Yet degrowth scholars consider it too narrow. Instead, they consider it to be a larger frame with a variety of concerns, aims, strategies and actions.
Karl Mannheim, in his seminal book “Ideology and Utopia” published in 1929 in German identified ideology and utopia as two different ways of perceiving the world while hiding the perceivers. He said ideology allowed those in power to believe that their position is secure, whereas utopia allowed those out of power to believe that they can change the system. According to this definition too, degrowth fits the utopian perspective.
The vision of Degrowth
The vision of degrowth is the vision of a world with environmental sustainability, social justice and well-being. The dream of degrowth is to have a society of conviviality, frugal abundance with stronger societal bonds and prosperity without growth. It is not a one point agenda of criticizing economic growth, but rather a confluence of different alternatives to reach a better if not perfect society.
The degrowth utopia embraces multiple philosophical sources. These multiple sources can be classified into six categories, which are ecology, critiques of development and praises for anti-utilitarianism, meaning of life and well-being, bio-economics, democracy and justice.
The first source stresses the need to preserve ecosystems because of their intrinsic value and not because of their importance as resources. The second source calls for economic transactions based on sharing, gifts and reciprocity, where social relations and conviviality are the central pillars. The third source criticizes the current consumerist lifestyle fuelled by the need to work and earn more as a mark of well-being and discusses alternative narratives of a good life. The fourth source stresses the importance of natural resource consumption and the impending ecological crisis if they are not managed properly. It questions the claim that technological innovation can overcome the biophysical limits to ensure infinite economic growth. The fifth source calls for direct, participatory democracy, where every member of a community’s voices are heard, and power asymmetries due to class, race, gender etc. which are often imbedded in every society are not able to overshadow the representation of certain sections of the community. The sixth source has multiple steams within it. It implies on changing how we compare lifestyles based only on money terms. It also implies resource and wealth redistribution between and within the global North and South, along with repairing past injustices, and promoting equality between the different strata of society.
Degrowth as a practical utopia
Degrowth can be seen as a practical utopia because it is dynamic meta-movement connecting various different activism and research projects such as urban gardening, common currencies, agroecology, climate justice, cooperatives as well as transport and alternative energy sources. Be it the Indignados movement in Spain, or the Ende Gelände in Germany, be it Reti di Economia Solidale (Solidarity Economy Networks) in Italy or the upcoming basic income experiment in Finland.
The various keywords that form the ecosystem of degrowth aren’t just thoughts and writing, but rather practical experiments in the hope of a better life. Degrowth actors aren’t just envisioning a better future; they are activity organizing themselves to obtain it.
All these incredible work can be classified as Nowtopias, a term coined by Chris Carlsson to explain the resistance and rebellion to the current growth based economic structure by self-organizing to undertake innovative ‘unpaid’ work for practical improvements in their lives.
We must be careful not to fall for “utopian social engineering”…
These Nowtopian projects under the umbrella of degrowth envisions to open up alternative narratives and imaginaries of finding pathways towards a society based on equality and justice for all, by rejecting the hegemony of growth.
It hopes to build a society formed as a culmination of a variety of ideas and proposals from different parts of the world. We must be careful not to fall for ‘utopian social engineering’ which aims to remodel the entire society in accordance with a blueprint for a better society. Scholars such as Karl Popper and Friedrich von Kayek have criticised utopian engineering to be flawed because each society is so complex and dynamic that one cannot expect to formulate a master plan of socio-ecological change from the outside.
The vision of degrowth should be to allow each society to find its own utopia in a democratic manner, with trails and errors on its way. Utopia is a journey. The vision of a better world will keep on shifting depending on where you currently stand. Degrowth utopia is the journey towards socio-ecological justice, and not a predetermined destination.