Thoughts from the 8th Annual Degrowth Conference
This was my first time attending a conference on degrowth and I attended it in part because I wanted to learn more about degrowth and how (if) it related to renewables. I entered with a vague understanding of the term, mostly defined by what I perceived it to oppose: a movement against unfettered economic growth, consumerism, and capitalism. While I came away from the conference with this definition still largely intact, it also became clear that this didn’t paint the whole picture. It is in any case better to define things (movements, concepts, etc.) by what they are for, rather than what they are against. So what then is degrowth? The “official” (academic) definition (given in Kallis et al. 2018) is: “a process of political and social transformation that reduces a society's [energy and resource flows in and out of an economy] while improving the quality of life." Ok sure, but what does that mean? The diversity of voices represented and range of topics covered at the conference offered me some insight. It’s about redistributing energy and material use in the world in a truly sustainable and equitable way, thereby fostering a balance between us and nature, other humans, and within ourselves. In industrialized countries (read: global North) this will mean de-growth, in the true sense of the word: reducing economic growth, consumerism, and extractivism. But, and this is key, it will also mean growth in other areas: in our connection with the environment, in emotive language (notice how we’re often reduced to “consumers” as opposed to persons), in mental well-being, in social justice. The conference made it very clear that it’s not just about economics, it’s about, well everything and everyone really: politics, environment, culture, psychology, food, energy, spirituality, you name it. And so I exited the degrowth conference with a more holistic understanding of the term.
But what about renewables then? How does degrowth relate to renewable energy, in particular offshore renewables that I study? Let’s not forget also that this degrowth conference was happening in the wake of the devastating IPCC report on climate change. At first glance, it might seem that degrowth would be “pro-renewables” as these are an “environmentally-friendly” alternative to fossil fuels that are touted as key to climate change mitigation. Well, it depends. When in the hands of local, small, communities as a means towards energy autonomy and security in the face of extractivism by fossil fuel corporations, then sure. An example of such projects is Indigenous Clean Energy. But when it comes to the large-scale, corporate development of, say, offshore wind farms in Europe, then no. Why? Its not only because of the environmental impacts (typically on wildlife and/or their habitat), but because it continues to serve the interests of the few (by profits going to those at the heads of large corporations, not co-incidentally predominantly white cis men from the global North) and often results in societal injustices such as “green grabs” (with all the implications of neo-colonialism that this brings). Degrowth would have us ask who is harnessing the renewable energy and for whom; more importantly, degrowth would have us actively work to ensure that harnessing renewables serves those marginalized communities that are already at the forefront of the climate crisis.