Carbon emissions are driving the biosphere toward a three-degree-Celsius rise in average temperature, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently noted in its Sixth Assessment Report. Intense and frequent droughts, flooding, wildfires and food insecurity are already devastating parts of the world. The usual “clean technology” solution to reduce carbon emissions has serious ecological and social costs, however.
Renewable energy threatens to generate mountains of waste and destruction. Just replacing fossil-fuel-powered cars with fleets of electric vehicles, for example, requires vast amounts of new materials. These include critical minerals and rare-earth elements, all of which involve controversial extractive practices that damage ecosystems and people. In short, the clean-tech pathway threatens to exaggerate the exploitation of our precious living planet and fails to account for the uneven burdens felt by the poor and vulnerable, who cannot afford price hikes or the purchase of new “eco-friendly” appliances and devices. Similarly, burgeoning markets for carbon offsets (also called carbon credits) allow the wealthy to pollute at the expense of the poor, as demonstrated by the record of the United Nation’s carbon-offset program for forests.
Instead of clean technology, what the earth and humankind need is convivial technology. The concept originated with Roman Catholic philosopher Ivan Illich, and as developed by modern thinkers such as Andrea Vetter, it includes tools and production techniques that are easily understood, created, and repaired and that assist people to fulfill their basic needs. In practice, convivial technology is used in transport, food growing, self-provisioned housing, and much more—all grounded in cooperative, mutually agreeable and sharing approaches that together comprise a convivial society.
Such a society is integral to the realization of degrowth, which emphasizes quality of life, social and ecological values, and the modest use of materials and energy—in short, living within the earth’s limits. The IPCC report describes such approaches as “a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.” Sometimes misunderstood as depression, poverty and austerity, degrowth is really about creating socially convivial, economically secure and ecologically sustainable lives. In other words, degrowth is to growth as quality is to quantity.
The term degrowth was coined 50 years ago, with a visible degrowth movement emerging in the new millennium. Scholarly literature on the topic, replete with policy proposals, has multiplied since 2009. The IPCC report acknowledges that the movement, “with its focus on sustainability over profitability, has the potential to speed up transformations” toward a zero-carbon or negative-carbon economy.
So how do degrowth and convivial technology play out in practice? We can walk, ride bikes, use cargo bikes and take public transportation rather than use motorized vehicles—even electric ones. We can transform parking lots into permaculture gardens—self-sustaining ecosystems in which human activity and nature are integrated. We can plant productive trees throughout cities to diminish heat in dense urban precincts and to provide wood, fruits and nuts—all maintained by local communities. The Los Angeles Eco-Village, which will turn 30 years old in 2023, features all these initiatives and more. It covers two blocks of Los Angeles in a neighborhood of 500 people, and its members have influenced city transportation policies such as developing bike lanes.
Cargonomia, which one of us (Liegey) co-founded in 2015, is a convivial center in Budapest that is based on three enterprises that demonstrate how degrowth works. One of these initiatives is Cyclonomia, a self-organizing do-it-yourself bicycle cooperative that operates along degrowth principles of conviviality, cooperation, mutual support and sharing. The bicycle, which is easy to build, use and repair—and is ecologically frugal—is a great example of a convivial tool. Cyclonomia helps members use its workshop to repair their own bikes. The Cyclonomia team also designs, builds and hires out bike trailers and cargo bikes to carry people and shopping and to be used as a substitute for delivery trucks.
Another linked enterprise is an organic vegetable farm and educational center for training the community in sustainable agriculture called Zsámboki Biokert. Vegetables grown at Zsámboki Biokert and neighboring partner farms are ferried to collection points in Budapest by a third self-organized Cargonomia venture called Kantaa, a bike messenger and delivery service. Budapest is far from the only city where such schemes flourish. The SHARECITY research team at Trinity College in Dublin has explored food-sharing activities in 100 cities worldwide.
When it comes to sustainability, sourcing food as close as possible to consumers is ideal. It means providing for mainly plant-based diets that are based on seasonal organic food appropriate to the local climate and soils. In convivial approaches, food consumers typically produce at least some of their food. Zsámboki Biokert offers members opportunities to work flexibly. This small farm follows principles of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, benefiting the local environment and offering greater resilience against global warming. Such farming practices, which rely on convivial tools—horses rather than tractors, for example—are especially important for improving resilience and production in food-growing areas. Recent rises in food prices, whether from COVID or from the war in Ukraine, have prompted a renewed interest in local food sources.
Degrowth initiatives also reuse and adapt out-of-date industrial infrastructure for numerous types of artisanal work and for housing. Cargonomia occupies such repurposed buildings for its bicycle activities and is renovating a very old cottage on their farm. In urban and rural areas, degrowth housing involves building simply designed, modest dwellings with low ecological impacts by reusing local, at-hand materials while benefiting from collective work parties. Precincts of such residents develop off-grid water, sanitation and energy services. Degrowth activists campaign to refurbish and expand social housing, instead of demolishing existing structures. Similarly, degrowth advocates for more affordable, sustainable and varied housing options, such as small homes and shared, collaborative housing. Collective efforts drive the German Mietshäuser Syndikat, with nearly 200 housing projects established or underway.
In all these kinds of ways, convivial technology helps communities achieve zero-carbon or even negative-carbon living—in contrast to clean technology, which ultimately means using more to create more. In short, degrowth and convivial technology work hand in hand to minimize extractive activities and overproduction, reducing carbon emissions at the source.