Reflections from the Degrowth Conference – Part 2

This is the continuation of the first part of the Reflections.

The set-up of the first 3 days meant that we had many parallel sessions taking place, many of them online, or here and there at the different venues in The Hague (with limited places due to Covid-19 restrictions) which initially felt, to me at least, that the conference was all a bit scattered and hard to grasp in its completeness. Especially as I and many others of the organising team were still busy working behind the scenes and problem-solving issues like speakers not having registered on time or cancelling last minute, providing IT support for the online sessions, preparing the plenaries etc. – all dealings that come with organising a hybrid international event. Whereas during the last 2 days it all seemed to come together, and I felt that I could finally engage more deeply with the actual content of our conference. For those of us who were in town in person, this was also a moment to all gather numerously at a central location. These last 2 days concentrated many of the key conversation plenaries as well as the closing session, all of them taking place at cultural venue PAARD in The Hague and being livestreamed with some speakers joining online. The plenaries’ themes and speakers were as diverse as the overall sessions and activities within the 8 thematic key conversations, and featured truly inspiring voices and stories from many different parts of the world. As a culmination of the key conversations on FPE and Decoloniality, WEGO organised the corresponding plenary sessions. ‘Decoloniality and Degrowth: Resonating and Listening’ hosted by Chizu Sato 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 as a first step to really face and counter the continuing structural and cultural effects of colonialism. 

Chizu Sato hosting the Decoloniality plenary during which we were also delighted with a musical performance by speaker Max de Ploe and Mame N’Diack. Photos by Anna Voss

‘Feminist Political Ecology Perspectives on Degrowth’ was a dialogue between WEGO mentors 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 Ilienia Iengo we listened to them conversing about the importance of engaging carefully with communities their territories conflicted by ecological exploitation. As a core theme in FPE, this also means understanding how culture and gender roles shape these communities and to decolonise our ways of creating kinship to avoid patronising 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 a FPE perspective can help embed these concepts within degrowth scholarship and activism on the ground. After our plenary I had several participants at PAARD approach me saying they were deeply appreciative of the insights they had gotten from the discussion – a welcomed feedback to realise that we had offered the audience inspiring food for further thought.

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

Finally, the grand finale of the closing plenary provided each of the 8 thematic streams a moment to reflect on the themes that had emerged during the past days as well as to look forward, asking the question of “Where do we go from here?”.

For the FPE key conversation Irene Leonardelli pointedly resumed why we need a feminist degrowth movement:

“Because a movement for social and environmental needs to include diversities: diversities of gender, race, class, ableism, and sexual identities; and these diversities need to be included in meaningful ways. Because including these diversities is the only way to counteract and dismiss the colonial and 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 past days) 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 more simply for their own well-being and survival on earth.”

Wendy Harcourt, Irene Leonardelli and Enid Still at the conference’s closing plenary. Picture by John Akerman Özgüç

Back 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. I believe it’s fair to say that through WEGO’s engagement we ensured that 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 the radical change they can bring about.  

Speaking on behalf of the Decoloniality key conversation, Enid Still gave a very nuanced reflection on the importance but also challenges that come with diversifying the degrowth movement:

“We think there needs to be a deeper engagement with colonial histories not just theoretically but 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 racialised and colonial. A sustained engagement in this way, will help the movement to better understand how the hegemonic way of living and being – capitalist, white, hetero-patriarchial, ablest – takes away space and possibility for other ways of being and living. 

 However, we also want to bring a practice of caution to 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.”

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

The conference in The Hague may be over, but in conversations with my fellow colleagues and friends who in one way or the other were participating in making it happen, it became clear that many of us are still processing, digesting and reflecting back on the whole process while also looking forward and asking ourselves: How to continue these rich and diverse discussions? And 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 localised self-organised grassroots initiatives? Whose voices are missing in our discussions and imaginaries of radical change? How do we as WEGO want to engage further with degrowth, analytically and practically? (Hint: Some of these conversations will likely continue within our network and find their way into a collective book we are planning to publish next year). 

One apparent paradox that was raised during the closing plenary and that stayed with me afterwards, 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? 

Obviously, no conference as inspiring as it might be would ever be enough to solve the world’s pressing issues in 5 days. Rather, I like to think in terms of Donna Haraway’s idea of ‘staying with the trouble’ and staying with the inherent contradictions of any social and political movement or network. And cherishing 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… In that sense, I loved how 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!’

Within the conference together with my colleagues Irene Leonardelli and Enid Still we organised a small film festival on ‘feminist and decolonial naturecultures to inspire degrowth imaginaries’ for which we had 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, I hope with our conference we planted a few new seeds while nurturing what is already flourishing.

Ultimately, what I take with me is the experience of having been part of a fantastic team organising such an international event in a non-hierarchical, self-organised manner and in a complex hybrid format during a global pandemic. A huge shoutout and congratulations to all my colleagues and friends, from WEGO and beyond, who made this degrowth conference possible, and to all the participants for enriching it with their contributions and discussions.

Thank you!

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