On Degrowth and an Economy of Care

Artwork by Tarneem Al Mousawi

Degrowth thinking and ideas largely evolved in a European context. At LESS, we believe that in times of Brexit it is more important than ever to share ideas between grassroots movements in Scotland and the rest of Europe to better understand the common challenges we face in late stage capitalism, and to identify opportunities to resist these and to develop practical solutions. LESS editor Svenja Meyerricks spoke to academic, author and activist Andrea Vetter about her work and thinking in relation to how degrowth ideas evolved in Germany and beyond.

LESS: Tell us a bit about your current work, and what you are passionate about.

Andrea: For more than ten years now, my work has been centred on socioecological transformation – thinking about critical ecofeminism and degrowth and our economy, and also trying out positive ways of being together in community. I am always trying to combine theoretical work with practical and activist approaches and balance them in my life.

Currently, I’m teaching on an interdisciplinary Masters programme in radical participatory transformation design. The students all want to bring about change, which makes it inspiring to work with them. I’m also thinking about how to implement transformation studies more broadly in a German university landscape, because I think that this is now very much needed. I realised this when I was writing the book Degrowth/ Postwachstumi together with my long-time friend, Matthias Schmelzer. It’s an introduction to degrowth which was now translated into English and will be published by Verso in 2021.

I don’t think that what we need now at this point in history is more in-depth analysing of what’s going wrong, because already we know so much about that. In a nutshell, our whole society and economy is centred around profit, and that is killing everything. From there, you can go into different directions and try to change that very principle, and we will arrive at many different systems. So I really like it now to work on trying to design and bring about new solutions, and also to re-establish older ones – to really take action, which I feel is very important.

LESS: In Scotland and the UK, there has not been the same level of debate around degrowth as there has been in Germany, France, Spain and many other European countries. Although this has changed somewhat recently – last year before covid hit, a Degrowth UK Summer School was going to take place in Leeds, and the International Degrowth Conference in Manchester – which is now happening online this year. But overall, there has been a relatively slow uptake of these ideas. Perhaps you could tell us more about how the debate has been shaping up in Germany and continental Europe?

Andrea: My own dissertation research was about convivial and degrowth technologies. I read a lot of articles and stuff from the 1970s. Even then, there was a very lively kind of degrowth debate in German speaking countries which, of course, didn’t happen under the term “degrowth”, but as growth critique and alternative living. It was basically very close to what we discuss today as degrowth. And it also was one important strand that led to the establishment of the Green Party in Germany, which in the beginning of the 1980s was a movement for alternative living not based on ideas of growth and profit. But then, this more radical part of the party “lost” and the more reformist powers gained more power in this party, and these ideas were dismissed then.

I think the events in 1989 played a big role in the slowing down of this early growth critique debates. The Soviet bloc crashed, so there was no more belief in somehow taming this capitalist society. Also, in the 1980s there was a turn towards neoliberalism in the UK. The debates of alternative living and growth critique in the late 1970s until mid 1980s were followed by a big gap. And then they were taken up again in the beginning of the 2000s through the degrowth debate in France. And in between, there was only the ecofeminist debate that went on with thinking about societies without growth in a very productive way, but this was not taken up in the newly launched degrowth debate coming from France and Spain in the beginning of the 2000s. Because of course they were mainly driven by men like Serge Latouche who, like it often happens, didn’t know about these feminist works or just didn’t engage with them – works like that of Ariel Salleh, Maria Mies, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Vandana Shiva around the notion of ecofeminism and subsistence. I think these are very important contributions to the roots of degrowth thinking, and the idea of what another economy could be centred on. It could be centred around care – such as land care and care for people. And in Germany, that debate really gained momentum, in the year of 2010 , when two female economists, Swiss Irmi Seidl and Angelika Zahrnt, who was chairperson of BUND or Friends of the Earth Germany, published a book about Postwachstumsgesellschaft or post growth society.

LESS: The connection with feminist economics is interesting. In Scotland, feminist economist Ailsa McKay emphasised care in economics and challenged the dogma of growth at any cost. She brought this perspective to the 2014 independence campaign, although she sadly died before the referendum. The Scottish Government has been engaging with some of the ideas around wellbeing, although the official trajectory is still on “sustainable economic growth”, this somewhat diverges from the neoliberal hardliners of the Westminster Government. And now there’s the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, who campaigns for softening Scotland’s economic goals further at a policy level. Could you tell us a bit more about how degrowth ideas were engaged with in Germany – in academia, in wider society and in activist movements?

Andrea: We organised a big conference in 2011, with alter-globalisation network Attacii and over 50 other organisations, and 3000 people attended. It was more of a political debate in the beginning. It was not so much a debate that happened at the universities. I think that came more from Spain when the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Autonomous University of Barcelona was established, which hosted research and teaching around degrowth, and also from France. And slowly it was possible to talk about these things in German universities, too. But at the beginning, it was not an academic discourse.

Only recently degrowth got some academic merits, because people the age of Matthias and me, who are now around 40, did their Masters thesis or the doctoral thesis on the topic, somehow advanced this debate in this academic system and made it possible to talk about it. But it was only very rarely taken up by older people, or it’s just that we grew up and brought it there. And I think in all European continental countries, as I can see so far, the movement has this double character of being discussed in academia and being very closely linked to political movements. Also at the Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie, we try to connect some political or social movements with the degrowth debate – for example, we connected the climate justice movement with the degrowth debate, which I think succeeded really well.

LESS: Among Scottish activist groups and in parts of academia, the idea of degrowth is being adopted from other parts of Europe, and contextualised in the history of thought and activism in Scotland. Here there’s a big contrast between the Gaelic speaking Highlands, where conversations have perhaps more of a focus on regeneration and on preserving indigenous practices such as crofting, and places like the Central Belt, where there’s a focus on downscaling the economy beyond Green New Deal narratives.

Andrea: In Germany the context is also very different depending on where you are located. I live in a small village between Berlin and the Polish border. I live in a community and arts project called Haus des Wandelsiii [house of transformation]. This is a very marginal region, and the topic of social justice and inclusion is very important here, because people had very bad experiences during the last few decades when a lot of infrastructure was just shut down – buses or public services, and a lot of cultural institutions after the end of the GDR. Although these institutions were led by GDR officials enforcing an official culture, nonetheless there was dance, music and literature in nearly every village. And then there was almost nothing left – less work, less public services, less culture. This is really something we have to deal with, and which also leads to problems with the far right. I think all these issues are very much connected. In our house, we do a lot of regional networking with other projects and other people wanting to establish some kind of social ecological regional development.

This is a topic that I’ve been very much interested in the last year or two. What can socioecological development or transformation mean on a regional level? Because I really think that the region, and the communal or city level – these are the levels where even a few dedicated people can really make a difference. Because we’ve seen in the last years all these bigger bodies of nation states and international coordination failing badly on topics like climate change and social justice. And emissions going up and resource extraction going up. Despite all these talks and all these meetings, the system change we need just doesn’t happen. For me, it really feels more empowering and like having more impact to work on this scale, where it’s very much about finding new alliances – with local enterprises, for example, like small handicraft enterprises. Many of the problems we face are very similar, even if we come from different political ideas. Also in the former GDR, there’s such a vast backdrop of subsistence knowledge, because it was an economy that was not very abundant. And so people are very used to making the best of what is there, and they very much appreciate if younger people do this. So there are interesting alliances between elderly people and younger people in this post socialist environment, which I think is really interesting. But we also struggle with right wing issues, and now we founded a campaign called Dörfer Gegen Rechts [villages against the far right]. Because there were a lot of right wing extremists meeting in a nearby village from the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland], our far-right party. I am convinced that fighting climate change has to come together with fighting sexism and racism. This is what degrowth is about: to help building a good life for all.

LESS: It would be interesting to hear your perspective on how to build alliances across different places. Particularly in the context of Brexit, there’s a lot of scope to build grassroots alliances among people who work on similar issues across the continent. And there’s arguably more need for that now, because the old institutional connections have been severed and we have to build our own European alliances now, from the bottom up.

Andrea: Yes, actually I’m thinking a lot about the question whether it is possible to transform institutions that are already there, or whether it is necessary to build up new institutions everywhere. Of course it’s not a yes or no question; we have to do both. I definitely find more joy in building up new alliances and institutions than in transforming the old ones. But this is maybe a question of personal taste, of what’s nearer to your heart. So I can’t answer that question for everybody, but I really feel that there’s a lot of power in connecting different places, and people on the grassroots who are trying to build up new kinds of networks, interpersonal relationships and the economy in their places. And it’s so interesting to ask how we can build reliable networks between places. Also because it’s not small things we’re dealing with, if we are taking the scientific forecasts seriously of what will happen with ongoing climate change. I mean, it’s likely that in a decade or two, a lot of places where we now live won’t be habitable in the same way as they are now. There are some scenarios where, for example, the region we live in in Brandenburg will get so dry that the harvest of the crops and harvest will shrink by 80% from what we have now – which really means that there’s nothing to eat. And we don’t know if this scenario will come true, or if the other scenario will come true that the Gulf Stream will collapse, and then it will be so cold that nothing will grow either. All these different apocalyptic scenarios have a certain likelihood. And I see nothing on a political international scale or state scale that will stop this development of heading for three degrees or four degrees or whatever. I can’t see anything. Maybe I am pessimistic – I don’t know. For me this is also a question of really being able to look into the future somehow in a good way, to build up trust and relationships between each other and between our places and find, “Okay, I know there’s places I can go and you can go”, basically. Because we just don’t know what will happen and which of our places will still be habitable.

I don’t want to sound like a prepper! I think what really distinguishes also degrowth thinking about being realistic around these scientific climate scenarios is that it’s about stopping the cultural narratives underlying our society that there are only individualistic people seeking out their own interests and fighting each other all the time. Which brought us into this kind of mess, and in popular scientific and dystopian narratives, like the preppers use them, it is just prolonged into an apocalyptic future that still has the same narrative, just with climate chaos on top. And this doesn’t make any sense. Because this is the story we have to get out of, and we have to see what else there is. I think a lot of it is about building trust and new economies centred around care work, and about seeing the abundance that is still there. Even if some ecological systems will collapse, not everything will collapse, of course – and a lot of places in the world, a lot of systems already collapsed.

So it’s not about that there will be a collapse in like 20 years. I’m also a bit irritated by these discourses about deep adaptation that predict near-term social collapse, where a white guy who thought that everything is open to him, because he’s a white academic guy, suddenly realises, “Oh, there are forces bigger than me. Now I’m falling into a deep depression, and can do nothing!” And I think, “Oh dude, what did you think this world is about?” You know, feminist struggle has been going on for several thousand years now, since patriarchy was established. There were ancestors fighting it before us, and there will be our children fighting it after us, and we are just a small piece in this big chain of people trying to live a decent life, bring some justice and be good mothers to the beings around us.

I think it’s about stepping out of both of these narratives. Of this one narrative that everybody just seeks out their own interest, and there will be big fights, and we should gather guns. And the other narrative that we can succeed or fail, and now it’s about succeeding to stop global warming. And it’s only about “yes or no”. There won’t be a yes or no – we will maybe succeed in slowing it down a little bit.

LESS: Yes, I think a lot of the time there’s the perception that if we cannot sustain a privileged life, then we have nothing left. And that means to talk from a point of extreme privilege. But now there will be COP26 negotiations in Glasgow this year. And while there’s rightly a lot of cynicism around this – do we totally disengage from these sorts of pressure points? Or perhaps it’s not about all or nothing?

Andrea: Yes, of course. We don’t know anything about the future. In this society, or all societies, we’re at a point of not knowing. And I think we should acknowledge this and not pretend to know what the best next step is. We just don’t know – and that’s okay. So it’s good to fight the tides and to do the things that need to be done. Because they all could make a difference, and maybe will. But we can’t identify that there is now the one thing that we should all unite under.

There is a discussion around Andreas Malm, a very productive author from Sweden, who is bringing forth a debate about ecoleninism – that there should be an avant garde of people who should be pressuring and fighting forces of destruction. In Leninism, there is an avant garde of people who know what to do. And I really think this is wrong – these are new forms of patriarchial ideas that do not lead to the pluriversalistic world that we so deeply need. And I think we should engage as a degrowth movement in fighting against coal, and in fighting against burning oil. We should definitely take action, but we should also tend to our gardens, and we should also build our local alliances with our neighbours. And we should also work for different procurement laws that make it possible that, for example, when there is communal money spent, it is not spent on the cheapest companies, but on organisations or enterprises that work towards social or ecological goals. We should also go into these very technical points, because they are important, because they decide what is happening with the available money. All the divestment campaigns – I think they’re absolutely good ideas. And this may seem complicated, because there are so many tiers to engage in. But it also makes it very easy, because from where you are, you can just begin to act. I think the more important question is not, where should I start taking action, what has the biggest effect, but: am I willing to give all my life to work for this transformation that is deeply needed, wherever I am, and with whatever means I do have? Actually, that is what I’m expecting from myself and from other people as well – which is a lot to ask for.

LESS: A year ago, Arundhati Roy famously called the ongoing pandemic a portal, a gateway between one world and the nextiv. But multiple lockdown cycles, while important to keep infection numbers at bay, certainly haven’t made it easier to connect to each other and make change happen. Beyond the trauma, what is to be learned from this collective experience for the degrowth movement?

Andrea: We have learned that when the state identifies something as a crisis, it will mobilise lots of money. It would be possible to really tackle the climate change issue if there were the political will to do so. But apparently it is not so. The facts are very much out in the open, and there’s a political discussion to not do anything real against climate change. I think this made it very apparent especially for young people of the Fridays for Future movement, for example, to see that there is an elder generation in the political sphere who can decide on things – and they are just ignoring the scientific facts on climate change. And I really think this somehow makes for a big debate shift for degrowth discussions to go into. Because now we can say, yes we have seen that it would be possible to bring about the necessary changes, but it is not done. What do we do with that? It depends on whether we are socialists or anarchists or whatever position we take towards state action, but this is an interesting insight. And also all these billions that are spent now to prop up the old economy that could have been used for really important investments into a green and social economy – it just doesn’t happen. The old fossil fuel subsidies continue as usual.

The covid crisis narrows down a possible political window that was in sight for the Fridays for Future movement. It was gaining momentum with broader parts of society all over Europe, and also in many other countries – to raise money and to think about things like the Green New Deal which, yes, is still aimed at green growth, but also from a degrowth perspective, we definitely need a lot of investment in green technologies. But this window of political opportunity now closed with covid, because you can’t give out the money twice. And I think there will be such a big shutdown of cultural initiatives and a lot of things such as public money – it will be so hard in the coming decade, and I just don’t know what will come out of it.

The list of system-relevant jobs was also interesting. For example, to get childcare in Germany during lockdown, there was a list that was updated every week – which kinds of jobs are system relevant. And this is a very interesting entry point for a degrowth debate in terms of, what kind of economy do we want? Do we want an economy centred around care? Now we have entry points to say, everybody knows now that there are many jobs in the care sector that are very important for our economy – they are very system-relevant, because without them, people just die. And these are not the well-paid jobs, but the jobs of people in supermarkets, and of nurses, and so on. I think we should focus on care much more in degrowth debates, and also link it to other debates. This is a very interesting point that comes out of the covid experience: there is life-sustaining work to be done. How can we organise this, and how can we centre our economy not around the least important things, but around the most important things?

i https://konzeptwerk-neue-oekonomie.org/english/




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