Monday, 26 September 2016
Today was the last day of Terra Madre. The guests of the final plenary, ‘Another world is possible, and necessary’, were Serge Latouche, the prominent French advocate of degrowth, and Stefano Zamagni, a heterodox economist from Italy. At the beginning, the moderator said that the success of Terra Madre could make us think “Of course another world is possible”. But in fact we are not quite there yet. There is still a lot to do.
Latouche explained his idea of degrowth, or décroissance. Like many other guests during the past four days, he talked about the Bayer-Monsanto merger. He also mentioned a local story, the acquittal by Italy’s Supreme Court of Stefan Schmidheiny, the Swiss billionaire who used to own a factory of asbestos-reinforced cement in the Piedmontese town of Casale Monferrato, where hundreds of workers have died of lung cancer. Latouche said this story was an example of the dark side of economic growth.
Zamagni explained that another world is necessary because 1) there is too much inequality, 2) too much environmental damage, and 3) too much war. He said that these are the root causes of the huge migrations we are currently witnessing. He also talked about the need not to separate the environmental question from the social one, saying this is what Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Laudato si’ was about. Zamagni also recalled Margaret Thatcher’s TINA philosophy (There Is No Alternative) and Hobbes’ use of the Latin saying “homo homini lupus”, contrasting them to the saying of Italian Enlightenment economist Antonio Genovesi “homo homini natura amicus”.
After this first round of discussion, the moderator prompted both speakers to dwell more on practicalities, on how to move, in practice, towards degrowth, considering that our daily lives are locked into a growth system, that our jobs are based on economic growth. As very few people share the idea of degrowth, she said, we need practical strategies to convince them.
Latouche said we have to change everything, change paradigm. We have to tackle all the levels: the local, regional and national one. In his opinion, Slow Food’s slogan (good, clean and fair food) is already a change of paradigm. We also need to change the global system. He cited Bernard Mandeville’s idea that greed is good, arguing that we have to find a new sense of measure. Zamagni said there are three ways out of the current system: revolution, reform and transformation. The first one isn’t possible anymore; we tried it many times in the course of the 20th century and it always failed. Reform is not enough. It’s like putting sticking plasters on wounds, while we have to change the rules of the game, economic institutions. So we must aim for transformation. Some things should be banned outright, like land grabbing or the trading of food commodities on the stock exchange. He said the G8 or the G20 should take this decision. Good luck with that!
Latouche then said that we shouldn’t be afraid of the word “revolution”. However, we don’t have to think of revolution as taking power, like in the old days. He gave two examples of the kind of revolution we should aim for: the Zapatista uprising in Mexico and the water wars in Bolivia. He praised Evo Morales, which I thought was ironic, considering that in the workshop on fair prices a man from Bolivia had said that Morales’ administration had been a disappointment. Latouche continued by saying that where governments fail, social movements can win. That’s why degrowth should be a social, not a political movement. The list of things to do would be endless. A very important one would be what Ivan Illich called the “techno-fast”. I think today we call this “digital detox”. For Zamagni, if we destroy the old order without having a new one ready, there’s going to be anarchy. Transformation is about a direction of travel that you follow step by step (so what’s the difference with reform?). We should make a distinction between development, said Zamagni, which is good, as it is about freeing ourselves from constraints, and economic growth, which is bad.
At this point, the moderator said that the growth machine is going forth relentlessly, for example with the TTIP and CETA. These political agreements are created to stabilize the system as it is, to strengthen the status quo. So she asked the speakers to give three examples of what we should do, emphasizing the collective dimension, given that the emphasis is usually on individuals, even when we talk about solutions (was this a veiled criticism of Slow Food’s emphasis on consumption?).
For Latouche, we should throw away our TVs, create a solidarity purchase group, which are a great means of meeting people and discussing politics with them, or we should try to get an independent mayor elected in our town, or set up a Transition Town. For Zamagni, politicians will only change if social movements force them to. We need to introduce a tax on financial transactions, and some economists are already collecting signatures for this purpose. The second thing we have to do is allow economic biodiversity to flourish. Different types of enterprise, like third sector ones, must be allowed to prosper in the market. We must take affirmative action to make this happen. It’s not enough to say that it can already happen, as there is the right to free enterprise. This is the liberal paradox: saying that you are free to do something but making it impossible for you to do so. He says that the freedom to choose is not the same as being able to choose. One might be formally free to choose, but in practice unable to do so. The third thing would be to promote scientific pluralism and rethink economics, like the students at Harvard University started doing a few years ago.