By the Belly of the Beast: Degrowth Summer School 2017, Germany

On a warm Sunday in late August, I cycled through the sleepy Rhineland village of Holzweiler on a borrowed bicycle, past the traditional village farms which are typical for many regions in Germany, but mostly no longer operational. I overtook another cyclist, an older man, and decided to ask him for directions. “Excuse me – how do I get to the viewing platform of the open cast coal mine?” The man didn’t know. “I live here,” he replied. “I went to nursery and school here. But I’ve never been to the mine. I don’t want to see it!”

Garzweiler — the mine in question — begins only a couple of miles away from the village and stretches across an area of 3.096 ha. It is only one of the gigantic open cast coal mines the energy concern RWE runs in the Rhineland region, where up to 40 million tons of coal are extracted every year (source). After cycling past several warning signs informing me about the proximity of the edge of the coal mine, I arrived at the public viewing platform. There were a couple of policemen on motorbikes and a couple of climate activists on bicycles, taking in the view. An outdoor exhibition about the mine was designed by RWE to demonstrate their sustainability efforts and the benefits of the mine to the region and to Germany as a whole. Behind it, like a gaping wound in the earth’s crust, the mine stretched as far as the eye can see – and far beyond.

The sounds of the conveyor belts transporting some of the byproducts of the mining operation interrupted the shimmering silence of the summer day. The gigantic excavators were looming in the landscape motionless. Attached to the fence surrounding the outer edge of the platform were a few padlocks on which lovers publicly declared their affection. A striking juxtaposition of Eros and Thanatos, life and death, romance in the face of climate breakdown.

I took the detour to Garzweiler open cast coal mine while I attended Degrowth Summer School, which took place at the Klimacamp (climate camp) in a field only a few miles away. The camp, which was attended by around 3,000 people, combined talks and workshops around climate change and a wide variety of related environmental, social and political issues with camp life, art and culture. The camp culminated in the “Ende Gelände” act of civil disobedience to blockade the train tracks which supply Germany’ s dirtiest coal-fired power plant Neurath with coal. The messages and actions of the camp and Ende Gelände, under the slogan “system change not climate change” had as an ultimate aim that coal, often dubbed by campaigners the dirtiest fuel, is phased out in Germany altogether as a source of energy because of the scientific consensus about its significant contribution to climate change as part of the energy sector. However, so far the German government is clinging firmly to its continued use of coal as a major energy source.

Now in its third year, the Degrowth Summer School was attended by over 300 people. Infused and informed by the proximity of the “belly of the beast” of the extractive economy, short courses, workshops and panel discussions took place over four days which covered scientific topics, practical skills and activist strategies around building Degrowth societies. The summer school was run by the Leipzig-based think tank Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie (concept new economy), which faced a major headache as 46,000 Euros of funding were withdrawn due to its proximity of acts of civil disobedience. It managed, however, to fundraise most of this money in a short period of time through the generosity of its benefactors.

In a nutshell: What is Degrowth?

We pump oil out of the increasingly hard-to-reach fossil layers, we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we pump freshwater out of the ground faster than it can be replenished and we pump money out of our communities and into the 1%’s financial stratosphere. With our lifestyles dependent on extractive industries, our planetary limits have been increasingly pushed or exceeded. While local decimations of forests and wildlife forced people to migrate throughout human history, awareness of global limits has emerged only relatively recently. At the Club of Rome meeting in 1972, the paradoxical doctrine of infinite economic growth on a finite planet was problematised for the first time. Nonetheless, in the more than five decades that have passed since, the prevailing economic paradigm has remained fixated on growth. Not only in the global market, but also in the universities and colleges that teach future generations of economists. Meanwhile we have continued and accelerated the depletion of global resources and pushed or exceeded more ecological limits.

Voices calling for an end of economic growth have become louder in the last few years, while advocating ‘Degrowth’, defined as the “downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet” (Schmelzer, 2014). The Degrowth movement gained momentum especially in several European countries, where international Degrowth Conferences in Paris (2008), Barcelona (2010), Venedig (2012), Leipzig (2014 – the largest with around 3,000 delegates) and Budapest (2016) were key for enabling activists and academics to converge and discuss, develop and refine the discourse. While there is a wide spectrum of political positions and priorities, proponents of Degrowth argue for alternative models of organising society and the economy, either because they believe that a slowing down of economic growth is inevitable, or because they promote the goal of stalling or shrinking economies, at least in the global North.

Degrowth discourse advocates decreasing production and consumption in the global North and alternatives to ‘development’ in the global South; a good life for all, measured not in GDP but in wellbeing indicators determined by research around human needs; different work patterns and ways to organise time which allow for working towards, for example, self-sufficiency, shared childcare and commons resources; democratic decision-making processes and regional interconnected circular economies. In the global South, the discourse tends to revolve around critiques of mainstream development models. Alternative pathways include Buen Vivir (‘the good life’), a concept emerging from Ecuador which is informed by indigenous ways of life; post-development theory such as that by Colombian-American scholar Arturo Escobar, arguing that even new ‘softer’ forms of development constitute a form of cultural imperialism; and Vandana Shiva’s feminist, anti-corporate activism in India.

In the global North, the Degrowth discourse tends to revolve around critiques of affluent lifestyles, which cannot be afforded or aspired to, as this would lead to ecological disaster. This view can be summarised as follows:

“Global justice … can neither be a project of cultural homogenization, nor can it be reached on the economic level alone. It is not the South that has to be ‘developed’, but the North that has to be materially disarmed.” (Nico Paech).

At the 2017 summer school, there was a particular focus on “Degrowth perspectives on the future of the Rhinish lignite region”, “Psychology of change” and “Skills for System Change”. As I joined spontaneously, most of the courses were already fully booked. I joined a course on the role of social movements in a Degrowth society, with a particular focus on Via Campesina. One of the organisers has written up a summary of the experience of running the summer school. A highlight was a panel discussion in the nearby town of Erkelenz around the topic “What comes after lignite? And how to pave a just transition?”, where climate activists and trade union representatives of energy companies were present to discuss their respective points of view. At the end of the discussion, the points of view had not shifted; it was agreed that there was a clash of cultures between the two groups, but that it was good to remain in conversation.

The variety of courses and approaches reflected that there is no blueprint for what a Degrowth society could look like, and many of our discussions revolved around the question whether ‘Degrowth’ is a social movement at all. The discourse is characterised by regional differences and priorities, and the pluralistic, international and inclusive outlook was reflected in simultaneous translations of the panel debates – all in the spartan conditions of a circus tent. Many, if not most, of the participants were young people from Germany and other European countries – especially students who sought to engage in discussions not offered in university courses.

I returned from the summer school refreshed and inspired by the dedication and passion of the organisers and participants alike. In Scotland, and in the United Kingdom as a whole, there is no discernible movement or major public discourse around Degrowth. While the concept is known on the fringes, not even the major think tank New Economics Foundation lists Degrowth on their website. This is perhaps surprising, given that ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ was published in 2009 by Tim Jackson, who then was the Economics Commissioner for the Sustainable Development Commission, a governmental advisory body which closed down in 2011. The descendant of the UK-wide Climate Camps, Reclaim the Power, focuses on campaigning against fracking, to prevent yet another extractive industry from emerging in the UK’s energy sector.

Yet the need for an interconnected analysis of the economic root causes of the social and ecological crisis is becoming more urgent. As Brexit unfolds around us, the Department for Energy and Climate Change was scrapped and all around us there are signs that current social and environmental policies will be weakened after the UK has left the European Union. It becomes increasingly apparent that the UK government will not make global ecological emergencies such as climate breakdown and the decline of the biosphere a political priority. While the British economy is facing great uncertainties, economic growth will become a priority before all others.Given the UK’s current ecological and social trajectory, the Degrowth discourse offers an interconnected analysis of various social, economic and ecological dimensions. The explicit international dimension and focus on present and historical global justice connects the root causes of contemporary issues such as the growing refugee crisis with an explicit anti-colonial stance, which can help address the kind of imperial nostalgia which has at least played a role in the outcome of two referendums – on EU membership and on Scottish independence. In addition, building a movement around Degrowth specific to Scotland and the rest of the UK and each of its devolved administrations would strengthen solidarity between European grassroots movements. As the UK metaphorically drifts a little bit further away from the European mainland, we will need to maintain and strengthen our connections along the faultlines of shared values.

If you are interested in getting involved in organising or contributing to events around Degrowth in 2018, please email info [at]