I’m standing in a seemingly endless line of hungry conference-goers when a familiar face approaches. My new friend, Max, tells me the kitchen staff needs help and leads me to an assembly line of volunteers. The helpers are swiftly scooping lentil curry, rice, and local greens onto plate after plate. I pick up a serving spoon and start scooping and passing. My fellow servers breathe easy and joke as they work; neither multiple thousands of eager eaters nor the massive quantities of organic veggies — not even the breakneck speed of service — can cause this crowd any anxiety. The food tastes even better after you’ve served it and smelled it for half an hour.
The meal was part of the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity. Activists, hacktivists, scientists, artists, makers, young hippie Germans, eco-villagers, kids, and star author Naomi Klein — via video conference — were among the 3,000 that gathered in Leipzig, Germany, to discuss degrowth, a movement that’s all about producing and consuming less for our well-being and the planet’s.
The event, held Sept. 2 to 6, was not your typical academic snoozer of nasally professors sweating in suit coats as they read verbose PowerPoint slides word-for-word. The gathering was more Burning Man meets hip intellectual forum. Really, it could have been called “Degrowthfest.”
In one session, attendees learned how to make their own three-ingredient soap that cleans bodies, clothes, and dishes without excessive packaging or nasty chemicals. At that same moment, one could have been watching a film about creating a better life with less; listening to a panel talk about upcycling for fashion; walking through Leipzig on an exploration of advertising as a growth driver; learning to enhance and preserve yumminess through fermentation; discussing the connections between money, debt, and growth; touring local initiatives working toward a more thoughtful and less wasteful economy; or just chillin’ in the chill area. Bonfires and dance parties extended the gaiety into the night.
Degrowth is having a bit of a moment. The movement is growing — if you will — in part thanks to Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, which calls out economic growth as a culprit of our failure to address climate change. Even New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a growth-obsessed economist, name-dropped degrowth in a recent op-ed piece, saying, “anti-growth environmentalism is a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”
Degrowth is about redefining prosperity — that is, not just in terms of income and wealth. Most advocates would tell you that shrinking the economy as it’s conventionally measured is not a goal of degrowth. The goal, rather, is to decrease our society’s economic metabolism — the rate at which we gobble raw materials and energy, and shit out pollution, solid waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. To do that, we need an economy that is not addicted to GDP growth. The conference was all about building the movement and visualizing the future.
Environmental philosopher Barbara Muraca — who will work at Oregon State University starting next year — calls degrowth a “project for social transformation.” There’s frankly no all-inclusive definition, but “degrowthers” all seem to agree that it involves deep democracy, strong ecological sustainability, and equitable distribution of the bounty produced by a fairer, more local economy.
Naomi Klein helped commence the Leipzig confab by Skyping in a provocative keynote. She indicted deregulated capitalism and called climate change a “civilizational wake-up call” that won’t be fixed by simply greening the grow-or-die economy we have today.
Ecuadorian politician-scientist Alberto Acosta was the other headliner of that first night. He gave his incisive speech in Spanish that was clear and slow enough for an American like me to understand every razor-sharp palabra without putting on the translation headphones (which did come in super handy because much of the conference was in unlovely, tongue-twisting German). In essence, Acosta wants “development” to stop meaning “growth,” because, in his estimation, the wealth created by economic growth rarely reaches the poor, isn’t making the rich happier, and can’t be sustained by the earth.
For more thoughtful nuggets from the conference’s most rousing speakers, check out this video. The montage is set to the dramatic solo piano performance by German composer Pablo Paulo Killian that kicked off the whole shindig. [N.B.: Onslaught of nerdy philosophizing about post-growth utopia ensues.]
Of course, Degrowth 2014 wasn’t all wonk talk. It wasn’t even all talk; the week’s events showed how big get-togethers can be organized to minimize waste and maximize good times. Just a few highlights from the practice-what-we-preach department:
- The conference bracelet doubled as a transit pass for all of Leipzig’s trams and buses, and all registered participants could use the city’s bikeshare system for just one euro.
- By checking the couchsurf box when I registered, I got hooked up with a Leipzig resident who had an extra bed to share. My host, Yuting, offered me breakfast in the morning and a group of Taiwanese-Germans to laugh with late into the night. Other, better-equipped attendees slept — or, more likely, drank bier and sang songs — in a local campground.
- The local, grassroots cooking group I helped out that first day plated thousands of servings of vegan lunch and dinner and enlisted conference-goers to wash dishes and chop organic vegetables from a nearby small farm. In five days, attendees snarfed over 2,750 lbs of veggies.
Beyond all that the conference offered, what it lacked may have been even radder: Degrowthfest had no corporate sponsors, no private intellectual property, no useless giveaways, no dress code, and no set registration fee. I paid about 18 euros, but anyone was free to attend. Even so, the generosity of registrants covered more than two-fifths of the $470,000 expenditure to put on the conference. The rest was covered by a smattering of not-for-profit partners, research institutions, and donors. I certainly enjoyed the experience, yet how these new ideas and new ways of living together can become important on a grander scale remains uncertain.
As part of the last day’s demonstrations, a hundred or so people flash-mobbed a shopping mall. The flash mob, a splinter group of a larger 3,000-person march through the city, inched through the commercial center as unhurriedly as possible for about twenty minutes. And when I say unhurriedly, I mean super-duper slow-motion. Some shoppers were amused by the slo-mo horde and stopped to observe, take photos, or simply laugh at the absurdity. Others appeared quite uncomfortable, pretending not to notice the group as they swiftly weaved through our crowd, continuing their Saturday errands.
The degrowth movement wants society to slow down. But most of the mall shoppers hardly noticed. They were probably in too much of a hurry to buy stuff.