Introductory Remarks on the May 2012 Montreal degrowth in the Americas conference at the 3rd international conference on degrowth, Malibran Theatre, Venice, 19 September 2012

Bob Thomson and Geoff Garver, Venice 19 September 2012

Part 1 – Bob

When our Barcelona colleagues called for proposals to host the third international conference on degrowth in October 2010, I called a couple of McGill University professors in Montreal who had written a book on “Right Relationships” to see if there was any interest in hosting a conference on degrowth. There was interest, and this quickly snowballed into one of the first concrete collaborations between all five major universities in Montreal and a culturally pluralistic proposal to bring together people from North, Central and South America to discuss degrowth, and what a dialogue about post growth societies might mean in the whole of the Americas.

We have our own cultural pluralism in Canada, between Quebec and English Canada, with Canada’s First Nations peoples and with our many immigrant communities, not to mention our relationships with our US neighbours. While these are complex relationships, it becomes even more complex with the inclusion of indigenous, criollo and Latin American perspectives from the South, which brought an even richer mix of ideas, perceptions, cultural narratives and alternatives to our conference.

As an introduction to degrowth, we believe our conference was successful. We had 340 registered participants and we have a financial surplus of a few thousand dollars to use for follow-up. Beyond the conference and also because of it, there is a small community of of degrowth “activists” and academics across the country with a potential for ongoing dialogue – Quebec’s MQDC, Degrowth Vancouver’s municipal election candidates, a Canadian Dimension special issue, an Atlantic Canada startup “chapter”, Briarpatch in Saskatchewan and Degrowth/Decroissance Canada a recently started NGO and web site to promote exchanges of regional experiences.

We believe the beginning of a dialogue across and within the cultural pluralism of this linguistic, regional and academic/activist mix was a good beginning of a process of cultural and economic decolonization of the “imaginary” in our part of the Americas.

The conference was organized around the themes of Grounding, Knowing, Relating, Consenting, Sharing and Experiencing.

Part 2 – Geoff

It is impossible to summarize a week long conference in these brief remarks, but I will give an idea of some of the things that emerged from the conference themes.

On the theme of grounding, we began by giving thanks, led by members of the Mohawk Traditional Council since the conference was held on unceded Mohawk territory. We also watched the film “Journey of the Universe”, to be reminded of our place, and the earth’s place, in a vast and evolving universe.

On the theme of knowing, we discussed how our normative disciplines — economics, law, ethics, governance — have become intellectual orphans, without clear grounding in a coherent worldview. We heard critiques of the hyperspecialization of science and the importance of including traditional knowledge, new indicators of well being, and other alternatives in our ways of thinking and knowing.

On the theme of relating, we heard talks on monetary reform, considered what can be learned from matriarchal societies, discussed biodiversity and social diversity as keys to resilience, considered reduction in work time as a core concept of degrowth, and talked about the need to prevent harm, as opposed to selling on one hand the things that cause harm, and on the other, the things that cure that harm.

On the theme of consenting, we considered the role of law in degrowth, whether transition towns can serve as a model for degrowth, the eco-violence and social violence of corporations, and whether the concept of jubilee provides a way out our debt-driven growth economy.

On the theme of sharing, we discussed challenges related to population, the need to reform the global trade system, progressive taxation and how to include rights of nature in our legal systems.

On the theme of experiencing, we prepared together and ate a communal vegan dinner on our first evening. We had a vibrant arts program and a set of living degrowth activities at the conference. We heard about eco-villages in Quebec and elsewhere, and we discussed the value of nothing time.

Our website now includes a number of papers discussing these and many other ideas, as well as some video from the conference and interviews with some of the participants. In addition, we are working on a special issue of the journal “Sustainability”, an open source journal in which all of that conference material will be available for free. Just as the Barcelona bullet points and other resources from previous degrowth conferences were valuable in Montreal, we hope the results of the Montreal conference will be a useful resource here in Venice and beyond.

A month after the Montreal degrowth conference, the Rio+20 conference took place, and our governments endorsed a document that referenced the need for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth 20 times. More than any other concept, economic growth is engrained as an essential element of sustainable development under the Rio formula.

Fortunately, much of the civil society community in Rio was roundly opposed to this understanding of sustainable development. Their focus was on living within the means of planet earth, and on equitable sharing among present and future generations of the earth’s life communities – human and non-human.

Our challenge in Montreal, and here again in Venice, is to reveal the folly of the Rio approach, and to formulate an alternative built on human solidarity and a mutually-enhancing relationship between humans and the earth. We frame this as décroissance, or degrowth, but in fact, it is easy to see that with economic growth, many things are in decline. What if we talk as well about things we would like to see grow: biodiversity, cultural diversity, compassion, equality, respect for life, human solidarity, simplicity, vegetarianism?

Bob and I look forward to connecting with as many of you as possible at this conference, and we’re happy to talk to you more about the Montreal conference.

We look forward to a very rich discussion over the next few days.

Thank you.

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