Reflections on my 6 weeks in Can Decreix (August-September 2013)

Bob Thomson, Degrowth Canada

Convivial degrowth is a relatively new, deliberately provocative term, used to describe efforts to slow our inflated societal and industrial metabolism to a level of consumption and production which can be supported by the biosphere of planet Earth. Slowcialism and heresy in the church of growth are similar terms sometimes used to convey meaning to a complex degrowth paradigm shift. Degrowth can also be seen as a response to the impending global physical, environmental, social, economic and political changes implied by the recent IPCC report on climate change caused by human activities. (1)

How are we to respond to these crises, personally and politically? Do we look to build utopian alternatives in our daily lives and local communities as examples of what could or should be, or do we struggle within the bowels of the “system”, regionally, nationally and internationally, to reform it, to tear it down or to completely remake it? In my view, there is a danger in creating false dichotomies between these local and global alternatives? We need both. (2)

We've built an unsupportable, globally integrated, complex 'civilization' which is way too big relative to the planetary biosphere on which we depend. (3) The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics are clear: the amount of energy in the Universe is fixed, and energy can only go from being useful to less useful or useless. In some 200 years of fossil fuelled industrial “development” we've burned up 300 million years of solar energy accumulated through photosynthesis, ultimately the only real source of energy we have.

This summer, my personal quest for ways down from the overburdened, unsupportable mountain “plateau” we've built, before the cracks opening at our feet swallow us, led me to a six week stay at Can Decreix, a farm and degrowth retreat centre in Catalonia on the French/Spanish border at the Mediterranean.

Can Decreix is a good example of the thousands of small-scale alternatives all over the globe which are trying to define and build multiple, pluralist, livable “valleys”, somewhere below our impossible mountain “plateau”. They show that there are no simple, all purpose responses in the multitude of global cultures and environments we live in, but there are responses. On the policy level, the degrowth movement, largely a European phenomenon and only recently introduced to North America, is an example of still politically isolated efforts to promote truly alternative global policies and responses to the multiple crises we face. (4)

My six weeks at Can Decreix was a mixed experience: discovering what convivial degrowth, voluntary simplicity and community are about, before returning to the 'real' world and continuing to look for ways to start a transition, personal and political, to something more sane and healthy. Adapting to a vegan diet, spartan living and harder physical work than my urban norm was actually relatively easy, even pleasant. My guess is that I “lost” some 10-15 pounds. I met many good people from very diverse backgrounds and experienced how shared values really are inherent across diverse cultures and life experiences, and they provide hope in human communities. But my return to the 'real' world via Barcelona, Marseilles and Paris has shown me large, harsh examples of alienation and dysfunction which must be faced if we are to change our overall societal and industrial metabolism.

Can Decreix is one of a number of alternative communities in Catalonia. I also briefly visited Ca l'Afou, an ecoindustrial postcapitalist community northwest of Barcelona, and met with representatives of the Integrated Catalan Cooperative, which networks hundreds of individual co-ops with thousands of members who are working out ways to share production, consumption and resources and even develop an alternative regional economy.

Can Decreix has 3200 m2 of land and three buildings. (5) Another hectare of grapes, olive trees and rocky, steep hillside vegetable plots make a decent sized farm, but there is no thought of being completely self sufficient with respect to food. However, local food, both grown on the farm and harvested from nearby abandoned fields, is a very important part of the diet and the daily regime. Several dormitory rooms and a decent sized meeting room can accommodate workshops, as well as 'Woofers' (willing workers on organic farms). The plan is to have enough agricultural and domestic activity to introduce and demonstrate basic living skills, peasant technologies and shared community work, while also partially supporting the centre via educational activities, workshops and events.

After a year and a half, they are still working out ways to encourage real daily communal decision making while new, itinerant (three weeks on average) live-in participants learn the myriad details of what grows where, how to care for plants and share the work, and a unique mix of old and new domestic and farming skills appropriate to a much simpler life. Delicious meals with wild salads, local fruits and vegetables and “imported” grains (oatmeal, wheat flour, couscous, corn, etc.) are the norm. The complexities of composting, waste disposal (kitchen and toilet), water conservation in a semi-desert climate, food harvesting, processing and cooking, searching local flea markets for useful “gadgets” and enjoying the beaches and mountain walks around the small Mediterranean town of Cerbere on the edge of the Pyrenees, are all part of life at Can Decreix. They make it a pleasant but nevertheless challenging diversion from the urban lives that most of us come from.

As a centre that quite radically challenges the norms of our wasteful society and explores alternative norms, Can Decreix isn't for everyone. Recycling all waste water for either gardening or compost and not having a refrigerator are things most urban folks don't think about, as are any number of other “norms”. These include: using only manual tools, scrap wood for a cooking fire instead of gas, making bread from scratch with home-made yeasts, using only potassium based soaps (which can be made from wood ash), a strictly manual washing “machine”, harvesting and conserving local fruits as soon as they ripen, bicycling or walking everywhere, etc., etc. Covering your poop with fine wood chips and emptying the large toilet tub regularly into carefully separated long-term compost bins isn't for everyone either. Many of my friends have instantly reacted quite negatively to my description of this toilet “facility” and insist it isn't necessary to go this “far”, even though there isn't an odour or sanitary problem with this method when done properly. After all, outdoor toilets were a standard reality for our ancestors less than a hundred years ago.

But Can Decreix also has a gas stove, lots of useful hand tools, a few electric tools, municipal electricity and water, and even an Internet connection with free European and North American long distance calling. So it's both “utopian” and pragmatic.

Not all of us want to challenge all social norms all of the time, and it's probably true that a permanent spartan life style a la Can Decreix is not likely to attract as many to the cause of convivial degrowth, if that's all it's seen to be. But as a place to help you recognize the difference between your wants and your “needs”, and what can be done differently, Can Decreix provides an eye-opening experience, one which encourages a recognition of our own individuality and subjectivity, and the norms which govern or influence our behaviours and our societies.

As one former resident has noted in writing of her six month experience at Can Decreix, it's a place where we can see how “outside” society shapes us and colonizes our minds in daily minute and subjective ways with assumptions and norms that influence, even determine, what and how we consume. (6) It's a place where we can come to recognize that, while we haven't created the society we live in, in many unconscious (and sometimes conscious) ways we actually reproduce it, but also come to realize that we can or could (or should) transform it to something different. (7) By providing and/or encouraging different norms, it shows us that different “societies” are feasible, at least in a local context. She concludes that if one wants to actively promote social change, one way is to establish a place where a different normality is experienceable, e.g. Can Decreix.

An important part of this learning experience comes not only from the experience of Can Decreix itself, but from re-entry to “normal” society and the “cultural shock” of exposure to “old” norms with a new perspective. For me, leaving Can Decreix for Barcelona after 6 weeks was an inevitable shock, one which I knew would come, based on my other life experiences in different cultures.

My wife was glad I had two days of “re-entry” to “normal” society before meeting her at the airport in Barcelona. But five weeks later, I am still absorbing the changes, although fortunate not to be completely disoriented by the enormous contrast between a simple life and the dysfunction of a big, phenomenally cosmopolitan city like Paris. This doesn't mean there aren't things like intellectual stimulation, good food, pleasant parks, creative works of art and like minded friends to share with in Paris. But examples of wasteful norms abound: from the waste of water because of a poorly designed kitchen sink and faucet in our rented apartment to the use of tonnes and tonnes of drinking water for street cleaning and wastefully programmed automatic flushing urinals. Simple design and technical changes could avoid this waste, but the prevailing cultural and technical "norms" don't even recognize this, much less encourage changes.

Then there is the contrast between French insistence on basic manners (you have to say “good-morning” before they'll recognize you), and the complete lack of respect for “egalitė” and “fraternitė” on the part of car drivers, or the application of “libertė” only to Parisiens own ultra individual freedom of action on the street or the sidewalk. On top of this, there is the clash of news re the deaths of hundreds of Africans trying to reach Europe illegally, the victory of a tiny far right French party in a small municipal by-election and the huge public and press scandal of one poor blond child supposedly "kidnapped" by a Roma couple, while the press and politicians completely ignore the plights of 880,000 European slaves who have been trafficked into modern day sex slavery, forced labour or organ transplants. And then we have the refusal of US Republicans to raise taxes to avoid a fiscal deficit which has been proved to be caused by Republican tax cuts for the rich and U.S. military excesses around the globe.

But back to Catalonia, where social and community experiments such as Ca l'Afou and the Catalan Integral Cooperative, as well as Can Decreix, are showing constructive new ways of organizing society to address the fundamental question of sustainability and inequity.

Ca l'Afou is an ecoindustrial post-capitalist colony located in an old textile industry estate on the outskirts of Vallbona d'Anoia, a town an hour and a half by train northwest of Barcelona. On 3 hectares of land, it has a number of buildings, including 27 flats of 57 m2, each, being renovated as a housing coop, various collective spaces such as an old church, a school, a shop, gardens, an orchard and some 10,000 m2 of workspaces available for rent at a euro per m2. It's a complex communal organization, pursuing the ideals of the permaculture and de-growth movements hand in hand with hacker and peer to peer producer ethics and collective decision making. In addition it looks to the local heritage of "industrial colonies" and an active reappropriation of the memory of 1930s Catalan industrial collectivization. They've been able to cover a down payment on the property and monthly rent shared by some 30 people, including families, and various productive projects. One project is manufacturing educational toys for Montessori schools, a hacklab develops open source software and they have basic manufacturing equipment and tools (lathes, drills, saws, woodworking machinery, hand tools, etc.). Ca l'Afou is an important part of the Catalan Integral Cooperative in which hundreds of coops share production and consumption. I only spent a few hours there and don't feel qualified to comment on its successes and/or difficulties. It appears to be working however, and I left with a sense it is finding its way to a sustainable future.

The Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC) networks hundreds of individual co-ops with thousands of members who are working out ways to share production, consumption and resources, and even to develop an alternative regional economy. (8)  I met some of their representatives briefly and also visited their Barcelona offices in late September. As I note above with respect to Ca l'Afou, having spent only a few hours with them, I don't feel qualified to comment on their successes and/or difficulties. My sense however, is that this is an extremely important initiative. The CIC network is being replicated in other regions across Spain, and a recent Guardian article on the experience of the Spanish village of Marinaleda highlights the potential of yet other alternative "models", while being frank about the complexities of each "experimental valley" down-stream from the "impossible summit" of our growth mountain. They are all examples and inspirations of convivial degrowth in practice at a global level.


These reflections are incomplete. I found myself somewhat depressed and sometimes angry at the dysfunction of Paris as an example of just how far we have to go to reduce our societal and industrial metabolism, both physically, economically and culturally. That isn't to say that the examples of shared workspaces, intellectual discussion and writing about degrowth, or that a few down to earth energy saving and alternative production and consumption activities in Paris don't offer some hope. A friend in Paris told us she thought the pregnancy or gestation period of an alternative society was over and we're now into giving birth, as exemplified by the thousands of Can Decreix like communities around the world. I wish I could be as optimistic. Earlier this week I went out to the Musee Albert Khan on the outskirts of Paris and sat in the museum's boreal forest garden for an hour or so reading George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia". It was very theraputic and I did it again on Thursday for much longer. This rejuvinating exposure to Mother Earth as I know her from growing up in the boreal forest around Thunder Bay was an amazing way to recover some energy, and I only wish I'd done it when I first arrived in Paris 4 weeks ago. I look forward to spending a few weeks at Can Decreix again next year. For those interested, my photos of Can Decreix are online at

Bob, Paris, 25 October 2013




(3) Quilley, S. (2013) "De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalization, and the limits to low energy cosmopolitanism" Environmental Values, 2013 (22), pp 261-285. [While Quilley doesn't appear to believe "democratic" degrowth is likely, his metaphor of an unsustainable mountain plateau and sustainable "downstream" valleys is helpful.]

(4) Demaria, F. et al (2012) "What is degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement", Environmental Values, 2013 (22), pp. 191-215

(5) See my photos at

(6) Burkhart, Corinna (2013) "Who says what is absurd? A case study on being(s) in an alternative normality", MA Thesis, Lund University, p. 71

(7) Bhaskar, Roy (1979) 2005 "The Possibility of Naturalism", London and New York: Routledge

(8) Carlson, Sheryle (2012) "Degrowth in Action, from Opposition to Alternatives Building: How the Cooperativa Integral Catalana enacts a Degrowth vision", MA Thesis, Lund University, p. 137