15 July 2019

Interview with Giuseppe Feola

First Utrecht Degrowth Symposium comes at key moment

Degrowth

Degrowth is a paradigm that emphasizes that there is a contradiction between sustainability and economic growth. Although around since the early 2000s, until now there has been relatively little engagement from Dutch academia and civil society. In June Utrecht University researchers hosted a symposium on degrowth, the first of this kind in the Netherlands.

The 1st Utrecht Degrowth Symposium attracted over 300 participants from academia, non-governmental organizations, and the public and private sectors, with stimulating discussions on the theme: Living on a finite planet – Alternatives to economic growth. We interviewed co-organiser Dr. Giuseppe Feola, Associate Professor of Social Change for Sustainability in the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University.

Firstly, what is degrowth?

Degrowth emerged in the early 2000s as a paradigm that emphasizes that there is a contradiction between sustainability and economic growth. It signifies a ruthless critique of the ideology of economic growth and of its material effects, as well as a search for alternatives beyond a ‘one‐way future consisting only of growth’.

Grafitti in Warsaw, Poland. Image: Paul Sableman

Degrowth exposes the flaws of the mainstream sustainable development paradigm. Even though the notions of sustainable development and green economy suggest improvements towards the more ecological and just way of living, they still rely heavily on the idea of unlimited economic and material growth and expanding extraction of natural resources. It means that, paradoxically, the mainstream sustainable development paradigm does not tackle the core dynamics of unlimited accumulation that drive over-exploitation of natural resources and social injustice.

And what about its academic origins?

Degrowth draws from the post-development and anti-utilitarianism literatures, Georgescu‐Roegen’s understanding of the economy as an entropic process, and post-Marxist intersections of socialism, anarchism, and ecology. You can read more about that here.

Photo: Ontgroei

So why a symposium on degrowth in the Netherlands, and why now?

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the debate on degrowth has expanded beyond activists and critical theorists to reach broader academic, mass media and institutional arenas. It has achieved more visibility in both mainstream and alternative media (Deutsche Welle, Pacific Standard, Open Democracy, The Guardian, and in Dutch, Het Parool), and both degrowth and post-growth were discussed at a dedicated conference at the European Union Parliament in October 2018.

Those involved in the degrowth debate in the Netherlands have been isolated in niches within their own organizations

But so far there has been little engagement with degrowth from Dutch academia and civil society. The size and scope of the debate has been rather small in comparison with countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany or France. While there is a rich intellectual and activist movement around issues of environmental justice, sustainability, and climate change, those involved in the degrowth debate in the Netherlands have been isolated in niches within their own organizations.

This is changing with the formation of Ontgroei (‘degrowth’ in Dutch), a degrowth platform comprising both academics and civil society. The 1st Utrecht Degrowth Symposium was a timely opportunity to consolidate this emerging platform and broaden its network by making more people aware of both degrowth scholarship and action on the ground.

What was discussed at the symposium?

We hosted five inspiring speakers from academia and the civil society. Dr Barbara Muraca from the University of Oregon provided an overview of the scientific argument against a society based on endless growth, and made the scientific case for degrowth as an alternative logic for socioecological transformation to sustainability.

Many of the intellectual roots of degrowth can be traced to the Global South, and the Global North has much to learn from the south about alternative economic thinking.

Dr Julien-François Gerber from the International Institute of Social Studies discussed the relevance for degrowth for both the global north and south. He argued that, in fact, many of the intellectual roots of degrowth can be traced to the Global South, and that the Global North has much to learn from the south about alternative economic thinking.

Nina Treu, from Kozeptwerk Neue Ökonomie and degrowth.info discussed her experience of mobilization and organization of action for degrowth on the ground.

Kris de Decker founder of Lowtech Magazine, and Ties Temmink who is member of Ontgroei and Extinction Rebellion Netherlands, discussed their personal and professional experiences related to the translation of degrowth principles into technological applications and social activism.

What was achieved?

We have received so much positive feedback from participants. The event has put degrowth on the radar of many students, researchers, civil society and public and private organizations, and has allowed for likeminded people to network across local geographical boundaries. But perhaps most importantly, the symposium was inspiring to many who participated. I hope this inspiration and energy will fuel further engagement with degrowth.

The symposium was inspiring to many who participated. I hope this inspiration and energy will fuel further engagement with degrowth.
Utrecht University

What will follow?

I expect that more people and groups will join the Ontgroei platform to expand the network and sustain an exciting programme of activities on degrowth. And let’s not forget that the International Institute of Social Studies will host the International Degrowth Conference in 2021 in The Hague.

A summary of the event and the videos of three keynote talks are available here.