Thinking Degrowth, With Eyes Toward the Sacred Riverside

Day 24 here in Spain and the coalition government under Sánchez a few days ago announced it will extend the state of alarm until at least 26 April. After that, there might be an easing of restrictions until we’re out of the peak. The daily casualty rate is still high but has been going down for a few consecutive days. In the mornings, I don’t at the numbers like when it was still new and shocking.

I support as little movement as possible. Just writing that feels strange, because my position on travel and movement has shifted so considerably. I am one of the global 20% of the world who has ever flown on an airplane. Comparably, I guess I used to fly regularly. Now, it’s been 17 months since coming to Europe.

My livelihood doesn’t depend on going out on the streets. I’m not an essential worker nor a healthcare professional on the frontlines. Aside from the massive casualties COVID-19 has inflicted upon this country, the economic aftershock will stay with us for quite some time and I really worry about the social and political consequences. This is true for the world.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

The troika of crises we confront; coronavirus, capitalism, and climate have further pulled me into a web of poignant questions. It’s Phase II; a shedding of what was considered normal before this, accepting new paradigms, and being prepared for either the coming socialism (it’s visibly obvious capitalism is incompatible with low-carbon future survival) or the coming barbarism.

Today was windy and rainy and it was easy to stay inside. I’ve been reading Kropotkin, waiting for a few other books to arrive. I hate Amazon, more so hearing about Chris Smalls being fired and the lies they spun about him, and really work to not rely on them as much as possible. I ordered about 8 books, most of them well over a thousand pages each, I don’t see myself using them soon. I do not link to Amazon in any way on this blog.

I was also reading about degrowth. I first heard the word in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It’s a critique of our globalized overconsumption. Why is it that the economy crashes when people only buy the things they really need? Most of us understand, communicated by scientists, that the planet has a few years before we head into unforeseen climate tipping points. We acknowledge that we shouldn’t fly so much anymore and we should buy more locally.

If COVID-19 and other animal viruses were caused by the human-animal interface, pushed ever more closer by deforestation practices and rapid industrialization, then we should all be thinking very seriously about how to scale things back, and fast. The myth of “infinite growth on a finite planet” has been shattered. A tiny virus has brought the whole planet to our knees with humility (with some exceptions).

In an article in The Ecologist to promote an upcoming book on the topic for Pluto Press, Anitra Nelson and Vincent Liegey write:

Efforts to slow the spread and contain this coronavirus highlight the fragility of urban living, massive socio-economic inequities, of production for trade, a fragmented and globalised supply chain and just in time supplies — all characteristics of advanced capitalism.

Neoliberalism has led to under-resourced and overburdened health systems relying heavily on global supply chains that have fractured and warped as borders and work places close — colliding with urgent and massive demand.

No crisis could so sharply throw into relief the fragility and precariousness of capitalist societies characterised by globalised production for trade and profits; weak states led by bureaucratic elites; and a citizens experiencing anomie, individualism and alienation. But this is not a wholly new crisis, rather just a variation on an old capitalist crisis theme.

The problem is that the ruling class will have very little incentive to change course. Businesses and governments will try to bring us back to normal. But what is normal and should we even try to go back to it? This is my issue with one democratic presidential candidate who thinks of Donald Trump as some aberration. Normal is untenable.

I live in the privileged rural. Actively choosing to de-urbanize from Los Angeles and Cologne in search of a closer relationship with the natural world, not enticed by centers of culture, maybe this line of thinking comes easier to me than others.

The article finishes with this:

Degrowth advocates using one’s legs, bicycles and, to a small extent, public transport. In contrast the current coronavirus pandemic has clearly been spread much more rapidly due to travellers using aeroplanes and cruise ships. In short, another world is not only possible but also preferable.

With all this, I think of A Ribeira Sacra, the sacred riverbank in the heart of Galicia. The Ribeira Sacra is a canyon carved out by the the Sil River that straddles the provinces of Ourense and Lugo. It’s called the Sacred Riverbank in Galician because the once isolated region is home to many Romanesque monasteries from the early Middle Ages, whose monks and hermits continued cultivating vineyards and producing wine, like the Romans before them, on terraced edges of the canyon walls. It is also shortlisted for a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021.

Source: Viña D’Mateo Wineries

I’ve had the pleasure to a twice; once the first time I came to Spain and the second in January; camped near Parada de Sil under a meteor-showered night sky, hiked to the hidden Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, entered the castle of Castro Caldelas, passed through Monforte de Lemos, the unofficial capital of the region on a very cold day.

My partner and I rent a house now. It’s difficult to find rentals in Galicia outside the major cities; everyone is selling. We’ve looked at a few places to buy. While both of us have that nostalgia of traveling, living in West Africa, being free and untethered, it runs against our longing for land of our own to care for and the acknowledgement that the earth cannot sustain that lifestyle on a grand scale.

Since moving here, we’ve vacillated on the question of proximity if we were to ever purchase something; how close to a town (and ease of socializing) or how far? We have friends in Allariz now and we were looking forward to the weather turning better so we could gather outside. But we also want space to garden, and the available options with an adjacent plot of land and within walking distance are slim or unaffordable.

But now, we don’t go to town anymore, save for a weekly trip to the market. And this will ease up. Of course at some point the current situation will end, but with what consequences? What will be new forms of normal? Will I so carelessly dar dos besos to friends of friends when I meet them? Can we anticipate another autumnal virus outbreak?

Which is why I think of the Sacred Riverbank. A refuge, still populated, but less so. And perhaps this future was written for us over there; quietly cultivating a small garden, telecommuting, with an occasional bike trip to town for groceries. It’s good enough for me.

Day 19: Lifted, A Bit

I’m sleeping more lightly than usual. It could be Spain entering daylight savings time but it started a bit before this. At least I’m getting some sleep. I think others are struggling. I don’t have much to write about here. I’m trying to write for my fiction project more.

  • I took Alqo out to the monte early along with Moment’s wide 18mm lens. I love using it but I’m itching for new landscapes. It might be awhile before that happens.
  • It snowed today. I went down to the “gym” (my house’s bottom level, not really a basement but an unconnected open space with a concrete floor and a yoga mat) and finished in time to see it. Lasted about an 45 minutes or so.
  • Half of my book order came. The second batch has physical copies of Capital and The Three Body Problem which I’ve already started digitally, along with some other great stuff, all quite long. Working all day on a screen all day, my eyes get tired quickly. Started Kropotkin this morning and it was so enjoyable to hold a book and highlight. Today I received:
    • Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread
    • Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove
    • Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer
  • Reading Esmé L.K. Patridge’s Medium essay How to Cope with Self-Isolation, According to a 9th Century Islamic Philosopher.
  • Speaking of, Early Islam historian Ian David Morris is giving a free seminar on Twitch. I’m pretty excited about this. If you’re interested, do the reading first. It’s short.
  • Listening to This Is Scientist on Spotify (Similar playlist on Apple Music)

No More “How Will You Pay For It?”

Stony Brook University professor of economics Stephanie Kelton wrote about the recently passed $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus for the Intercept:

Congress has ignored millions of people who have existed in a state of crisis for decades. The people of Flint, Michigan, (and elsewhere) still do not have safe drinking water. Millions of kids go hungry each day. Half a million people, before the pandemic, were homeless on any given night. And on it goes. There has been no multitrillion-dollar spending bill to combat these and other domestic emergencies. Instead, lawmakers have deprived communities of critical investments that could have attenuated their emergencies, often hiding behind the excuse that there isn’t enough money in the budget to deal with problems like these.

She would know. Kelton served as the chief economist for the DNC on the U.S. Senate Budget committee (2015/2016). This article elucidates the methods Congress uses to pass a budget that is ‘paid for’. But the stimulus is not paid for.

That is not what Congress is doing today. Instead of writing a bill that would send two sets of instructions to the Fed, Congress is pushing through a $2 trillion spending bill that will send just one set of instructions. No one is bothering to try to offset — i.e. “pay for” — that spending, because the goal is to get lots of money to people (and companies) without subtracting a lot away.

I keep thinking about republicans and liberals hyperventilating about the ‘cost’ of some of the progressive movement’s policies: Medicare for All, cancelling student debt, tuition-free college, etc. Many of these could be ‘paid for’ yes, by raising taxes on the wealthy. Or they could have been wiped away with a stimulus similar to this one. Arguably keeping money in everyday working people’s pockets during a crisis would have eased the trauma.

Belief and Dogma in These Times

An small anecdote. An eminent conservative traditionalist scholar of Islam from a certain country tweeted about their country’s mosques re: the coronavirus pandemic. In it, he stated that those coming to prayer must have gloves, a rug of their own, must not shake hands, and that it is not necessary to line up shoulder-to-shoulder. I glanced down and saw a reply:

May Allah reward you well…would you kindly provide evidence that “the worshipers do not have to line up and do not converge” in this case?

In this new era, where everyone will have to adapt in order to protect each other, someone is asking for evidence. Is there a precedent, I imagine a hadith, that is attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that confirms this change in the prayer in extraordinary circumstances?

Here is an example, one but not unique, of the line of thinking that leads to dogmatic (and perhaps fatalistic) religious worldviews that secular people rightly cannot understand. I’m sure this person was being sincere, so maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill. And I do not mean to paint with such a broad brush, but it is a sample of the conversations and experiences I’ve also experience in Muslim communities. I see this and worry a bit. Do we need evidence to keep our distance in practicing our faith without the worry or threat of contagion, endangering not just the men standing next to you but their families and anyone they come into contact with as well?

Belief doesn’t need to rely on looking back to old world thinking or an over-reliance on others. For me (because I always only speak for myself) it is an opening up to possibilities beyond the material and should aid in our progress towards an appropriate mission, caring for the material and spiritual needs of all creation. It brings confirmation that the human journey is much longer and deeper than what we experience it, not as some deviation from a more pious past.

Another anecdote. A different scholar, American, but no less traditionalist, tweeted regarding mosque closures in other countries. This is in response to someone sharing a link about why UK mosques have remained open:

In other times, it’s an amusement at best or a nuisance at worst to see ill-trained students from madrasahs try to flex their literalist muscles against critical thinking and common sense. Right now, this attitude will inevitably cause deaths and cannot be tolerated. Avoid socializing!

More rational, yet quite a few pushed back on and felt scholars and their institutions were being attacked.

This is why I haven’t chosen to ‘self-quarantine’ myself away from the orthodoxy. This is why I have to look more closely and critically into the history, the power relations, the primary and spurious secondary sources of my adopted belief system much more than following personalities, also swayed by their education, yes, but by their own histories, reactions, and opinions to the times.

And this is what belief brings me. It brings me some sense of serenity (some, I say) to prepare for the oncoming of what the troika of crises (coronavirus, climate, capitalism) will bring about. It is spiritually lonely, I admit. But it squares with my reality much more than arguing about mosque closures. Talk to some Muslim women who have been boxed out of the mosque explicitly or otherwise for their entire lives and pray at home.

The Qur’an, the starting point and end point of Islam, is dynamic, filled with signs and admonitions to reflect upon. But it will only remain so in the hearts of dynamic, open-minded individuals who choose to prioritize it over the whims and opinions, however educated, of other humans. The times are strange and filled with uncertainty and disinformation.

Beyond Bernie: Assessing the New Politics by the Collective Power Network

Collective Power Network, a Democratic Socialists of America caucus “focused on realizing DSA’s potential to become a mass political organization of the working class”, wrote a statement in their publication The Organizer about the crossroads the left finds itself in with the Bernie campaign winding down and the global pandemic ratcheting up:

Even though we are in the midst of a crisis, it would be a serious mistake to believe that left politics are off the table or to resort to doomerism. Democratic socialist demands, which eight years ago were the fringe of the fringe, have gone mainstream, with demands like Medicare for All polling with incredibly high favorability and “socialism” polling at 47% in states like Tennessee. This is a jaw dropping shift in consciousness in the U.S., one likely to be heightened by the exigencies of widespread public health and economic crisis. While both right-ward and left-ward shifts are possible neither are by any means certain. […]

These campaigns are especially powerful when DSA acts within an alliance of organizations raising common demands. At a moment when elected officials and neoliberal institutions are scrambling for solutions, forceful demands from broad coalitions have an opportunity to shift official responses towards meaningful social-democratic reforms, simply by reacting quickly and being loud.

It’s also important that such campaigns do not remain confined to the local level, and that we take advantage of our capacity as a national organization to apply local campaign lessons across chapters and regions. The recovery from the immediate effects of the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout will be a sustained national political issue. This creates an opening for socialists to advocate for lasting social democratic reforms on a national scale.