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RADICAL CHANGE IS COMING: Beyond Growth Conference 2023

Photos by Lucy Henshall

Text by Gabry Menéndez


If you’re reading this, I guess that means that you’re alive.


And if you’re alive right now, I guess that means that you grew up in a capitalist economic system.


You’ve been fed the desire for growth, consumption and profit accumulation. You may never have noticed or thought about it. You’ve been taught, brainwashed, that growth is necessary. Mandatory. You don’t really understand or question why, but that’s what your president is always saying on TV right? Some people unemployed? More growth will fix it. People don’t have access to food, water, health services or housing? Easy, more growth will fix it. Ever increasing economic activity is rapidly destabilizing the conditions for life on earth and we are heading for extinction? Sure.


More. Growth. Will fix it.


It just seems to be how the world works. It’s not your fault, you simply inherited this system. We are trapped. Period.


There’s not even room for new thinking. Like if we’ve completely lost our capabilities to dream, imagine and create new realities.


Bullshit.


It is precisely this capitalist system and this mandate for infinite economic growth at all costs that has led us to the critical situation in which we are living today. It’s a fucking mess.


While the rich continue to get richer, more than 50% of the global population lives in poverty and 25.000 people die every day of hunger and related causes. Around 2 billion people don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water, and approximately 3.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation services. I could continue throwing facts about the devastating situation of global society, but I think you get it by now. On top of all of that, we’ve already transgressed 6 out of the 9 planetary boundaries that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System. Yes, it’s hard to come to terms with it, but the truth is that current policies are rapidly driving us towards mass extinction.

Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Credit: "Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Wang-Erlandsson et al 2022".



But listen to this and pay attention because this concerns you: Radical change is coming.




I’ve spent the last few days at the ‘Beyond Growth Conference' in the European Parliament in Brussels, where I really felt that history was being written before my eyes. One of the most amazing aspects was the incredible amount of young people attending. The suits and ties merged with scrappy vintage clothing and XR flags. I don’t think that the atmosphere in this building ever felt so real, lively and connected to the realities of our current society.


Witnessing thousands of citizens including activists, politicians, scientists, professors and civil society gathering under the banner of a new world was nothing like I’ve ever seen before. The environmental proletariat is alive and well. The movement is building up.


With a packed hemicycle, it all started in a weirdly awkward and intense disgust, with Von Der Leyen and Roberta Metsola defending growth at all costs in a conference about DEGROWTH. WTF? Bragging about European Green Deals and circular economy. Hydrogen, EVs and batteries. “It is growth that we have to deliver”, Metsola added. It’s hard to believe, and very worrying to see, that two European political leaders can be so out of touch with the real world. The audience literally laughed in their faces. An unspoken, collective sense of struggle quickly built in the minds of change-makers across the room. We were now ready to fight this power beast, together.





After a (much needed) reminder of who the real enemy is, tens of panelists and speakers, armed with economic analysis, scientific evidence, ecological research, historical facts, sociological insights, philosophical thought and, most importantly, imagination, proceeded to argue for Degrowth and enlighten the path to life through three full days of plenaries and panel discussions. The weight, heart and meaning of the powerful speeches, conversations and discussions were put to contrast with the empty words of elite politicians that fill these rooms on a regular basis.


Apart from the occasional interventions of these confused politicians, it was all feeling great.


But, we can still do better.


While there was a common feeling of gratitude towards the organizers of the conference for their bravery to put such a radical event together within such a conservative and imperial institution, there was also a collective discontent in regards to democracy, participation and consensus on practical next steps. So on the second day, after the last plenary, I got pulled into a massive group of young rebels who had a lot to say. We swiftly swapped the sterile rooms of parliament for the grungy and romantic streets of Brussels. With the scream of “PLENARYYYY”, a citizens assembly was quickly formed at Jourdanplein square and before I realize, I was sitting in a circle with tens of young voices reflecting on the conference. A lot of us there didn’t know each other, yet it felt like family and the levels of affection, admiration and inspiration were over the roof. We had people from all across Europe throwing incredible energy and sharing their feelings. We felt like we were not being heard and quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to do something about it. A demand for this conference to move from words into action and specific commitments to designing and implementing Degrowth policies in the EU was being understood as an imperative. It’s amazing to see how such a group of people can self-organize and work together towards a common goal.


Real democracy in action.



On the third day, after sharing food and thoughts under the sun, signs were painted, banners were filled with messages and positions across the Hemicycle were distributed.



The last words in Anuna’s incredibly powerful speech were the cue. “We need to make sure the conversation doesn’t end here. If you come from a movement or you belong to a movement right now and you commit to continuing this conversation beyond this conference, please, if you can, stand up. If you consider yourself an activist and you commit to continuing this conversation beyond this conference, please, stand up.”





I couldn’t have imagined a better closing to such a historical event. The chanting and collective singing in the Hemicycle brought tears and hope to many. A truly magical moment.



A few minutes later, while attendees were sipping prosecco in the closing drinks, still processing what had just happened, a loud young voice took the stage to call out for participation, inviting people to get together in a citizens assembly to re-imagine what the future of this desire for life could look like.


Just looking forward. Staring directly at the eyes of life.




And the big question now is, where do we go from here? Was this just bla-bla-bla? Hell no. We can’t allow it. We can’t let go.


Now we continue to build the movement. Now stronger than ever.


In Jason Hickel’s own words: […the climate and environmentalist movements need to get very serious about creating alliances with labour movements and working-class political formations. And fast…This means foregrounding social policies as core demands: universal public services, affordable housing, a job guarantee, living wages, working-time reduction, debt cancellation…We need to *end* involuntary unemployment, *end* economic insecurity, *end* artificial scarcity. Unite around these demands. Mobilize around policies that will ensure well-being and economic justice for all. Only once economic insecurity is abolished will it ever be possible to get a mass movement on board with serious climate policy. And a mass movement is what we need. With real political and economic leverage. And that requires labour movements, with the power of the strike. Join unions, build them, learn from them, exchange ideas…create this movement from the ground up. And for activists, this requires appropriate tactics and targets. Actions that alienate the base or harm working people must be rethought. Target capital, target fossil finance, target the 1%. This is a class struggle and we have to fight like it. The economic system that’s driving ecological breakdown is the very same system that also exploits workers, and women, and people of colour. These struggles are connected. Unite them. Alliances with anti-colonial movements, indigenous movements and progressive governments in the global South is also critically important. Read the people’s Agreement of Cochabamba. Read the Red Deal. Learn from their analysis and platform their demands. Remember: the labour that fuels the world economy is *overwhelmingly* comprised of the workers and peasants of the global South. If their struggles are not central to our theory of revolutionary change, we have fundamentally missed the point.]


The way I see it, Degrowth is not an ideology or simply just a word that no one likes. It’s mandatory common-sense. It’s a human responsibility. It needs to happen fast and at both global and local scale. But especially, it needs to happen quickly and radically in Europe, a continent that is historically (and currently) overwhelmingly responsible for much of the pain, suffering and ecological destruction that we are seeing in the world today.


There’s much to be done and everyone, literally everyone, has a big role to play in this revolutionary transformation of our society.





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