Cargonomia is a degrowth experiment between three socially and environmentally conscious small enterprises operating in or near Budapest. Partners within the project include Cyclonomia Do it Yourself Bicycle Social Cooperative, Zsamboki Biokert, an organic vegetable farm and sustainable agriculture community education center which distributes weekly vegetable boxes to food communities in Budapest, and Kantaa, a self organized bike messenger and delivery company.
Published on Cooperative Journal in 2020.
- What inspired the development of Cargonomia, how did three independent organizations join forces?
Vincent: Cargonomia is a convergence of diverse approaches from a group of friends who decided to cooperate. Orsi researches the social and solidarity economy, Polanyi and substantive economy, and is able to do something meaningful as a researcher through exploring ways to take action.
Logan creates synergies between sustainable agriculture and other initiatives in Budapest while exploring degrowth. Adrien, constructs and uses more and more cargo bikes for a self-organized and functional bike cooperative.
Levi, has experience with other ways to manage a social enterprise, experiments with self-organisation, challenges degrowth and market (can u do something meaningful within the given business as usual model?).
I experiment with degrowth, from theory to practice through rethinking the commons, informal cooperation, sustaining a non-addicted to growth cooperative, collectivism, diversification, inventing and (re-)appropriating convivial tools, rethinking work, etc.
- What is the concept of degrowth and how is it being applied in Budapest?
Logan: I will try to explain it in the simplest way which relates to what we are working on because you can easily give a whole lecture on the hundreds of concepts that fit as a degrowth narrative.
I think one of the biggest remaining questions in the degrowth movement – even if you are successful getting someone to agree with you that the constant pursuit of infinite economic growth in one world with finite biophysical limits is absurd – then you get to the point where they ask, what do we do about it, what is the alternative to this. It is the main question we are working on.
At least with Cargonomia, we are trying to create tangible examples of functional cooperations and alternatives by strategically linking together partners which we believe are working towards building an alternative. They are not just sustaining themselves, but other people can potentially participate. It’s a challenge for us to reorient our activities so that they give more people the opportunity to start participating in meaningful alternatives to the standard way of doing things.
What I see as the main goal of our work at Cargonomia, is to experiment with creating something that is inspired by and representative of degrowth but also to create a medium for people to participate. Perhaps they can find a different way to make a living that is more socially and environmentally conscious and to engage more with other people in their community. If i try to simplify the connection between Cargonomia and degrowth i would say that is what it is.
In the background there is our own work which is connected to Cargonomia where we are having very traditional discussions about degrowth topics. Vincent is doing a lot of that, Orsi is doing a PhD on the crossover between degrowth, civic engagement, and communities trying to organize different types of economic exchanges and making this have a presence in academia. When I’m working with students in a university where they are not necessarily learning about degrowth in the classroom, I try to help them engage with grassroots social and civic initiatives in their communities so they meet their community. Universities are located in a community but are very isolated from what is happening there.
Vincent: I think degrowth is something after assuming that infinite growth on a finite planet is neither sustainable nor desirable. It’s like a hamster in the wheel where you always have to run quicker and quicker, it’s nonsense. It’s a work in progress and something which has to be co-constructed and experimented.
With Cargonomia, we try to offer a comfortable platform to experiment with other ways to live, exchange, produce, rethink work, rethink the economic system, rethink care, and rethink a lot of human interaction. Also questioning what our basic needs are and how to fulfill our needs locally in a sustainable and fair way, not by working and killing ourselves but producing the things in an enjoyable way. We rethink how we can share the hard tasks, think more about emancipating the type of work we have in our society, think about how we can share time everyday to reflect on life. Maybe later we will be in the garden with our hands, in the bike shop, organizing a festival, caring about the house or the children, friends, and so on. It’s to rethink society and our way of life outside of the box and to deconstruct a lot of concepts and experiment with new concepts like autonomy.
- As a volunteer-run, not for profit organization, how do you obtain financial support?
Orsi: We get some income by selling things. For example, when we make educational workshops, if it is organized for someone that can pay for it of course we accept. Sometimes we get donations but sometimes we do it for free. We sell services and get resources through research projects. All of our paid jobs are related to what we do in Cargonimia and without Cargonomia our paid job wouldn’t be so effective.
The main resource is cooperation, getting resources from other people. For example, we get access to the green spaces we are managing for free because we manage the space. None of us have a direct income from doing activities in Cargonomia, all of us get paid indirectly. I am a PhD student and I received a scholarship from my university to do my research about Cargonomia, it is an indirect finance.
Cargonomia as an organization is a degrowth experiment and that’s why our business model is not based on monetary income. We have a lot of other income like in kindness things, know how, and reciprocity. It’s also a personal experience of how to live more de-commodified and how to not live with only monetary income but also reciprocal relationships that we develop within Cargonomia. For the cargo bikes, spaces, and through the network of Cargonomia we have access to a lot of things for free or based on solidarity and reciprocity, not based on money. I think that is one of the goals of Cargonomia to not only make the city more sustainable but also to experiment how to live outside of the market economy.
Logan: It sounds quite confusing when we try to explain this and realistically it probably sounds like we’re trying to hide some mysterious scheme in the background but its not a scheme that we’re running here. The reality is that it’s our biggest challenge and our biggest point of resilience that we’re not reliant to have a certain amount of income per month to keep our activities going. That is a challenge for us but it’s one of the things that helps keep us going as well because we don’t have the same pressure of a lot of traditional NGOs and civil service organizations that go down that path. Especially if we compare our organizational structure to the civic organizations which you might see in the U.S. who have become very reliant on needing to plan their next fundraiser or next liaison meeting with this donor who’s going to make sure to secure their next year of activities. It becomes partially a chase for them to accomplish what they want related to their main goals, and as much of a chase to finance themselves for the next year.
The way we survive is by having a low cost operation where we’re using a lot of already available resources. We’re passing on knowledge that we’ve acquired or that someone in our partnership already has because of their trade, skill, or previous learning. Keeping things low cost is something that we take advantage of. The reality is in the background what we do in the name of Cargonomia is our own volunteer time. As Orsi mentioned, we get a lot of social benefits back from it. Enjoyable time, new connections with people, fulfillment of being involved in the community. That’s not financial payment for us but it is social and convivial payment. It is important to mention though that we need all of the team members who make up Cargonomia to have independent jobs, sources of income, or study programs to support them as well. We see it as strength that we are not reliant on what our operating budget is for the next year and how we arrange enough events to fulfill this budget. It is a flexible, stable way of working that we think helps maintain the integrity and connection of what we are trying to do instead of focusing on our next campaign.
Vincent: The business model (if i can use these bad words) of Cargonomia was made on a degrowth economic model. We didn’t invest any money and we didn’t have to run after invested money. As Logan just said, we constructed based on what already existed and our connections. We started with bikes because that’s what we had, we didn’t start to invest money to buy bikes. We also relied on spaces that we could access in the beginning before being able to rent our own space.
Our monthly budget is just to rent a space that is co-financed by all of the projects and all of the partners. Each partner has their own business model, the farm is a company, the bike shop is a cooperative, and they all have to define their own way to make their business model.
The core group of Cargonomia, the five co-funders would rather invest their money in Cargonomia because it provides some benefits for the other parts of the projects. For example, Logan is also participating at the farm and Cargonomia is helping the farm economically survive. We provide marketing possibilities for the farm, communication, families are happy to buy veggie boxes, support in logistics, and they are a good partner when we have to organize a community event.
We develop good research thanks to Cargonomia, Orsi can make a meaningful PhD which is quite rare, most of the time a PhD is quite mainstream. She can find a good field to experiment with something different with more action, participatory research, and reciprocity economy. I’m more like an independent researcher, political activist, and lecturer. It makes my job as an advisor, when I am hired to give a talk much more attractive because I do what I speak about and I speak about what I do. Logan is part time working on the farm, and part time working at the university as a researcher. It creates a type of synergy, it’s how it has been designed that the main value of Cargonomia is not in money but it’s in social networks, tools, know how, and communication channels.
We organize large events and workshops on a lot of topics without the need to have an administrative and fundraising team to look for money to finance it, we just make a couple of phone calls and we’re able to do it. What we provide is meaningful topics and a lot of nice people with the energy to do things and sometimes the capacity to collect donations when needed, like to buy a new bike or to invest in a particular tool. We analyze the benefits for the local community to not rely on money but to rely on trust, solidarity, and also to analyze how informal types of economies without money can be much more powerful and effective than a business oriented type of economy.
I personally bought some bikes, some of the bikes were financed from a crowdfunding campaign, we also received donations where we could buy or share one bike. If you look at cargo bike systems, there are a lot of bikes which are owned by families but because they don’t use them everyday they are happy to share them for free. Each bike has a personal history. It doesn’t really belong to anybody, it belongs to the person who is using it in the commons. We experiment with another way to deal with property rights and the commons.
Logan: We obtained money for the cargo bikes in a number of different ways. It was one of our friend’s personal investment to start a cargo bike messenger company, he invested his own money to buy the bikes. We as an organization eventually purchased them back from him when he decided to step away from the bike messenger company management. They started off as his personal investment but through our own activities, teacher opportunities, and some projects we compensated him for his original investment and now they belong to the cooperative.
- What is the decision-making process for creating synergy between all three partners?
Logan: There’s certain regular communication practices that we have between our interior team but we also like to offer a lot of autonomy for the members to develop their own projects. Our core group is aware of what is happening in the bigger umbrella partnership, especially the relationship between Cargonomia and the farm, messenger company, and bicycle kitchen. We also have a core group of members who have somewhat regular meetings in person but in the last few years this has gotten harder, especially as some of the original members take on other jobs, study paths, and start families. If we are not meeting in person we are communicating a lot online but still in close contact.
We have trust in each other to develop separate but connected projects autonomously as well. Orsi in the last few years developed a new garden project in a part of the city that she manages on her own and we provide support to. In the last few years we developed the cargo bike sharing system which Orsi and I manage together. Vincent and some of our other team members take more of a managerial role on the agroforestry project that happens in another district in Budapest. If it’s something related to communicating to the farm, I am going to the farm each week so I can carry out the responsibility there. There’s a lot of space for people autonomously managing and bringing on new projects into the partnership.
Vincent: When we don’t have money involved, it makes the decision process making easier. We try to experiment with a decentralized way of decision making that is more smooth and based on face to face direct interaction and trust. It’s not in a bureaucratic way in an office where we listen to every project because we have too many projects. The coordinators of Cargonomia are not aware of everything happening because it’s very decentralized and self organized. We like the idea of letting things happen, experimenting, and constructing it based on trust. In Budapest, we are lucky enough to be connected to a large community of people who share the same values.
If you asked us to feed 200 people tomorrow with organic food anywhere in Budapest we would find the community center, food, materials to cook and feed the people, and logistics to organize all of these things without any problem because we have all of the connections. It is very difficult to replicate this model somewhere else, we couldn’t develop what we developed here in New York or Paris. In Budapest we could develop it because life is not as commodified as it is in the West and there’s still a lot of informal, solidarity, survival, and agro economies. There was a very interesting network of people already doing types of things like what we do, we mostly just wrote a narrative on degrowth in connection with much more sustainability and people in it.
Logan: It’s mostly our good intentions which are at stake and not necessarily a lot of personal financial investment in the projects and there’s no hierarchy. We host a lot of interns which is perhaps one of the most important things that we do. We started having students come to us especially if they were in a study program which required an internship. You have a lot of environmentally, socially conscious students who are not necessarily feeling fulfilled or connected to grassroots ground level movements as part of their study curriculum. If they get an opportunity to fulfill an internship somewhere, it’s attractive for them to be able to participate and collaborate with an existing civic initiative. This possibility to work with students who are still asking a lot of questions and trying to figure things out to give them an opportunity to not just learn from us but participate in what we do. Once they start understanding what we do, what our goals are and how we operate, they quickly become a participating team member in our discussion, idea creation, and decision making process. It’s not just restricted to the core people who were there from the beginning.
- What is the greatest challenge in nurturing Cargonomia?
Logan: I will answer this more conceptually and not in relation to the day to day challenges. I am really focused on if we are trying to persuade people to unplug themselves from an exploitative system and do something which is not exploitative environmentally, we have to become a lot better at creating examples which are concrete alternatives. Perhaps there are things they can start participating in, especially ones which could help them earn a livelihood. If we’re asking them to think about alternatives, if we’re being critical to the dominant economic system we have to be as creative and active in showing examples of what is the alternative to these systems that we are criticizing.
I am working directly in agriculture because right now I see sustainable agriculture as one of the clearest examples to give opportunities to people to live in a healthy way. People can earn an income in an environmentally and socially responsible way and actually live quite happily both physically and mentally from doing this type of work. I am also trying to understand through my participation on the farm and through our support with Cargonomia, how to make this type of agriculture model work fluidly and in a successful way. I want the opportunity to participate in something like this to be extended to a number of other people who might look at it like an opportunity for a livelihood. There’s a lot of structural challenges against this type of model which until big changes happen, puts this type of agricultural activity at a competitive disadvantage compared to the other food procurement mechanisms that are still out there. The challenge for us is not just to talk about the alternatives but give people more opportunities to change their life by participating in the opportunities that we can create for them. I put that pressure on myself to do that in the future.
Vincent: I totally agree with Logan and he used the right word – we want to extend our activities and not to grow our activities. Extend would be to offer opportunities for much more people to create their own environment. We are fighting against growing but welcoming the quality of know how, knowledge, human interaction, and diversity of activities makes it enjoyable and resilient. We have to extend that without growing. We are very small to walk the challenges that we face and to find a way to influence many more people. To influence is not enough, to offer the right opportunity for people to go out of their everyday lives of the routine bullshit job in the corporation or even a toxic job. You have a lot of wonderful smart people who because they have rent or loans to pay they have to accept a job in a corporation and do contrary to what they really want to do and what they want to achieve.
That’s why my part is also to be politically active, lobby, and have open debates about unconditional basic income, maximum income, and other types of redistribution to rethink how to erase public and private debt. I mean to free the people from these alienating economic systems and offer space for people to reappropriate self determination, creativity, and freedom to live differently.
With Logan we work a lot to create some autonomy for ourselves, even though it’s not so easy. It was even more difficult for Logan than for me because I am from an ex-socialist country and I don’t have to take out a loan to pay for my studies. With Logan, as a U.S. citizen he had to do so. We can see how this system is alienating us. We have to open this debate and make another economic system based on collective intelligence and self organization. In this COVID-19 episode you could almost see everywhere how local self-organized, small entities, and collectives were much more effective in care – helping the elderly, sick, providing masks, getting the right materials for healthcare employees, producing and distributing food. We can see in this period how powerful we are, we are just blocked by the system and our imagination. We should find ways to make people understand their power and stand for that and self-organize themselves.
- What is the greatest benefit in nurturing Cargonomia?
Logan: There’s a lot of benefits, it’s a challenging thing but it’s not a punishment or something, it’s a motivation. It’s a privilege to have fulfilling work that you not only like to do but that you feel good about and you can’t neglect that of course. The work that we do required a lot of choices to lead us here but I don’t take it for granted. The work which challenges me is something that I enjoy and feel good about its purpose. I take that as a privilege which I don’t forget. To do the type of work which also helps create fun social opportunities and the feeling that you’re connected to a place that’s a benefit.
Vincent: I would say self-esteem and satisfaction in doing your own activities is a luxury compared to my friends who studied mechanical engineering like me and have to work for the military industrial complex or car industry. When they come home after working they feel bad about their job, I don’t blame them because they have to do that to pay the bills and be able to raise children. Even if sometimes I suffer a lot or it’s not so easy to do what we do and we stress about money, you go home satisfied and proud of what you did. You know that you did something which is meaningful and it’s great, we’re very privileged to do meaningful things.
- Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when Cargonomia first began developing?
Logan: It has not been such a huge amount of time. I would’ve spent more time in the bike shop so I could become an expert bike repair man by now. To us as an organization…be patient. I think compared to when we started we are more patient now and understand that things evolve over time. I do remember a bit when we first started out maybe being somewhat enticed by the idea of having a big influence very quickly. You have to earn that and that takes time so patience would’ve been as it always is a virtue, more patience at the time would’ve been helpful.
Vincent: I would agree and maybe I was more patient at the beginning because I am a bit older than Logan and the rest of the team and I already made mistakes with former projects in the past. I already had failure and I learned. We try to share with people that to be quick you have to be slow and it’s not so intuitive in our society because we are thought to rush to start big.
What’s very interesting is that if you look at the list of projects that we wanted to do in the beginning we achieved everything but we didn’t achieve it immediately and we never pushed to do things we weren’t ready for. We let things move organically step by step and sometimes we managed to achieve types of projects even without realizing that we were doing it. I would say that’s what we learned, to be patient, humble, and not to force too much to do things which we are unable to do or things we don’t fit with. It’s something that we learned and should improve even more to allow space for more diversity of people and ways to handle projects within the team. We try to advance something to provide space and the commons for people to be creative and express themselves.