This second international conference of Tranform!Danmark – the first one has been organized a year ago – confirmed that it was a right choice to promote a debate on alternatives to growth after the conference last year on “The Crisis in Europe – Left Alternatives.”
Even before the conference there was a huge interest. Although we chose to be less ambitious than last year – organizing a one-day conference this year – there were around 140 participants exceeding the space of the room. The contributions of the speakers were of an extremely high quality, which made the conference one to be remembered by the audience. The many positive acknowledgments afterwards confirm that this is the case.
As such the conference has been continuing and broadening the debate on left alternatives, by focusing on a necessary debate on ecological and equitable alternatives to environmental and mainstream economy and thinking.
The conference showed the need for this. Growth has become a mantra in times of crisis and recession, with the need for jobs. However, there is no alternative to try to think differently and critically about growth and to develop alternative policies, even in times of crisis, when the aim is to transform and change societies into environmentally and socially sustainable and equitable societies.
Gabriele Michalitsch, political scientist and economist at the University of Vienna, spoke on the issue of forming neoliberal subjects and how neoliberalism had extended to all sides of society and inside the individual – an expression of the human capital theory. She underlined 9 postulates that move our subconscious in neoliberal society: Self-reliance (focusing on oneself), entrepreneurship, activity (linked to initiative), fitness, choice (related to the market), competition, self-production, merit principle (basic principle of inequality), fairness (but not justice), and privatization. She underlined as well that based on these assumptions the public sphere is narrowed and feminism for example becomes an individual problem – a woman should emancipate herself. It is no longer a collective task. There is an individualized fight for survival. “The Left should question and oppose these neoliberal assumptions,” she said. “We must try to develop alternative approaches to growth and a debate on de-growth”.
Inge Røpke, Professor at the Aalborg University in Denmark, focused on the need for ecological economics. She explained why the GDP is an inappropriate measurement for the societal wellbeing as societal benefits and costs are both counting as positive in the GDP – and referred to a “GDP obsession” in today’s societies. With “social metabolism” as a starting point, she explained the human interaction with the biosphere and while the scale of consumption is of paramount importance for the biosphere. We now see signs of planetary boundaries in the form of amongst other things climate change. Inge Røpke recommended watching theRockström video on planetary boundaries. She proposed the need to look at different indicators of scale, including global extraction and material flows of fossil fuels, minerals, metals and biomass as well as the scale of local and regional consumption in relation to the “full world”. She stressed the need for a worldview, which takes into account the facts that “When I use the resources, you can’t” and “Money can expand, but not the real-real economy”. And therefore we need a new conceptualisation of unequal exchange, which does not only look at trade relations in monetary terms but also includes the physical terms where the global inequalities are even more predominant than in monetary terms.
Petter Næss, Professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, spoke about fundamental contradiction between a profit-oriented economic system and long-term environmental sustainability. In a profit-oriented economy, capital accumulation is a prime driving force, and non-growth for the economy tends to result in serious economic and social crises. On the other hand, a de-coupling of economic growth from resource depletion and environmental degradation is possible only within certain sectors or product types and within relatively short time perspectives. Petter Næss used examples from urban planning in Denmark and Norway to explain why good initiatives to reduce the use of resources will be undermined by rebound effects if societies do not transform into societies built on environmental and social sustainability – and concluded that green growth as an illusion. Furthermore, he explained how assumptions about the possibility of steady-state capitalism disregard the relation between capital and surplus value, which constitutes a strong mechanism driving the capitalist economy toward limitless growth. Petter Næss proposed the need for societal changes into “Ecosocialism”.
Finally Christa Wichterich, Professor at Kassel University, and Women in Development Europe (WIDE), showed how to re-politicize economic issues from a feministic perspective of social reproduction, and stressed the emancipatory potential of the caring economy. She sees a lot of environments around the individual woman; the first one is the body, and here we have care. Others are labour, food security, goods, resources (energy). She sees the dogma of capitalist growth as a circle of booms and crashes, as one crisis after the other. The capitalist market functions through social reproduction and unpaid care work and the regeneration of nature. She sees unpaid care work as work, and we have to overcome the distinction between production and reproduction. We have to acknowledge care work, and in that respect we have to decolonise our mindset. She spoke at length about the perspective of feminist political ecology (ecofeminism) and found much overlap with the “Buen Vivir” concept of indigenous people in Latin America. For instance in Bolivia and Ecuador there is a clash between the ecological and the social. By using natural resources it is possible to establish social programmes.
The speakers at this conference focused on information, knowledge and disclosing dominant thinking in order to further the understanding for the need to break the neoliberal Capitalist logic and to promote systemic transformation. There is still a great amount of issues to be discussed related to develop concrete alternative policies. This will be for a coming conference.
The speakers were unanimous in their views on the need for transformation. However, there were differences regarding system change – over on one side openness towards a more gradual and reformist approach and on the other one convinced of the necessity to break with the Capitalist system to make change.
There was a concluding panel discussion with the audience, with questions regarding the experience of the speakers to promote a change of thinking. Unfortunately the speakers were not very optimistic – underlining their own difficulties in the academic world where they worked, where there was – as they said – a clear tendency to try to marginalize alternative views.