Reinventing a Society of Frugal Abundance

05 Oct 2015

“If we want to be happy, we must be able to limit our needs and our desires.” Economist, anthropologist and philosopher Serge Latouche’s exhortation to the young people gathered in Milan for Terra Madre Giovani – We Feed the Planet was heartfelt. In his impassioned address, he showed how the society in which we live, engulfed by an economy whose aim is infinite growth, is not, and never can be, a happy society. This is because, he said, “there is no link between GDP and happiness, over a certain level well-being does not increase and what’s more the costs of growth exceed the benefits.” The Happy Planet Index is one example of a better measure.


Introduced by the New Economics Foundation, it takes into consideration ecological footprint, life expectancy and subjective life satisfaction. High scorers include countries like Vanuatu and Costa Rica, while the United States, that colossus of growth, ranks 160th. Italy is placed 60th, not a result of which to be particularly proud. “To be happy we must learn how to self-regulate ourselves, a skill that rewards us with true abundance.”


Instead, we are producing more than we consume, with a devastating environmental impact. Think of the soil we destroy, the earth we poison, the waste we generate, the air we pollute, the water we squander. Latouche: “Over 40% of the food produced ends up in the garbage. As though that wasn’t enough, we Westerners are 20% of the world population and we are calmly consuming 86% of its resources. We are stealing from our children.”


The founder of the degrowth movement would like to see the construction of a society that is prosperous but without growth, in a quest for what he calls a “frugal abundance”. Instead the prevailing model continues to aim for growth at all costs, encouraged “by governments who have relaunched the machine of the crisis from which we still have not emerged. Competition is another name for the war of all against all.”


This system has destroyed Chinese agriculture, driving 800 million farmers off the land and crowding them together in polluted metropolises. Yet “Chinese industry is eating European industry, which in turn is devouring Chinese industry. Labor is treated like a commodity. But labor cannot be a commodity, it must be respected, it is the base of people’s lives.”


Just like the land, it cannot be reproduced like some kind of gadget. We are depriving our children of the future after having destroyed the biosphere’s capacity for regeneration and made conditions untenable for the family farming that is in fact feeding the planet. 


Citing Beccaria, he added: “The society of opulence betrays the promise of modernity, in other words maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. The frenzied race towards growth and productivity between the end of the Second World War and the start of the 1970s has generated a fictitious progress. Well-being has not increased and inequalities have worsened. And the societies in which inequalities develop are unhappy societies, in which not even the rich can live peacefully.”


The alternative? Degrowth. A provocative term, but the concept is anything but negative. The aim is to rediscover the ability to self-limit in order to control the consumption of resources, because real scarcity comes from a lack of clean air, good water, productive land and a diversity of cultures and knowledge, which have long taught us common sense and moderation. The secret to degrowth lies in reinventing a society of frugal abundance, understood not as hardship and privation, but rather rediscovering how to live in the place where you belong, reestablishing a link with the land, knowing the food that we bring to the table every day, finding again a sense of the seasons and valuing the relationship with those who produce that food.


How to pass from theory to practice? “We’re already doing it,” is Latouche’s answer. “Initiatives like Terra Madre Giovani represent resistance to the consumer society. Good, clean and fair are the watchwords of degrowth and Terra Madre is an example, a movement that started from the bottom but which has travelled very far. At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, we must protect local treasures. That’s good protectionism, to be done at a national and international level, as a way of fighting agreements like TTIP that threaten you small-scale producers.”


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