Degrowth in Movements: Radical Ecological Democracy

By Ashish Kothari; originally posted on Degrowth.de

The podcast starts in German, but the interview starting after 42 seconds is in English.

About the authors and their positions

Ashish Kothari is a member of Kalpavriksh, which has been working on environment and development issues in India since 1979.

He is also on the steering committee of the ICCA Consortium, a global network of organisations and movements working in territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities; has been on the boards of Greenpeace International and Greenpeace India; and is a member of Beyond Development, a global working group set up by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Kalpavriksh currently coordinates the Vikalp Sangam (‘Alternatives Confluence’) process in India, under which principles and values related to ecoswaraj are being evolved. It also coordinated the Peoples’ Sustainability Treaty on RED and manages the RED e-list and blog (soon to be launched as a website).

1. What is the key idea of Radical Ecological Democracy?

Ecoswaraj as a response to the social and ecological bankruptcy of the currently dominant development and governance system

The multiple crises that humanity is facing are becoming increasingly visible: in the form of disasters related to ecological damage, the stark inequalities between a tiny minority of ultra-rich and the vast numbers of desperately poor, the health epidemics related to both deprivation and affluence, mass refugee migrations in many parts of the world, and the scarcity of several once-abundant resources. Countries like China and India are fast joining the already-industrialised nations in putting even more stress on the planet, or in colonizing less powerful regions of the earth. In such a situation, there is an urgent quest for alternative pathways for well-being that are sustainable, equitable and just.

Coal mining in Maharashtra (Image: Ashish Kothari)

There is no doubt that as a species we have to downsize if we are to respect the limits; not only for ourselves but —just as importantly— for the millions of other species that co-inhabit the earth with us. It is timely, therefore, to talk of degrowth in the context of humanity as a whole, and most certainly in the context of the Global North which is overconsuming and overdumping.

But is degrowth, or the reduction of material and energy uses for human use, a valid and viable strategy for the Global South, i.e. countries and populations (including some in industrialized countries) that have not reached an excessive or even acceptable level of prosperity? Perhaps not. What is needed is for these regions to find their own home-grown visions and pathways of change. I will talk here of one such example: ecoswaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED), which is emerging from practical and conceptual processes prevalent in many parts of India.

India currently sees itself as entering into the elite league of economic superpowers. Along with China, it has enjoyed the world’s highest growth rates in the last couple of decades. But this has come at a horrendous cost to the environment, and to hundreds of millions of people who are directly dependent on the environment (Shrivastava and Kothari 2012). It has also created an increasing schism between the rich and poor, so that 1% of the population now owns more than 50% of the country’s wealth, while at least two-thirds of its people remain deprived of basic needs, and employment scarcity is staring at a hundred million young people who have recently joined the workforce.

The problem lies partly in the growth fetish. An economic policy that assumes that growth will magically translate into the poor rising above the poverty line and everyone getting productive jobs is fundamentally flawed. It ignores the fact that many of the gains of growth could be cornered by the already rich, that mechanization may offset any new job generation, and that inflation may make things even worse for much of the population. This is compounded by the increasing withdrawal of the state from basic services (the trend being to privatize them) and the serious inefficiencies and corruption in whatever service delivery that still exists. All of this is built on top of a deeply hierarchical society, with unthinkable oppression and exploitation of ‘lower’ castes, women, and the landless.

Ecological suicide is as much a part of the history of ‘development’ as are deprivation and inequalities. The global story of humanity crossing several planetary boundaries is mirrored in India. Two reports, not from environmental activists but from the very institutions that otherwise champion unbridled growth, have admitted as much. The Chamber of Indian Industries (along with the Global Footprint Network) said in 2008 that India is already consuming twice as much as its natural resources can sustain. The World Bank reported in 2013 that environmental damage (it took into account a limited set such as impact on people’s health) is knocking 5.7% off of GDP growth. If all impacts of such damage were to be accounted for, even using the limited methodology of environmental economics, we would possibly be in what is actually a negative growth phase.

Communities and citizens in India are, however, not taking all of this lying down. At any given moment in the last couple of decades, there have been several hundred small to large resistance movements, from a few families refusing to part with their land for the industry, to thousands of people protesting a mega hydro project; from dalit (so-called ‘untouchables’, the lowest in the caste hierarchy) and women’s demands for basic human rights, to students protesting the decline in public support for educational institutions. Simultaneously, people are also coming up with innovative, positive transformations in their lives, on their own or with support from civil society organisations and occasionally even governments. It is from both the resistance and the reconstruction (sangharsh and nirman) initiatives that the idea of ecoswaraj or radical ecological democracy (RED) has emerged.

An anti-dam rally in Hemalkasa in Maharashtra (Image: Ashish Kothari)

The term swaraj can be loosely translated as ‘self-rule’ —though it is much more than just a governance concept— and refers to a combination of individual and collective autonomy, mutual responsibility, rights, and responsibilities. Although older than him, the concept was popularised by Gandhi as part of India’s freedom struggle against British colonial power, and is referred to in his seminal book Hind Swaraj as a civilisational ethos comprising the elements mentioned above. I have added ‘eco’ to integrate the principle of ecological wisdom and resilience into this political and cultural ethos. Ecoswaraj or RED envisions a society in which all people and communities are empowered to be part of decisions affecting their lives (radical or direct democracy) in ways that are ecologically sensitive and socially equitable. Below I will further explain this concept and refer to its various key elements.

2. Who is part of the Radical Ecological Democracy movement, what do they do?

Ecoswaraj or RED is an emerging framework for communities and organisations exploring alternative visions and pathways

Community Radio mobiliser of the Deccan Development Society in Telangana (Image: Ashish Kothari)

In the drylands of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in southern India, small farmers — including dalit1 women— of the Deccan Development Society have transformed their lives by reviving organic farming using their own seeds, achieving full food sovereignty, collectivizing resources and labour, securing basic rights, forming cooperatives or companies to negotiate better returns, forming community-run media (films, radio), and throwing off the traditional social stigmas associated with them. In the forested landscapes of Maharashtra in central India, several communities such as Mendha-Lekha back control over their surrounding forests, initiated sustainable harvesting of bamboo and other forest produce, converted the earnings into enhanced energy, livelihoods, and food security, and in at least one village, turned all private lands back into the commons. City-level or national associations in Pune, Bangalore, Delhi and elsewhere are fighting for the right of hawkers, rickshaw-pullers, waste pickers, and other marginalized sections to spaces and services of the city, and enhanced conditions for livelihood and living. Learning and educational institutions such as the Adivasi Academy in the indigenous regions of the west Indian state of Gujarat, and SECMOL in the high-altitude region of Ladakh, provide opportunities that —unlike mainstream education— enable students to remain connected with their cultural and ecological roots while also learning modern subjects and skills.

3. How do you see the relationship between Radical Ecological Democracy and degrowth?

The principles of ecoswaraj and degrowth resonate, and there is potential for further cooperation

From what limited understanding I have of the concept and practice of ‘degrowth’, I believe that in many of the above ways, RED resonates well with it. But there may also be crucial differences, given that a blanket proposal for degrowth is unlikely to be appropriate or acceptable within the Global South for whom deprivations of basic needs is a reality. It is therefore a crucial agenda for all of us to look at both commonalities and differences of alternative approaches including ecoswaraj, degrowth, buen vivir, solidarity economies, and others. A beginning was made as a civil society initiative towards Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties in relation to the Rio+20 conference, but much greater networking and collective work will be required in the coming years.

Some of the crucial questions that could be posed as part of such work include: What are the historical factors that are common to the experiences of the Global North and South (e.g. colonialism and capitalism), and what are the crucial differences (e.g. spiritual traditions, cosmovisions)? What are the principles of process that underlie initiatives striving for an alternative to currently dominant systems? Which of these are common to the Global North and South (e.g. those of solidarity and collective action), and which are different (e.g. the environmentalism of the marginalised oriented towards survival and basic needs vs. that of the relatively well-off oriented towards reducing unsustainability). What are the commonalities and differences in ethical values? Of course, these questions should be posed and answered not in abstraction, but on the basis of an understanding of practical initiatives grounded in different settings.

This kind of collaboration is also important for us to collectively advocate fundamental alternatives to the ‘green economy’, ‘green growth’ and even ‘sustainable development’ agendas that are being promoted globally (and which through the Sustainable Development Goals received ‘official’ sanction at the highest UN level in late 2015), showing that there are other viable pathways that do not restrict themselves to capitalist or state-dominant frameworks (Kothari et al 2015).

For this it is necessary to work more closely together, pro-actively understanding each other’s contexts and initiatives. It would actually be fascinating for joint teams of practitioner/activist researchers to move around looking at a range of grassroots initiatives and try to address the kinds of questions I’ve mentioned above. Some of this will be part of a new project on environmental justice of the Transformative Knowledge Network of the International Social Science Council being co-coordinated by the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology at Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, Spain and Kalpavriksh, India. One part of this project is to examine and have a dialogue of alternative frameworks and worldviews emerging from environmental and social justice movements in different parts of the world.

4. Which proposals do they have for each other?

The diverse set of locally embedded frameworks can inspire each other

Each alternative worldview or framework arises within a particular socio-cultural, ecological, economic and political context, and cannot be replicated or applied as it is to another context. I do believe, however, that broad principles and values, and learnings about process, can be fruitfully applied. The emphasis of the degrowth ‘movement’ on the need to scale down, for instance, can be useful in the context of classes within the South that are over-consuming, or overall for economies in the South (such as China and India) that may already be unsustainable in some aspects. Similarly the North may have much to learn from indigenous traditions and others in the South that continue to show ways of living within nature, where some aspects of simple living still survive, or where holistic knowledge systems combining experiential, spiritual, and scientific elements are still strong. This is the case for instance with many indigenous peoples that still live within their natural habitats.

Craftswomen of Bajju Village, Bikaner in Rajasthan (Image: Ashish Kothari)

The deepest meanings of swaraj, with its complex integration of freedom, collective responsibility, self-reliance and autonomy, could be something many Northern democracies and human rights regimes could learn from. This would be particularly important in order to find alternatives to the extreme individualism and social alienation from which the Global North suffers and which even lead to superficial solutions like recycling without questioning over-consumption.

Conversely, there is much in the solidarity economy models emerging in Europe and elsewhere that we in the Global South could gainfully absorb. In particular, initiatives like digital commons, cafes and non-profit shops run cooperatively by urban youth, and social enterprises3 , and others that are in the ‘modern’ sector may be of interest to the growing numbers of such youth in the south that are looking for gainful sources of employment in urban contexts. And of course there is plenty of exciting scope for southern worldviews to engage with each other; imagine the power of buen vivir and sumac kawsay and swaraj and ubuntu and myriad other such worldviews coming together into an internally diverse but coherent whole, presenting something attractive enough to engage people currently mesmerized by the consumertopia?

To reiterate, a more systematic attempt at teasing out the commonalities and differences in the various worldviews or frameworks, in this particular case degrowth and ecoswaraj, is urgently needed.
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3 I’ve been privileged to visit some in Greece, Spain and Czech Republic

5. Outlook: Space for visions, suggestions or wishes

We do have opportunities to move this agenda forward

It is not easy to envision ideal futures in any detail (beyond the generic wish list of sustainability, equity, justice, peace, etc.). But envision them we must if we are to keep hope alive, find our bearings, and guide grassroots practice. However, the even harder task is to figure out specific and workable pathways to reach such a future, for these have to contend with the complex web of problems we are currently enmeshed in. Most challenging is the powerful resistance to fundamental change by those who occupy positions of power, not only within governments but also in the private sector, and within the dominant sections of society (which in the Indian context is uniquely characterized by caste as much as class, gender, and other forms of inequity and discrimination).

As high as these hurdles are, the growing number and reach of peoples’ initiatives to resist the system and create alternatives are a source of hope. Peoples’ movements and civil society organizations (including progressive workers’ unions) will have to be the primary agents of change. At times, sections and individuals within government, political parties, and academic institutions have taken the lead or assisted communities and civil society organizations, and we must continue to push such institutions to play a stronger and more effective role. Over time, as communities become empowered through decentralization, political parties will feel greater pressure from their constituencies to reorient their focus towards issues of well-being based on sustainability and equity. But my feeling is that we cannot rely on political parties alone, for they are part of the DNA of representative democracy that itself needs to be transformed into radical, more direct forms of decision-making.

One great opportunity provided to our generations is the historical conjunction between the local and the global. At one level are the localization movements, examples of which I have cited above or in referred texts. At the other is the growing mobilization around global issues, such as climate change, the global financial system, the industrial monopolies on food and agriculture, and the hegemony of multinational corporations. The conditions of the contemporary world are fostering mutually-reinforcing local and global mindsets. More than ever before, we are members both of immediate communities and also of the community of humanity, or —even broader— the community of life, just as local ecosystems are part of one global ecological system. Greater awareness of our interdependence comes with each new global crisis, and with it the possibility of greater common cause. If the emerging movements around the world, based on multiple but overlapping worldviews (old and new) and transcending orthodox ideological standpoints, can come together, then there is much hope that pathways to a saner future will be forged, and walked.

Literature and links

Links

> Vikalp Sangam – Alternatives India
> Radical Ecological Democracy – Webpage

Applied as well as further literature

Kalpavriksh. 2015. Vikalp Sangam: In search of alternatives, Poster exhibition available in book form. <https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-fW5lp3Tj9YMTg0NkdHcTVyZms/view?pref=2&pli=1>

Kothari, Ashish. 2014. Radical Ecological Democracy: A path forward for India and beyond, Development, 57(1), 36–45. <http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v57/n1/full/dev201443a.html>

Kothari, Ashish., Demaria, Federico. and Acosta, Alberto. 2015. Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to sustainable development and the Green Economy, Development, 57(3–4), 362–375. <http://www.palgrave-journals.com/development/journal/v57/n3-4/full/dev201524a.html>

Shrivastava, Aseem. and Kothari, Ashish. 2012. Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India, Viking/Penguin India, Delhi.


Degrowth is not only a label for an ongoing discussion on alternatives, and not just an academic debate, but also an emerging social movement. Regardless of many similarities, there is quite some lack of knowledge as well as scepticism, prejudice and misunderstanding about the different perspectives, assumptions, traditions, strategies and protagonists both within degrowth circles as well as within other social movements. Here, space for learning emerges – also to avoid the danger of repeating mistakes and pitfalls of other social movements.

At the same time, degrowth is a perspective or a proposal which is or can become an integral part of other perspectives and social movements. The integration of alternatives, which are discussed under the discursive roof of degrowth, into other perspectives often fails because of the above mentioned scepticisms, prejudices and misunderstandings.

The multi-media project “Degrowth in movement(s)” shows which initiatives and movements develop and practice social, ecological and democratic alternatives. Representatives from 32 different fields describe their work and history, their similarities & differences to others and possible alliances. From the Solidarity Economy to the Refugee-Movement, from Unconditional Basic Income to the Anti-Coal-Movement, from Care Revolution to the Trade Unions – they discuss their relationship to degrowth in texts, videos, photos and podcasts.

The project was run by the “Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie” (Laboratory for New Economic Ideas) in Germany, so most of the authors are from there. However, there are a couple of clearly international perspectives and most of the movements work far beyond the national level.

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