Recently I presented a paper on degrowth as a solution towards sustainability by stressing the need to shift from being owners to just consumers at the Regional International Geographic Union (IGU) event in Moscow last August’15. IGU is one of the world’s oldest international researchers’ associations which organised its first International Geographical Congress in 1871 and in 1922 established the union. Today its members hail from over 90 countries, united in support of geographical research and education. The programme is rooted in principles of diversity and interdisciplinary exchange. At this year’s event, around 1700 participants from around the world gathered in the Soviet capital for lectures, discussions, workshops and excursions. This year, IGU Moscow 2015, focused mainly on the following five main themes: urban environment, polar studies, climate change, global conflicts, and regional sustainability.
The five day conference hosted many parallel sessions which were interesting to me mainly because I myself come from an emerging but developing economy, which is India. Such discourses on urban challenges provides you with an opportunity to see different perspective in addressing common problems and helps you to assimilate learnings and apply them in your own context. I was selected for a poster presented under the theme – creating sustainability and I impressed on the need to change our consumption patterns in light of the stress the current growth has put on Earth and its finite resources. It is estimated that we are using up to 50% more natural resources that the earth can provide for, inferring that – at our current population, we need 1.5 Earths to meet our current demand.
Degrowth as a Solution?
During the club of Rome meeting in 1970’s, many visionaries, environmentalists and governments across the world acknowledged that the business as usual approach has failed and we need a course correction. The idea of degrowth which came about the same time, is the intentional redirection of economies away from the perpetual pursuit of growth. To me it sounds, a little far fetched, is it even possible to ask the developed world to forcibly reduce its growth? Even though the critics of degrowth argue that slowing of economic growth would result in increased unemployment and increase poverty especially in the Global South, degrowth proponents advocate for a complete abandonment of the current (growth) economic system, suggesting that delocalising and abandoning the global economy in the developing countries would allow people of the South to become more self-sufficient and would end the over consumption and exploitation of Southern resources by the North.
Whichever way the argument goes, if we look at some of the solutions it promoted, degrowth should not be confused with economic decline, rather the concept can be compared to a healthy diet. Irrespective of the income of a person the person’s diet should be such that it does not adversely harm him/her, I can only eat as much as I can digest and stay fit. But with respect to consumption of materialistic things in the world, we all are using more than we require to lead a happy satisfied life.
The problem we face today may not have a simple solution but a combination of many solutions, which can help the world to move towards a sustainable being. Thus, today, the decisions makers and communities themselves have a vital role to play when adopting a particular approach to tackle developmental issues. One such approach is collaborative consumption, which works on an economic model of swapping and sharing. Collaborative consumption can also be defined as using the same resource repeatedly and collectively by closing the loop of the liner material economy.
I briefly pondered the idea of Choice Editing which could be another means to achieve degrowth — editing peoples’ choices toward a certain lifestyle. One way to ascertain choice editing is through policies like taxes and provision of subsidies, the other could be led by the community, where a group of people form a nexus to not only consume together but restore resources together through water harvesting, through sharing (both knowledge and material), etc. The illustration below shows that all basic needs of each incomes groups are the same, the more we earn the more we add to our consumption of the lesser needed materials. If we club the common components of different income groups and follow the principle of equity where the higher earner pays more we could help ensure better security for the poorer section of the society.
*The above diagram illustrates a situation where different service charges are taken from different income groups (mainly determined by their individual buying capacities) to bridge disparity and to meet basic needs. Promoting social inclusion by being co-consumers in using services like transportation, education, housing.
What good are Global Debates?
During the five day conference I kept asking myself, but why discuss these issues in a larger forum? What possible gain could it bring us? Can India, which has a situation unlike others with an entirely different cultural setting, adopt or mirror what the developed world is doing to address its urban challenges. One of the lecturers at IGU, Professor Benno Werlen (Germany), spoke about knowledge sharing to find feasible local solutions through global discourses. I liked the idea which he introduced by saying that global thinking and global action demand global understanding. Not 100% positive but I did leave with the impression that initiatives like International Geographical Union (IGU) aim to bridge the gap in awareness between local acts and global effects through research, education, and information.