One-on-one | Environment

Predrag Momčilović: We need more utopia in our thinking

By - 30.08.2023

Activist talks about degrowth and its potential to foster sustainability in the Balkans.

July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded on planet Earth, surpassing historical temperature records. Greenhouse emissions were the main factor.

As millions of people suffer from unprecedented heatwaves, experts have come up with various ideas to try to limit the damage human activity is doing to the planet. Environmental activists have long argued that the current actions by governments and global institutions are not enough to reverse the situation.

One relatively recent proposed solution is “degrowth.” Often misunderstood, degrowth calls for deep structural changes to methods of production and distribution as a means to achieve environmental sustainability and social justice.

Predrag Momčilović is one of the scholars urging the world to take the concept of degrowth seriously. The Executive Director of the Center for Green Politics, a green political foundation in Serbia, Momčilović’s studies are focused on political ecology, degrowth, the social aspects of climate change and food production. He is the author of “Air as a Commons” and “Sustainability, Degrowth and Food.” 

Last month, Momčilović lectured on degrowth and political ecology during the Academy for Public and Social Policy organized by Musine Kokalari Institute for Social Policy in Prishtina. 

K2.0 spoke to Momčilović about the concept of degrowth and how it can be employed in the countries of Southeastern Europe.

K2.0: What does degrowth entail? What is the concept about?

Predrag Momčilović: Degrowth is pretty new to our region, even to English-speaking countries. Its roots come from the end of the ‘70s and early 80s. I think it was André Gorz, French philosopher and ecologist who first used the word “décroissance,” referring to how we can live well within the ecological limits of the planet.

This was also the period that “Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome was published and other publications which led to people talking much more about these topics. Then it was forgotten for years.

In the beginning of the 2000s, people started talking about it again and rethinking how much we can grow and where we want to go with this growth. The idea of degrowth is to question the dogma of material and GDP-measured growth, because we have internalized it into ourselves and into our ideology. We feel the need to grow all the time, on a personal and on an economic level. If you are not growing on a personal level, it means you are dying. During coronavirus, when we were locked down at home, there was constant pressure to learn new languages, to work on yourself and to grow.

This is also evident in discussions about countries’ economies.

Politicians measure success using GDP growth. The president of Serbia is always saying that we will have 2% to 3% growth this year. No one questions what this GDP growth is actually showing. 

Even the original theorists of GDP in the 1930s warned that we need to be careful with using it as a measure for growth, as it only measures some aspects of economic activity.

GDP growth measures how many products are made in a territory, but doesn’t measure other important things, like human relations, voluntary or domestic work.

In the main books about degrowth, I have come across the criticism you’ve mentioned about the ways GDP is used to identify economic activity and growth. On the other hand, it is correct when someone uses GDP to present economic growth. The proponents of degrowth present the need to shift the paradigm in this regard. How should that be done?

I think we need to question this ourselves, we have had a long period of economic growth in Europe, but what did it bring us? It brought us more environmental degradation and still didn’t solve social problems. We still have huge inequality and there is still poverty. We should ask if more economic growth will bring us anything else. 

It’s really hard to think outside this box of growth because it dominates the narrative around the economy. This is also important in degrowth theory. We have to decolonize our imagination and think how we can develop our society without the constant need for growth.

Both the left and the right of the political spectrum are religious about growth. We should become more agnostic about economic and material growth. Of course, some sectors need to keep growing, like education and culture. It’s not like we need to degrow everything.

What are the main areas where degrowth is necessary? 

We need to degrow the fossil fuel industry, industries which cause environmental damage and excessively wealthy people. But in some areas we actually need growth, such as in education, culture and the economic conditions of the Global South.

But the question is not only between growth and degrowth, but how to produce and consume things differently. We live in the semi-periphery of Europe, which is considered poor and we are still using more material resources than the planet can reproduce within the year. This means that we are not using these resources effectively. We are just consuming them and dumping them in landfill sites.

'People equate degrowth to poverty, which is not true, it's more about frugal abundance.'

We need to produce and consume things differently and to prioritize things that are long-lasting and necessary to people. We are currently producing a lot of things which people actually don’t need, due to the influence of advertising creating artificial demand.

As you mentioned, our region is characterized by low economic growth, far behind the countries of the European Union. To talk about degrowth in this context seems a bit paradoxical as growth is deemed necessary. So, how should our region approach degrowth?

People equate degrowth to poverty, which is not true, it’s more about frugal abundance.

The Balkans are a really good starting point for the principles of degrowth because we are not using resources at the level of developed countries and so we don’t need to degrow our economy as much.

We already have some good principles which are basically degrowth principles, like producing food for ourselves or the non-commercial exchange of food. People have small gardens on the outskirts of their cities or have grandparents in a village that help them with food. People exchange a lot of food which is a good practice.

But these practices are a legacy of the past and due to poverty in our region.

We have some other good starting points. In some of our cities people use a lot of public transport and in villages people use bicycles. The Balkans can be more easily transformed into a sustainable society in line with degrowth than the U.S., where they use around five times more resources than the Earth can sustain.

Degrowth seems inherently linked to the demise of capitalism. But while degrowth is needed, capitalism is flourishing.

This is a pretty common critique from the left regarding degrowth, that it does not mention the role of capitalism enough. But actually most degrowth theorists or practitioners say openly that capitalism is inherent to growth. Capitalism cannot be stable without growth.

Capitalism needs to grow all the time, so it’s impossible to have a society based on degrowth within capitalism. But for degrowth this is not the central issue, there have also been real socialist systems which were based on growth.

You mentioned gardening and bicycling as specific actions, but what are the main principles of degrowth? How can a society act to align with these principles?

One of the principles is that people should act locally as much as possible. However, there are no consistent patterns across different regions. The principles of degrowth would be different in Prishtina and in Kinshasa. They would also be different in a small village in Kosovo and somewhere in the North Pole, for example.

Often we hear criticism that degrowth is a Western concept, but it isn’t really. There are a lot of movements which try to imagine quality living within the ecological limits of the planet — Buen Vivir in South America, Ubuntu in South Africa and the ecological economy in India.

There are proposals such as the Green New Deal that are pushed mostly by the left. Are these aligned with degrowth or not?

These proposals are all good, but they are modest and they are in line with growth. There is this idea that we should be able to have economic growth but in a green way, which is an approach endorsed by the European Commission. The idea is that we will decouple economic growth from energy and material production, which is theoretically impossible. That has only happened in some European countries because they have outsourced their production.

Degrowth is in agreement with a lot of these things. We need energy transition and other measures, but these steps should be thought of without constant growth. For example, even if we completely transition to renewable energy, we will need a lot of materials to be produced for wind and solar power to be generated. When there is growth, it is always harder to transition.

Every year there’s 3% to 5% economic growth and often people don’t realize how fast this exponential growth is. If there is 3% growth per year, which is pretty modest for the current economy, the economy will have doubled within 21 years. 

The Green New Deal is often said to be an “ecological modernization of capitalism.”

It’s not possible to do that inside the ecological limits of the planet — this is the only problem for me. Of course, I support the idea in principle.They are better than the current policies we have, but they are not long-term sustainable solutions.

I’m also a pro-modernist. I’m not advocating for a pre-historical society where people survive by gathering food, but we should aim to change society in a sustainable way.

A lot of these proposals, like the Green New Deal, still adhere to the idea that we should continue to grow and everyone will have what they want. This is not even democratic, it is democratic when we collectively decide what we want and need. Not everyone can have everything they want without it being harmful to others.

So a redistribution of goods is necessary so that everyone can live better and the planet can stay intact. But this seems like a hopeless utopia. As we touched upon before, to get politicians to push for equality is very hard, often impossible. Does this mean degrowth is impossible?

I would argue that we have already seen that change is possible. During Covid we saw the whole economy stop and a focus on other things, such as huge investments to discover vaccines. 

We saw this change within a short period of time which told us that it’s possible to run the economy completely differently. Unfortunately, everything quickly went back to the way it was.

People are realizing that it’s impossible to continue like this. Even if degrowth is utopian, I think we need more utopia in our thinking. There are a lot of dystopian books out there which tell us that it is easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a utopia.

I’m involved in the green left movement in Serbia. We often end up focusing on daily struggles and policies. For example, we talk a lot about how to improve public transport but we often forget why that is. We need to remember what we’re fighting for in the long-term. 

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

‘The pandemic showed that governments are able to introduce measures which we thought unimaginable before.’

How transformative would degrowth be for our lives? How transformative would it be for  individuals?

On an individual level it depends where you stand economically. If you are in the top 1%, degrowth would change your life a lot. Of course, it’s also good for some of the practices of the middle or lower classes to change. Degrowth foresees that there will be the same amount of production or less, but we will have much more time on our hands.

This is the most valuable thing about degrowth. People enjoy spending time in nature, reading, spending time with loved ones instead of just working to produce and consume more. With degrowth, we would have much more free time to do these things and this will lead to more diverse societies.

Currently, we can buy so many things from different brands, but you end up with a pretty uniform society. With degrowth, when people have more free time, they could produce things which are still unimaginable nowadays.

You mentioned the pandemic and the lessons we got or could’ve gotten from it. What do you think we learnt from that period, with regards to the planet?

Degrowth is not only about saving us, but also about protecting nature. We had this pandemic, but there were also pandemics before where viruses jumped from wild species to humans. We are currently living in the sixth mass extinction period.

Only 15% of the Earth’s surface is still untouched wilderness, a tiny amount which we continue to destroy. As long as we continue, viruses will keep jumping from animals to humans and cause pandemics. 

The pandemic showed that governments are able to introduce measures which we thought unimaginable before. Still, we and the economy managed to survive. But this demonstrated that we are able to take on huge measures, which is a practice we can use in other areas to help our society to become more sustainable.

The growth narrative claims that people need more because there is still poverty, and so the economy needs to grow. On the other hand, the richest people have concentrated their wealth and are consuming much more than they need — a clear distribution problem.

I think reality shows that the current system is not working. For a long time we’ve been fed with the narrative endorsing policies like trickle-down economics, but actually the richest are becoming richer and nothing is going to the poorest, so even constant growth is not solving our problems. We now have the most inequality in history and it’s increasing.

The proponents of degrowth say that there is enough wealth, but it’s just not equally distributed. Although there is no classic imperialism anymore, there is neo-imperialism. 

There is this idea that the rich Global North should give up a lot of their wealth for the Global South. Can you explain how the need to change the economic relationships between the two hemispheres is linked to degrowth and the health of the planet?

This is really important, because historically and currently, the Global North consumes much more resources and has more accumulated wealth. This is due to hundreds of years of exploitation. The Global North is responsible for almost all the carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.

Here comes the tough part, wealthy people and countries are not ready to give up their wealth; they think they deserve it. Wealthy people are often presented as innovators who came from nothing, which is often not true. For example, Elon Musk’s parents reportedly owned an emerald mine in South Africa and were already rich.

Right now, there is little social mobility. If you are born rich, you will probably stay rich, or if you are born poor, it will be hard to get out.

'If we continue only making insubstantial, cosmetic changes, we will eventually hit the limits.'

What will happen to the planet if we continue this path of not making substantial changes?

We will collapse. If we continue only making insubstantial, cosmetic changes, we will eventually hit the limits.

People imagine climate change as one massive event that will destroy everything, but it won’t happen like that. Instead, there will be smaller events like droughts and floods happening much more often. Quality of life will decrease quickly and the places that will suffer the most are in the Global South. Countries such as Mauritius are already under threat of disappearing.

This interview took place in English and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Feature Image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.