The idea of sustainability, of turning away from infinite growth in a world with finite resources has been gaining ground globally. Can it be applicable in the emerging Visegrad economies, where the promise of economic enrichment still dominates?
Photo: Creative Commons / Paul Sableman
A new movement founded around the provocative slogan “degrowth” has emerged over the last 10 years. This “bomb word” has been used to open in-depth debates on whether infinite growth in a finite world is desirable or even possible. Degrowth first deconstructs the myth that growth is the central solution for the impasse our capitalist, productivist and consumerist societies have led us to. The movement tries to understand the convergence of the crises we are experiencing and argues that energetic, political and existential, economic and social and various environmental crises like climate change are interconnected. Our society’s “always more” attitude and the push towards increased production and consumption is not sustainable as we are now facing global warming, biodiversity loss, and the end of cheap and easy extraction and production of raw materials such as fossil energies and metals – in particular the ones used in renewable energies. Our model of development hasn’t been able to respond to raising inequalities and unemployment. GDP growth or just a quantitative reading is far from implementing a meaningful and emancipating life for all. So degrowth warns about a potential crisis of civilization and answers this by exploring alternative and coherent solutions.
Degrowth and other related movements propose democratic transition pathways towards new socially just and ecologically sustainable models. They ask which social, economic, institutional and cultural tools would help such a serene transformation. They are experimenting with new local, sustainable, and fair economic and production systems like community gardens, Do it Yourself draft-shops (e.g. for bikes), community supportive agricultural initiatives and alternative local currency and exchange systems, which promote sustainable local production practices.
Degrowth in less affluent countries?
The critique of excessive consumption seems legitimate and logical in wealthier societies, such as Western Europe. It seems more complicated in societies who must fulfill the fundamental needs of the majority of their populations and want to follow that very same path. Yet the degrowth movement argues that the question is as relevant for the “under-Westernized’ countries of the Global South as it is within the once socialist, now economically converging member states of the European Union.
Over the last few years, degrowth has become the object of debate in many countries. All over the world and at varying degrees, we are witnessing a growing awareness of ecological and energetic stakes, a discrediting of the ruling classes and disillusionment with the market economy and democratic systems, which have become constrained by hollow representative institutions. At the same time we can see citizens’ initiatives and concrete alternatives being developed at the margins, where people are experimenting with the re-localization of production and new democratic exchange and decision-making mechanisms. We can also observe that these reflections and debates are taking place in academia. In particular, we could have observed all these dynamics in September at the 4th annual biennial International Degrowth Conference in Leipzig, which welcomed more than 3,200 people from 74 different nations. Although participants represented diverse approaches, political cultures and contexts, we saw a convergence of complementary ideas in the discussions, proposals and experimentations.
Degrowth in the V4?
All these general assumptions could of course be observed and also discussed in the Visegrad countries. In particular the neo-liberal economy and its associated debt trap drive to always produce more questions the energy strategy of these countries, challenged by energy resource limits and total dependency on imports (in particular Russian gas and Western partnerships). Poland is now exploiting shale gas, and Hungary, in a 10 billion euro agreement with Russia is now financing and finalizing plans to construct two new nuclear reactors. What about the transparency, economic viability and environmental consequences of such decisions? How long can this be considered a solution?
Thankfully creative and innovative proposals and alternatives are underway in these countries as well. In Hungary, an ambitious strategy for rural development based on the local economy and a family-scale farm model is being proposed by the government (although it acts to the contrary) and environmentally minded members of the opposition in order to create more jobs, local solidarity and sustainable and healthy food production and sovereignty. At the same time civil society is implementing transition alternatives around transportation (e.g.Cyclonomia, a Do it Yourself bike shop in Budapest), agriculture (e.g. Szimpla Piac, a direct trade market for local producers in one the most famous ruin bars of Budapest), energy (e.g. Energia Klub and its Energy Brigadesand the window-lagging method for better insulation), and finance (e.g. the local time bank system of Suska,where people can meet and exchange products or services without using money).
What are the perspectives of Degrowth in the Visegrad region?
Although the subject of a Degrowth Project seems a rather marginal prospect in the political games played by the Visegrad countries, it raises several important issues. How can we break free from the illusions born of capitalism without immediately thinking about the terrible failure of state communism? How can people who have not yet had enough of the mass advertised poisonous fruits of consumer society, reject it?
Degrowth is based upon a transformation of society through strong citizen participation. So how can we implement it in societies where political culture is nascent and therefore weak?
Degrowth’s strength lies in its in-depth questioning of the meaning of what we produce. How? For what purpose? Is it based on emancipatory ideas such as the reduction of inequality (Basic Income, Maximum Income), open re-localisation, more sustainability, autonomy, conviviality and direct democracy? In the long run degrowth can address the challenges found in both Western European and converging Visegrad societies. It can also determine how existing, alternative local survival economic systems, around informal economies can be turned into desirable relocalization of our production for more sustainability and social justice.
The dilemmas faced by the Visegrad countries are shared by the Western ones – how to rid ourselves of our excessive dependencies and “always more” approach. The issue cannot be simplified by choosing between a “Western model” with its occidental liberalism dominated by big corporate interests and rising inequalities, strongly criticised by emancipatory social movements; and the a “BRIC model” characterized by a conservative state capitalism in the hands of oligarchs, and is rejected by democratic movements. Quite the contrary, it is a question of rethinking society through a new paradigm that can enable us to do away with our addiction to growth and fossil energy and to establish local, and interconnected equilibriums at all levels: human, social, ecological, energetic and economic. Through the movements’ questions, answers, proposals, and practical experimentations, degrowth contributes to the making of new paradigms that will take different forms according to local and national specificities. In this perspective, dialogue, cooperation and solidarity between the West and the East, and also between the North and the South are needed.
Vincent Liegey is co-author of a “Degrowth Project – Manifesto for an Unconditional Autonomy Allowance” (Utopia, 2013), spokesperson of the French Degrowth movement. Engineer, PhD student on Degrowth at the University of economics of Budapest, transdisciplinary researcher.
 See articles in English about Degrowth on the French Degrowth movement website
 For example the Transition movement
 See A Degrowth Project book website
 For example in Hungary
 The transition is underway
 See the website of the conference
 Parti pour la decroissance
 Video on vimeo
 See the documentary There’s No Tomorrow