How can we deal with climate change, let alone peak oil, water shortages, deforestation, and everything else — given that truly effective environmental action would probably stop the economy from growing and totally change everyone’s lifestyle?
Our whole economy depends on fossil fuels, and our livestock-centered agricultural system is pillaging the earth’s biosphere. Veganism is surely part of the needed approach here. Vegans have tried, in various ways, to make themselves relevant to the environmental movement, as Cowspiracy, Truth or Drought, and the books of Richard Oppenlander, Will Anderson, and Sailesh Rao all demonstrate. What we need is some sort of framework of viewing the whole environmental problem that enables us to bring about the needed radical social changes.
Could “degrowth” be such a framework? Could veganism find a place in the degrowth movement? “Degrowth” is a slogan that most Americans, even socially conscious environmental vegans, may very well have never heard of. But it is a big deal in Europe and in some parts of the Americas, where many people will both recognize and identify with this slogan.
Degrowth represents a radical political and cultural alternative to the unexamined emphasis on economic growth. Many mainstream environmentalists believe that we can have “sustainable growth”; if we build enough solar panels and wind turbines to replace coal and oil, we can continue economic growth much as we have done for the past century or so. But the deeper you get into this question, the more difficult “sustainable growth” appears. Dealing with climate change is going to involve a lot more than just constructing a bunch of wind turbines. We’ve pillaged and overpopulated the earth to the extent that we have encountered the limits to growth.
The idea of degrowth developed quickly at the beginning of the 21st century in France and Italy and then spread elsewhere in Europe. There is no “official” definition of degrowth nor are there “official” degrowth organizations. Those advocating degrowth often agree on a broad range of issues, but they have a variety of different motivations, methods, and objectives, sometimes contradictory.
The degrowth movement now encompasses people advocating “simple living,” increased use of bicycles, organic agriculture, sharing of resources, livable cities, all the way to some who are advocating outright social and political revolution. The movement is energetic but amorphous; there is no single book, person, or ideology that predominates. It includes veganism, but currently only as a tolerated minority point of view.
At the September 2014 Degrowth conference in Leipzig, Germany, some animal liberation activists sought to influence the direction of the conference in a more positive direction. “A 2,500-strong conference with vegan catering sounded promising,” noted Kris Forkasiewicz on the Institute for Critical Animal Studies web site. “And indeed, on many points, it did deliver.”
But while the vegans couldn’t complain about the menu, Forkasiewicz found the tone of the conference intimidating. A session on animal liberation was cancelled and replaced a more vaguely titled session on the “Crisis of the Human and Nonhuman World.” The basic problem was that the locavores were out in force. The conference was dominated by people who felt that animal farming was all right, at least on a small scale; or perhaps livestock agriculture was just a matter of opinion. The vegans did manage to improvise an extra-programmatic “Animal Liberation Open Space.” The whole interaction between the vegans and the conference organizers was quite interesting, but I refer people to Kris Forkasiewicz’ excellent article for more details.
The animal liberation people in Europe shouldn’t be so discouraged. They seem to be doing better in Europe than vegans are doing in the United States, where it is difficult in many cases to get environmentalists to even acknowledge the existence of a vegan alternative (see Cowspiracy). But obviously veganism intersects with the concerns of the degrowth people in many ways.
A key aspect of degrowth is environmental concern. Degrowth is necessary because the human economy is quickly destroying the environment, corresponding with the ideas of Herman Daly, the school of “ecological economics,” and the steady-state economy. But isn’t livestock agriculture a particularly blatant example of the economy destroying the environment? Look at the soil erosion, water depletion, deforestation, and wasted agricultural resources created by livestock agriculture, not to mention the huge contributions to climate change. You couldn’t devise a better example of limits to growth.
Another similarity of veganism to the degrowth movement is that both movements see themselves as cultural as well as political. Proponents of such seemingly different objectives as car-free cities, increased use of bicycles, pedestrian rights, solar energy, local currencies, simple living, and organic agriculture may all see themselves through the lens of degrowth. They want political changes, obviously, but they also want cultural changes. These cultural changes do not need to wait on the political system to respond; as with veganism, they can happen now. In fact, real political change really presupposes an ongoing and simultaneous cultural change; it’s not until people can understand the flaws in “trickle-down economics” and the whole “economic development” paradigm, that real political change will even be possible.
“Degrowth” intersects with veganism at several points. Obviously, industrial agriculture and factory farming are huge enterprises that treat both their employees and the animals in brutal fashion. Simple living and radical environmentalism would surely seem to be friendly to veganism, since vegans have a greatly reduced ecological footprint. Veganism makes possible a great more sharing with other humans, who would have greater access to food resources. It would also emphasize sharing the planet with other animals, because veganism would reduce the human imprint on the biosphere.
Veganism is indispensable for meaningful environmental action, but we require more than just veganism. If the world goes vegan, but we continue to burn coal, drive cars, and overpopulate the earth, in the end it won’t matter. Degrowth represents a valid framework within which vegans can both educate themselves about the new issues which they need to address, and seek to find a place in a broader movement for radical social change. When people understand that veganism is a necessity for a sane world, they will be able to address the need for radical social reorganization.