INTERVIEW WITH Maurizio Pallante
Since 2000 in Italy a Movement known as “Movement of the Happy Decrease” (Movimento della Decrescita Felice - MDF) has progressively gained more approval. It focuses on the demythologizing of the “economic growth with an end to itself”, and on the creation of a more sober, empathic and economically stable society. The movement, clearly inspired by the theme of the “decrease” theorized by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen,
founder of“the Bio-economy”, and aligned with Serge Latouche
thought, is based on the assumption that the correlation between economic growth and well-being is not necessarily positive; on the opposite there are some evidences characterized by both a growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a reduction in the well-being. What are the principles driving the Happy Decrease? Why we have to support them? Can they represent the solution to the main current problems of developed countries (high public debt, youth unemployment, high levels of pollution and high national ecological footprints)? Maurizio Pallante
, founder and president of the Association for Decrescita Felice (http://decrescitafelice.it/
), will answer to these and other questions.
INTERVIEW - (July 2012)
The interview was made in July 2012 and pblished in September 2012 - (The Original interview is in Italian version; English translation made by Dario Ruggiero)
Subject: Degrowth: principles and advantages of a degrowth-based society
1. Question: What is the “Happy Decrease” and what are its basic principles?
In order to well understand the conception of “Happy Decrease”, first of all we have to define the conception of “growth”. The economic growth is measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP); it is widely believed that an increase in the GDP per capita is positively related to an increase of the people well-being. Actually it is not the case! According to its definition, the GDP measures the value of goods and services provided in a country; the problem lies in the fact that not all the merchandise and the services exchanged with money (and so included in the calculation of the GDP) have a utility; “not all the merchandise is formed by useful goods”. Moreover there are goods and services (the self-made ones) that are not considered in the calculation of the GDP, but generate a lot of value. For example: in Italy, our house heating on average consumes 20 liters of fuel oil for each meter square yearly; In Germany the habitability permission is not released for houses whose heating consumes more than 7 liters of fuel oil per each meter square yearly (about 1/3 of the Italian average). Said that, Italian houses are badly built and little efficient in energetic terms. 13 liters of fuel Oil are lost; moreover, as these 13 liters are exchanged with money, their consumption is considered in the GDP calculation. Finally a waste of energy in a bad built house causes an increase in the GDP in comparison with a well built one. A restructuration of the bad built houses will cause a decrease in the GDP, but also less energetic waste.
Said that, we can introduce the first conception of the Decrease: the Decrease is the reduction of the production and the consumption of the goods that don’t have utility (then in this interview also called as “junk goods”); in poor words, it consists in the reduction of the energetic and no-energetic wastes. The achievement of this objective depends very much on the development of technologies aimed at both the reduction of material and energetic waste during the process of production as well as to the reduction of the products that are wasted when they fall into disuse. Instead, current technology efforts focuses on productivity improvement (more products per worker) and, in my opinion, this is a mistake as it increases the supply of goods that go into waste and reduces occupation.
Then there is another aspect of the Decrease: there are a lot of goods that can be self-made. Self-made products, as not exchanged with money, are not considered in the GDP: for example fruit and vegetables produced in the household garden usually are not sold; so they don’t generate an increase in the GDP; on the opposite, as the family demand for food decreases, so also the GDP decreases. Substantially, the second aspect of the Decrease is the growth of the production and consumption of goods not intended for being commercialized. Moreover, when self-made goods are introduced in the economy, other advantages will appear: they are “0” cm goods, so they cause a reduction in the use of fossil fuels (as they don’t need transportation services) and don’t need packing (with a reduction in the waste).
2. Question: What will be the “advantages” if the Happy Decrease principles are adopted?
When “junk goods” are removed from the market and self-made goods are introduced, we have an improvement of the life quality and of the environment; an house that yearly consumes 7 liters of fuel oil per each square meters reduces the emission of Co2 in the air by 2/3 in comparison with an house consuming 20 liters. The quality of self-made products (for example food) is higher of commercial products. This is why we talk of “Happy Decrease” and not simply of “Decrease”. Because if the Decrease is pursued in the way indicated, there will be an improvement in the quality of life and in the environment.
3. Question: When and how the idea of “Decrease” and the related movement were born?
The idea of the “Decrease” is supported also by other associations and groups around the world; the thought of the decrease is still in an embryonic phase and so it has different interpretations (this is similar to the biodiversity in the vegetable field). Our idea of “Decrease” was born in 1985 when I was a pro-active environmentalist in the Italian party of Verdi (that I abandoned in 1992-1993); during that period (but also today) most environmentalists argued that, in order to face the energetic problem, fossil fuels must have been replaced by the renewable ones; I and other environmentalists argued that the solution lies in the reduction of energetic waste and not in the replacement of fossil fuels; our (in Italy) energetic system wastes 70% of the energy used; only after this first step, we can proceed with the replacement of fossil fuels (second step). The reduction of the energetic waste means “decrease” as it implicates a decrease of the GDP. Then I have extended this argument to a more general conception related to the lifestyle. Currently, our movement is not committed in politics, but is operating in order to give advice to the institutional offices.
4. Question: How much progress the movement of the “Happy Decrese” has made in Italy since its birth?
By now we have about 30 local clubs in Italy that will be about 50 by the end of this year; moreover we have thematic working groups (decrease and health; decrease and technology; decrease and agriculture; decrease and land use). Since December 2007 (when the movement was founded) there has been a remarkable development in both numeric and thinking terms; in the movement there is a great number of people under 30 and some clubs are exclusively formed by these young people. In addition to our coherence and determination, the crisis is favoring our movement as people start to bring into question their lifestyle, a thing they would not have done in absence of the economic crisis.
5. Question: Apart from Italy and France, how much popular is the Movement of the Decrease around the world?
There are movements in all Europe and in all the world; in September 2012, in Venice there will be a convention of all these movements; this is the 3rd international convention (the first held in Paris and the second one in Barcelona). In that side will be discussed the European and global development of these groups and movements. These movements are not necessarily called with the name “Decrease”. For example in South America there are movements focused on the “Buen vivir”, that favor the quality (rather than the quantity) of consumption and production; but like these movements, also our movement, focusing on the reduction of junk goods (that are goods without a value), brings to a better life (and so to a “buen vivir”), with an improvement in the quality of production and consumption.
6. Question: What kind of effects has the Movement had on politics?
In political terms we have some local experiences; for example there are the “virtuous towns”, aligned with our principles; then there are the movements opposed to the cementation of land. In national terms, in Italy there is the rise of the Movimento a 5 stelle party, whose program is aligned with our principles. I’m collaborating with this party, as I give a free advisory service to the Parma municipality (where this movement has won last municipal elections – writer entry).
7. Question: Can you make clear the difference between “Decrease” and “Recession”?
Both the processes mean a reduction of the GDP; nevertheless, they act in a different way; let me make an example: take into consideration two people who are not eating enough; the first one have not enough food; the second one has enough food but has decided to do a restrictive diet. These two persons are apparently doing the same thing; actually, the first one is not taking a choose (he is subjected to a worsening condition for his life), the second one is taking a choose that is improving his life. Recession is like the first person; if an economic system based on the principle of growth doesn’t grow, it will not rich its objective and a series of problems will follow; the most dramatic one is the unemployment. Differently, the “Decrease” is like the second person; it is a choose made in order to reduce the goods that waste money and sources, introducing a quality assessment system for the selection of products. Moreover, if the target is to reduce the use of fossil fuels by reducing the energetic waste of our houses, then a qualified occupation will be created in order to make our houses more energy efficient. The investment needed for the realization of such a program will be paid by itself as the saving of energy consumed in the houses will bring to a saving of money.
8. Question: Is an economic system based on the principles of the “Decrease” more stable than a system based on the economic growth?
Yes, it is surely more stable. A system based on economic growth invests in technology dedicated to the increase of productivity (more product for unity of workers); the results are firm’s cost savings and a reduction of the number of employees. What are the implications in the market? The supply of goods grows, while, the demand of goods decreases (because of the reduction in the number of employees). This economic system is decisively unstable; on the other hand, a system based on “Decrease” follows two big steps: the first one is the reduction of economic waste: people work for the development of technology directed to the elimination of inefficiency in the use of resources and the reduction of resources and goods waste; then, the second step envisages a general reduction of the work-hours in order to let people to dedicate more time to their interests (human relations, hobbies, artistic and creative activities etc…) rather than to the production of goods.
9. Question: The movement “Transition Town” is spreading around the world; it aims at the generation of societies whose lifestyle is more friendly with the Planet resources. What are the similarities between the movement of “Decrease” and Transition Town?
The “Transition Town movement” has principles similar to ours; but, while our proposal has implications in terms of industrial economic policy (Top-down approach), the Transition town movement is trying to change things from the bottom, at local and territorial levels (bottom-up approach).
10. Question: In this period, in Italy and in many European countries there are two serious problems: a high public debt and a high youth unemployment rate. In which way the “Decrease” can solve these problems? In particular, taking into account that public debt sustainability is related to the economic growth of the country, what can be done to reduce the public debt in a system based on the “principles of the Decrease”?
Our movement has an economic and industrial policy whose target is to reduce public debt and increase employment. Substantially we believe that the economic growth approach cannot solve these problems, because it focuses on productivity. An increase of productivity brings a growth of production; at the same time it brings a reduction in the employment (with the consequent fall in the market demand). So an increase of the public debt is necessary to maintain the level of market demand; on the other handa reduction of the public debt brings a decrease in the market demand with an exacerbation of the economic crises. In our opinion, the only way to exit the crises is to invest in the growth of a qualified occupation, without an increasing of the public debt. In fact, investments in a qualified occupation directed to the reduction of economic waste will finance with the correlated economic savings. It is a virtuous circle: a qualified occupation brings economic savings and these produce finance resources investible in a qualified occupation. Finally, the economic growth approach is not able to solve the crisis, while our approach, based on the elimination of economic waste, will work in that sense.
11. Question: What do you think about the current working system (wage pyramid, focus on productivity, little maternity leave etc….)?
Our main criticism to the current working system is that it considers people simply as producers of goods. This system neglects important needs of the person such as knowledge, artistic, social and spiritual needs. It risks to flatten humans in a materialistic dimension. We think that the immaterial dimension is very important and, giving the right weight to it, can also make our society more equal and fair.
12. Question: In your book “Meno e meglio” (“Less and better”), you say that the economic system based on the GDP growth is causing a gradual loss in human relations, in particular the parent-children relations. What will be the psychological consequences on our children?
Actually we are already experiencing an impoverishment of human relations. Since the 60s the culture of economic growth and productivity has broken our society; we have social problems particularly in urban areas. Children neglected in their first years of life (especially in the first three years – the imprinting years) risk to develop violent and anti-social behaviors (Brazelton B., Greenspan S., 2001, I bisogni irrinunciabili dei bambini). They are neglected because their parents dedicate much of their time to get the income necessary for the satisfaction of their material needs. In this way immaterial and affective needs are put away as well as group experiences become rarer. The final result is a lack of the empathy necessary for building strong relations with other people during the adulthood; now (and probably more in future) people conceive relations mainly in a competitive perspective. The only way out is to recognize that relational aspects in people’s life are more important than the material ones and that people must not concentrate their life on money and on the consumption of goods.
13. Question: Jeremy Rifkin, in his book “The Third Industrial Revolution”, considers the creation of a smart grid based on a distributed production of electricity (with businesses and homeowners producing their own energy and sharing it with each others) fueled by renewable sources as one of the 5 fundamental pillars of this Industrial Revolution; do you think such smarts grids are possible? What does obstruct their realization?
In technical terms, by now, this kind of technology is already available; anyway, some changes in the electric grid structure will be needed, as it currently works in one direction from the big structures to the final users. The current electric distribution system is like a tree, while a system based on a widespread generation works better through local exchanges of surpluses. This is why the current electric grid must become a network of networks like the “Internet model”. Why is this model blocked? The real problem lies in the lobby exercised by the big multinational producers of energy, whose power will be reduced by a local production of energy. In conclusion, the difficulties are not technical, but political.
14. Question: According to the Global Footprint Network, each person has 1.8 hectares for his consumption needs, while currently the average ecological footprint is 2.7; the result is that we are exploiting 1.5 Planet Earth (our ecological footprint, in consumption and in pollution terms, overpass the biocapacity regeneration of Planet Earth). What are the main actions humans should activate in order to reduce our ecological footprint?
In addition to a high ecological footprint (higher than Earth biocapacity), another serious problem is its great inequality in the world: There are populations with an ecological footprint far lower than 1.8 hectares per capita, while other populations have an ecological footprint much higher. The “Happy Decrease” is the only way to reduce human’s ecological footprint, as it focuses on reduction of production, consumption and so pollution. The real target must not be only lowering the global ecological footprint within Earth biocapacity limits, but also restoring the balance of consumption around the world. In fact, the Advanced countries must reduce more than other countries their ecological footprint by adopting the principles of the “Decrease”.
15. Question: In your opinion, are we still in time?
I don’t know! the economic crisis is slowing the growth of our ecological footprint as it slows down the environment and the energetic crisis. But much depend on our determination: If we think that the Planet is not savable, it’d better to give up acting and leave the Planet to the mercy of fate. But if our target is to change the current situation, there will be some real possibilities to save Earth; we have to believe that we can reduce the ecological footprint and stop the environmental decline.
16. Question: What role does play the Emerging countries in this challenge?
I think a very important role. If the BRICS follows the same patterns of developed countries, a pattern based on waste and exploitation of resources, humans will have no future. As these countries have a big population, even a little increase in their GDP per capita would bring to disastrous results in terms of consumption and pollution. They should adopt a different energetic and consumerist approach.
17. Question: What is an “eco-village!? In what countries are more widespread? How many are the eco-villages in Italy? Can you make some examples?
An eco-village starts generally thanks to a group (community) of people who try to create a human settlement whose ecological footprint is lower than Earth capacity of regeneration. These villages are self-sufficient in food and energetic terms; they manage all the cycles of production, commercialization and treatment of disused goods in order to avoid an overexploitation of their settlement. It is important to note that many of the practices adopted in these particular places can be used also in cities or town that are not fully eco-villages. For example, the herbal purification of waste water is a process adoptable also by traditional cities; the same is for the energetic self-sufficiency. In Italy there are interesting eco-villages, for example in Torre Superiore (Ventimiglia) and in the Tosco-Emiliano Apennines. They are grouped in an Association called RIVE (Rete Italiana Villaggi Ecologici – Italian Network of Eco-Villages).
18. Question: Could you give a message to youth? What could they do in order to better face their future challenges.
The essential thing is to go out of a consumerist and productivist mentality; youth may use their professional abilities, in collaboration with other people, in order to develop technologies aimed at the reduction of the environmental pollution rather than at increasing the production of goods and the productivity of firms. Moreover, they may develop positive and collaborative relations rather than competitive ones.
19. Question: If you could sent a message to humans, what would you advice them in order to preserve themselves and our Planet in the long period?
First, to develop technology for reducing the energetic and production waste; second, to develop human relations based on collaboration; third, to dedicate their life to ideals and values and not only to material aspects. A great ecologist, Edward Goldsmith, received a demand at the end of a conference: “what are the three main advices would you give to humanity”? He did not answer immediately, but the next day said: “three things: a kitchen garden, a community, a faith. 1)The kitchen garden represents the self-production of some goods; 2) the community represents a group of people characterized by collaborative relations; 3) the faith (he was laic)means having some ideals, objectives and values to follow and not only flatting in the material dimension: “production, consumption, died”.
Graph 1 – The economic system based on the GDP growth
Graph 2 – The economic system based on the “Happy Decrease”
Maurizio Pallante’s books
Le tecnologie di armonia
, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1994 (ISBN 8833908593).
Scienza e ambiente. Un dialogo, con Tullio Regge, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1996 (ISBN 8833909808).
L'uso razionale dell'energia. Teoria e pratica del negawattora, con Mario Palazzetti, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1997 (ISBN 8833910350).
Ricchezza ecologica, Manifestolibri, Roma (1ª ed. 2003) 2009 (ISBN 8872855527).
Metamorfosi di Bios. Le molecole raccontano, Editori Riuniti, Roma 2003 (ISBN 8835953472).
Un futuro senza luce? Come evitare i black out senza costruire nuove centrali, Editori Riuniti, Roma 2004 (ISBN 8835955319).
La decrescita felice. La qualità della vita non dipende dal PIL, Editori Riuniti, Roma 2007 (ISBN 8835957273).
Un programma politico per la decrescita, a cura di Maurizio Pallante, Edizioni per la Decrescita Felice, Roma 2008 (ISBN 8896085020).
La felicità sostenibile. Filosofia e consigli pratici per consumare meno, vivere meglio e uscire dalla crisi, Rizzoli, Milano 2009 (ISBN 9788817031943).
Decrescita e migrazioni, Edizioni per la Decrescita Felice, Roma 2009 (ISBN 8896085101).
Pilli, Silvia e la decrescita felice, Edizioni per la Decrescita Felice, Roma 2009 (ISBN 8896085152).
I trent'anni che sconvolsero il mondo, Pendragon, Bologna 2010 (ISBN 8883428781).
Meno e meglio. Decrescere per progredire, Bruno Mondadori, Milano 2011 (ISBN 9788861596412).
Le tecnologie di armonia, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1994 (ISBN 8833908593).Scienza e ambiente. Un dialogo, con Tullio Regge, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1996 (ISBN 8833909808).