4.2.1. The Meaning of Growth and Its Critique
In order to grasp how degrowth is interpreted locally, we must first understand what it seeks to oppose, i.e., the local meaning of growth. As shown in previous studies (e.g., [45
]), the meaning of growth may differ significantly between municipalities. Thus, it was important for us to distinguish aspects of growth that are particularly prominent in the local discussions in Alingsås, areas that are seen as desirable to grow, and why.
At the core of city planning in Alingsås is the idea of population growth. The municipality has developed a vision that “Alingsås has 42,000 inhabitants in the year 2019” and this vision “is present as a background in every decision that is made” [47
]. As the Head of Development put it: “We have an entire hierarchy of goals, and on top is our vision of population growth” (Interview 4). The projected population growth is also a critical aspect that guides the new Comprehensive Plan of Alingsås (Interview 3). One civil servant explained: “When talking about growth in Alingsås, at least in the City Hall, it is primarily the number of people that we are talking about” (Interview 5). The idea of population growth has been around for a long time (Interview 4), but it has changed slightly over time. The previous Comprehensive Plan for Alingsås, from 1998, stated that “the city planning shall provide conditions for a calm and continuous population growth” [48
]. In contrast to the present debate, the previous plan emphasized that “the small town character shall be preserved” and that “the development of new buildings shall be delimited” [48
] (p. 13).
In November 2015, the City Council of Alingsås adopted a local Growth Program for the period 2016–2025 [49
]. This program aims to provide an overall picture of ongoing development initiatives in Alingsås, including public and private projects, from the municipality’s point of view. The Growth Program is-based upon national and regional guidelines, as well as adopted municipal guidelines, and it sets priorities for local city planning and investments. The Growth Program was developed due to the generally perceived lack of a document describing community development from an overarching perspective (Interview 2). The Growth Program was developed by the municipal administrations responsible for city planning (the Planning Office), and the technical managers responsible for streets, parks, nature, water and sewage, and waste management, in dialogue with the City Management (Interview 2). Hence, it provides clues about how growth is interpreted by civil servants in Alingsås.
The Growth Program takes the population target of 42,000 inhabitants by 2019 as a point of departure and emphasizes the need for more residential buildings in order to meet this target. The strategist for urban planning, who did much of the work with the Growth Program, explained: “It is about achieving population growth. That is what is put in the concept of growth” (Interview 2). The strategist also explained that an increased population means that more people pay local taxes, which allows the municipality to provide more welfare services. An increased population can also be expected to increase demand for goods and services from local businesses and increase the availability of appropriate manpower for local businesses. The city plans to develop new residential areas so that people have places to live, but also in order to grow businesses and the number of jobs. In particular, residential areas are planned close to the central station, in order to facilitate further commuting. The Growth Program also highlights development of local business, tourism, culture and leisure activities.
Thus, although the Growth Program primarily focuses on population growth, it is also clearly associated with ideas related to mainstream economic growth (more tax income, more welfare, an increased demand for goods and services, etc.), in line with previously mentioned indicators for local growth [46
]. The Growth Program represents a perspective according to which growth is projected as a natural starting point for the municipality as a welfare producer.
Interestingly, however, the Growth Program [49
] (p. 8) also includes a section that explicitly problematizes growth. For instance, it is recognizes that:
“In the efforts towards sustainable development, population growth is an important, yet not unproblematic, tool”.
Having elaborated on economic development, the document continues:
“This development is not without conflicts. Population growth presumes increased travel within the region and significant construction of residential buildings and infrastructure. For a wide range of factors, such as greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity and negative impact on marine ecosystems, it is obvious that economic growth goes hand in hand with increased environmental pressure”.
The Growth Program also includes a definition of sustainability which describes economic development as a means to achieve the objective of social sustainability, while ecological sustainability is a precondition to get there:
“Whether growth is compatible with sustainable development is not obvious, but it depends on how growth happens”.
The project manager for the Growth Program explained that the critical reflections on GDP growth was the outcome of a discussion that originally was initiated by the officials, on how the municipality should relate to growth. Their discussion led to the fact that also the local politicians saw the relevance of acknowledging goal conflicts and negative consequences for sustainability (Interview 2). Thus, both officials and politicians at the local level see reasons to criticize the growth idea.
Broadening the perspective outside the formal municipal organization, there is also a vivid debate in Alingsås regarding population growth and its impact on the city’s identity. This type of criticism relates to resistance to changing the city’s small-town identity (Interview 1; [50
]). This view is driven by a few local politicians (Interview 1) and there are grassroots initiatives that aim to preserve the picturesque town center with low-rise, old, wooden buildings [50
In sum, growth ideals are highly present in the formal municipal organization. The fundamental aspect of growth is a growing population, and concerns about growth relate mainly to the potential impact of population growth, and associated economic growth, on the environment and the city’s identity. While this debate relates to sustainability issues, it stays within a fairly mainstream and conventional approach in which the conventional idea of economic growth is not truly challenged. In the words of one respondent: “I have not heard one single politician in Sweden say that they do not want their city to grow (…) in terms of population, infrastructure, employment, consumption, and so on” (Interview 8). However, if one broadens the perspective to outside the formal policy and planning arena, there is also a debate about growth in Alingsås which challenges the fundamental ways of thinking about economic and social prosperity.
4.2.2. Actors for Degrowth
In the interviews, it was possible to identify a handful of enthusiastic individuals in Alingsås who actively discuss and promote ideas related to degrowth, for instance by considering the negative consequences of economic growth in environmental or social terms. Throughout their interviews, they criticized the dominance of mainstream views within the city organization and frequently highlighted the environmental problems caused by the quest for continuous economic growth in a world with finite resources:
“It is simple math (…) If we double the world economy this much in this many years, we need this much natural resources. Can we do that? No, we can’t.”.
One respondent described the formal municipality of Alingsås as having particularly committed people working in the area of sustainability (Interview 7). What these individuals have in common is (1) a profession that focuses on environmental, energy, or sustainability issues; and (2) a background, or ongoing engagement, in civil society organizations that focus specifically on environmental issues and/or degrowth. These individuals generally know each other and refer to each other as “we” or “us” (Interviews 1, 7, 9).
Some of these individuals work for the City Council, yet have close links to civil society. In the words of two interviewees:
“The corridor where I work is no regular corridor (…) they have ideas that go very much in hand with the transition movement.” (Interview 5) and “It is almost like the municipality runs the local transition movement (…) and there is a bottom-up pressure too.”.
Other individuals who are engaged in the local attempts to promote degrowth ideas are employed at municipal companies such as Alingsåshem (housing) and Alingsås Energi (energy). In addition, Alingsås is home to Passivhuscentrum Västra Götaland, a public environmental center that promotes energy-efficient building and renovation, mainly through passive houses. Passivhuscentrum has a pioneering position in this technology and has attracted employees that engage in and initiate activities for sustainability:
“It feels like many of the initiatives come from those who primarily own the question, i.e., the municipal companies (…) If you look at the municipal organization as a whole, there are many enthusiasts working here.”
Several of these individuals have been involved in starting up local civil society organizations. Some of them gave up their civil society or political missions when they accepted their current professional role (Interviews 1, 7). In addition, several individuals are, or have been, engaged in civil society organizations such as Omställning Alingsås (Transition Alingsås), the local branch of Omställningsrörelsen, which is a Swedish movement with inspiration from the international Transition Network. Omställning Alingsås has been described as lively and locally influential (Interviews 4, 10), with people who focus on practical work in order to make a change and increase the resilience of local society (Interview 9). Some are also involved in Steg 3 (Interview 7), a Swedish informal network that explicitly seeks to bring attention to the shortages and dilemmas of economic growth [51
4.2.3. Arenas for Degrowth
One of the arenas where degrowth discussions take place locally is an event called “Future Week” (Interview 1). Bonnier [50
] examined “Future Week” in Alingsås in 2016, and described it as “a meeting place for locals interested in sustainability”, where they exchange ideas and inspire each other by showing good examples of local transitions within the municipality. Those who attend “Future Week” are mainly individuals with a strong interest in sustainability. Some visitors are actively engaged in the local transition movement, Omställning Alingsås.
Omställning Alingsås has also arranged conversations with politicians and has posed questions through the local media, to bring up issues related to degrowth (Interview 9). Another informal and temporary arena for Omställning Alingsås is events such as flea markets held at a central location, where the organization takes the opportunity to present its message to people it would not have reached otherwise (Interviews 5, 9). Moreover, since many of the key individuals know each other, informal discussions also take place informally. However, several interviewees reported that they lack formal arenas to discuss these things freely: “To be able to problematize (…) there is a lack of forums to have a serious discussion about it” (Interview 6).
Altogether, the interviews give a clear picture that there are currently no formal arenas where issues related to degrowth are discussed in any extensive or in-depth manner. Several of the interviewees reported that they choose other arenas outside the municipality to vent their radical ideas and get things done:
“It is really inspiring to be part of regional networks /…/ There are so many talented, committed people in other municipalities too. In addition, then it is very nice to relax with them and feel that you do not have to explain everything /…/ we all have similar experiences. We want so much. Sometimes you get there and sometimes not”
“I direct my energy elsewhere” (…) Having discussions with politicians who really have no time to reflect, but must take urgent decisions every day, I feel is pointless.”
4.2.4. Attempts to Influence Policy
The interviewees reported that the discussions on questioning economic growth in general have not yet had any significant impact on local policy and planning in Alingsås, with a few exceptions (Interviews 1, 9). One example is an appendix to the Local Energy Plan 2011–2013, where a consultant provided an overview of how Alingsås may be affected by “peak oil” [52
]. “Peak oil” is a prominent topic of degrowth (e.g., [4
]) and one interviewee described the inclusion of the appendix as an event that gave hope for increased awareness among local politicians (Interview 9). However, problematizing economic growth is mainly done in the arenas described above, such as “Future Week” and within Omställning Alingsås (Interviews 1, 10). Although some individuals have professional positions that drive environmental and sustainability issues and potentially could challenge the prevailing policy and planning, they feel that either it lies outside their mandate to drive degrowth ideas within their professional role (Interview 7) or that challenging the norm of economic growth is a too large step to take:
“If anyone were to question growth, one would still, sadly, be dismissed instantly as totally unrealistic. While in fact, one just wants to problematize our consumption habits, and talk about how we want to live our lives.”
The interviewees also reported that most people do not see growth as a problem—it is a “non-issue” (Interview 1):
“People do not problematize that much, so far. Instead, they assume that growth is good for the municipality. And then it is up to us environmentalists to do that in a good way”.
While there may be insights about global problems, these are not seen as a matter for Alingsås: “People rarely link the global problem of growth with municipal growth. Those kinds of discourses are very rare in a municipal perspective, among local politicians in Sweden. They never recognize global population growth or the limits of natural resources.” (Interview 7).
The norms described by the interviewees represent institutional conditions that prescribe what is appropriate to do and say. The dominant ideas about how Alingsås should develop (Interview 3) are in many ways typical of the contemporary Swedish urban planning discourse, including ideals about increased population [53
] and sustainability [44
]. Although the Growth Plan in Alingsås contains some criticism of growth in itself, several interviewees reported that economic growth is what is desirable:
“There are many people who don’t understand what I am talking about. ‘But we have to have growth!’ is a fairly common comment. Another common comment is: ‘Do you want us back to the Stone Age?’”.
Previous studies confirm that the norm of economic growth is indeed highly present in Sweden [35
]. The scope for criticizing growth may even be limited in environmental civil society organizations; Steg 3 was a result of people’s frustration that they could not vent their criticism of economic growth and gross domestic product (Interview 7).
Nevertheless, several interviewees described strategies through which they question economic growth as a superior and desirable objective. What these strategies have in common is that they can be described as “undercover” activities, in which there is no explicit mention of degrowth. Several interviewees highlighted the importance of semantics and pointed out that terms other than growth or degrowth have been considered, to avoid “scaring people off” (Interviews 1, 9). Instead, they “sneak in the message”, e.g., to managers, politicians, and citizens, employing a number of strategies:
Events on related topics: For example, two municipal officers organized environmental training for a large number of municipal officers in Alingsås, where they included degrowth perspectives such as “planetary boundaries” and the environmental pressure that follows from increased consumption (Interviews 1, 5). This was described as one of the few occasions where this was suitable to bring up:
“We can be really frank about how bad things really are.” (Interview 5), and:
“When you lecture, you have control. But if one, all of a sudden in another context, were to start talking about ‘well, you know economic growth, it is not all good, there are drawbacks’. No, that would only turn out wrong. I choose my occasions.” (Interview 1).
Other examples include the abovementioned flea markets run by Omställning Alingsås (Interview 9) and cultivation classes (Interview 10), which try to present messages related to degrowth. Yet another example is to invite Swedish degrowth proponents, such as David Jonstad, to give talks at “Future Week”.
Participation in research projects: Efforts from a civil servant resulted in the political decision that Alingsås would participate in a Swedish research project called “Beyond GDP growth”, in which the main focus is to investigate what happens if growth is no longer a given, or necessarily desired. The justification stated in the minutes of the municipality board meeting is that it raises opportunities for Alingsås to influence growth research in an early stage, gain knowledge of the issue and input into the municipality’s own work on shaping the municipality’s vision and future [55
]. As the initiator of participation by Alingsås put it:
“This research project—to get the opportunity to discuss with managers and politicians and make them aware that some form of criticism of the concept of growth exists—it was just too good an opportunity…”.
Informal discussions with local politicians and civil servants
: One municipal officer described how he “takes every chance” (Interview 1) to raise radical sustainability messages. Omställning Alingsås invites politicians to informal discussions over a cup of coffee, rather than submitting motions to the municipal council (Interview 9). Individuals working for the municipal companies do not prepare motions either, but rather believe in informal discussions:
“It is about one-to-one talks with anyone. Regardless of whether it is a politician in the party you belong to, or other parties, or civil servants.”.