ECONOMY: Voluntary Simplicity - Answer to Financial Meltdown

  • by Claudia Ciobanu (bucharest)
  • Wednesday, April 14, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'The opportunity offered by the global economic crisis has not been used to open up the debate and reach the direction of change,' said Francois Schneider, a researcher in ecology and one of the organisers of the Mar. 26 — 29 International Conference on Degrowth in Barcelona.

'We continue to try to find solutions to the crisis by developing the same things that generated the crisis in the first place,' Schneider told IPS. 'We continue to increase production and consumption even though resources are running out; banks continue to lend money they do not have; and we continue to address inequality by giving more voice to the West.'

Yet, while policy makers seem keen on preserving the same practices that led to the crisis, Schneider notes that the mood is different among the general population.

'The context is beginning to change,' he said. 'We need new ideas, we need to combine the existing new ideas, we need to challenge advertising and growth-led models, we need to share our work and deepen democracy.'

The Barcelona conference brought together around 500 scientists, civil society members and practitioners from over 40 countries who discussed a broad array of economic, social and political issues under the umbrella of an alternative vision of the global society - referred to as degrowth.

'Degrowth is a new challenge to economic growth and GDP-led models of development, which means that we can produce and consume less and share more,' explained Schneider.

The vision of degrowth stems from the understanding that the earth’s resources and natural cycles cannot sustain perpetual economic growth, the essence of capitalism.

Speaking to IPS earlier, Serge Latouche, professor of economics at the University of Paris-Sud and one of the main theoreticians of degrowth, defined it as a means to build 'a society of assumed sobriety; to work less in order to live better lives, to consume fewer products but of better quality, to produce less waste and recycle more.'

As the final declaration of the first annual conference on degrowth, that took place in Paris last year, the process involves 'a paradigm shift from the general and unlimited pursuit of economic growth to a concept of ‘right-sizing’ the global and national economies' and 'a voluntary transition towards a just, participatory and ecologically sustainable society.'

The declaration goes on to explain that 'right-sizing' means reduction of the ecological footprint in wealthy countries, where the per capita footprint is greater than the sustainable level. And, in countries confronted with severe poverty, it means 'increasing consumption by those in poverty as quickly as possible, in a sustainable way, to a level adequate for a decent life, following locally determined poverty-reduction paths rather than externally imposed development policies.'

Ultimately, the global economy should reach a 'steady state', in which consumption levels are relatively stable and, importantly, income redistribution within and between countries has been achieved.

Schneider told IPS that degrowth seeks to address social inequalities; to defend the planet; to bring people together and restore conviviality; to critique the uniformity of consumerist culture; to give people the possibility of democratically and collectively deciding what they want; to restore the importance of non-material values and to promote voluntary simplicity.

Schneider explains that people around the world are already working towards degrowth. These include people opposing mega-projects or supporting alternatives (such as transition towns, the slow food movement or cooperatives), people working on decolonising the imagination through new concepts, and people engaged in direct actions and demonstrations or principled party politics.

The Barcelona conference was an important reference point because it went beyond defining the goals and clarifying the concepts of the new vision.

Close to 30 working groups met during the three days of the conference to discuss implementation of degrowth in areas such as education, housing, the labour market, social security, currency reform, finance, trade, agriculture, urban life, resource exploitation, energy use, waste, and demilitarisation. They also addressed macroeconomic models and indicators for degrowth, political strategies and models of participative democracy.

For instance, the working group on reforming fiscal and monetary policies towards degrowth discussed reaching a stage where 100 percent solvency for banks is the norm, cooperative banks become key players — albeit the need for a central bank to regulate the money supply remains.

Banking reforms suggested included limiting the sale of derivatives, control over banks to make sure lending reflects social and environmental goals, and local enterprises and co-ops having the possibility of issuing bonds against future production so as not to be unnecessarily restricted by money scarcity.

The working group on social economy and changing the corporation status discussed, among others, limiting the size of companies in order to maintain the rationale of satisfying local needs and abolishing profit dividends as well as profits for distant shareholders that do not take part in the activities of the company.

Participants stressed that the model of social economy they envisage would be driven by people directly engaged - part of the labour force - in the economic and social activities of the company and not by those who are merely investors.

Working groups on work and social security discussed the idea of gradually shifting to a three-day working week and its implications. According to the participants, a shorter working week would allow for paid work to be distributed more evenly among the population and for a fairer distribution of paid and unpaid work between the genders. It would additionally allow people to socialise and express themselves more through other activities outside of work.

Participants commented that degrowth is not an entirely new idea and has its roots to the 1970s and have convergence points with local initiatives around the world. ‘’Degrowth is not an ideology or a new economic theory but is fundamentally about linking different concerns and ways of acting,’’ Schneider said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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