Potential synergies of communal politics and degrowth

Aug 8, 2019 by

Dirk Holemans presented a talk entitled “Communal politics for alternative businesses and banks”.  In it, he attempted to answer a question that I have had for many years. I have lived in several different cities and seen how most of them cannot break out of their old ways of doing things, and create a vibrant environment, with many different activities that appeal to its residents.

Dirk Holemans, through his research, activism, and observation, provided a governance structure for cities that allows them to create a political and civic engagement environment that facilitates a city’s development based on providing “the good life,” rather than on economic growth.  The formula involves an open and active city government, and groups of engaged citizens who have strong input into initiatives. This allows for working together to create a better way of living with and for local residents.

Although Dirk Holemans did a very good job of explaining his findings, I found myself wondering how, specifically, his knowledge would help create a more sustainable natural environment.  His research seemed to focus more on the social environment rather than the ecological. While having a sustainable natural environment would seem to be a part of any definition of “the good life,” I would hope for a more explicit connection in a presentation at this summer school.

The other frustration I had with Dr. Holemans’ talk was his assertion that cities are the (only) level of government at which this type of transformation can effectively happen.  Perhaps that is empirically accurate, but if we have to do this city-by-city, I worry that it cannot be done in the limited time we have left before environmental disaster strikes. Dirk Holemans did say that cities are where transnational policies take place, so maybe if enough cities do this, it will spread much more rapidly.

Following Holemans talk was Christian Kerschner’s talk on degrowth. Following his discipline, Kerschner approached degrowth’s definition and most of its criticism. Further, he elaborated on his suggestions for strategies from a biophysical viewpoint. He was also able to comment on the sociopolitical and socioeconomic dimensions that degrowth discusses such as democracy and poverty. This was refreshing given that any previous work we had encountered discussing or critiquing degrowth revolved more on consumerism alone or the supply side of production alone and did not touch upon the multidimensional questions that degrowth posits.

One of these questions is definitely: Do we even need degrowth? If ‘business as usual’ can be done more efficiently and with less ecological consequences do we even have to degrow at all? Kerschner does a good job of answering this question through his analysis of, for instance, the limits and “broken promises” of the growth economy. He strengthened his point by discussing his skepticism – empirically supported – of the different models and results which ‘more sustainable growth’ claims to achieve. I found some of his most interesting arguments other than that decoupling is a myth, is that first, the global South can develop better autonomously. Second, he argued that peak oil is not a question of scarce resources but one of a conscious decision to interrupt the flow of the current system and replace fossil fuels’ roles in it, regardless of the availability of the fuels’ stocks.

Kerschner covered much ground in his analysis of strategies for and barriers to degrowth. Here again he focused in depth on postulated plans for degrowth and how and where they could and would fail. He invited us to think of our economy as entropic and to divorce ourselves from trying to work within current frameworks but rather think outside the box as well as practice our activism: Do we really need plastics? Can we gain our power over the social media world we live in? Will technology really save us? This last point he elaborated on most and critiqued those who advocate for a focus on technological strategies as the main tool to save Earth. Rather, our entire approach to our economy and our planet needs to be transformed if wanting change. He challenged technological assumptions of both parties: those who think better tech will allow for a more sustainable growth and those who think degrowth can mainly be achieved by simply rejecting technology. Finally, he ended with calls to action, one of which is to not only challenge our internal narratives on degrowth but also come up with new imaginaries of a degrowth world.


Written by: Nariman Emara & Craig VanSandt

Based on the lectures “Communal politics for alternative businesses and banks”, held by Dirk Holemans, and “De-growth”, held by Christian Kerschner, during AEMS 2019.