By Wendy Harcourt, Irene Leonardelli, Enid Still and Anna Voss
Organized under the theme ‘Caring Communities for Radical Change’, the 8th International Degrowth Conference (August 24-28, The Hague), brought together nearly 900 activists, academics, and artists to discuss how to confront the contradictions between endless economic growth and the ecological boundaries of our planet.
In 2018, at the 6th International Degrowth Conference in Malmö, the Feminisms and Degrowth Alliance (FaDA) was launched to shape the degrowth movement from within. Feminist and decolonial thinking and doing was embedded as a fundamental approach throughout our conference weaving through many of the discussion and other key conversations as well. Nonetheless this is an ongoing process in-the-making which requires us to continuously and critically question both our political visions and everyday doings as we try to give meaning to the idea of caring communities and radical change.
‘… [understanding] care as central within degrowth and at the core of our economies and societies.’
These questions begun in Malmö were matured in The Hague discussions on Feminist Political Ecology (FPE) and Decoloniality throughout the sessions. FPE looked at feminisms, relations of care and wellbeing, with a focus on how we can understand care as central within degrowth and at the core of our economies and societies. In what way can economies be rearranged in terms of provisioning that care, taking into account health, aging and ability, whilst degrowing? And how do different strands of feminism such as feminist science and technology, decolonial and eco-feminism contribute to degrowth? Decoloniality discussions aimed to promote coalitions between degrowth movements and with individuals and collectives at the frontline of decolonization struggles in the Netherlands and Europe with workshops on the process of unlearning and relearning, looking at responsibility, debt and reparations as well as sessions to stimulate alternative imaginations and re-learning with others.
The FPE conversation argued how important it was to have a feminist perspective on degrowth. Because a movement for social and environmental needs must include diversities: diversities of gender, race, class, disability and sexual identities; and these diversities need to be analysed in meaningful ways. Because including these diversities is the only way to counteract and dismiss colonial, oppressive and exclusive continuities of our consumption patterns. Because a limit-full desirable inclusive future has to be shaped on reciprocity and responsibilities, to care for one another and for the planet that we are all part of. In this regard, the FPE Key Conversation also stressed the importance of learning from communities that are already practicing degrowth; communities, movements, collectives (and we heard many stories and experiences during the conference) that refuse to align themselves to the logic of capitalism and growth and of centralized oppressive market-oriented states; communities that are fighting every day for environmental and social justice, or simply for their own well-being and survival on earth.
The FPE plenary with Wendy Harcourt and Anna Voss on stage in The Hague, and Panagiota Kotsila and Ilenia Iengo facilitating the debate online with our speakers Giovanna Di Chiro, Stefania Barca and Seema Kulkarni while sketcher Carlotta Cataldi was graphically capturing the discussion in her live-drawing. Photo by Irene Leonardelli.
The culminating plenary on ‘Feminist Political Ecology Perspectives on Degrowth’ was a dialogue between Giovanna Di Chiro, Stefania Barca and Seema Kulkarni about their work on environmental and climate justice, gender, care and degrowth conceptually and in situated communities in the US, Brazil and India. Facilitated by Panagiota Kotsila and Ilenia Iengo, the speakers shared what it meant to engage carefully with communities whose territories are conflicted by ecological exploitation. As a core theme in FPE, this also means understanding how culture and gender roles shape these communities and to decolonize our ways of creating kinship to avoid patronizing the land and its people as we strive to build solidarity connections – in Giovanna’s words, ’to indigenise ourselves’. Bodies, territories, care and human and more-than-human wellbeing are intrinsically intertwined and our plenary gave a glimpse of how an FPE perspective can help embed these concepts within degrowth scholarship and activism on the ground.
‘Bodies, territories, care and human and more-than-human wellbeing are instrinsically intertwined…’
Decoloniality conversations introduced the importance of diversifying the degrowth movement. The discussion focused on the need for deeper engagement with colonial histories, not just theoretically but also materially, which means tackling questions of reparations and mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth, as well as challenging the sustained silencing of these histories and epistemologies from the south in pedagogic practice. This involves engaging with existing and ongoing work, particularly from scholars, activists and artists in the global south, on how global economic structures are deeply racialized and colonial. Such sustained engagement will help the movement to better understand how the hegemonic way of living and being – capitalist, white, hetero-patriarchal, ablest – takes away space and possibility for other ways of being and living.
The Decoloniality conversation pointed out that it is also important to practice caution in the use of terms like care and decoloniality, particularly in spaces of white privilege. We need to question what actions the use of these concepts actually entail and what happens when these terms are used within forms of self-representation? Reflexivity is important here but is it enough? To avoid appropriation, co-option and paying lip-service to the important thinking and praxis of decoloniality, perhaps it’s helpful to come back down after this conference and start from our own situated, local, yet networked place and practice to think about these huge, globally entangled and often uncomfortable questions. Since to take these learnings into our everyday lives will be an important step in taking decoloniality seriously.
Decolonality plenary with a musical performance by speaker Max de Ploe and Mame N’Diack and drawings by Carlotta Cataldi Photos by Anna Voss
The plenary on ‘Decoloniality and Degrowth: Resonating and Listening’ invited us to think-feel beyond Western academic forms of knowing and experience decolonial and anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-patriarchal ways of being-in-common by cultivating active listening. Listening to the knowledges inherited in stories, music, art, oral traditions and other-wise practices of inhabiting territories and cultures is a first step to really face and counter the continuing structural and cultural effects of colonialism.
As part of the Arts and Culture programme, Anna Voss, Irene Leonardelli and Enid Still WEGO PhD students organized a small film festival on ‘feminist and decolonial naturecultures to inspire degrowth imaginaries’. They selected 10 documentaries that were originally showcased in the Rising Gardens Film Festival 2021 by the campaign One Billion Rising South Asia and the Indian feminist network Sangat and Kriti Film Club. The audio-visuals featured stories of women entangled in ecological realities which attend to feminist and decolonial ideas, practices and resistances. As film maker Nandan Saxena expressed during our panel discussion on how film as an art form can help us imagine liveable futures, sharing small-situated stories is like planting ‘seeds of thought’. Trying to resist the feeling of helplessness and despair at the state of the world, we hope with our conference we planted a few new seeds while nurturing what is already flourishing.
‘… how to reconcile degrowth’s celebration of slowness with the sense of urgency and the need to address the multiple crises our planet is facing.’
The vibrant Arts & Culture programme made sure that the conference also provided spaces to engage and experience degrowth creatively, both online and in-person. The cultural programme ranged from film screenings and debates, theatre and music performances, weaving workshops, an immersive forest walk, exhibitions and artistic installations. Outside the cultural venue NEST in The Hague an earth-built sitting area provides a space for the surrounding neighbours to meet and chat, and a pigeon tower created out of recycled oyster farms’ mycelium waste is now growing fresh mushrooms to be picked up by funghi lovers.
Interactive artistic installations at the Nest in The Hague. Photos by Irene Leonardelli and Anna Voss
The conference in The Hague may be over but many of the participants are still processing, digesting and reflecting asking:
- How to continue these rich and diverse discussions?
- In all their diversity, did the amalgam of sessions and perspectives engage enough with the concept of degrowth as such, in its analytical but also practical, material aspects?
- How to grow the degrowth movement and make it speak to those who are not already in one way or another working on building alternatives?
- How to reach beyond academic circles and localized self-organized grassroots initiatives? Whose voices are missing in our discussions and imaginaries of radical change?
- How can feminist political ecology and decoloniality engage further with degrowth, analytically and practically?
One apparent paradox that was raised during the closing plenary was how to reconcile degrowth’s celebration of slowness, of slowing down our hectic lives and counter the ever-accelerating capitalist pace, with the sense of urgency and the need to address the multiple crises our planet is facing. Don’t we have to speed up to radically change the destruction of the ecosystems and climate that sustain us (and that we are part of) and to tackle the deep socio-economic injustices that were only made more visible by COVID-19?
Concentrated listening during the plenaries at PAARD and a festive audience thinking-feeling degrowth in their bodies at the conference’s closing session. Photos by John Akerman Özgüç
Thinking of Donna Haraway’s idea of ‘staying with the trouble’ it is important to recognise the inherent contradictions of any social and political movement or network. And to cherish that degrowth embraces so many different perspectives, voices and scales of action, ranging, e.g., from anarchist system-subversive activism to trying to influence the policy arena. Maybe degrowth is an umbrella for a diversity of approaches, maybe it is just one amongst many alternative movements. As activist and artist Jay Jordan during the Cultural Politics plenary invited us to ‘Start from where you are and what you can do, and most importantly, have joy in doing it!’
Wendy Harcourt is Professor of at the International Institute of Social Studies, in the Netherlands; Coordinator of the European Union Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITN) WEGO (Well-being, Ecology, Gender, and cOmmunity); and member of the editorial collective of Undisciplined Environments
Irene Leonardelli is a PhD candidate at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, in the Netherlands, a Marie Curie fellow in the WEGO-ITN project who has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764908. She is a member of the editorial collective of Undisciplined Environments.
Enid Still is a PhD candidate at the University of Passau, in Germany, and a Marie Curie fellow in the WEGO-ITN project who has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764908.
Anna Voss is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS), in the Netherlands, and a Marie Curie fellow in the WEGO-ITN project who has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 764908.
** This essay was first published in the DevIssues, Vol. 23, No. 2 (November 2021). It is the first of three essays which we will share over the coming weeks in Undisciplined Environments with reflections on the 8th International Degrowth Conference.
** Top (featured) image: The mycelium mandala, the symbol of the 8th International Degrowth Conference, adapted by Ontwerperk for the cover of DevIssues, Vol. 23, No. 2. A mandala is an age-old symbol of wholeness. The mycelium mandala represents the vegetative part of a fungus, known for being full of life, connecting a rapidly developing underground system. It plays a crucial role in the decomposition of old forms of life, making nutrients available again for the system and its growing life forms. It is a wonderful symbol of degrowth