Strengthening the culture of peace

Filka Sekulova is a senior researcher at the IN3 institute (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya), and part of the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory. Her work is placed at the intersection of ecological economics (PhD, MS, BS), psychology (BS), and social sciences, with a focus on degrowth and urban greening, through the perspectives of justice, community organizing and subjective well-being. Filka is a co-founder of the academic thinktank Research & Degrowth, and an affiliated member of the Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability. In the 2000s she took part in nature protection and conservation activities of grassroots NGO Za Zemyata (For the Earth) in Bulgaria.

What are the tensions and the synergies between degrowth and the European Union’s ability to achieve its geopolitical goals?
From a degrowth perspective, as long as we continue to measure power by wealth and by military capacity, with which we defend what we have acquired, we will not come close to achieving ecological stability or peace. A large part of these assets have been acquired through colonization and post-colonization policies, through international financial institutions that also have very unfair policies towards the Global South.

The recent wars show that increasing military capacity is actually providing perfect ground for accelerating conflicts of more intensity. Both alliances of the type of NATO, so called democratic alliances, and the authoritarian regimes such as Russia that they are opposed to, are incompatible with degrowth. Degrowth thinkers and practitioners do not see pacifism as naive but rather believe that pacifist non-violence movements, let's say of the Gandhian type, have achieved much more than aggressive military interventions.

Pacifist non-violence movements of the Gandhian type have achieved much more than aggressive military interventions

What we need to strengthen right now is the culture of peace. That might sound very naive, but this is the only approach that we could use in order to solve the multiple struggles that we are witnessing. In other words, from a degrowth perspective the continued militarization and the intensification of conflicts, as well as investment in modern weapons or new technological methods, could create a runaway for more potential clashes.

From a degrowth perspective, we could also question the EU’s geopolitical goals. They should not be taken for granted, they need to be democratically discussed and considered from a much broader democratic perspective.

The EU’s geopolitical goals should be democratically discussed and considered from a much broader democratic perspective

One could evaluate them as relatively imperialist in terms of defending our position with respect to the Global South and maintaining our level of throughput, energy- and material-wise. This is something that could also be questioned, because one of the core perspectives of degrowth is to demonstrate the huge imbalance in our historical and national contribution to climate change.

The degrowth movement actually argues that the Global North contributes to 75% of the overshoot of greenhouse gas emissions. So, the first step is to reconsider our share and see how we could reduce this share rather than keeping a strict geopolitical focus.

How can Europe achieve this progressive sustainability agenda if it is under military attack by non-democratic regimes?

I find this question a bit tricky. When you're attacked of course you need to defend yourself. The question is what the underlying cause of the conflict is. If you are referring to the war in Ukraine, it is a very complex war. We have an authoritarian regime, which is attacking another territory in a very obnoxious way. On the other hand, we know that the configuration of powers is such that those defending Ukraine are actually representatives of NATO. Many political analysts from the left and from the degrowth movement say that the war in Ukraine is a proxy war between the new configuration of authoritarian powers that is forming around Russia and China, and the old hegemonic powers, such as Europe and the United States.

So, if we keep on asking: “How do we achieve degrowth unless we are well protected and well-armed?”, then we would carry along the same logic. We need to change the very logic of militarization, and it could sound strange and abstract, but we need to rethink how to drop this need to defend our wealthInstead, we should think about how to redistribute this wealth.

Could giving up on the war be an option for Europe then?

The most important is to help all these people who are entangled in the war without being part of its causes. The most important is to provide a safe environment, safe passage for all these people. But it seems that modern war makes that impossible. It seems that modern war is very much based on creating shields out of civilians.

Perhaps a mother cares a lot more about her child than about the national flag?

From a feminine stance, perhaps one would care more about the children being alive than what type of national flag they have on the country? Perhaps a mother cares a lot moreabout her child than about the national flag?

Should the degrowth movement include diplomacy, defense and technological development to the package of public services and features that it advocates?

The conventional view says that facilitating trade is one way to establish peace. But this is a double-edged sword, because up to a certain extent it depends on what you trade for and who benefits from this trade. Our only strategy to establish peace so far has been through some sort of ecologically unequal exchange, but that's not a very feasible way to peace.

From a degrowth perspective we have seen that technological development has been associated with a very high and increasing energy footprint, as well as a lack of democracy and capacity to participate in technological innovation. So we are calling for an overall rethinking of the role of modern technology in human society and thinking of convenient technologies which are based on commons, on sharing knowledge and knowing how we could repair things.

Calling for convenient technologies based on commons, on sharing knowledge and knowing how we could repair things

The degrowth movement is cautious of the role and the speed of technological development, of the way it accelerates growth and the direction it goes – how it shies away from our democratic control. The same goes even more with respect to weapons.

Instead of investing in low carbon energy, which I find to be just a greenwash and also counterproductive, we need to change our relations and diplomacy. We need to strengthen cooperation between countries, we need to strengthen solidarity between countries. And that cannot happen on the basis of fear, or on the basis of ecologically unequal exchange.  So, the very basis of these interactions should change and that would happen only if we slow down on our hegemonic imperialist motives and become a little bit more modest in our geopolitical desires.

If we imagine a post-growth EU, would it be able to gain more allies and from where?

For me  it is difficult to imagine a post-growth Europe on its own. Simply because degrowth and post-growth imply reductions in working time, redistribution of income and wealth, a basic income, a ceiling on maximum incomes, and so on. In the current configuration of the world, this change at the European level would need to go hand-in-hand with changes in other countries.

For example, as long as we have liberalized financial markets, all the wealth will flow through to other countries. In that sense, I imagine degrowth needs to happen in  the whole Global North at the same time.

There is also an opposite option as degrowth implies putting controls on capital markets. Then money cannot flow out of the European Union. Perhaps, this could happen too. And Europe actually leads the way in establishing capital controls.

Could Europe lead the sustainability-oriented worldview, with democracy and empowering women and so it could attract other countries to be its allies?

This is what we are actually hoping for and this is the reason why we've been organizing our conferences at the European Parliament, for example the Beyond Growth Conference which took place in May 2023. That’s the hope so far. We have seen changes in the discourses away from growth, although they still remain very much in the domain of green growth.

There is a lot more work to do because green growth is not an option. Maintaining current production capacity with alternative sources of energy is unthinkable because of multiple mining conflicts, depletion of key minerals and the worsening of global inequalities.

Recent studies by Michaux and Hickel show that increasing the production of renewable energy to the level of consumption that we have now is problematic because the mineral intensity of renewable energy is higher than that of fossil fuels: the production of 1 kilowatt  with renewable energy requires 10 times more metals than with fossil fuels.

Increasing the production of these minerals will lead to another type of ecological collapse, and in some cases depletion of reserves is expected. For example, according to Bardi, if we were to achieve a 10% annual growth in lithium mining rates, proven reserves would be exhausted in 50 years.

We're about to halve key mineral reserves in a couple of decades. And this is only to replace the existing global fleet of cars by electric cars. In that sense, degrowth means completely changing our vision of mobility. That is, investing heavily in public transport and alternative modes of transportation is a fundamental piece of this puzzle.

In a post-growth scenario, could this also soften the resentments of the Global South over extractivism?

That is the idea! The pressure that the Global North has been posing on the South must be eased as much as possible and we should talk about reparations for past damages. Reducing energy and material output implies that all minerals and all the resources stay in these countries as much as possible. And the resources that have been stripped out of them in the past need to be brought back. So that communities can take hold and make democratic decisions about what they want to do with their resources.

At the same time, reparations will compensate the Southern countries for the global ecological debt, or so-called carbon debt. The research on carbon debt shows how much carbon debt the EU has in respect to the Global South. A degrowth Europe would need to acknowledge the huge burden that we have accumulated with respect to countries in the South.

Would adopting this degrowth approach be better for the Global South, rather than the EU providing them with foreign aid and investment?

The issue with the international development aid first is that it is highly undemocratic: the way of spending it is very much based on conditions of structural reforms. And secondly, the configuration of this aid, the act of providing this aid is creating a position of power.

This power imbalance needs to be shifted and turned around. The aid is also creating a dependency situation which is also to be reversed. Hickel has a good research on that showing that trillions of euros and dollars have been extracted from the Global South, firstly in terms of free labor, second, in terms of low cost of extracted materials. In comparison with the benefits that hegemonic countries are still extracting from the South, the amount of the aid is like a drop in the ocean. What needs to happen is to re-empower these countries to take their resources back and to reconstruct their democracies.

We need to re-empower Global South countries to take their resources back and to reconstruct their democracies

Here we need to call into question institutions like the World Bank, WTO, IMF, etc. Because the leverage that the international financial institutions have on countries in the South is huge. In the 1970s, the Southern countries had the capacity to produce what they needed and to establish their national industries. If this were the case today, they would be much better off.

Before the arrival of the international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, in these countries there was more economic equality and lower level of poverty. Somehow, many of the structural conditions imposed on them -  like opening bordеrs to privatization and market liberalization - have destroyed access to primary goods for many people.

One of the apparent consequences of the degrowth scenario is a change of the unsustainable consumerist, wasteful lifestyle of many Europeans. But wouldn’t this make Europe less attractive?

What we try to show is how the simple lifestyles that have been enjoyed by a particular type of traditional communities in the South might be a lot more attractive simply because they are based on sovereignty. What needs to happen is exactly to transform our lifestyle. That is actually the big uneasiness in our degrowth discourse, simply because through the marketing machines and through very well-geared and very well-greased corporate strategies, certain type of mental infrastructures have been built in people and a certain type of understanding of what is a good life has been established. It will take us some time to erode this understanding. But it will happen eventually!

How does this compare to what we have observed in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe over the last three decades?

We have seen how consumerism has permeated life in Bulgaria, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This was expected, this happens everywhere as part of globalization. But still, in the East there are a lot of leftovers of sovereignty in terms of food, production, conviviality, and mutuality.

There are a lot more of these community institutions, mutual support, neighbors supporting each other. There is still a lot more self-production than in the West. This type of mentality is not completely uprooted. What we need to do is to show how unique it is, we need to reposition the real value of our connectedness with nature, with the land, and with our communities. We need to do something to acknowledge, preserve and strengthen this mindset.


The project The Geopolitics of a Post-Growth Europe is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks, Fondation de l’Ecologie Politique, Etopia, Transición Verde, BlueLink Foundation, Center for Green Politics, and Green House think tank, and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.



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