Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth

For our second RAD.GE session of 2017 we read through Giorgos Kallis and Hug March’s (2015) paper Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth, first published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105 (2): 360-368. The paper is an intriguing one because it uses a fictional novel – Ursula K. Le Guin’s (1974) The Dispossessed – as its central ‘case study’ and thinking point.

Why did we pick this reading?

–  After our last discussion on Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), we decided it would be nice to read something unapologetically positive! Geographers are very good critics, but the promise of utopia rarely makes its way into the realms of academic publishing.

– We were curious about degrowth: an idea we had encountered multiple times, but rarely delved into in much depth.

Key points discussed

  • Is it depressing that the authors felt the need to pick a (40 year old) science fiction novel as their best portrait of utopia? Can we think of real-life examples? This led us quickly onto a discussion of the effectiveness of using the novel itself in this way. Opinions were divided on this. One attendee noted that fictional literature – in particular that which imagines a world – can serve as a pre-conceived framework of reality against which we can look at our own world. This is the task of engaged science-fiction more broadly. But the pathway from novel to manifesto is not a straightforward one, nor is it one that Le Guin necessarily had in mind!
  • Two examples came up for discussion, which was deemed to be close to some of the tenets of degrowth. One was that of the ecovillage network in Europe, while the other was the political system of Democratic Confederalism in Rojava in Northern Syria. The latter directly derives its inspiration from Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, direct democracy, and libertarian municipalism.
  • We spent a long time thinking about the distinction between development and growth. Whilst both come laden with preconceived judgements, if we take “development” at face-value (to mean something akin to ‘things getting better’), then an atemporal interpretation of “having enough” seems to deny the very real progress in (for example) medicines. Can we imagine one without the other?
  • The vision of degrowth presented is not necessarily appealing, though it is not possible for us to say how much we are simply regurgitating value judgements that seem innate in a capitalist society.
  • Whilst the eco-utopia often (implicitly or explicitly) idolises indigenous communities, the survival of indigenous cultures is, for better or for worse, often grounded in a steadfast resistance against change. Here the revolutionary imperative of “degrowth” embarks of a very challenging journey, for whether “backwards” or “forwards”, the necessity of change is beyond doubt.
  • Utopia as an idea is, by definition, static. It imagines a world in which things are good. This “finishing” of the social project is not appealing to us. Insofar as the authors seem intent on proving the impermanence of their utopia, we wonder if it still qualifies as a utopia.
  • Whether we find the ideal appealing or not, degrowth functions as a useful “missile” with which to critique the norms of a consumerist, expansionist society. It is also a nice riposte to the tendency for critique without agenda.
  • Some attendees were essentially unconvinced by the idea in its entirety (strategically impossible, emotionally unappealing), but there was broad agreement that moving beyond generalised scarcity is a necessary task.
  • As geographers, we were particularly intrigued by the way this paper utilises questions of scale. Fetishisation of the local (particularly when defined by territory or ecosystems) can be dangerously conservative and patriarchal – not to mention xenophobic. We recalled Doreen Massey’s A Global Sense of Place as a warning that reactions against globalisation must not be insular (this felt particularly relevant given we were reading this on the day Article 50 was “triggered”). If “permanent revolution” means continuously moving (or being displaced), then this raises a whole series of issues around the emotional, psychological and physical effects of being ‘uprooted’.
  • More broadly, it was pointed out that the article completely overlooks the tradition of anarchism from which many of its central ideas are clearly derived. The work of Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin seemed conspicuous by their absence. Can “degrowth” work as a way of bridging those older ideas with contemporary debates around ecological responsibility and the various social movements involved?

    Questions for the authors

–  The way development and growth are treated as synonyms troubled us. Is it possible to distinguish the two?

–  How do the authors view the Gross National Happiness index of Bhutan within the discourse of degrowth?

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One thought on “Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth

  1. We are glad to receive a detailed response on our discussion from Giorgos Kallis, one of the authors of this paper, sent via email:

    Dear all,

    thank you for taking the time to engage so thoughtfully with our article. To respond to all your points we would need to write a second article, but here are some brief responses to only a few of your points.

    – The way development and growth are treated as synonyms troubled us. Is it possible to distinguish the two?

    Degrowth stems from the critique of the export of the idea of development to the third world, and aspires to continue the work of the ‘post-development’ school.

    Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development and Serge Latouche’s Westernisation of the World are foundational texts. For a shorter version of this critique have a look at Castoriadis reflections on rationality and development: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/072551368501000103?journalCode=thea

    In sum, the idea of development is the way the West continued to colonize the rest of the world after the overthrow of strictly speaking colonial regimes.

    Of course, the word ‘development’ can take a new meaning (as people have tried to do with ‘human development’ or ‘sustainable development’). But it has always had a specific and dominant meaning, despite all the beuatifying adjectives, and this meaning (development as growth) is problematic and has to be discarded.

    Your reference to ‘improvement’ is no better. Improvement has also a problematic historical and intellectual baggage (see Polanyi’s the great transformation). The idea that we must be constantly improving, and that this is the meaning of life, is a very Western one.

    – How do the authors view the Gross National Happiness index of Bhutan within the discourse of degrowth?

    Not very familiar with it other than the romantic coverage of it by the press. I came across at some point of a very critical article, explaining how the index is a facade for an otherwise oppressive semi-feudal regime.

    From the other comments:

    – we did not pick Le Guin’s novel as the best expression of utopia, but as one of the best literary utopias that let us engage with some of the debates around degrowth. It is not depressing that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky have written some of the best novels of all times -and it is not depressing that Le Guin has written some of the best science fiction.

    – we did not read Le Guin’s book as a manifesto. We say this explicitly in the intro to the paper! We used it as a springboard to (re)think degrowth – we use Le Guin’s world as if it existed.

    – why should we constantly have better and better medicines? Don’t we have enough medicines to ensure that everyone can live a decent life up to 75 years old? Is the problem of the health system right now one of not having good enough medicines?

    – Utopia does not have to be static. We devote a big part of the article explaining Harvey’s idea of a process utopia, and then explain why the novel portrays an utopia in movement, rife with contradictions. The point is precisely that Le Guin’s utopia is not perfect – not even good necessarily. And the core of the utopia in Le Guin’s novel, as we explain, is in the travel of the protagonist and the comparison of worlds – not in the static depiction of the anarchist planet. We are disappointed if this did not come out this way to the readers.

    Best,
    Giorgos

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