September 15, 2016

Degrowth - dread or delight?

Barbara Lotti
This article is written by:

Barbara Lotti

Mama Cash’s Programme Officer for Money, Barbara Lotti recently participated in the degrowth week in Budapest, these are her impressions and experiences. 

City trips often are about doing too much in too short a time. You spend at least a quarter of your time in planes and taxis or waiting for them, you try the local drink in four different bars so you can compare, you visit the avant-garde museum that everyone talks about, you go to that restaurant with stellar reviews, and you get presents for all your loved ones who could not come along.

My visit to Budapest is an attempt at the anti-city trip: imagining, instead of doing. Here I am, in the centre of Europe, acquainting myself with the concept of degrowth. Workshops, academic lectures, activist debates and locally produced food offer a diverse immersion into this philosophy. I am encouraged to imagine a different social and economic system than the one that I live in and know, and that is persistently portrayed as the best. The majestic buildings, the broad Danube, the starry nights and the persons with apparent love of life who populate Budapest’s streets all contribute to get my imagination going.


The word ‘degrowth’ may deter many from accustoming themselves with it. We live in a society where growth is depicted as the highest good, be it economic, personal or spiritual growth. Degrowth as a slogan is deliberately provocative. It is not about recession or shrikage as we know it in the present predominant neo-liberal system. Degrowth proposes an entirely different paradigm.

The underpinning principle is that infinite growth in a finite world is neither possible nor desirable. The degrowth movement, consisting of academics activists and practitioners, propagates a reduction in production and consumption, paired with a boost in happiness and well-being. By sharing and redistributing productive work, degrowth creates time for collective reproductive work, such as raising children or preparing food. This should lead us all to sustainable and desirable futures. The French version of this phrase ‘des futures soutenables et souhaitables’, as laid out in a 2013 degrowth manifest, sounds even more enchanting …

What degrowth can do for women

At the very core of the degrowth alternative lies the idea of a fairer redistribution of work and resources. This is precisely what feminists activate for and that is no coincidence. Degrowth has been shaped by many movements and ideas,and feminism(s) were included from the start. There are rich feminist contributions on work and degrowth and on ecological degrowth, to name just two. Degrowth obliges us to let go of the hierarchical split between paid and unpaid, formal and informal, productive and reproductive work.

Overcoming these divides would mean a revolution in the lives of women, girls and trans* people. They are overrepresented in forms of work that in our present societies enjoy the least power and respect. Many of Mama Cash’s grantee-partners fight for having their labour respected as work, for better pay and for decent work conditions. If the degrowth principles were to be implemented in full, such a work situation would become the norm rather than the exception. Of course, this is an ideal, imagined reality and the road towards it would contain many obstacles. Nevertheless, thinking of women’s role in society in degrowth terms has as advantage that some recurrent, very real norms about their labour and access to resources do not remain the only topic of discussion and advocacy. There is then space to imagine or start building an alternative system in which women participate and enjoy equally.

My dream or my nightmare?

So far the theory. What about myself, as I imagine a degrown society? Would it indeed be a desirable reality for me? Many trade-offs fill my mind, some futile, others more fundamental. No strawberries in winter, but more time with friends. No long showers, but tasty and locally produced food. Fewer or no flights, but more occasions to explore nature nearby. More time spent in responsible shopping, but knowledge on the origin of most products. Fewer services or products, but a more equal society.

What is more, the flavour I got of degrowth in Budapest definitely makes my mouth water. The activist spaces were diverse and welcoming, the academic presentations erudite and accessible, the lunch prepared by a collective that sources most products within a 50 kilometer range around Budapest so infinitely tastier than my hurried breakfast at a global coffee company. Overall, I must say the new imagined life is quite appealing to me. It would require giving up habits and consumption patterns, undeniably a very a hard process, but what we get in return would be worth it.

A way to go before we can degrow

Degrowth is about the good life, so I made sure to also visit Budapest’s famous thermal baths. I returned to my locker restored and reenergised. Just when I was considering how nice it was that the lockers were managed by a woman who clearly loved her job – she chatted with everyone and smiled generously – another woman visitor abruptly interrupted my thoughts.

In less than a minute, with an unmistakable twang that revealed her intimate relation with one of the richest countries in the world, she fired two accusations. The facility should have thought of providing towels, because she had forgotten hers. And the woman in the locker area taking her time to do her work more thoughtfully than a machine was ‘such a stupid system, why would you have a person doing this for you’. The brightest of suns lit the outdoor pool area, so surviving without a towel was not exactly a gargantuan task. And I cannot think of one reason why one would be in a hurry in a spa.

Back on the metro I pondered on this. Until then, I thought that the obstacle for winning people’s hearts for degrowth was the part of giving up our privileged consumption patterns. But the short interaction I had with this woman portrayed her as someone who did not appreciate the final goal of degrowth, let alone the way to get there. Her outburst made me realise that the degrowth alternative of well-being and conviviality, which seems naturally covetable to me, might be entirely lost on some.

Convincing people that living well is something good was a challenge I had never anticipated. Maybe some of us need to experience degrowth’s good life to be able to appreciate it. Several groups, like eco-cooperatives and rebel cities, work towards this already, with tangible proposals for ‘living the alternative’. This could be a way of interesting more people for a different economic and social model. After all, the angry woman in Budapest’s spa still had to start her visit, and who knows what her mood was after the more than twenty hot water baths and saunas that were awaiting her.

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