Localism vs globalism: two world views collide

A A A

Stop economic growth in its tracks, start living locally, at a slower pace, and share more – that was the remarkable demand yesterday at the beginning of the Sustainable Planet Forum, a three-day international conference on environmental issues in the French city of Lyon, which The Independent is co-sponsoring.

In the radical corner was Paul Ariès, one of France's more colourful political figures, an anti-globalisation campaigner who edits a magazine entitled Le Sarkophage, which is a French pun on the word for coffin and the name of the President of the Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy. (You can guess the content.)

In the Conservative corner was Peter Ainsworth, the former shadow Environment Secretary who left Parliament at the last election after 18 years as the MP for East Surrey. He is active on numerous environmental issues and has long been seen by environmentalists in Britain as the epitome of a Green Tory.

Immediately after the forum's opening ceremony, they clashed in the main auditorium of the Lyon Opera House before an audience of nearly 1,000 intent listeners, many of them young. It's an indication of how popular in France such think-fests are – this one being organised by the French daily Libération, in co-operation with The Independent and Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

The Sustainable Planet Forum is focusing on the issue of sustainable development – how we can provide for our needs without stopping future generations from satisfying needs of their own (and without wrecking the planet) – which until less than a decade ago was the animating cause of the environment movement, until concern for climate change swept everything before it. The forum also has an underlying subsidiary theme, which is Europe and its future.

But it was the idea of economic growth, or rather degrowth, to use the term of Mr Ariès – décroissance – which set the debates going with a bang. The French thinker is not just opposed to economic growth, but actively wants to stop it, seeing it as the root of all our evils. In fact, he is opposed to sustainable development, as – to paraphrase his thought – for him, the development bit cancels out the worth of the sustainable bit.

Economic growth, he told the audience, inevitably leads to social inequality. Mr Ariès wants a new sort of society, organised locally, at a slower pace, based on sharing rather than exploitation, and if you take his thought to its logical conclusion, virtually shrinking.

He expressed it yesterday from the stage of the Opera House with a finger-jabbing and strident passion which at times verged on the excitable, and was in sharp contrast to the dry but powerful response of Mr Ainsworth, who told him to his face: "You are a dreamer."

"Vous êtes un rêveur," said the interpreter, just in case Mr Ariès had missed it in English. He certainly didn't look like he got told that an awful lot, and Mr Ainsworth hastened to add that society needed dreamers. But he launched a full-frontal assault on his opponent's degrowth idea, based in what you might call a Conservative view of human nature.

He said: "Humans are acquisitive; we always have been. It's a fair bet that when we originally crawled out of a cave in prehistory we went looking for stuff to accumulate. Another pelt; a better home; a sharper weapon; a longer stick. Stuff: it's what people like."

That word stuff caused the interpreter a momentary hesitation, but Mr Ainsworth was already saying: "The people who live in the poorest parts of the world don't talk about poverty. They live with it. The notion of poverty is for the affluent to worry about, and rightly so. But people who live in real poverty, whether in the deprived cities or rural areas of the developed West or in the developing world, talk about prosperity. They want economic growth because it is a natural thing to want. They want more stuff."

A recent visit to Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries, had impressed this upon him, he said.

"Try telling people in Albania you want to offer them degrowth. You won't get a friendly answer."

Mr Ainsworth said he shared many of Mr Ariès' concerns about overexploitation and overconsumption, pointing out: "If everyone on our planet lived like an average European, we would need three planets to live on. If everyone had the lifestyle of an average citizen of the United States, we would need five planets to live on."

But he said degrowth was not the answer. The only solution was to grow in a different way – that was what sustainable development meant – and the only institutions who could enable us to do that were major companies, with innovations.

Mr Ariès responded that he wasn't looking to Coca-Cola to save the planet – his best line, which drew laughter and applause – but Mr Ainsworth insisted that it was only new technological advances ("game-changers" he called them) which would set growth on a different path. "You want to save the planet with gadgets!" cried a woman in the audience. "The electric car is not a gadget," Mr Ainsworth said.

His finished by telling Mr Ariès that the ultimate problem with his degrowth idea was political. "No democratic politician anywhere in the world will embrace it," he said. "Call that cowardice, or call it realism." And turning to the audience: "You choose."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

DT teachers required for supply roles in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: DT teachers required ...

Secondary supply teachers required in Wisbech

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary teachers ne...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering