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Restructuring growth through degrowth. Setting up the research agenda of commons in the Eastern Partnership countries

Degrowth and its relations with development

This article started with an attempt to outline the underlying conditions for transformation into degrowth between two different cities in Eastern Partnership (EP) countries. The lack of literature on degrowth in EP cities and in general has prompted us to attempt and build a link between the existing degrowth literature and the context of the EP countries. Once we have articulated the premises of transition to degrowth, we will also be looking at what the role of commons and commoning can be in the urban context of the region. Given the restrictions in time and very limited access to the field, this article lays an exploratory ground for further research agenda and presents itself as a work in progress. Nevertheless, it provides an overview of literature and practices on degrowth and commoning in the EP countries and suggests further action and research points in the conclusion.

Degrowth has been gaining significant attention among academicians and social movements as an alternative to growth in development. Degrowth is viewed as a deliberate reduction of resource and energy use for the purpose of a balanced economy in a living world, which also targets inequality reduction and improvement of well-being (Hickel, 2020). The key argument of the concept is that a reduction in consumption does not mean a decrease in well-being. Rather, degrowth is a critique of the quantitative and nominal idea of exponential growth, and it advocates the need for socio-ecological transformation towards a socially just and environmentally sound society by addressing rising inequality, emissions, and depletion of resources.

The pioneers of degrowth are scholars from the 1970s, such as André Gorz and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (Gorz 1991; Georgescu-Roegen 1979). The concept regained relevance first in Western Europe at the beginning of the new millennium, followed by both activist movements (the strong degrowth activist movements) and academic circles (the work of the French scholar Serge Latouche (2010)). Nowadays, there is a broader and diverse degrowth community mainly located in Germany, France, Spain, Canada, as well as in some Latin American countries.

A recent study (Cosme et al, 2017) examining 128 peer-reviewed journals and policies on degrowth debates classifies degrowth agenda proposals into three broad goals:

  • reduce the environmental impact of human activities;
  • redistribute income and wealth both within and between countries; 
  • promote the transition from a materialistic to a convivial and participatory society.

Despite the grassroots origins of degrowth, many proposals suggest the need for a high level of state intervention indicating national top-down approaches, focusing on government as a major driver of change, rather than local bottom-up approaches.

Generally, degrowth proposals are largely debated and created within and for the Global North. Dominant literature suggests that controlled economic degrowth is best applicable in the Global North, while for the South, economic growth would be a requirement. Perceptions of the development in the Global South counterbalance the fact that degrowth literature and agenda is mainly generated from highly industrialized and high-income countries (Weiss and Cattaneo, 2017). The clash of perception of lifestyles and the notion of justice urges strong reasoning to incorporate the perspectives of developing countries into the degrowth agenda (Muraca, 2012). The concern lies around the motivation for developing economies to increase resource and energy use in order to meet economic and social needs. In particular, the key social movements have concerns about the concept in the Global South. The major argument on their side is that these economies need sustainable industrialization and they have the «right to develop» (Labajos et al, 2019).

Despite this, more voices are questioning the arguments that give economic growth a central place in political discussions, suggesting that this type of criticism could be liberating for many parts (Global South) of the world (Muraca 2014). Acosta (2013) argues that growth must be differentiated into «good and bad growth» in the Global South, by taking into account real socio-ecological needs. The degrowth transformation should affect not only institutional but also social infrastructures. Therefore, the idea of the analytical note is not about imposing the knowledge of degrowth (policies and practices) onto the Global South as a proposal originating in the Global North, but rather to open up a conceptual discussion for countries in the Global South to bring up their own practices, discourses and understandings of well-being, metabolic life on the planet («planetary boundaries») and conviviality.

Degrowth discourse in Eastern Partnership countries

Unlike other Global South countries, growth has never been challenged in the EP countries; rather, it has been treated as a vital ingredient for development. The post-socialist transition since the end of the 1980s in the current EP countries has led the countries towards the capitalist economy. It has generally followed a neoclassical approach, in which the market is viewed as the solution to all dilemmas, including social and environmental problems. Achieving a «well-functioning market economy» has been viewed as the ultimate economic transition, after which the countries would gain the «developed» and «high-income» status, and development challenges could be largely overcome.

Economic growth also seems to be a popular approach among the wider population. 59% of the respondents of the World Values Survey (WVS) 2017-2020 wave from Azerbaijan, 49% from Armenia, 69% from Belarus, 63% from Georgia, and 53% from Ukraine mentioned a high level of economic growth as their first choice among the aims of the country.

Economic growth and high productivity are not strangers to the economic development model of these countries, as state-led centralized economic development plans regarded industrialization as a driver of abundance and wellbeing (Mazurski, 1991). The environment, most of the time, was compromised to make room for large-scale energy-intensive industries, and the concerns of resource scarcity and environmental degradation were not dominant on the agenda. Economic reforms in the ‘90s and early 2000s in post-communist societies, such as mass privatization of industrial enterprises, housing, commons, resources and services and attracting multinational investment, have largely focused on solving the economic problems, in terms of achieving efficiency and increasing industrialization, whereas environmental, resource scarcity and social concerns have been downplayed.

According to the Environmental Performance Index 2020 (see Table 1), which also takes into account the social and institutional capacity for environmental management, none of the EP countries have been ranked among the 50 best-performing countries. Although some countries have improved their environmental sustainability over the years (Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine), others have seen a deterioration in their score (Moldova, Georgia).

Table 1. Source: Environmental Performance Index (2020).

On that note, perspectives from the EP countries are underrepresented in the academic and policy debates around degrowth. Nonetheless, certain domains in the cities of the EP countries have remained unaffected by commodification and marketisation, which allows an examination of bottom-up (non-institutionalized) practices that might fit well into the degrowth agenda.

The Degrowth and Commons in EP Countries survey, conducted by us for this analytical note, has presented inconclusive but intriguing food for thought. The total number of participants were 37, 27 from Azerbaijan, the other 10 from Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. The respondents were from grassroots initiatives, civil society, and academia, working with gender equality, environmental and climate justice, economic-social development, urbanistic issues, and the overwhelming majority are from the urban settings of the EP countries. The survey was conducted online, distributed via social media and personal networks. It was laid out in two parts. The first part was about degrowth, exploring the perception of the concept by the participants and collecting their insights into more critical development. The perception of commons was addressed in the second part, depicting the visual and conceptual recognition of commons by the respondents. It should be noted that the sample and findings of the survey are not representative due to the availability-based method of sampling for the survey, which usually happens given the limited time frame of the research and the limited pool availability for a more representative sampling.

The majority of the participants mentioned that they were generally familiar with the concept of degrowth, and the source of familiarity with the concept was through a colleague/friend and through reading an article on the topic. In addition, the majority of the respondents mentioned that they would be willing to be part of an initiative, research, or collective that works with degrowth issues. In contrast, while answering the question on the transformation needed for a just and sustainable coexistence in their country, the majority of the respondents either ranked the answer «More economic growth, prosperity, international investment and increased domestic production» higher than «Transition into a more cooperation-based, degrowth society that provides for everyone’s basic needs and contributes to the decrease of global production & consumption patterns,» or skipped this question.

Another noteworthy observation would be the participants’ prioritization patterns in reply to questions regarding the role of degrowth. While the majority of the participants consider degrowth to be a viable way of preventing the climate crisis, a smaller percentage see it as a transition towards better well-being for the people. Again, as this survey was meant to be descriptive and is not representative, we cannot draw firm conclusions on the perceptions of degrowth among the respondents; however, we can see that there is a discrepancy in the aforementioned answers (the ratings of answers to transformation-related questions), and there is a willingness to learn more about degrowth, which could be explored further from the qualitative perspective.

Degrowth within cities: The role of commons

While the research on the degrowth transition in cities is still at a nascent stage, literature focusing on EP cities is almost non-existent. The research about the role of the cities and the implications of the transition to degrowth mainly focuses on articulating the spatial domains of the process and the institutional setup. For instance, according to Wåchter (2013), the role of institutions dealing with spatial planning could be in leading the energy transition; establishing sustainable land use and settlement practices; creating infrastructures necessary for building up social capital.

In his book Unlocking Sustainable Cities, Paul Chatterton lays out the four key domains that would lead cities into a sustainable future: the car-free city; the post-carbon city; the bio city; the common city.

At most, the cities within the EP geography have been discussed in the context of shrinking cities (Florentin, 2019; Silverman, 2020). This body of literature looks into neighborhoods, cities, or even entire metropolitan areas which are experiencing a structural crisis involving a steep population decline, economic downturn, loss of employment, and social issues (Martinez et al., 2012). Structural demographic shifts combined with political-economic instability, demographic shifts related to fertility rates, aging populations, declining household sizes, and lower levels of immigration are cited as the main factors behind the «shrinkage» of cities in the post-Soviet bloc (Rieniets, 2009).

Given that the process of degrowth takes place in shrinking cities in some form, an analysis of the phenomenon and of the responses to it in different national contexts could provide a reference for defining the future of the degrowth agenda. However, in this paper, we attempt to cover degrowth not as a crisis scenario but as a hopeful project. Thus, we would like to look at the process of transformation from the broader perspective of a complete remaking of the present economic, social, political, geographical, and cultural systems.

The proliferation of commons is one of the cornerstones in the spatial domain of a degrowth society. A complete transformation into a degrowth society requires a «different form of livelihood production,» and commons are often suggested to be the form of livelihood production for a sustainable and just society (Euler, 2018). «Commoning generates and circulates social wealth in ways that have the potential to erode private property relations, individualism and the exchange value of commodities» (Chatterton, 2019).

Moreover, commons have the potential to foster cooperation, collective action, and to create solidarity networks. In an exploration of the potential of commons in the EP countries, a reverse stance could also be taken, based on the premises of the path-dependency theory. A look back at the historical setup of formal and informal institutions would provide space for exploring the basis for the creation of commons in the urban areas of the EP countries.

Commons are self-planned and self-organized forms of (re)production created by people and existing beyond the structures of the state and the market (Bollier and Helfrich, 2012). Commons were introduced into academic discussions in political economy by Elinor Ostrom, who described them as social practices, traditions, and communication processes through which people manage their shared resources. According to Euler (2018), something becomes a part of commons only if people relate to it in a particular way, namely through commoning.

Commoning in urban settings is a collective form of organization around the production of non-commodified spaces or goods that are accessible to a wider community. Commons largely rely on voluntary contributions motivated by the notion of doing good for other people today with a belief that when one needs something at another time, this will be provided to him/her. The challenge in researching commons without on-the-ground exposure and presence is that, quite often, they can be invisible, as they are based on self-governance and shared responsibilities, rather than documented legal agreements or bureaucratic decisions (Hellfrich and Bollier, p.119).

In order for commons to become scalable and to have the capacity to respond to a spectrum of needs, there should be a dynamic and complex network of commons. Otherwise, commoning will continue to produce goods within the capitalist system, remaining dependent on the resources it provides, and will often have to purchase goods that are not available in the common realm of production. Based on this, one can argue that the currently existing commons projects might be too limited at the moment. However, they have a strong potential of unfolding into a well-functioning structure if aligned with a transformation into non-commodity-based and degrowth modes of livelihood.

In urban settings, commoning can happen both in the physical realm (buildings, public spaces) or as commoning of social behaviours (care work, eldercare, cooperatives). As examples of urban commoning are not that abundant or straightforward in the context of the EP countries, it’s necessary to include a broader spectrum of practices that could be defined as laboratories for exploring the potentials of commoning in cities. In that regard, mapping out community and placemaking projects which take on uncommon, novel forms of eco- and community-led housing, attempts to revive local places, neighborhoods, and high streets, as well as to reclaim land can provide insights for laying the grounds for commons research in the region (Chatterton, 2019).

The residents’ ability to deploy their capacities and skills in order to build a common city could be estimated through rigorous research of practices of claiming the right to the city and forms of collective action that exist at the moment.

If we look into some more concrete examples, urban gardens appear to be the most frequent form of commoning attempts in the EP countries. The link between gardening and degrowth has been established by Isabelle Anguelovski in the framework of the concept of the metabolic rift, proposed by Marx. Urban gardening can play a significant role in addressing the following:

1) Ecological rift, «the rift in biophysical metabolic relationships»: Gardens can rescale nutrient cycles, decrease dependence on fuel-based food production, and prompt recycling of organic waste.

2) Social rift: Although this is best exemplified by the dispossession of rural lands by their populations, in the urban context it also relates to the commodification of land, labor, and food. The use of empty or underused lots could limit industrial production and packaged food consumption in poor neighborhoods and beyond and ensure self-sufficient or small-scale production.

3) Finally, the individual rift embodies the «alienation of humans from nature and the products of their labor.» Urban gardening practices could serve as a platform for reconnecting people with nature and the process of food production and consumption (Anguelovski, 2015).

Urban gardening projects in the broader post-Soviet region are both rooted in the past and practiced in new forms today. From the perspective of path dependence, the study of allotment cooperatives around dachas in Narva, Estonia, is an interesting example (Pikner et al., 2020). The authors point out the post-Soviet path dependences expressed in the commoning and cooperative form of organization around dacha allotments. Informal organizations in urban gardening areas after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the privatization of dachas developed in an attempt to solve infrastructure problems. As the privatization happened quite haphazardly, some of the new landlords claimed land which took ditches and other essential infrastructure out of collective use. As a result, the residents in Narva reorganized into collectives and reasserted the past practice of the common use of allotment lands.

Currently, there are several attempts to establish urban gardens across the EP countries. The attempts reviewed within this research date back to 2015 at the earliest. The practices that we have been able to map are the Heavenly Hundred Park and SAMOSAD in Kyiv, as well as the Salaam Cinema Garden in Baku. The uniting feature of all three gardens is that they are a result of resistance by grassroots initiatives to construction in the city. While the gardening initiatives in Kyiv have already been running for several years and seem to have a strong community formed around them, the one in Baku is very new and is yet to grow into a regular practice, engaging a wider community.

The participants of our Degrowth and Commons in EP Countries survey mentioned several other practices that come to their minds when talking about commons. Most of those are grassroots initiatives, cooperatives that work with various societal issues but do practice commoning per se. For example, the cafe/creative space Art Garden in Ganja was mentioned several times as a commons; however, it is mostly a space run by several young people in the city that functions as a socially-oriented cafe and an arts, crafts, and workshop space. Space functions on the basis of private property relations and provides commercial for-profit services. Although it does serve on many occasions as a place of gathering and a platform for creating solidarities in the community, it’s not a commonly owned resource-producing goods for public benefit.

Despite having strong roots in the past and in behavioral patterns within social networks of people, practices of commoning are very scarce in the EP countries. For example, half of the Degrowth and Commons in EP Countries survey participants from Azerbaijan didn’t know of any specific examples of commons, even if they mentioned that there were probably some commons in their cities.

Due to time constraints, our research didn’t involve any field trips, interviews, or observational studies, and it is possible that we are missing some cases across the EP countries. We are very much invested in continuing this research and building up a list of case studies in this Google Sheet; please feel free to add information here, and we will be happy to take it forward.

What would the preconditions for a transition to degrowth be in the context of the EP countries?

Transition to degrowth is a non-linear process in the context of the urban setting in the EP countries. Vandeventer et al. (2019) suggest that the transition should go through the pluriversal (plural engagement of actors) pathway. This pathway highlights rules («formal control of many rule-making functions gradually devolves to sub-national groups of shared geography»), actors and institutions («diverse localized groups form based on social solidarity; these groups coordinate internally in ways relevant to particular places and externally through nested power structures of coordinating councils; diminished nation-level institutional power decreases international confrontations») as game-changer factors in this transition.

The role of habitus and commoning is incorporated into the Bourdieusian perspective (Koch, 2020) on the preconditions for a degrowth transition. The habitus which we live is neither a result of free will nor determined by structures, but created by a kind of interplay between the two over time: dispositions which are both shaped by past events and structures and shape current practices and structures, and which also, importantly, condition our very perceptions of these (Bourdieu 1984).

Habitus is created through a social rather than individual process, leading to patterns that are enduring and transferable from one context to another, but that also shift in relation to specific contexts and over time. The Bourdieusian perspective puts a lot of weight on the role of perception of social/common structures and the possibility of a shift, over time, towards the context of a degrowth transition.

The consensus in the Global North-tailored literature is that transition to degrowth can be possible by reforming the scarcity-based design process and through resource management. For this, a commons-based approach should combine open knowledge, legal changes in governance and ownership, and local on-demand production and consumption.

Based on the academic, activist, and policy debates, fundamental action for social transition and advocacy for commons as a social form have the potential to replace the commodity form of production as a societal foundation, facilitating the transition to degrowth in the EP countries. For that, the following preconditions would be relevant.

Open coordination and cooperativism through polycentric connectivity and stigmergic mediation. Mutual coordination and ownership of commons require a reciprocal mechanism. Open cooperativism explores the symbiosis between transparent and open management and common resources to create resilient economic entities. Deliberative citizen forums can assist in co-developing and upscaling commoning initiatives as well as broaden the social basis. Euler (2018) suggests that the establishment of scalable and comprehensive commons structures can be promoted by polycentric connectivity and stigmergic mediation. Polycentricity, defined in terms of Ostrom et al. (1961), «connotes many centres of decision making that are formally independent of each other.» Stigmergy is a process of letting the network of people know what needs to be done, sometimes categorizing it by urgency, recency, and importance. The most popular example of this is the highlight on Wikipedia that says, «If you know something about the requested topic, please write an article.» The goal of this method is a coherent organization of local action without the need for personnel, time, and spatial meetings. Stigmergic mediation also exists across other commons projects, such as housing or gardening.

Advocating local regulatory and institutional basis for the decentralized governance of commons. A regulatory perspective demonstrates how deeply rooted the growth principle has become, not only in the economic system but also in the legal framework. Therefore, the transition to degrowth requires commons-centric governance allowing for the creative autonomy of the contributing citizens. Taking into account the strong presence of the state in the EP countries, a so-called «partner state» would enable commoning through creating and sustaining infrastructures for the production of commons-based ecosystems. The Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of the Urban Commons could be an example. This regulation provides engaged citizens with legal mechanisms to claim urban resources as commons and to declare interest in their care and management.

Building awareness and capacity of grassroots initiatives for locally crafted degrowth solutions. Grassroots initiatives have limited power and resources, but they are capable of mobilizing and engaging the wider public around specific issues. The role of grassroots initiatives is crucial for bottom-up degrowth practices. The potential for grassroots initiatives to build commons and locally crafted solutions according to the structures specific to the place requires access to information and good practices in local languages, bridging academic research with grassroots practices and peer-to-peer learning throughout the region. A good example of that would be the degrowth movement in Latin American countries, where the knowledge of researchers is intertwined with activism, where they share best practices, case studies, and theoretical debates.

Building up and strengthening new forms of work: Nowtopias are a practice of work culture centered on goals other than monetary rewards. The term in itself attempts to define the efforts of reinventing work by investing full capacities to create, share, address issues, cooperate without monetary interests. The establishment and subsistence of commons heavily depends on these kinds of practices, as people invest their resources and time into the production of the common good without any strict frameworks that define the output of inputted labor for each individual. Carlsson and Manning (2010) look at the alternative work practices in the example of bike kitchens and vacant lot gardening. The authors conclude that these practices prove that people are capable of recreating patterns of behaviour based on mutual aid, collaboration, and collective need. While in the capitalist mode of production, it’s only a certain group of the «privileged» class that can afford to work without receiving a cash flow in return, these practices can serve as an experimentation lab for what labor will entail in a degrowth world.

Further research agenda

Degrowth and commons have been discussed widely in this analytical note, but many important subjects remain open for further research. First and foremost, the understanding of commons in the context of the EP countries should be articulated: what the commoning practices are, in which physical and behavioural domains they form and evolve, what the historical traditions of commoning and learning experiences of the marginalized rural commons are.

An in-depth exploration of how grassroots initiatives perceive the degrowth concept and commitment to commons in all six EP countries. Further research could compare, for example, the spatial differences (urban/semi-urban, rural) and the potential of digital commons besides physical ones. Research could explore the ways of building awareness and mechanisms for the initiatives and how common/collective leadership might support effective public involvement in growth debates based on case studies across these countries.

More methodological work is needed on how to capture the impact and outcomes of commoning in these countries.

A question that has emerged from the limited data that we have collected through the Degrowth and Commons in EP Countries survey: what should the legal tools be to allow the further evolution of commons in urban contexts?

And finally, what are the behavioral commoning practices (e.g. care work, eldercare, cooperatives), and do they have the potential to be scaled up or projected into the physical practices of commoning?

Conclusions

The EP countries face a double challenge: to overcome developmental barriers to a more sustainable future and to challenge the concept of growth and find their own path to development. This article has examined commons in the EP countries through the lens of degrowth. It can be argued that the EP countries have a significant potential to substantially reconsider development strategies by meeting sustainability challenges and challenging the role of growth in this model, even though the experience and knowledge of local grassroots initiatives in fostering the commons organization and management process are limited.

Ultimately, in the EP countries and the broader Global South, like in the Global North, the economy and the environment are intertwined. Equally, all economic models should view socio-ecological welfare as a core part of development. Building awareness in grassroots initiatives and research circles of these countries might be the path towards enriching the degrowth agenda in an attempt to avoid unsustainable developments.

Physical commons in cities of the EP countries could be a starting point for that by building a consultation process between institutions and grassroots, as they exist in some of the EP countries and are accessible to the public while there is a need for establishing the organizational and steering capacity of commoning.

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The paper is part of the «Eastern European Cities: Degrowth vs Right to Develop» project, supported by FES Regional Office «Dialogue Eastern Europe». The views expressed in the paper belong to the authors and do not necessarily coincide with those of the Cedos think tank or Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Any use of the materials from this publication is allowed provided the mention of the primary source is made no further than the second paragraph of the text.

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Матеріал є об'єктом інтелектуальної власності.
Копіювання та поширення дозволяється тільки зі згадкою першоджерела не нижче другого абзацу, без зміни змісту публікації, видалення авторства та логотипу CEDOS
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