Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

The concept of renewable energy is generally used for electric power that is not derived from finite sources such as stocks of fossil fuels or uranium. It includes the harnessing of flows such as direct sunlight, wind, and water. Harnessing such flows for electricity production requires technologies that are fundamentally different from the technologies used for deriving mechanical power from burning stocks of coal, oil, or gas. This applies to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams as much as it does to photovoltaic panels, but the focus here will be on solar power.

The rise of the fossil economy

The burning of fossil fuels as sources of mechanical power began with the steam engine in Britain in the 1760s. This innovation was essential to the Industrial Revolution. It marked a transition from relying on organic and flow-based energy sources propelled by current sunlight—such as human labour, draft animals, watermills, and windmills—to the combustion of subterranean mineral stocks. These mineral stocks—coal, oil, and gas—contain energy from ancient sunlight accumulated in organisms and deposited as sediments in the Earth’s crust.

The energy transition of the Industrial Revolution was not simply a discovery of how mineral energy could be converted into mechanical power. The harnessing of mineral energy required capital, that is purchasing power. As the wealthy core of the world’s greatest colonial empire, Britain was able to invest in steam technology. The expansion of steam technology in late eighteenth-century Britain was thus a process linked to the British appropriation of African slave labour and American plantation land. It saved Britain substantial quantities of labour time and agricultural land, but at the expense of great amounts of African labour and American land.

Energy technology – part nature, part society

The experience of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and other wealthy areas of the world was interpreted as a miraculous achievement of engineering. This is undeniable but does not tell the whole story. Technologies are not merely ingenious ideas or blueprints applied to nature. For them to materialize, engineers must have access to specific physical components—and at specific ratios of exchange (that is, prices). Engineering was certainly a necessary condition for the establishment of steam technology in early industrial Britain, but it was not a sufficient condition. The technology for harnessing the energy of coal was contingent on the market prices of raw cotton, African slaves, the labour of coal miners, Swedish iron, lubricants, and other inputs in relation to the market prices of exported cotton textiles. The physical existence of the machine, in other words, hinged not only on the revelation of nature, but also on social processes of exchange. However, this hybrid essence of technology—part nature, part society—has largely escaped the modern conception of engineering.

Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

By the end of the twentieth century, natural scientists had recognized that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. There have also been concerns about the depletion of finite mineral energy stocks and the decreasing net energy return on energy expended on extraction, also referred to as ERO(e)I (Energy Return On energy Investment). Moreover, the huge global disparities in per capita energy use are no longer easily rationalized as uneven development but suggest structural and increasing gaps between wealthier and poorer parts of world society. Given the dominant understanding of energy technology, however, these problems have generally not informed mainstream visions of the prospects of an increasingly globalized modern society. In these visions, the growing per capita use of energy continues to be fundamental to social progress, regardless of energy source. The problems with fossil energy are viewed as challenges of engineering. Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

The main candidates for replacing fossil with renewable energy are solar and wind power. Experts are divided regarding their potential to replace fossil fuels. Some see no technical or economic obstacles to such a transition. Skeptics have argued that renewable energy technologies applied at such a scale would require impractically huge amounts of materials, space, or energy. Some have emphasized that the production and maintenance of infrastructure for production of renewable energy is based on fossil energy to such an extent that the energy derived from it is very far from carbon-free. This is particularly obvious where the manufacture of solar panels is conducted in coal-powered factories, as in China. Given that the world economy is currently propelled by fossil energy to about 90%, some have concluded that economic investments in renewable energy represent a fossil energy subsidy of similar proportions. Also, given this reliance on fossil fuels, a rise in prices of fossil energy cannot simply be hailed in terms of an increasing competitiveness for solar, as it will translate into higher production costs for alternative technologies. More centrally, given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to China, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labor and abused landscapes elsewhere. The global, societal conditions for energy technologies tend to be equally overlooked whether we are accounting for the eighteenth-century shift to fossil energy or deliberating about how to abandon it. Both steam engines and solar panels have relied on asymmetric global flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials.

A transition to renewable energy generally focuses on electricity production, but most of the total global energy use occurs in other contexts, such as non-electric transports. Electricity globally represents about 19% of total energy use. In the year 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind, while over 85% relied on fossil fuels. In March 2018, Vaclav Smil estimated that as much as 90% of world energy use derives from fossil sources, and that the share is actually increasing. Solar power is not displacing fossil energy, only adding to it. The pace of expansion of renewable energy capacity has stalled—it was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Meanwhile, the global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do global carbon emissions.

We have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet.

Downscaling energy needs

How should we understand and transcend this impasse? To continue burning fossil fuels cannot be an option, but to believe that modern, high-energy society can be maintained based on renewable energy is similarly deluded. We shall certainly continue to need electricity, for example to run our hospitals and computers. But we have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet. This means making human subsistence independent from fossil energy and substantially reducing our mobility and consumption. Solar power will no doubt be an indispensable component of humanity’s future, but this will not happen as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. In order to provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy. Crucially, also, we must modify our understanding of the very idea of technology. Contrary to our modern worldview since the Industrial Revolution, technology is not a neutral way of revealing and harnessing the forces of nature. A better way to define technology is to acknowledge that it is a global social phenomenon and a moral and political question rather than simply one of engineering. If we forget about this distributive aspect of technology, it will likely continue to save time and space for a global elite at the expense of human time and natural space appropriated elsewhere.

Further resources

Alf Hornborg. Nature, society, and justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the money-energy-technology complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Argues that modern energy technologies, in exploiting global differences in the price of labor and resources, are based not only on politically neutral revelations of natural forces but crucially also on accumulation of the capital invested in harnessing them.

Dustin Mulvaney. Solar power: Innovation, sustainability, and environmental justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Discusses what changes would be required in the life cycle of photovoltaic solar power technology to make it just and sustainable.

Vaclav Smil. Power density: A key to understanding energy sources and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
Compares different energy sources in terms of the amount of energy that can be derived from them per square meter of space.

Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on theorizing the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in different societies in space and time. His books include The Power of the Machine (2001), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2011), Global Magic (2016), and Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene (2019).

Degrowth

Photo: Flickr.

by François Schneider and Joanna Pope

Degrowth is a movement that explores another direction for society, one where ecological and social justice become possible, along with more meaningful lives. While there is no single definition for degrowth, this entry attempts to offer some guidance for understanding degrowth in all its diversity.

First, degrowth is a variety of challenges to the current status quo. Secondly, degrowth is not just a form of critique, but also encompasses diverse and interrelated positive utopian visions for the world. Thirdly, degrowth offers a set of paths for societal transformation in order to make these utopias possible.

1. From a missile word to other narratives: Degrowth as objection

Degrowth is a rigorous objection to dominant ideas about how economies and societies function. In this line, degrowth has been described as a ‘missile word’. Degrowth targets in particular two beliefs.

First, degrowth challenges the idea that economic growth is the only way to achieve prosperity and wellbeing for all. Growth does not improve our lives. Instead, the pursuit of infinite economic growth on a finite planet has led to both vast social inequality and ecological destruction. Degrowth also rejects claims (for which there is no empirical evidence or theoretical justification) that we would be able continue to pursue infinite economic growth without accelerating the global ecological crisis.

Degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation.

Secondly, degrowth challenges the pessimistic belief that ecological collapse is inevitable, that all we can do now in response to the global climate crisis (and many other crises) is to close our communities and borders to those in need. As we will see in the next section, degrowth is not a passive critique, but an active project of hope, with vivid utopian visions of another, better world with equality, decolonization, reparations and social justice as its foundation.

The idea of degrowth as a missile word, a stone thrown, helps us grasp the radical intent of those who use it as a slogan. But degrowth is not a singular missile. Rather, it has transformed, after nearly twenty years of discussion and activism, into an entire web of guerilla narratives. These degrowth counter-narratives challenge the ideology of economic growth from a range of different perspectives, from political economy, sociology and happiness studies, to ecofeminism, social ecology and post-development theory.

2. Other worlds are possible: Degrowth as utopia(s)

Degrowth goes beyond a mere critique of the current system. It also offers genuine alternatives through theory and practice. Degrowth is not afraid to envision a utopian future for our world. The degrowth society is just, ecological, sustainable, democratic, participatory, internationalist and localized with rich cultural, ethnic and ecological diversity in each locality, and simultaneously open and global.

Like its web of counternarratives, degrowth utopias are not determined by doctrine or set in stone. They are multiple, flexible and continuously redefined based on new insights, critique and dialogue.

Who are the people who help imagine and invent degrowth utopias? Degrowth’s utopian vision has been supported by scholars and researchers from around the world. Together, their work amounts to hundreds of peer-reviewed publications, numerous special issues, and a wide range of academic and accessible books on the subject.

But it was activists and practitioners who first brought the degrowth movement into existence. For degrowth practitioners, utopias do not exist only as long term visions, but also take shape as microcosms in the here and now. The creators and inhabitants of degrowth nowtopias seek to live in the society that they believe should exist, and demonstrate that other worlds are possible. Examples of nowtopias include community gardens, cooperatives, open source technology projects, repair cafes, mutual aid networks and more. Each year, conferences in cities around the world bring degrowth theory and practice together, as participants from different fields and backgrounds debate current challenges and future visions for the movement.

There is a tendency to think that these degrowthers are a small minority. But in fact, they are in good company. The political movement of degrowth emerged in France in the early 2000s but degrowth sources like voluntary simplicity have wide and old recognition. We find traces of degrowth in the philosophies of Lao Tse, Diogenes and Epicurus, for example. On the contrary the idea of economic growth was put forward with the rise of capitalism which is relatively recent. In spite of the incredible media/political push of this idea of growth, the idea of degrowth is becoming the favored emerging utopia these days.

Many different Indigenous cultures offer practices, philosophies and ways of life that resonate with degrowth and its long term vision. Degrowthers can also look to resistance movements in the Global North and South, from MOVE to the Zapatistas for insight and inspiration as they imagine a radically different world. Beyond this, there is a wide range of social movements whose practical and theoretical knowledge, and critiques of degrowth, can help utopian degrowthers expand their own understanding of what is possible.

3. Degrowth of some things, expansion of others: Degrowth as paths of socio-ecological transformation

How can we make degrowth utopias a reality, and strengthen and expand existing degrowth nowtopias? To address this challenge, degrowth articulates practical and diverse roadmaps to a better world. It is in this way that the word ‘degrowth’ takes on a third meaning—degrowth as paths of transformation.

Rather than presenting a silver bullet solution, degrowth proposes a web of change across housing, urban planning, transport, agriculture, energy systems, money, redistributive taxation, biodiversity, supply chains, manufacturing, software, hardware and technology governance, employment and working conditions,welfare, healthcare, education, democracy and more. Together, these proposals can guide an equitable, planned downscaling of production and consumption.

But these paths do not demand that we downscale everything. Rather, the task is to shrink some sectors, while simultaneously expanding and transforming others for the better, while the sum is a move to the reduction of material and energy flow and to simpler and more meaningful lives. Degrowing aviation, for example, means reducing unnecessary flying while also making travelling by train, bike, sailboat and on foot more accessible. Similarly, advocates of housing for degrowth or degrowing tourism, propose not only doing less but also doing things differently, that is, not only reducing ecologically and socially harmful practices and models, but also fostering and expanding existing alternatives that center both the environment and human needs.

Instead of the rebound effect that accompanies attempts at eco-innovation under the growth paradigm, degrowth pathways promote debound, creating an interlinked web of technical and non-technical solutions that fulfill human needs.

These pathways also contribute to a decolonization of imaginaries—by challenging commodification, consumerism, the pursuit of profit, the Western model of development and the destructive, growth-dependent system of capitalism itself. In this way, degrowth seeks to bring about not just material and political change, but cultural change too, allowing us to understand the world, ourselves and our desires through an entirely different lens.

4. Linking diversity: Fulfilment of needs and non-violence at the core of degrowth?

Degrowth thrives on diversity, embracing a wide range of different perspectives. These diverse perspectives are actually about fulfilling diverse profound needs, material ones like food or shelter for all but also many non-material needs. Degrowth is thus a proposition to meet these multiple concomitant needs by creating the conditions for a society where cooperation becomes possible, where sources of violence dwindle. To do so involves a fundamentally non-violent approach, on the one hand through cooperative approaches within the movements for social transformation but also conflicting ones as it involves non-violent civil disobedience in the face of a highly unequal society destroying, among others, natural resources, cultures, and biomes. Responding to deep needs, whether we are talking about material needs, or needs for well-being, community, recognition outside the growth dogma requires dialogue and listening to emotions and feelings. Degrowth is thus a vast collective project in which we empathize with the deep needs of everyone. To this end we need highly democratic processes to give voice to what is not expressed in order to build degrowth narratives: narratives which make us realize that meeting the needs of all is part of the realm of what is possible.

Further resources

François Schneider, Giorgos Kallis, Joan Martinez-Alier, 2010. Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 511-518
An introduction to degrowth.

Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria, Giorgos Kallis. Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era. Routledge, 2015.
A great collection of many topics relating to degrowth, challenging the status quo.

Federico Demaria, François Schneider, Filka Sekulova, Joan Martinez-Alier. What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement, Environmental values, 22(2):191-215. 2013
A good overview of sources and actors of degrowth – degrowth as a frame.

Anitra Nelson & François Schneider, Housing for degrowth, Routledge, 2019. The introduction of “spiralling narratives” for degrowth in the area of housing

Chris Carlsson, Nowtopia, AK Press: 2008
A great review of the idea of living our utopias now.

Serge Latouche. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
Where Latouche develops the notion of degrowth society.

François Schneider. Let’s degrow up and grow down!
https://entitleblog.org/2017/01/10/lets-degrow-up-and-grow-down/
Why degrowth is the right word to use, and why meaning “degrowth” by saying “growth” is inappropriate.

François Schneider is a Doctor in industrial ecology and a degrowth researcher since 2001. Founder and former president of Research & Degrowth (http://degrowth.org/), and initiator and main organiser of the first international degrowth conferences, he teaches degrowth at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. In 2012 he started the experiential project Can Decreix, the “house of degrowth”. His work on degrowth focuses on the themes of material flows, allocation problems, rebound effect, transport, housing, lifestyles, frugal innovation, open-localism and identification of pathways.

Joanna Pope is a researcher with a focus on degrowth and ecocritical theory. She is based at Trust, an incubator for platform design and utopian conspiracy in Berlin, and works as an editor and researcher at The Syllabus and is a contributing editor for Uneven Earth.

Remembering

The New River flowing into Imperial County, California from Baja California, Mexico

by James Banks

I remember when I was young, I wanted to go on a road trip real bad.  My mom said, “Maybe next summer”.  But I wanted to go that summer.  So she said, “We can’t go on a road trip, but we can pretend.”  I was six years old, so I was okay with that.  My sister was nine years old and she knew better.  But what was she going to do?  And my dad got into it.

They got us sitting in chairs next to each other.  And Dad started out driving, and he described us driving down Chase toward Avocado, and then getting on the 94.  We were taking the scenic route.  There were giant metal dinosaurs.  I knew which kind of dinosaurs they were.  And then we caught up to the 8 and drove down the twists into the Imperial Valley.

It was beautiful there, hot, humid, and beautiful, everything irrigated.  There were giant date groves, and fields full of alfalfa.  We stopped in El Centro to get some ice cream, my Dad pulling over and all of us unbuckling and getting out and walking over to the refrigerator.

We got back in the car.  Mom was driving.  She was the only one who could take over because me and my sister weren’t old enough to drive. 

We wanted to play music, so Mom pulled over and Dad hopped out of the passenger seat and got the boombox from the garage and dusted it off and we listened to the radio and Dad’s old CDs. 

It was a pretty good trip.  We went for four hours and then we got off at our motel room in Tucson.

I remember when I was in college.  We lived in the old house in El Cajon.  I walked to the El Cajon Transit Center to take a trolley to SDSU.  It was about a mile or a mile and a quarter walk.  I remember during that time my mom invited a mother and her son to live with us.  The mother lived in my sister’s room, and the son slept in mine.  They were from the Imperial Valley.  There used to be a big salt lake in the Imperial Valley called the Salton Sea, but it dried up for the most part and there were terrible dust storms from the exposed lake bed, and most people left around the time I was in college. 

I remember the son being a bully, and I remember how finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I couldn’t get any sleep with him around.  I think he thought that since he and his mom didn’t have any place to go, and we were good people, that we would have to help them, but finally we confronted them.  He talked his mom into leaving instead of him changing.  I heard she got a job at the Viejas Solar Farm, and he started school at the community college out there.  I remember one day she came back to visit and she was talking about her son.  She was really worried because he had a gambling problem.  All his money went to the casino.

It’s a sad story.  Some years later they shut down the casino and remodeled it, and they use it for different things now. 

I remember one time there was a big protest.  “No More Ecosocialist Nightmare!” said one sign.  Another said “War is Peace.  Slavery is Freedom.  Poverty is Wealth.”  They were protesting in favor of personal liberty.  They said that climate change might be bad, but so would an “Orwellian sustainability”. 

The political science professors had theories of how to not have Orwellian sustainabilities, but I only had one political science class, so I wasn’t taught them.  One of my friends was a poli sci major.  He wanted to go into politics.  I asked him about it and he said “Basically, it comes down to whether people who end up in power are the kind of people who don’t want there to be Orwellian sustainability.  And, whether they’re the kind of people who can carry through that commitment.” I thought there should have been a better answer.

I remember rations.  I went to a hardcore concert with my friend once.  The singer was screaming about rations, complaining because they didn’t think they needed to be so tight.  I also used to go to stand up comedy back then and everyone talked about rations.  I think people still complain about rations.

Song of protest

We used to have FFDs (“fasting and frugality days”) where we tried to consume as little as possible.  Usually on a day we all had off.  We got out the CD player and put on some Indian music and we would sit there with our stomachs digesting themselves (or at least that’s what it felt like).  We would groan and make jokes about being hungry.

I remember my sister moving out to get married to her boyfriend.  First they moved into the master bedroom of a house in Rancho Peñasquitos, where the widower moved to the downstairs bedroom.  They had to work some shifts as caregivers to lower the rent.  Then after he passed on, they moved into a house with another couple they were close to, and the two couples started to have kids, and the kids grew up in one little mob.

I remember trying to find people to fit in our house.  We needed people we could really trust.  It took a few years, but I finally felt like one of my friends could share my room.  We adopted him into our family, but not legally.  My sister’s room was free by then so we invited some older people from church to stay there.  They were okay for me and my friend.  But then they had to move to a nursing home after about five years, and we had to find someone new.  Mom and Dad were also getting older, so they called up some old friends in another state, people they “never got to see enough these days”.  And they agreed to move in.  So my parents and their friends were having a good time all the time, but it was too much for me and my friend, so we started going out more.

There were a lot of people who didn’t work, or didn’t work much.  I remember spending whole days walking through El Cajon, looking at the people walking around.  There were some days I got real bored, and there were two days to get through before my next shift at my job.  I remember some people getting into mischief because they were bored, and that bothered me, so I decided to try to talk to those people.  I would tell them about imaginary places, and if they were bored enough, they would listen.

I remember one time we did take a road trip through Imperial Valley.  There were big signs that said “Dust storms likely next 45 miles.”  We saw an old house and wondered if anyone lived in it.

I remember rent being low.  But water was expensive.  A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants. 

Salt ponds by day, from above

When I was in college, some friends and I went out trespassing one night and ended up in the salt ponds at the end of San Diego Bay.  We walked along the paths at the edges of the pond.  Then we saw something lit up a little in the dark, a huge building. “Is that the desalination plant?” we wondered.  When we got close enough to read the sign, we were close enough to be seen by the guard who ran us off the property and warned us harshly to never do that again.

I remember when some people set fire to someone’s mansion.  They said it was for crimes against the environment, for hoarding resources.  The conservatives said, “I don’t know why you would burn down a house to protest resource waste.”

Looking back, I think the people who burned down the house had a point, and the conservatives had a point.  How can you stop someone without hurting them?  And how can you hurt people without destroying something good?  I can’t think of how to get some people out of their mansions, but maybe we can prevent people from becoming the kind of people who live in them, without burning anything down.

Our neighbors never took anyone in.  After the son left it was just the mom and dad.  “We’re fine the way things are”, they said.  They were nice neighbors, always brought us something good at Christmas-time.

Eventually my friend and I started sleeping in tents in the backyard and my parents let a couple of my cousins have our room.  When it rained, a few times a year, we slept inside in the living room.

I think I’m okay with my neighbors not taking anyone in.  Some people can do some things, other people other things.

I remember when the last homeless person got a place to stay.  It was on the news.  I heard that some of them messed up the places they moved into, because they weren’t used to having their own property.  I guess some of them had personality issues too.  The city of San Diego had a call for volunteers to be their friends, although they called it something other than “friends”.  You can’t hire people or force people to be friends, was their thinking.

I remember one night my friend was making too much noise getting into his bed and I said vicious things.  I needed my sleep and I had been around him too much anyway.  So my parents sent us out to have vacations at separate hotels.  We each had our own room in the hotels we stayed in.  We came back and found out from each other that both the hotels were on the beach and had amazing views.  They were both in Mission Beach.  We laughed when we realized that it wouldn’t have been hard for us to have run into each other by mistake, down there on the boardwalk.  He said “That would be a terrible mistake, to see someone when you shouldn’t”.

I remember when my father died, and then a few years later, my mother.  My sister and I sold the old house in El Cajon, and I left San Diego County for good.  I left everyone behind.  Time to try something new, I thought.  My friend waved goodbye to me. 

I took a train to Chicago and then one to New York City and then one up to Maine.  On the opposite end of the country, I got my own place to stay.  But there didn’t seem to be enough people inside my house, and I didn’t know anybody to live with me.  My friend had to stay in San Diego.  But I met a nice woman and we settled down, so that’s what kept me up there, for many years.

These are all some things I remember.  And what will you be remembering, as you live the life ahead of you?


James Banks lives in San Diego, CA and has written fiction and non-fiction about the sustainable future, being lost, development, trust, and (anti)romance. Website: 10v24.net

Photo credits:

Photo one:  Calexico New River Committee / public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nrborderborderentrythreecolorsmay05-1-.JPG

Photo two:  by Dave Shearn / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dustin_Kensrue.jpg

Photo three:  by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS / CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_aerial_of_completed_Western_Salt_Pond_Restoration_Project!_(6967928908).jpg

Pulling the magical lever

Image: Pixabay

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Ideas about the importance of the imagination in an age of political and ecological crisis are popping up everywhere: in the arts, in activism and other forms of politics, and in a wide range of academic disciplines and fields. This blog is one example.

In addition to creative efforts to imagine other futures, we also need critical analyses of such visions. This is because imaginative responses to crises cover a broad spectrum of politics and worldviews—and even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present. A critical approach to utopian imaginaries is essential for any rethinking of political futures; without it, we risk being trapped in the same old stories even as we see ourselves as thinking outside the old story box.

Even our dreams of a better future can be constrained by the political structure and ideologies of the present.

In this essay, I discuss one category of future visions: techno-utopianism. There are plenty of techno-utopian fiction and nonfiction stories to choose from. Three that have caught my attention and that have some interesting similarities and differences are British campaigner and lobbyist Jonathon Porritt’s design fiction book The world we made, futurist Jacque Fresco’s The Venus project, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism.

To see how viable these visions are, I’ll analyze their narrative and argumentative logic and also connect the basic assumptions in these visions to the modernization hypothesis—the idea that human history is a process of evolution towards modernity through economic development and technological progress. Several schools of thought in the critical social sciences have emerged in reaction to this widespread conviction about progress. World-systems theory is one of them, and it retells the story of modernization (or of ‘the modern world system’) by taking the colonial expansion of Western Europe as a starting point. This expansion wasn’t driven by some automatic force of modernization but by the accumulation of resources in privileged areas and the consequent impoverishment of peripheries. This perspective should lead us to ask whether institutions and artefacts that are often taken for granted in attempts to reimagine politics—like the technologies that are central in techno-utopianism—are compatible with or inimical to environmental sustainability and social justice.

With this critical perspective in mind, we will now turn to the three stories and their connections to political movements.

The World We Made: Alex McKay’s Story from 2050

Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist with a background in the UK Green Party and Friends of the Earth, has written a 300-page design fiction imagining concrete steps from the year 2014 to an imagined sustainable future in 2050. Design fiction aims to inspire new forms of design and engineering (and sometimes also political policy), and its possible functions in relation to environmental issues  are currently being investigated by researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Porritt’s report from the future, which is divided into sections of a few pages each, is permeated by a positive rhetoric that emphasizes solutions and does not linger on conflicts. He motivates this in the postscript by stating that ‘yet more tales of doom and gloom are not going to make a difference’ (p. 275). Where ecological and political crises are acknowledged—for instance concerning droughts and mass protests in the once abundant Fertile Crescent (pp. 22-27), or issues with profit maximization (pp. 54-57)—the story always moves on to hopeful conclusions about how a united world comes to its senses and decides to act in the nick of time. The narrator Alex McKay, a male community college teacher in an unspecified anglophone country (presumably the UK), writes in the preface to the report that humanity has found ‘a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations’ (p. 1). The book conceptualizes the agent of historical change, or the protagonist in a story of action for sustainability, as an abstract, united humanity which realizes its potential for goodness and acts through the existing political institutions of the 2010s. In terms of political change, we just need the general public to protest a bit (pp. 32-36) and ‘get today’s political classes to think beyond the next election’ (p. 275). Other institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, large corporations, and powerful industries—not to mention the underlying institutions of money and industrial technology, artefacts that are presented as natural phenomena and barely subject to cultural analysis—are conveniently tamed or turn out to work for the common good. This is emblematic of a tendency in many accounts of climate change (and is a central point of disagreement in the debate over the concept of the Anthropocene): to imagine a generalized human ‘we’ as first the villain causing climate change and environmental degradation and then the chastened hero who takes responsibility for the situation.

His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present.

In doing so, The World We Made fails to analyze the complex, intertwined political and economic causes behind global environmental change, climate change, global inequity, and the lack of transformative action in current political institutions. This is at least partly due to Porritt’s choice of rhetorical strategy. His wish to stay away from ‘doom and gloom’ means that he also stays away from a rigorous analysis of the political and ecological crises of the present. Consequently, as a work of fiction The World We Made can be criticized for poor characterization of both protagonists and antagonists and the lack of a coherent explanatory backstory. The cultural and material motivations of those who participate in ecological destruction and the exploitation of other people are absent, as are explanations for how institutions that are inimical to sustainability suddenly turn out to be useful tools for political change. To compare this to another well-known narrative in speculative fiction, it is as if Boromir in The Lord of the Rings were hailed for his brilliant idea of using the One Ring to do good and then everyone goes with him to Minas Tirith, they win the war with hardly any bloodshed—Sauron accepting to keep financial profits and slavery at a minimum—and the ominous aura surrounding the Ring turns out to be a stupid doom and gloom thing which luckily no one bought into.

The proposed solutions to ecological and political crises in Porritt’s design fiction take the form of leaps of faith—often faith in technology as a kind of magic—based on best-case scenarios. As six years have passed since The World We Made was published, some of those best-case scenarios have been literally disproven. The most absurd example is the contrast between Porritt’s imagined reformist and peaceful outcome of the Arab Spring (p. 22) and today’s situation with the Syrian civil war, ISIS, the political crisis in Libya after Gaddafi was ousted, enforced EU borders and the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees out, and so on. To this criticism we can add a world-system understanding of the ‘green’ technologies which Porritt sees as our global salvation (pp. 15-21, 274-275): since industrial technologies in the past have been built on the exploitation of resources and labour in impoverished peripheries, we have no reason to believe that a non-exploitative force of technological progress will suddenly kick in and modernize us all out of this mess. As I will return to towards the end of this essay, these technologies need to be analyzed in connection to their role in the world system as a whole and not only on the basis of the local benefits they offer the people who control them.

The Venus Project

If there are tendencies to view technologies as magic in Porritt’s thinking, it is nothing compared to what is presented in the political vision of the Venus Project. The project was founded by futurist Jacque Fresco and is an important source of inspiration in some environmentalist circles.

The Venus Project is described on the website as ‘a single man’s vision of the future where war is obsolete, there’s no lack of resources, and our focus as a species is global sustainability and the preservation of the environment.’ The key to this is the progress of modern technology. In Fresco’s vision, humanity will use ‘the latest scientific and technological marvels’ to ‘reach extremely high productivity levels and create abundance of resources.’ The scientific method will guarantee progress in all areas, from energy to social relations. In an interview in The New American, Fresco explains how:

  ‘Nobody makes decisions in the Venus Project, they arrive at them,’ Fresco said. For example, a soil sample would go to ‘Central Agriculture’, which would analyze it, and make a determination as to what the best crop to grow in that soil would be. ‘We intend to use surveys to arrive at decisions rather than make decisions.’

This objective scientific analysis will unleash the full force of technological progress. It will give us clean nuclear power through the development of Thorium reactors. We can also expect a system of fully automated construction with gigantic 3D printers building everything humans need. We will live in circular cities planned and managed by computers and organised around a ‘central dome or theme center’ housing ‘the core of the cybernated system, … computerized communications, networking systems’ (which is reminiscent of the utopian tradition of imagining the ideal city). There will be permanent space stations, serving as gravity-free research environments and supplying information about the earth’s ecological status to the supercomputers which run human society. The complex transportation system of the united planetary civilization will include hovercars, hovering conveyors called transveyors replacing other vehicles in cities, and hovering aircraft ‘controlled by electro-dynamic means eliminating the need for ailerons, elevators, rudders, spoilers, flaps or any other mechanical controls.’

If the scientific method and technological progress are the heroes of Fresco’s story, the main villain is money. In an interview on the website of the Venus Project, Fresco says that he can’t see peace and equity happening ‘in a monetary-based system where the richest nations control most of the world’s resources.’ The proposed alternative is a ‘Resource Based Economy’ in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means.’ It will be achieved through the application of the scientific method and the declaration of all resources ‘as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’

There doesn’t seem to be any need for rigorous arguments supporting the ability of technology to create resources or in other ways transcend the laws of physics. As a result, the Venus Project’s imagined technologies are a lot like the Star Trek Replicator: a machine creating matter out of pure energy, where neither the source of this energy nor the way the machine works is defined.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction.

The term for this type of science fiction world-building, where no effort is made to prove the feasibility or viability of future technologies, is soft science fiction. On the pop-culture site tvtropes.org, soft science fiction is illustrated by how it would explain time travel: ‘You sit in this seat, set the date you want, and pull that lever.’ Techno-utopianism, it seems, is soft science fiction: you pull the lever of technological progress and post-scarcity comes about. In Global Magic: Technologies of Appropriation from Ancient Rome to Wall Street, the anthropologist and political ecologist Alf Hornborg describes this as a form of fetishism; he argues that ‘technology is our own [modern] version of magic’ as it is ‘widely imagined to have autonomous agency’. He also contends that this fetishism ‘serves to mystify social relations of exchange’. Only by disassociating modern technology from global relations of exchange, and viewing it as a quasi-living thing which can act and has a purpose in itself, can we conceive of globalized technologies as creating wealth rather than accumulating it for the few.

Fresco’s vision relies entirely on a fetishized conceptualization of technology and a disassociation of ‘technological marvels’ from the system of exchange which he sees as a root cause of injustice and environmental destruction. This is made possible by his viewing money as a social institution but technology as a natural—or even supernatural and magical—force. This ambiguous attitude to modern institutions, with a critique of modern political economy and a celebration of modern science and technology, makes the Venus Project a fascinating techno-utopian vision to study. Maybe Fresco’s critique of money can still be useful for environmentalist movement building?

Further research on similar political visions and the opinions of Fresco’s followers suggests otherwise: it seems Fresco’s cabalistic critique of the monetary system he would overthrow lends itself to conspiracy theories. The Zeitgeist Project, created by Peter Joseph, one of Fresco’s most passionate disciples, is a telling example. Peter Joseph has made three Zeitgeist films covering issues of debt, interest, and how banks create money—and affirming the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were an inside job. And that’s not the only connection between the Venus Project and conspiracy theories. In Sweden, where I live, many who swear allegiance to Fresco’s vision are involved in the movement Vaken (Awake) which believes in a number of conspiracy theories and is based on the idea that only a small group of spiritually enlightened people can access an ‘esoteric worldview’ and see through these conspiracies. Although neither the Zeitgeist project nor Vaken explicitly talk about banking and money in terms of a Jewish conspiracy, the step is not far from their combination of conspiracy theories and a critique of banking and money to the openly anti-semitic narrative told by many contemporary national socialists and ecofascists.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Source: Novara media

If we leave out the affinities with conspiracy theories, there are striking similarities between Fresco’s vision and the techno-utopian post-scarcity vision of a new trend in (predominantly Anglo-American) leftist thinking: Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC). The two basic premises for this vision are the concept of automation and, instead of Fresco’s critique of money, political change achieved through the seizing of the means of production by the working class.

The productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever.

In the same soft science fiction manner as in the Venus Project, the productive capacity of technologies is simply taken for granted—you just pull the lever. Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media and proponent of FALC, states matter-of-factly that ‘[t]here is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions’. In this same Guardian article, we learn that ‘[t]he ideology [of FALC] springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnating and factories are shedding jobs’ (emphasis added). In a similar manner, an article in Forbes contends that ‘[t]he rate of technological progress and worker productivity is on the rise’ and that ‘[r]obots, AI, machine learning, big data, etc. could basically make human labor redundant and instead of creating even further inequalities it could lead to a society where everyone lives in luxury and where machines produce everything.’ In sum: technological progress is a fact, automation is a well-observed trend, and this is stating the obvious. We all know the Earth is not flat; we all know automation is coming and technology creates abundance.

But although ideas about automation and the end of work are spreading in Western and Westernized societies, these trends are in fact not as uncontested as it would sometimes seem. Both empirical research on the industrial energy technologies that are necessary for automation and theoretical analyses of ideas about the end of work and technological progress shed doubt on automation as an unstoppable natural force. I’ll return to the former topic in the next section.

Critical analyses of ideas about automation have been around since the concept began to spread in the 1990s. A central text is George Caffentzis’s ‘The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery? A Critique of Rifkin and Negri’ which argues that the ‘“end of work” literature of the 1990s … creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.’ Caffentzis concludes that this kind of politics is ‘hardly inspiring when millions are still being slaughtered’ by the same processes of accumulation that have supposedly been subverted by the liberatory power of industrial technologies. This analysis recasts so-called labour-saving technology as a tool for the control of labour rather than the liberation of it. In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm identifies the same logic in the shift to steam power in the British empire: steam engines and fossil fuels were adopted by factory owners not because they saved labour but because they allowed for more efficient control of labour.

But FALC does not simply view technological progress itself as what brings about the end of capitalism—the movement demands socialization of the industrial means of production. In The utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy, David Graeber (though he subscribes to anarchist philosophy, not to statist luxury communism) provides a similar argument. He contends that capitalist ownership of the means of production means that automation has been used to save labour-time locally by displacing it to countries where unions are weaker and wages are lower. However, like FALC, he claims that it would be possible to use such machines to liberate labour if the means of production were owned collectively. The question is then whether the local benefits provided by industrial technologies can be made universally available.

The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

When the experience of automation and technological progress in privileged countries is situated in the larger context of the world system, there is reason to doubt this possibility. FALC relies on a Marxist version of the modernization hypothesis. It accepts theories about ‘post-industrial society’ as the stage of development that inevitably follows after industrialization and interprets the decline in domestic industrial production in privileged parts of the world as an indication that all countries can move to a post-industrial stage. The local accumulation of resources in places like Western Europe and North America becomes a universal historical trend of development towards ever more prosperous societies.

But to get a better idea of how feasible the visions of FALC, Fresco, and Porritt are, we need to unpack their ideas about societal production and reproduction. What gives life to these futuristic societies? By means of what energy are they constructed and maintained?

Three perspectives on change, one magical lever

Image: Pixabay

Solar energy is one of the most central animating powers in all three imagined futures. Bastani’s thinking is a case in point:

A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves,

and therefore,

‘the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy—that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life—feels wrong.’

Falling prices and Bastani’s intuitions are the arguments offered for the viability of solar PVs as a replacement for fossil fuels. It is assumed that PVs are a fossil-free and practically unlimited source of energy. Such an assumption relies on the belief that the process of transforming the flow of energy from the sun into an electric current, storing that energy, and putting it to use in industrial production is at least as efficient as (or more efficient than) photosynthesis. This is the dominant view of solar PVs and it has been around at least since the Brundtland report on sustainable development, published in 1987. A contemporary leftist version of it is developed in ‘Solar Communism’ by David Schwartzman. This perspective on solar PVs has traction across the political spectrum.

If we want to create a ‘hard’ science fiction story about a solar-powered future, we would need to base the world-building on something more than vague statements about how abundantly the sun shines on the surface of this planet and how the wonders of technological progress will harvest this energy and create post-scarcity. We should instead consider the net energy that can be derived from solar power—or the energy return on energy invested (EROI). We should trace the sources of the energy that goes into the construction of the technology, and follow supply chains to investigate the resource extraction that is necessary for the construction and maintenance of the technology.

There is plenty of scientific controversy regarding the EROI of photovoltaics. The EROI is commonly calculated to around 11-12 to 1, meaning that you can get 11-12 times as much energy back from PVs as you have put into the construction of them. Some calculations (one article by Ferroni and Hopkirk and one by Ferroni, Gueko, and Hopkirk) suggest the EROI of PVs to be much lower—perhaps even lower than 1 to 1, which would make solar PVs a so-called ‘energy sink’ that costs more energy to construct than you can get in return. By comparison, the first oil fields which fuelled the booming industrial expansion of the 20th century had an EROI of around 100 to 1. (The energy investment amounted to little more than poking the earth with a stick, and the return was a high-energy fuel.)

In addition to the EROI, our hard science fiction story about solar power should include the sites of extraction and processes of refinement of the materials needed for solar panels and batteries (such as silicon, lithium, and rare earth metals). This would indicate that the construction of PVs generates pollution and CO2 emissions and exploits large areas of land somewhere in the world system—generally just not in the backyard of the privileged. A horrible story about one of the central locations in this extraction is told in an article in The Guardian: in Inner Mongolia, ‘China’s second-largest coal producing region, the main global supplier of rare earths and the site of large natural gas supplies’ (emphasis added), traditional Mongolian herders and their sheep are getting sick from pollution and are being displaced. When herders have protested, Malm writes in Fossil Capital, Chinese authorities have cracked down on them brutally, even murdering at least one herder.

Our hard science fiction story about solar power should also factor in that there is no such thing as perfect recycling and that many of the necessary materials are scarce, and hence consider that extraction should be expected to peak very fast in a solar-tech-powered version of present global civilization. This means that a high-tech luxury solar utopia modelled on the energy-intensive lifestyles of privileged groups in the current world system is not feasible. Solar-powered industrial techno-utopias should not be understood as alternatives to the current system but rather, with Hornborg, as ‘an expression of the global processes of capital accumulation which fossil fuels have made possible.’

Looking for non-magical utopias

Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize.

The ideological positions may be very different in Porritt’s pro-capitalist sustainable development thinking, the Venus Project with its critique of money and possible affinities with nazism, and the movement for Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but the device of the fetishized magical lever of solar power (along with other magical industrial technologies) is equally central in all three stories. These techno-utopian imaginaries are constrained by a mainstream view of industrial technology as detached from social relations and resource flows, and the offered visions of the future can thereby conceptualize industrial technology as emancipatory. Such soft science fiction imaginaries of magical sustainability and equity are examples not of a liberated imagination but of an imagination limited by the same fossil-fuel dependent system that it seeks to criticize. Sadly, this means that the three techno-utopian visions that I have discussed here can’t be used as inspiration for the creation of anything but an upper-class gated community sucking out resources and labour from peripheries and keeping the unfortunate poor out. Their putative but ineffectual concern for the wellbeing of all people and all life makes them nice apologetic narratives to turn to for those of us who live in privileged parts of world society.

While there is a need for visions of a better future, these types of techno-utopian imaginaries—regardless of how well-meaning—will ultimately do more harm than good. In the face of current political and ecological crises, it is not comforting or empowering to be told to pull a magical lever. The rise of fascism, expanding neo-colonialism and extractivism, and runaway climate change and mass extinction call for more complex strategies and stories of change.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a co-editor at Uneven Earth, a musician and songwriter, and a PhD student at the University of Gothenburg. Elliot’s research explores the intersection between fiction and political theory in utopian and dystopian thinking about global environmental change.

This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.

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Planting the seeds of degrowth in times of crisis

Photo: Marula Tsagkari
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

by Marula Tsagkari

We must look for man wherever we can find him. When on his way to Thebes Oedipus encountered the Sphinx, his answer to its riddle was: ‘Man’. That simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of the answer of Oedipus.

These words are from the Greek Poet Giorgos Seferis’ speech at the Nobel Banquet. Today they are more relevant than ever, as humanity fights against a ‘contemporary Sphinx’: the utopian ideal of an infinite growth defined by economic indicators and theories. This promethean way of living has sustained the idea that increased wealth was the ‘one pill to cure them all.’

However, in the past years, it has become more and more obvious that resources are finite and that the planet cannot sustain continued growth. And just like that, the utopian ideal started falling apart. The latest economic crisis showed the cruelest face of the unsustainable capitalistic system. It has become clear now, more than ever, that we live in an absurd world, that despite increased wealth, unemployment and poverty are increasing, conflicts are continuing, and inequality keeps rising. In this context, the idea of degrowth points to an alternative route, and establishes a vocabulary to describe a new world based on solidarity and cooperation.

While the idea of degrowth is rather old (seeds can be found in the 1970s), the movement has only started to gain ground in recent years, especially in the echoes of the recent economic crisis. The Conferences in Leipzig in 2014 and in Budapest in 2016 brought together thousands of scientists and citizens with different backgrounds and ideologies including sufficiency-orientated critics of civilization, reformists, pacifist idealists, and libertarian leftists. However, they all seem to share the common belief that the current economic model is unsustainable, as well as a vision of a different way of living.

Perhaps because the movement found its voice through people’s dissatisfaction following economic crisis, many confuse degrowth with the idea of ‘unsustainable degrowth’, which is often synonymous with economic recession and social instability. On the contrary, the core of ‘sustainable degrowth’ is the concept of ‘progress’, but a progress not related to an increase of the GDP, large-scale production, or over-consumption. As Tim Jackson puts it, ‘Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth’. And exactly this is the myth that the degrowth movement seeks to demystify.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War.

At the same time that the degrowth movement was gaining ground in the public discourse, my country, Greece, was living the most severe economic recession since the Second World War. Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001 and since then joined the privileges of being a member of the EU monetary union, which led to a rapid increase in GDP between 2002 and 2008. However, Greece was unable to recover from the global economic crisis and, in 2009, Greek debt peaked at €310.4 billion.

Since then, the country has been trapped in a vicious cycle of bailout programs and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), under the watchful eye of the German government. These measures came with many costs. The austerity plans included strict public cuts (in health and education), measures in the private sector (massive dismissals), increased taxes, and reduced pensions. These decisions increased political instability and had a severe social cost. Unemployment was last reported to be at 23%, and 45.7% among young people (January 2017); while there are more than 20,000 homeless people (February 2016). Thus, the initial economic crisis has been transformed into a multifaceted social, political, and environmental crisis—what Geels calls a ‘triple crisis’, each of which is connected to the other.

In Greece, these interactions are now becoming clear. There was an increase in the number of smog events due to the increased price of oil, while it a rapid increase in illegal hunting and logging related to sharp budget cuts in conservation was also observed.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity.

In the Chinese language the word crisis is represented by two symbols. The first means danger and, the second, opportunity. It is true that economic crises are complex phenomena, and a form of exogenous shock in the society. On the other hand, they are also an opportunity to challenge the current way of thinking and they can open a door to a profound change.

As some supporters of degrowth have claimed, this new era will be born from the ashes of the present unsustainable system, or more specifically, active social movements can gradually pave the way for a bigger change. The work of Giorgos Kallis, Francois Schneider, and Joan Martinez-Alier offers a useful starting point. They claim that a crisis can be seen as an opportunity for alternative discourses and the seeds can be found in community-based initiatives that can form the pieces that, in the future, will fit into a bigger puzzle.

This idea triggered my interest, and I decided to focus my research on the question of a sustainable degrowth transition in Greece, and to what extent it could result from this increased civic engagement. And taking this as a starting point, the idea I want to put forward is that in Greece, despite the crisis (οr because of the crisis) one can find the seeds that can support the idea of degrowth.

The early seeds of a degrowth economy in Greece

Civic engagement was rather underdeveloped in Greece before the economic crisis. For instance, in 2005, the Civicus Survey pointed out that Greek civil society is anemic, as it was dominated by political parties and the family. However, in the wake of the economic crisis, civic activism appeared as a spontaneous response to increased social inequality and poverty. Aside from the increased number of NGOs, new, informal groups based on solidarity erupted and formed grassroots movements and networks. In times of crisis an ‘alternative, parallel’ economy was born.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this new economy came out of nowhere. Greece is a country with a strong sense of community and a culture of self-organization. The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point. Unfortunately, these small businesses are also the most harmed by the economic crisis and the austerity measures. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 20.000 small local businesses closed in Greece, according to the European Commission. As a response to the absence of local gathering points, and the loss of jobs, a number of social movements and cooperations emerged during the times of crisis.

The pharmacist, the butcher, and the fisherman of the neighborhood are integral figures of Greek culture. Everybody knows them and their stores are often a gathering point.

What’s more, the idea of cooperation has always been an important element of Greek tradition. In fact, Greek cooperative traditions may be the oldest in Europe. The idea of self-organization can be found in ancient Greek times in the form of trade unions. Cooperatives were also present, in a more advanced form, in the Byzantine Empire. These consisted of unions of land or livestock owners into common production and management systems. In this period they were recognized by the legislation of Leo VI the Wise and achieved increased autonomy—becoming a vital part of the economy.

Cooperatives were also present during the Ottoman rule (1453- 1821) and had an important role during the national liberation war of 1821. During this period new cooperatives popped up in small villages, where small groups of producers known as ‘syntrofies’ (companies or friendships) decided to cooperate to avoid competition. In some cases they were even able to export their products to other European countries.17 After Greece became an independent country the cooperations remained active, working for the establishment of a democratic regime.

IMG_20170521_184815
Photo: Marula Tsagkari

 

The revitalization of Greece’s cooperative movement

Coming back to the present, the Greek cooperative movement is still a vibrant part of the economy. The numbers speak for themselves, as there are currently more than 3000 agriculture cooperatives, 14 co-operative banks and 48 womens’ co-operatives. In addition, one can find 23 electrician, 33 plumber and 41 pharmacist co-operatives all around the country.

Lately, the idea of cooperatives has once again increased in popularity. People prefer products they can trust and remind them of their ‘grandmother in the village’. They also want to support local communities. Ιn this context, cooperatives offer products whose raw materials come directly from the land of the members of the cooperative or the village, they are often based on traditional recipes from the women in the villages, and in most cases they pack and promote their products by themselves.

On the island of Lesvos, more and more women who lost their job during the crisis joined the women’s cooperative. This increase in the number of memberships gave them the opportunity to augment their production and expand their network. They take advantage of the oranges produced in the area, which remained unused the previous years, to make desserts and jams. They also use ‘neratzath’, a type of rose water made from the leaves of the orange tree, to make cosmetics and perfumes. Nowadays, their products (sweets, jams, pasta, and cheese) can be found all around the country.

Even in big cities a number of cooperatives have sprung up. In Athens one can find the cooperative coffee shops Mantalaki, Pagkaki, Syggrouomeno; the Syn Allois shop, an importer of fair-trade products; the publisher Ekdoseis ton Sinaderfon; the computer repair shop Stin Priza; and the grocery store Lacandona, among others. Many of these stores operate under the umbrella of a bigger network, Kolektivas.

The ‘do you want milk’ cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

One initiative is the ‘do you want milk’ (thes gala) cooperative. The cooperative is made up of milk producers from central Greece and supplies with fresh milk a number of ‘milk ATMs’ in Larissa, Athens, and Greece. Consumers can fill their bottles with fresh milk, produced less than 24 hours ago, with a cheaper price than can be found in the supermarket. The cooperative started in 2011, and, despite the crisis, now counts more than 60 sell points, 50 farms, and, on a daily basis, they produce 10% of the domestic production.

 

New consumption habits

Overall, consumption in Greece had been significantly reduced as a result of diminished wages and pensions. As documented by the Hellenic Statistical Authority in 2014, average household consumption expenditure went down by almost 32% since 2009.

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities

As a response to this decrease in consumption and available funds, more and more second hand stores have popped up in the big cities. One of the most famous is located in the neighborhood of Eksarcheia; a neighborhood known for its anti-establishment and anarchist character. In this store, one can trade old clothes for new ones. ‘Our store is a response to the overconsumption, which is one of the reasons that brought us into the present crisis,’ said one of the women who worked there:

Nowadays, more and more people prefer to buy second hand clothes, especially if they can exchange them with some of the clothes they don’t need anymore. Of course some of our clients are people who can’t afford buying new clothes but the past year we see more and more people who choose not to buy new clothes as a way of living.

In the same spirit one can find similar initiatives of book exchange, furniture exchange, and even exchange of mobile phones.

Another important element of the Greek tradition is the ‘100 km rule’ (before it became famous internationally as the ‘100 mile diet’). According to this principle, people should aim to consume products that are produced within 100km from the residence. Τhis concept was a pillar of the Greek diet between the 50s and 80s, however, due to increased urbanization and working hours, and the large variety of products available on supermarkets, it was replaced by the concepts of ‘easy’ and ‘quick food’. Recently, the idea of the ‘local farmers market’ aims to bring back this idea. Producers from all around the country gather in a different neighborhood every Sunday and sell their products without Intermediaries.

In one of my visits in a local farmers’ market in my neighborhood, I had the chance to speak with M.X., a cheese producer from northern Greece. ‘Because of the crisis people want to make sure they buy local products,’ she told me. ‘More and more people tell me that they avoid buying from big supermarkets, not only because the products are more expensive, but because they know that, in this way, international brands take advantage of the Greek producers and buyers,’ she added. ‘I talk with people and give them all the information they need about my products. I am even willing to negotiate the price when someone can’t afford it!’

Social solidarity groups are also rapidly growing these past years. The work of organizations like ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Doctors of the World’, which were active before the crisis, are now supported by new health care organizations like the ‘social infirmaries’ (koinonika iatreia). Acting at a municipal level, these groups consist of doctors and nurses who treat patients for free. Similar initiatives are organized by pharmacists, teachers, and even coffee shops, which offer a free cup of coffee to people who cannot afford it.

Last but not least, a number of more politically-oriented social movements emerged during the times of crisis as a response to the austerity measures and the dysfunctional democracy. The big protests of 2008, the movement in Sundagma square and the ‘I won’t pay movement’ (Kínima den Pliróno) are some examples. Squares and occupied public and private buildings were transformed into sites of political contestation and mobilization.

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Photo: Marula Tsagkari

From ‘a way of living’ to a way to ‘make a living’

The above examples illustrate an increased tendency around niches of social movements that can form an alternative model of growth, based on solidarity, cooperation, and mutual respect. Many of these initiatives form part of the tradition that is rooted in the Greek culture that did not fade completely in modern life. This can offer a comparative advantage towards a potential transition to a degrowth model, as many of the ideas this model embodies are neither new nor strange to the Greek society. Of course these former traditional societies had a number of limitations (e.g. racism, xenophobia) that are not in line with the ideas the degrowth movement puts forward. Thus it is essential to learn from the past and keep the positive elements that can pave the way for a new way of living.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’.

These ideas are becoming popular mainly as an alternative to the economic crisis; however they need to form ‘a way of living’ instead of a way to ‘make a living’. Nowadays, many of the people who choose to buy from second hand stores or to visit the farmers market are driven by need. On the contrary, this attitude should grow into a fundamental mentality. Most of the people I had the chance to interview pointed out that, in the past years, they observed a change in people’s attitude, mainly because of the ongoing crisis that made many question the success of the present system. But is this enough?

The answer is no. This is only a first step in a long path. These initiatives will not have a significant impact if they are not supported by adequate education and publicity. Such instruments can strengthen these alternatives by raising awareness—triggering the interest of more people and encouraging the formation of new projects.

State intervention is another factor that can shape social movements. In the case of Greece, the government seems to ignore the importance of these movements, and often threatens their existence through increased taxation and stricter legislation. In the present political situation, it is nearly impossible to picture a major movement that does not involve the state. At first glance, this seems to be a contradiction as it’s a common belief that the state is a unitary actor, and that social movements are a separate unity and often in opposition to the state. In this context one should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them. To use the words of Saturnino Borras, ‘societal actors attempt to influence and transform state actors, but in the process are themselves transformed—and vice versa.’ Thus, realizing the potential of these initiatives, especially at a municipal level, could be a crucial first step.

One should realize that these initiatives, through their increased influence, can have the power to form a different political regime that, in turn, will also transform them.

Today, we are participants in a complex and severe crisis, and a radical crisis requires radical solutions. Through a number of examples it became obvious that in Greece there is groundwork for a transition to sustainable degrowth. There are seeds in the numerous social movements, voluntary actions, and solidarity networks. What remains to be seen is if the seeds will flower. We should not forget that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.’

Many thanks to all the interviewees and to Brayton Noll for his useful comments.

Marula Tsagkari is a researcher, and environmental professional from Athens, Greece. She holds a BSc in Biology and she is currently enrolled in the Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental, Science, Policy and Management. She lives in Athens, Greece and her research focuses on the areas of Environmental Politics, Policy and Justice especially in the European South.