Sufficiency and interdependence in the wake of a degrowth future
cross-posted from Gods & Radicals Press
Even if one didn’t have an immediate experience of disaster at the doorstep — like flood, storm or wildfire, which are happening globally on a weekly basis affecting many millions of people — we all share an experience of global surge of mutual aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many places, it implied a different relation to material reality such as provision of food, medics and, in peculiar cases, toilet paper. In non middle-and-up-class contexts, the pandemic increased risk of losing the roof over head or being stuck below dignifying conditions in at home.
This intense period became a sharp reminder of local sufficiency, the scale of our community, and the importance of understanding a home as space that goes beyond our rented or owned four walls. While asked to distance ourselves for solidarity, we soon understood what are the outlines of our dependency on others, including both closest circles and large global supply chains. What role will these dependencies and material sufficiency have in a degrowth future? When speaking of degrowth, I optimistically account collective action to mitigate coming disasters and to reorganize society around a different material reality — one that recognizes limits.
In the Croatian region of Dalmatia, last year's droughts were extreme. The sun's intensity literally burned the yield on the islands, red tomatoes hung on completely dry, brown branches, and the prices of seasonal food on the markets did not fall compared to off-season due to high production costs and low yields. In addition, wildfires in the same climatic zone this season have been more brutal than usual, burning faster and at higher temperatures. In Dalmatia, the phrase 'Saharan haze' has already become commonplace. Due to the presence of sand in the air, sunrises and sunsets turn the sky into an unusual and unpleasant orange colour.
All these observations were made locally in a couple of months of one of the warmest summers I can remember. That little bit of verdure (vegetables) that we grow ourselves this year required a lot more work and prompted me to think about whether it will be possible at all in the near future. Just when it seemed that we could reach a new level of self-sufficiency as a household (it never could be the complete), it was then that I realized how the key to sustaining life would soon be more a question of interdependence.
Interdependence between national/regional, and local actors and territories will be, for example, the key to food security in climate change. In this sense, North African countries are already undergoing an adjustment process, because the former greenhouse production of, for example, flowers and citrus fruits, on which almost the entire European market relied, has become so complex and expensive that their competitiveness is declining. This is why countries like Morocco are turning to local production, trying to return the territories of industrial agriculture to local cultures that retreated under the expansion from the globally profitable ones in the early twentieth century. However, due to climate change, that is not so simple and local crops are harder to grow than before. The reality is that sub-Saharan countries will depend on the global food market in the future, just as we have depended on their production of citruses for centuries.
When facing such turbulence, one of the key tools is local support networks, a term brought to my attention by an archivist at London’s Infoshop 56a, is a beautiful nest of social history and resilience. In describing the London housing crisis:
“The real housing crisis did not begin in 2008 with the global financial meltdown, but after Tacher died, when local support networks for housing issues disappeared during the rule of the Labour Party. Since then, we have all been alone and divided into individual campaigns, and the capital is conquering one neighbourhood at a time without delay, and one can no longer live here.”
I had the opportunity to see local support networks in Croatia after the earthquake in 2020, and at the flood ten years earlier. The sudden emergence of mutual aid practices included various aid collection points, first-response kitchens, temporary shelter, as well as more permanent channels of support providing various material goods and emergency services. Local support networks often prove to be much more efficient in terms of resource management than infrastructural mechanisms with central management. People are able to organize very complex distribution and exchange mechanisms in a very short time without the intervention of state institutions.
Precisely in the context of resources, a tragic but highly relevant example occurred during the deepening of crisis in Lebanon in 2020. Due to the political collapse of local government triggered by mismanagement of rising hyperinflation and unemployment, the country has experienced one of the most severe crises in providing essential resources: electricity and water. Namely, Lebanon is dependent on fossil fuels in the production of electricity, thus, the disruption of oil distribution caused the collapse of electricity and water supply. The state ran out of power and drinking water overnight. There is no internet, no flights or running airports, no surgeries, no antibiotics and dialysis in hospitals — things which are not a matter of comfort, but of existence. Most modern sociologists would assume that what followed is a Hobbesian conflict of all against all for the last drop of water and the last car battery in the store.
Although most media focused on reporting the cases of robberies and plunder, in reality, there was (parallel to the Hobbesian war) a gathering of people around the remaining resources and their consolidation. The last litres of gasoline were spent on generators from dark restaurants and backyards, for people to charge cell phones and batteries to contact families and access information. The restaurants cooked and divided all the food with the remaining energy so that it would not perish. The cars’ tanks were emptied to gather enough gasoline in one place to filter the water. Moreover, people consolidated their small stocks into common units not to have more but to be more efficient. People did not engage in a general war for survival but gathered in smaller groups around small 'pools' of remaining resources. As a result, local distribution again proved to be more effective.
In that light, I learned about the Elektropionir — a local Serbian example of an energy cooperative run by the prosumer freaks and cooperative pioneers who want to have their own energy pool. If we look at climate change as a long-term crisis on the planet and in each individual local context, gathering resources into small 'pools' and putting effort into resource-sharing efficiencies are intuitive intelligence that everyone will sooner or later rely on. Pioneers, as we call them, are just those who start a bit earlier than others.
Degrowth, as a form of resource reloca(aliza)tion through social action, should also be considered as not only an answer to climate change but a form of intrinsic social practice that is present in humankind, as is mutual aid. Before the great climate crisis or any other smaller crisis ends in an omnipresent conflict over available resources, degrowth revitalizes the sufficiency debate by buying us time to adjust:
How much is enough for us?
For generations before World War II, outside a small number of highly concentrated industrial centres, people lived in an economy of sufficiency. Surplus or profit was a negligible category in relation to the necessity of balancing between input and output parameters of sufficiency, in terms of food, energy, housing and work. There was no dichotomy — working is good, not working is wrong, for example. Most of our grandparents grew up in such an economy and reached old age in the economy of profit. However, over the past 80 years, progress and economic growth have grown exponentially and expanded territorially. The consequence is that, since then, no one has even dealt with the issue of sufficiency. Thus, degrowth, viewed in the context of sufficiency, is not against the category of economic growth as such. It places growth in a specific physical and socio-economic context in relation to maintaining a balance between input and output parameters of environment and energy.
That is why we know the first premodern cooperatives of Dalmatia as those gathered around the fundamental division of resources and infrastructure; such as olive presses, maintenance of wells and reservoirs, and fire protection, as well as wine cooperatives. Consolidating local resources, like Elektropionir does, is a sort of inverted medieval enclosure. It is similar in terms of the dynamics of consolidation, diametrically opposite in terms of democratization of access to resources. Through the consolidation of small parts of privatized assets into common ones, resource management strategies become one of the essential preconditions for degrowth and probably one of the most important tools in adapting to climate change.
Finally, the climate collapse that only the postmodern elite can wish for will not be an American blockbuster where masses of people run in the opposite direction from whatever, waves, fires, locusts. In fact, it already takes place in a series of successive turbulences territorially, temporally and with intensity distributed over a period of several centuries and throughout the planet. As banal as the illustration may seem, the Planet we were given for safekeeping has an ABS — a system in cars that prevents the driver from completely losing control of the vehicle by sudden braking. Instead, when the brake is applied abruptly, the ABS stops the vehicle with a series of short-term brakes, enabling much greater safety and control of the vehicle. Thanks to this sequence of successive turbulences, which are still relatively insignificant contractions for the biological and microclimatic systems of the planet, and with which we are already living, we are getting time to adapt. If we know how to organize around resources and not by spoiling them, figuratively speaking, after an unpleasant and shocking drift off the road, we will end up in a meadow instead of driving directly into the wall.
This short piece is my intervention read in absence at the Zemaljski forum's panel: Can we have housing without plunder? with Ana Dzokic, Marce Neelen, Nikola Vujovic, moderated by Jovana Timotijevic, in August 2021. The event was organized by the Ministry of Space, for which I am thankful, as well as for the opportunity to be presented even if not in person.
Header image: low expectations (Niska očekovanja iz tuđine). Author: Marko Dajak.