Guest post by Dr Sabaheta Ramčilović-Suominen who attended the Beyond Growth Conference, 2023. Here she reflects on her experience, and the conference’s ‘gaps and cracks’ .
Towards the conference
Degrowth, oops I mean Beyond Growth conference is now over and what an event it was! Full of contradictions, full of hope and hopelessness, facts and farce, science and even some wisdom. All in all, perfect in its imperfection.
Acknowledging the value in having this conference within the walls of the European cultural and political hegemony, the European Parliament, and noting its many powerful contributions is important. But leaving it at that would only go as far as the EC policy makers went in their opening speeches. Tapping ourselves on our backs and framing the conference a success and a “historical achievement”, just as they did when referring to the European Green Deal – not far enough, not even close.
There is plenty to praise and applaud about the conference. It awoke emotions, brought tears, hope and inspiration, singing, boos, spirit and community building. But it also exposed the prevailing Eurocentrism and numerous gaps. Those gaps and blind spots need to be acknowledged, if the debate is to go deeper and become more open to the wider movements and struggles against the common enemy – the global financial capitalist system that predates on labour, creativity and the very lives and blood of racialized, gendered, exploited, expropriated, and otherwise made vulnerable humans and other-than-humans.
It is with this intension that I write this blog: to facilitate rather than obstruct the building of degrowth as the movement of movements. Staying vigilant and not getting too comfortable with the hegemony and bureaucracy (while hard when given some love and attention as degrowth was given in this conference) is key to protecting degrowth from cooptation, and with-it cooptation of decoloniality and youth activism.
The central stage of the conference
The Beyond Growth 2023 conference opened with the words “It is not about going green for the sake of green. It is about growth, it is about jobs (…) that’s what sustainability is about” (Roberta Metsola, the EC President). This was followed up by Ursula von der Leyen’s now famous statement that “a growth model based on fossil fuel is simply obsolete” but alsothat “only a sustainable economy can be a strong economy”. Those opening statements were thankfully questioned by some, but also reproduced by other EC politicians and bureaucrats.
All in all, at the EU level, the discussion seems to still very much be about fossil vs. renewable growth, rather than about growth vs. post/de/or/beyond-growth. Most of the 20 parliament members who organized the conference (and who, by the way, were likely the only ones present from the EC side, joining the crowd of more than 2000 activists, students, and scholars) were open to question the idea of constant economic growth on a finite planet. They and most of the crowd welcomed the talks by the ecological economists about the planetary limits. Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics was particularly appealing to many. Doughnuts were a common sight at the Beyond Growth conference, seen in many slides and presentations.
Among the most frequent and widely accepted positions were those that called for prosperity as health, resilient and regenerative, and wellbeing-oriented economy. Such calls were complemented by the need to embrace sufficiency and sufficient lifestyle, to limit inequality, adopt minimum and maximum incomes, secure universal services, reduce working hours, distribute wealth and so on. Such proposals, however, hardly went into much needed debate regarding the questions such as: for whom, by whom and on whose terms. The same lack of reflection and questions was evident in the talks by many who discussed the EU’s green transition, avoiding the questions of from where, at what costs and on whose sacrifice is the EU’s green transition to be achieved.
Thankfully, in the opening session my personal hero, Jason Hickel highlighted the global inequalities, the plunder and expropriation of the Global South by the Global North historically as today and called for cancelling illegitimate and unpayable. Were it not for his remarks, the colonial, racial and the imperialist roots of economic growth in the Global North would have been left until later when activists and scholars from the Global South, including Vandana Shiva and Farhana Sultana, were given the space on the stage.
They delivered powerful messages about the injustices and the colonial origins of growth and ecological crises, bringing up the vastly ignored fact that the economic growth in the Global North is built by the bodies, blood and commodified natures of the Global South. At the end of the conference, European youth activist Anuna De Wever equally powerfully claimed that: “There is no degrowth without decoloniality”. Nonetheless, we can also ask why those voices and positions were not at the opening of the conference.
Second and equally prominent positions were those presented by degrowth scholars, including Timothèe Perrique, who as usual did an awesome job in busting ‘the myths of green growth’ and pointing just how unlikely it is for the green growth and decoupling to keep us within the 1,5 degrees Celsius. The arguably strong correlation between energy and resource use vis-à-vis wellbeing and good life was also busted by ecological economists, including Julia Steinberger and Dan O’Neill, while Giorgos Kallis made a case for a slow southern lifestyle as an alternative to fast modern one, presenting the Mediterranean lifestyle on an island in his native Greece.
Filling the gaps and cracks
The Beyond Growth 2023 conference would not have been the same were it not for the wonderful contributions of women and some man who weaved in the issues of care, intersectional justices, decoloniality, gender, and to some extent migration, race, and class. While those issues were not the front stage of the discussion, important gaps were covered by Corrina Dengler who highlighted the feminist perspective and the importance of not only gender, but also intersectional injustices concerning race and class. Several feminists talked about the economy of care, while Tim Jackson linked the debate with the wider struggles in the capitalist system, proposing reinventing economy as care. Louison Cohen-Fourt highlighted that capitalism remains a system based on predation of social and natural world, and therefore threatens to destablise all forms of life. Florence Jany-Catrice was probably the only one who, to my immense pleasure, highlighted the issue of epistemic domination and the need for pluralization of academic thought.
For me the debates about green transition were among the most painful ones, as I was frustratingly typing questions into the void of slido.com about the omission of the fact that green transition without anti-colonial and anti-capitalist action is a green neocolonial project. Twitter provided some solace allowing me to express that:
“We are not mentioning the people, geographies and nature from where the EU imagines its green transition to come about. All the while, we are talking about securing the rights and wellbeing of European citizens only”.
To my great relief, Brototi Roy addressed this largest of all the “elephants in the room”, as she spoke about the green extractivism in the Global South and global peripheries elsewhere, the killing of environmental defenders and communities defending lands against mining of critical earth minerals, and the criminalization of climate activism – all key issues in just transition, yet only covered by one person in one session.
Unlearning Eurocentrism and colonial mindset
Some debates did not make to the Beyond Growth conference this time around. The loudest of the silences were those related to multi-species and other-than-humans, followed by the role and complicity of the state and militarization in perpetuating climate catastrophe, even if Clive Spash highlighted the militarization and subsidizing of supply chains for green transition. Except in his speech, the state was unquestionably seen only as a catalyst for change, rather than perpetrator in the crime, a fact that is sure to anger the eco-anarchist camp of degrowth. Similarly, the class struggle, LGBTQ struggles, public mobilization and movement building, as well as the alternative and convivial technologies and innovations from the ground, from the Global South were largely left in the shadow of the European techno-scientific innovation and creativity.
I am also left with the impression that the colonial, neo- and de-colonial tendencies, struggles and perspectives were not sufficiently voiced. It is not enough to have the youth speaking their dreams and hopes for decoloniality. Decoloniality and intersectionality must be at the center of the movement of the movements. Yet, rather than decolonial thinking, what we saw in this conference is an actual reproduction of the colonial narrative, namely: Europe as the center of the world, the leader of climate change discourse, and the European ingenuity as the engine of the green transition. This discourse was not reproduced by the European bureaucrats only, but by the European scholars and representatives of civil society as well. As per the EC representatives, I will quote the Vice-President of the EC for Interinstitutional Relations, Maroš Šefčovič who claimed that “There is no other continent that is more serious about sustainability and about environmental protection” and that “Europe has to always stay among top 3 economic powers on this planet”. The lack of self-reflection was sickening in many ways and repeated by various sources. From claims that “only Europe can lead the way”, to shifting the blame to China and Russia for the extraction and creation of geopolitical wars, forgetting the USA, but also presenting Europe only as a victim in this geopolitical struggle.
I could not believe my ears hearing the representative of the World Resource Institute, claiming that it makes no sense to talk about decarbonization of transport in Africa, since in her words, 40% of those cities is still walking and cycling, and that they are perfect, and we need to make sure things stay that way. While that might be one way to go, it made me wonder why did she not suggest the same for Europe? Why argue for electrification of European transport network, rather than for reducing the cars and removing the asphalt from European cities, hence bringing the “perfect Africa” to Europe? The colonial lines could be heard from the start of the conference, in the closing words of Ursula von der Leyen’s speech: “We are choosing to discover new lands. Today we are leaving the fossil fuel growth model behind us, but new lands are visible. We can reach them”. This colonial metaphor of new frontiers highlights the unspoken politics of ‘green growth’, and the need for rare earth minerals to fuel it. If degrowth is to become the movement of movements it aspires to, it must work on unlearning the existing Eurocentrism and colonial thought.
Bio – Sabaheta Ramčilović-Suominen is an associate research professor and Academy of Finland fellow, based at the Natural Resources Institute Finland, Luke. She applies political ecology, environmental justice and increasingly degrowth and decoloniality perspectives to study international environmental policy agendas, including: bioeconomy, carbon forestry and forest trade and legality, but also to propose alternative approaches. Her research sheds light on the power relations, impacts on and responses by the historically and currently colonized, marginalized, dispossessed and exploited human and other-than-human populations.