Interview with our guest speaker, Federico Demaria on 'The Case for Degrowth'

February 24, 2021

Federico Demaria is an Assistant Professor in Ecological Economics and Political Ecology at the University of Barcelona, and Associate Researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at Autonomous University of Barcelona.

On February 26, Demaria will present the proposals outlined in the book, The Case for Degrowth, during an event organized by CEU’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy and introduced by CEU master’s student Julian Willming.

Demaria’s main research interest is to understand the relationship between the environment and the economy. He has consolidated experience in international and national competitive research projects and presently serves as deputy coordinator of the ERC project, EnvJustice, which maps and analyzes social conflicts between the environment and the economy.

We spoke with Demaria ahead of his CEU visit to discuss his proposals for a more sustainable and equitable society. This is an edited interview conducted on February 23, 2021.

What is often misunderstood about degrowth?

People often think that degrowth is the same thing as an economic recession or crisis where there is no economic growth and unemployment and debt rise. Degrowth is not about recession. It's about how we can organize our society and economy in different ways so they can prosper without growth. In the book we provide arguments of how our economy can function without growth.

For example, the economy in 2020 has not been growing because of the restrictions related to the pandemic, so people are thinking about how to can manage an economy where there is no growth. The idea that economic growth can solve all the problems is not true. Degrowth is a proposal for society prioritizing life and the well-being of people.

Can you share any examples of how people are living and adapting during this pandemic which support your proposal – one that requires significant and simultaneous change?

The pandemic has been a little bit like taking a needle and putting it next to your head, forcing a decision of whether you prioritize life or the economy. In this case, one of the important questions is about our priorities as a society. I think in many places people decided to choose life, which meant more restrictions and obviously had a negative impact on the economy. Many countries did this because they were not ready to accept thousands of deaths.

The pandemic can be an opportunity if the response includes the understanding that there are different priorities in society and we need to work together for ecological sustainability, equity, employment and also financial stability. I hope that the pandemic allows us to tackle the different problems simultaneously. What we have more frequently done is to address different problems separately. For example, you have a migration issue and then pass a law regarding migration, or you have climate change issue and address that. Without synergy there will be problems because the impacts are not isolated. 

We now know that climate change increased the risk of the pandemic, which is now impacting the economy. Public health goes hand-in-hand with the health of the planet so I hope we act along these lines moving forward.

In your work you promote the idea for “Those who live simply, to let others simply live”. Can you talk about the role of cooperation and the commons as it relates to your case?

In economics there have been historic debates on how we can organize the economy including the role of the market and the state. Then there was Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in economics, who promoted the idea that people who organize with the commons can, as a community, manage a particular resource, be it the forest, the river etc.

From these important in classical debates in economics, our proposal involves a combination of individual actions, the communal and community level, as well as political actions. For instance, you might decide to be a vegetarian, but then there are also ways to address national regulations around meat production, as well as environmental impact. In our opinion, the market has taken too much priority. We are not against the market or the state, but we are, rather in favor of a combination of addressing the three elements: the market, the state and the commons.

In our proposal we put more emphasis on the commons because we think this is the part that has received less attention. We draw from feminist economics and put a lot of emphasis on care work or unpaid work because our societies depend a lot on that work and it is not appropriately valued. 

Regarding your work with social movements and alliances related to degrowth, can you talk about the kinds of grassroots actions and institutional interventions have been successful?

The degrowth debate began in the year 2000 with environmental activists in France launching this idea. This grew into a movement, in Europe especially, and has also become a debate in academia with special issue journals on the topic, hundreds of articles, and our degrowth books translated into more than ten languages.  

We have an annual international conference on degrowth, which was actually in Budapest in 2015, with more than a thousand people. It was very successful in bringing together scientists with people in civil society, as well as politicians. In 2018 we wrote an open letter to European institutions, signed by over 200 scientists with an online petition, which reached almost a hundred thousand signatures. So, degrowth at the beginning was started by a few marginal activists, and now, at least within the left wing, the ideas have become a significant part of the discourse.

What kind of narratives do you offer about your proposed shifts to persuade people to participate in something that may be culturally understood as a type of sacrifice?

This is important because I think people are tired of listening to critique and the problems. What concerns people are the solutions. How do we go from here to there? Our book is all about the strategies and actors: What has to be done? How are we going to do it? Who's going to do it? And for whom?

In terms of the cultural shift, the problem is obviously that there is an existing culture of domination with the idea that more is better. I think economic growth is a promise that has not been fulfilled. For example, economists recognize poverty and inequality but addressing the issue through more economic growth does not necessarily result in poor people becoming richer.

Our hope in promoting degrowth is that people realize that the transition becomes an opportunity to live better. We are not saying we should put limits on our lives because something is happening somewhere else in the world, but rather, that because of our limits we can gain in our freedom. For example, if we decide to work less and dedicate more time to physical activity, spirituality, family and community, our well-being will also improve.

If we keep on a model like San Francisco or Los Angeles where we allow a few people to be so rich, there will not be enough for everyone. Our idea is that we should live simply so everyone can simply live. This really the point of our book.

Can you talk about the concept of degrowth and the Global South? Your work makes an important articulation that one type of approach is not what you are suggesting.

Degrowth comes from an ecological critique of development and the idea that growth is not compatible with sustainability. We make the argument that development is an idea that comes from the west and is imposed upon other people in the world. The idea that everyone in the world should live in the same way is a problematic idea. Many alternatives to development are emerging in different parts of the world, so while degrowth comes largely from Europe, there are many other approaches across Latin America and the Global South, which are outlined in another book, Pluraverse.

We recognize that different proposals around the world have some similarities to degrowth and we want to build alliances with them. The implementation will depend on the local context and cultural nuances. For example, I don't think that in people in Hungary, China and Uganda should all live in the same way. Out of diverse approaches we can learn a lot.

We hear a lot about the Green New Deal. What do you think should be considered?

In principle, we are fine with this concept in that it includes a lot of investment to foster an ecological transition. My only point with the Green New Deal is that it should not be focused on achieving more economic growth, but it's should be focused on what really matters, which is reducing inequality, generating employment and achieving ecological sustainability and the well-being of people.

You have to think about what the synergies between different policies because it's the combination of these policies that will make an impact. If we focus the ecological transition solely on renewable energy, which might be better for emissions, we have the issue that a lot of minerals need to be extracted and the mining of these minerals is also problematic. These complexities in the ecological transition need to be taken into account.

Is there anything else you want to share with CEU’s global community?

The pandemic put us in a situation where we have to choose our priorities. With degrowth we are saying the priority should not be economic growth, but what really matters is life, equity well-being and sustainability.

- interview by Julie Potter, CEU Communications Office -