Dreaming (utopias) degrowing (practices) and regrowing (politics) in Barcelona

Montcada Toxic Tour

Montcada toxic tour


After 2 weeks of exciting discoveries in Catalunya I’m almost ready to come back to Montreal. Dear E4Aers, a lot of interesting stuff is going on at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona!!  My first surprise was that I met 2 of our new “climate justice” E4Aers, one at each of the summer schools I attended, representing 5% of all participants at both summer schools!!




Why summer school?

We spent our first year reading excellent papers from thoughtful people, becoming familiar with their names and ideas: Joan Martinez Alier, Clive Spash, Giorgos Kallis, among others. When I read one of the programmes, I was surprised to see that all these wonderful authors would meet us and share their experiences with us! In July, I joined the third degrowth summer school at the Instituto de Ciencia y Tecnologia Ambiental (ICTA), or Institute for Environmental Sciences and Technologies, at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (UAB) (http://summerschool.degrowth.net/). The following week, I joined the LIPHE4 summer school on Multi-Scale Integrated Analysis of Societal and Ecological Metabolism (MuSIASEM) taking place at the same venue.

This is a story in 2 parts. In this post, I will tell you about the first school. In a few weeks, I will talk about the second.


The venue

UAB is a huge grey, concrete campus located 25 km from downtown Barcelona. By contrast, ICTA is a wonderful, smart building, a symbol of ecological efficiency or, as some like to say, of economodernism. It is surrounded by the Catalan hills, an incredibly blue sky and a (usually) warm wind.


Streams of degrowing thoughts

Despite the ecomodernist dream of green and perennial sustainable economic growth suggested by the architecture of ICTA, the summer school focused on very pragmatic, concrete topics: degrowth and climate justice.

The first day we dove into these dense domains with Joan Martìnez-Alier, who presented the research projects that he and his team are working on at ICTA. The group is building a tool to monitor and track distribution of environmental conflicts across the world. The result is a global “Environmental Justice Atlas” (https://ejatlas.org) which today counts 1,840 cases of environmental conflicts. Next, Giorgos Kallis focused on defining “degrowth”, taking us on an intellectual journey through the idea of a “project of radical socioecological transformation calling for decolonizing the social imaginary from capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth”. Utopia? Maybe, or maybe not. It depends on how we define the term. And here a huge debate opens. As Kallis states, utopias and dystopias are concepts very difficult to define but they can help us to imagine different and alternative futures. First introduced by Thomas More in the XVI century, the term utopia can refer to either the idea of an “optimal place” or the idea of a “non-place”. When we talk about degrowth as a utopic project, we should be very clear what we mean. Are we saying that it would be a great place for humanity? Or are we saying that it is an impossible future? By using the science fiction novel written by Ursula Le Guin “The Disappointed”, Kallis gives us an example of what degrowth means: it is a concept which is subversive rather than regressive, a concept that “brings the past into the future and the production of the present”, and it “embraces conflict as its constructive element”. Briefly, Martinez-Alier and Kallis opened the school with very good contextualization of the term “degrowth”, which should be seen as a dialectical utopia or a nice, feasible approach in order to imagine a different future.

The second day brought the discussion even further, thanks to a wonderful presentation given by prof. Ulrich Brand (University of Vienna). He linked the concept of domination to the “imperial mode of living” of western countries which is the result of the action of powerful imageries (like growth, progress, development). In this context, the degrowth perspective becomes an emancipatory project (the concrete utopia) which aims to question existing institutions like the State, the market and power relations. The emancipation process should redefine power and domination-shaped societal nature relations (Frankfurt school of Critical Theory), thus entailing a new political ecology suitable with new ways of living (in terms of mobility, housing, food, etc.). This is the idea of transition toward a degrowth society by design and not by disaster, where the latter is the collapse of the socio-ecological systems.

Mapping research interests

Mapping research interests

On the third day, Clive Spash gave us a refresher on the concept of “biophysical limits to growth” and the risks of the collapse, while Filka Sekulova and Agata Hummel re-introduced the concept of “social limits to growth”. In the meantime, students prepared and hung their posters outlining their research. As in an art-gallery, we passed a lot of time reading the posters (but sometimes only looking at the pictures), and organizing into working groups. It was great to see how many people coming from all over the world had similar interests and common worldviews. We were about 40 people coming from almost all continents (Africa was not represented and this is a shame) and mostly engaged in academic research activities. Many people were also activists and degrowers “in practice”, so that we dedicated a lot of time discussing degrowth solutions for our everyday life.




Toxify – Detoxify

The BIG day was the fourth one: after three days of theoretical exploration, we went out to the field. The schedule was: 1) “toxic tour”,  2) detoxifying peri-urban walk,  3) visit and evening meal at the rurban (rural-urban) squat, “Can Masdéu”.

Toxic tour: Montcada cement factory

Toxic tour: Montcada cement factory

In Montcada, a small town close to Barcelona, we had a very nice and pleasant toxic tour, where we visited the town and focused our sight on the huge cement factory which is poisoning the local community (not only the local environment). The visit allowed us to have a direct example of environmental (in)justice. We met the local committee of citizens fighting to stop the uncontrolled burning of waste and hazardous materials inside the factory. Over the last 20 years, they have been able to organize an international network of similar associations. They fight for basic rights and the right of their children to have clear air and a healthy environment. This struggle directly involves the community, and the conflict allows democratic practices and social participation to emerge (assemblies, social relationships, empowerment). This case illustrates the recipe for degrowth transition: bottom-up participation and civil society involvement to contrast the corporate interests driven by the growth imperative.

Detoxifying tour: Can Masdéu (Photo credit: Faikham Harnnarong)

Detoxifying tour: Can Masdéu (Photo credit: Faikham Harnnarong)


Another recipe is the physical occupation of unused spaces, buildings and land by autonomous communities based on values other than those of the capitalistic society. A detoxifying walk from concrete to woods, took us to the Can Masdéu rurban squat on Collserola, a mountain in the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. About 20 years ago, a group of young people decided to live and build a community framed around common values: the need to emancipate from the capitalist system, to valorise solidarity-based relationships and to lower environmental impact of their lifestyle. Cofounder of the community, Claudio Cattaneo, gave us an inspiring presentation on how they protected an important peri-urban area of wood and agricultural ecosystem[1]. We spent the afternoon relaxing and visiting the squat, which includes an internal and an external area. The internal spaces are used for workshops (bicycles, handicraft, etc.), social interaction, exchange of goods, washing machines, etc. The very wide external area includes facilities for water collection and electricity generation, several dry toilets and, obviously, many small and medium-sized gardens for food production. The evening at Can Masdéu was warm; the people were very nice and they shared their dinner with us. The convivial atmosphere made us feel relaxed (although we were exhausted from the extremely intense day).




Theory + practice = politics

The next day, we had politics for breakfast. At ICTA we met two administrators from the Barcelona municipality, who introduced us to the meaning of “real-politik” in a context of dramatic change in the administration of a big town. Recently, a citizen-based social party won the Barcelona election. “Barcelona en Comù” is a political platform that arose after the 2008 crisis building on the experience of the “Indignados”. Today they administrate the town with a very progressive program that promotes social justice, community rights and participatory democracy, aiming to be completely detached from corporate interests. The guest speakers gave us a very good idea about the challenges represented by the institutional transition toward alternative politics. The main idea is that complex social systems cannot change quickly and suddenly. They need to adapt to changing goals and contextual conditions. Therefore, those elected with radical agendas must face a difficult situation: the establishment is interested in preserving the status quo, while those who elected them into power think things are moving too slowly. This is typical of lock-in situations, where you can achieve the control over institutions and organizations, but this does not mean that you are able to change the general behaviour of the system quickly. This is because the inherent inertia of individuals and structures precludes radical changes. Furthermore, these political innovators are continuously forced to deal with national and international levels of governance which can have very different (sometimes opposite) goals. The European Union financial policy is a clear, macroscopic case of conflicting interests between municipalities and central governments.


Sea, the next time

And here my tale comes to a halt. It is a shame that I cannot tell you more about the second week of the school. In fact, after a free day in Barcelona, everybody moved to Cérbére (France) were Can Decreix and the Research and Degrowth centre are based. I am sure that my former classmates had a lot of fun, where it seems that the sea is blue and warm. I missed this great opportunity because at the same time something very interesting was taking place again at ICTA: the LIPHE4 summer school on MuSIASEM was scheduled exactly on the same week of the second part of the degrowth summer school. So, in the end I decided to stay in town. But fortunately someone else from E4A maybe will tell us something about what happened and what they discovered in Cérbére. I hope so, I’m very curious and, if the tale is good, maybe the next year I’ll come back to see the sea!


[1] Cattaneo, Claudio and Marc Gavaldà. 2010. The experience of rurban squats in Collserola, Barcelona: what kind of degrowth? Journal of Cleaner Production 18: 581-589.


Stefano Menegat is an E4A PhD student at McGill. His research focuses on the relationship between agri-food and socio-economic systems. He aims to develop a new approach for the design of food policy for the Anthropocene.




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