Farewell to the growth society

Barter market in Barcelona.

Photo: Thurnfilm/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, License: CC-BY-NC-ND

January 31, 2013

Karin de Miguel Wessendorf

During economic downturns, the debate about the limits of growth becomes increasingly important. Experts have long warned that crises are inevitable in growth-oriented societies, as infinite growth is not possible in a finite world.  The "décroissance" movement, which originated in France, proposes a departure from the model of a society based on a perpetually growing economy. Advocates of "decroissance" argue against growth in favour of “having less to live better” and propose an economic degrowth.  This not only means a reduction in consumption, production and resource use, it also calls for a fundamental rethinking and restructuring of our coexistence and a move toward a society characterized by autonomy, frugality and solidarity. The movement is gaining followers in the crisis-shaken countries of southern Europe. The people there are questioning a system that has not kept its promise of prosperity, and are experimenting with alternative forms of economic and social organization.

Experiments with alternative forms of economic and social organization

In Spain, the crisis has dramatically changed the lives of many people in recent years. The number of unemployed rose to almost 5 million in November 2012, and the jobless rate among people aged 35 and under is more than 50%. Young university graduates that have not managed to enter the labour market despite their high qualifications are particularly affected. Given the difficult situation on the job and housing markets in the cities, more and more people are moving to the country. These "neorurales" are trying their hands at agriculture, or are at least hoping to reduce their cost of living. Meanwhile in the cities, a new economic culture is taking shape that in many cases dispenses with money and relies on barter, sharing and recycling instead. The protest movement of the "indignados" has given rise to "asambleas de barrio" – neighbourhood meetings in which mutual aid is organized.

Barcelona is a laboratory for such experimenting with alternative, solidarity-based forms of economy. While many of the city’s businesses are closing, hundreds of cooperatives are being launched there. At the same time, initiatives to recycle equipment and materials are blossoming. In courses financed by the municipal administration, people are learning to sew, restore furniture, and repair household appliances. Neighbours cooperate in urban gardens to raise vegetables for their own consumption. Forms of collaborative consumption are also on the rise. Car sharing is very popular; people are bartering goods and services and jointly organizing children’s day care. Consumers are joining forces to buy directly from farmers in the region, bypassing middlemen. The growing popularity of this "consumo de proximidad (regional consumption) supports organic agriculture at the regional level. The crisis seems to have brought about a new awareness – a growing appreciation of raw materials and resources. But that is not all: the need for structures of solidarity and a fundamental social transformation is on the rise.

Barter markets

In this context, swap markets are experiencing a boom in Barcelona. In the Poble Sec neighbourhood, a swap market organized by the Trocasec initiative – a commission of the "asamblea de barrio" – is held four times a year. Clothing, books, consumer electronics and toys are exchanged there on a barter basis. The swap market provides the residents of Poble Sec a way to dispose of things they no longer need without generating waste, and obtaining new items without spending money. At the same time, it offers them the opportunity to get to know their neighbours and reinforce their sense of community.

The emergence of new forms of collaborative consumption and solidarity-based economy in Spain is being watched closely by an international group of academics dedicated to the study of degrowth R&D (Research & Degrowth or "Recherche & Décroissance") is an international association of researchers from the fields of economics, political ecology and the social sciences, who mainly live and work in Spain and France. A number of them are associated with the renowned economics professor Joan Martínez Alier at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

The members of R&D are not only dedicated to the study of degrowth but also see themselves as actors in a process they define as a voluntarily chosen path to reduce production and consumption in order to achieve environmental sustainability, quality of life, freedom and social justice. An important part of R&D’s activities is the organization of the international Degrowth Conferences that have been held at two-year intervals. The conference venues to date have been Paris, Barcelona and Venice. With its work, R&D intends to encourage researchers, practitioners, activists and representatives of civil society to jointly develop proposals for a sustainable reduction of growth. 

In the video below, Federico Demaria and Filka Sekulova of R&D speak about the need for declining growth and about the difference between degrowth and a recession. They also explain how the crisis could be an opportunity to rethink our concept of wealth and to build a society in which we consume less and share more. 

Degrowth: research and real-world application

Years ago, François Schneider made headlines in France when he went on a march around the country protesting economic growth. With only a donkey and a bit of luggage, he set off on a year-long trek around the whole of France in 2004 to meet people and discuss with them whether economic growth could still be a viable goal. Schneider’s campaign drew a surprising amount of attention and ensured that décroissance was perceived as a social movement by the public.

Today, the industrial ecologist lives with other R&D activists and researchers in a house called Can Decreix on the edge of Cerbère, a shrinking town on the French-Spanish border.

The Can Decreix project is a work in progress that is regularly supported by visitors from different countries. The house is open to those who would like to engage in the criticism of growth in theoretical and practical terms and live a sustainable life in the community. Can Decreix is a laboratory experimenting with the possibilities of a simple life.

This voluntary simplicity, combined with political activism and opposition to major projects that negatively impact the environment, is an important strategy of the degrowth movement. It represents an attempt to shrink people’s environmental footprint by reducing consumption and using fewer resources. A voluntary simplification of life is also intended to improve the overall quality of people’s lives and create more space for personal and artistic development. Nevertheless, voluntary simplicity s not a goal in itself for degrowth activists. Instead, the search for simple, energy-saving technologies is intended to raise awareness of alternatives to overabundance, and to create social leeway. The residents of Can Decreix and their visitors would like to combine the development of alternative lifestyles, academic work and political activism under one roof. At the same time, the house provides a venue for scientific and policy discussions that are borne out into civil society, and the residents therefore regularly organize conferences and international meetings.

François Schneider presents the project in the following video:

Films under Creative Commons licence

The films embedded in this article are licenced under a Creative Commons licence (CC-BY-NC-ND). They can be reproduced and shared under the following conditions and by using the attribution "Thurnfilm / Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung".