Degrowth, it’s time to get real – Reflections on the importance of everyday encounters

Degrowth Vienna 2020 virtual event took place during 29 May – 1 June. It hosted several keynote panels and parallels sessions. On the second day of the conference, I attended the Corona Panel as a Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDa) representative. The recording of the Corona Panel, its graphic recording, and many others are available in the Degrowth Vienna 2020 YouTube channel.

One of the key messages of the panel and the whole conference was that it is degrowth’s time to get real. In the Corona panel, Matthias Schmelzer pointed out that although degrowth has been covered by a variety of media compared to the times before the crisis, many degrowth advocates are quick to remind that this is not our degrowth. A similar key message is to be found in the FaDa statement due to the fact that Corona outbreak and its impacts are largely based on the capitalist and patriarchic economic thinking that feminist degrowth opposes. However, according to Schmelzer, such a quick rejection may be too hastily done. Instead, this time could be used to promote degrowth ideas and solutions.

Stefania Barca adopted a similar perspective and presented the campaign for Care income. Care income has family resemblance to universal basic income. Furthermore, it is a blueprint for compensating people for care work that they actually already do for other people, communities and environmental justice and non-human nature. Finally, Andro Rilovic described how degrowth.info works on a voluntary basis and how it can be used as an amplifier for many degrowth ideas and solutions. 

I spoke about the need to include feminist degrowth perspectives, because by design, the economy and systems in general neglect women and emphasise the patriarchal ways of thinking that eventually harm everyone, including men, let alone more-than-human nature. What I had less time to discuss was the strategies (or tactics as I prefer in many instances) for advocating (feminist) degrowth. I will use the remaining blog post for elaborating an approach I have been thinking.

In 2016 I attended a seminar in Copenhagen Business School (CBS) with Professor Philomena Essed whose experiences about and practice in the anti-racist alliances in the Netherlands, which still inspires me as an activist-scholar. Essed’s key message was that in order to make something taken-for-granted visible, people (i.e. activists and scholars) need to come together and form a common research agenda. Back in 1970s, their agenda was to make Dutch everyday racism visible in various fields. When we look at the talk about racism in Europe today, the strategy has been successful, although some of the solutions are in the making. 

Analogically, the degrowth movement makes visible the various dependencies on growth in everyday living and working. In relation to getting real with degrowth, we need discussion how to interact with people that are unable to reflect the problematics of demanding continuous economic growth. In addition to politicians with that explicitly work with the growth trap, degrowth advocates need to discuss with people who don’t, i.e. our members off the family, relatives, neighbours, friends, and colleagues. How to do it?

As part of the Q&A after her talk, Professor Essed provided us with a humble suggestion. She described the her everyday experiences with people outside the anti-racism research alliance. Some of these encounters included repeated interaction with people who make racist comments. She acknowledged that it is tiring to be all the time fighting for the cause. But when the interaction is continuous, because of for example meeting with a neighbour by the letterbox, it is possible to establish that one has a differing view on a matter and leave it to that. The next time a similar issue emerges, it is possible to return to the topic and refer to the already established notion that there are different opinions. Gradually, it is possible to open up a dialogue in which both are able to hear what concerns others have and further discussion is possible. She justified this gradual discussion with trust. When our neighbour has encountered another opinion by the letterbox, no matter how powerless it may seem, it sits there in the back of their mind and allows reflection in other instances when other people reinforce the hegemonic agenda with racist talk or, in the case of degrowth, growth hegemony.  I find this patient and humble tactic inspiring. Moreover, it does not prevent active and direct work for promoting degrowth and making it real. However, it allows a more subtle, everyday perspective to something that takes time and energy.

Let me offer a final, personal example of everyday encounters. People close to me agree that I can be quite an inflexible person when it comes to my preferences. Rigidity is good for some things in life, but tiring for close relationships when there’s a need to negotiate preferences. Luckily, the universe has offered me perfect teachers: my offspring.  As a result, I have had to learn how to communicate with other inflexible members of the family.

Lesson number one: When the other person is agitated, starting an answer with a definite NO is not helpful (unless it is a matter of immediate safety but that is another question). The following interaction results in terrible fights. My offspring: “I don’t want to go to bed!” Me: “You HAVE to, NO ifs, buts or maybes!” Gradually, I have learned to acknowledge others’ concerns by empathic repetition: “You don’t want to go to bed, I hear you.”

Lesson number two: There has to be room for everyone’s concerns. Instead of NO, I have had to learn to give time for expressing concerns. For example, “My concern is that you (and, let’s be honest, I too) will be very tired in the morning.” Then they tell their concerns, which usually revolve around wanting to play or read more. This is when we start to negotiate, and to my great surprise, it has not resulted in less sleep. 

For the degrowth movement, the focus on mundane interaction may offer some hints on how to discuss with others. Moreover, although politicians say they want solutions, they don’t need them as much as they need opening up disagreements. There is enough talk on solutions, such as “we need economic growth” or “we don’t need economic growth”. This fruitless debate is repeated continuously in social media. Moreover, such a talk revolves mostly about the end result, which overlooks processes and therefore many feminist (degrowth) concerns. Rather than solutions, policy talk needs more talk about concerns, because that is when negotiation is possible. For me, this is a path towards making degrowth real in everyday interaction with others. 

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