By Post Growth Fellow, Yusra Bitar
djedj via Pixabay
A friend in Beirut asked me teasingly as we walked the darkened streets, “Are you happy now? You wanted degrowth and you’re getting it.” He was referencing the economic crisis and recession Lebanon is experiencing — although he knows very well the stark difference between this deep recession and degrowth. Recession happens when growth dependent economies stop growing, i.e., GDP goes into the negative. This typically ends up in the loss of jobs, economic uncertainty, and sometimes austerity measures with long-term impacts. Degrowth, on the other hand, is an intentional shift in economic activity, revolving around a rethinking of measures of progress and what gets to grow and why. Its policy-making revolves around the wellbeing of people and planet. Its overarching framework proposes lower and sustainable levels of production and consumption. The degrowth vision of frugal abundance is not recession, but an opportunity to reassess our relationship to ourselves, our eco communities, and the future we insist on building.
Lebanon in its current state has felt like a microcosm of the ‘revenge of the real’. The economic consequences in Lebanon can be seen as a foreshadowing of how the collapse of our industrial civilization across the globe may be experienced. The worsening of the delivery of basic services which resulted from the recession in the country should be addressed by initiatives aligned with a degrowth approach. The collapse is also giving rise to alternatives that could be expanded on within a degrowth and Just Transition framework.
Collapse and crisis in Lebanon
The World Bank ranked the current economic crisis in Lebanon as the third worst in modern history and later diagnosed the crisis as a deliberate depression orchestrated by the country’s elite. The country’s economic collapse came as a result of an elaborate Ponzi scheme. It was bound to collapse by design, highly dependent on imports — purchased using dollars — and centered on consumption. The biggest sectors in the country are the service sector, tourism, finance, and real estate. Lebanon’s GDP has been in decline since 2018, and dropped 37 percent between 2019 and 2020 alone. The currency has lost 90 percent of its value due to inflation, which started spiraling in 2019. Lebanon’s residents have been forced to experience the consequences of a deeply unjust economic crisis and the majority are increasingly being driven into poverty. According to an ESCWA study, 82 percent of the population is now living in multidimensional poverty. Banks illegally enforced capital controls on people’s accounts, leaving them unable to freely access their own money. Whatever could be accessed from the accounts was also not guaranteed due to the long lines for ATMs and bank tellers. The politicians and bankers of this collapse are one and the same, including the central bank, commercial banks, warlords, and post-war development vultures. They are also protected by the fact that the security and judicial system are under their control, and have significant investments and bank accounts outside the country. Given that this small nation-state is highly import dependent, the collapse also translated to a national inability to purchase basic goods like food and medicine. Like the global economy, Lebanon’s economy is fuel dependent. The inability to purchase fuel due to inflation translated to lack of electricity at the national level and for the generators that have been run by mafias to fill the gaps that the national grid was meant to cover. The fossil fuel industries and the political elite that have run the country into the ground are also inseparable. The consequences of the covid-19 pandemic and subsequent policies catalyzed this collapse.
Beirut, by Yusra Bitar
Global challenges in microcosm
Although the reasons for the collapse are particular to the Lebanon context and related to the financial crisis weakening the nation’s purchasing power, the consequences of a failing global economy heavily dependent on fossil fuel has been practically manifesting in Lebanon. These overlapping crises were bound to happen sooner or later, be it in this little nation-state or in other parts of the world. In his 2010 book The Crisis of Civilization (and How to Save it), Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed outlines the many suicidal aspects of our globalized system engrained in its very structure. He makes the argument that their unsustainability on many fronts is manifesting — and will continue to manifest — through the climate catastrophe, energy scarcity, peak-oil, economic instability, food insecurity, and militarization tendency. He then makes the argument that we are in a post-carbon transition and that is what we need to prepare ourselves for within a justice framework, and not through the dominant securitized global governance structure. Dr. Ahmed’s argument also fits in with the degrowth framework and the need to radically change our value systems and subsequent economic systems to fit within ecological limits.
Glimpses of systemic alternatives
So what is happening in Lebanon as a response to this crisis that gives a glimpse into a post-carbon shift? What do we see here that could provide room for the transition that is being forced on us by ecological realities and political despotism? What alternatives are showing up as a response to the deeply violent cracks of the economic and political crisis¹ that can be applied more justly and collectively within a liberatory framework?
Alternatives have emerged in securing basic services, namely electricity, food, transportation and waste management. The recession and financial crisis have amplified challenges in securing these basic services, but some approaches have emerged that are somewhat aligned with degrowth. Renewable energy decentralization and sovereignty have been catalyzed due to the crisis, which in the long term is financially more efficient and, if built soundly, ecologically better. Diesel generators were the decentralized energy system of choice for Lebanon’s previous collapses, run by mafias while having horrific consequences on human and planetary health. Union of municipalities across Lebanon have been budgeting to invest in renewables on a local scale to address the imbalance in electricity cuts, even prior to the economic collapse. In the past two years, individuals with financial access have also been investing in this energy shift. Community controlled energy access is one solution to energy poverty within the broader social justice struggle, and a result of the economic crisis in particular.
Both the economic crisis and the covid-19 pandemic exposed the insufficiencies of the globalized food systems, while localized and accessible approaches have proved their potential — not to mention their climate credentials. The outlines of a more expansive and politicized food sovereignty network in Lebanon has also come to the surface, including Buzuruna Jouzurna (founded years before the collapse), Basil Movement (initiated during the 2019 revolution), and Nation Station’s urban farming (two of their co-founders farm, and combined their agricultural know-how with the grassroots relief response to the explosion of August 4, 2020).
Beirut, by Yusra Bitar
The revival of coop culture also shows what collective economies could look like and how they can potentially withstand the worst case scenarios of financial crises. Supporting public transportation solidifies residents’ right to the city, and is another way of addressing the worst parts of the crisis through just policies. A cycling culture as part of a larger public transportation system has also become more practically imaginable. Startups renting electric bikes have also sprung up. In this scenario, there is a need to prioritize a ‘growing’ of public transportation and a ‘degrowing’ of privatized transport that pollutes the air and clogs the streets. At the same time, it’s essential to highlight the class divisions of these practices: some cycle as a means of transportation as they have the luxury of time, while others do it due to the sheer inability to afford alternatives. The point remains that these practices are just glimpses of what could be mainstreamed for a collective, just and ecological transportation system.
The current Minister of Environment, Nasser Yassin, agrees with this notion of crisis as opportunity. In an interview with AFP he said, “the time has come to review the system completely”. The same sentiment was expressed in reference to the country’s waste crisis: “The financial crisis makes it difficult to manage the waste issue but it is also an opportunity.” Yet, like those of many of his contemporaries across the world, Yassin’s solutions remain management-oriented, and de-politicize the classes and systems accountable for the masses of waste. He also avoids addressing the core of the globalized hyper-consumerist and infinite growth culture adopted to the Lebanese context.
Shifts rooted in justice and dignity
These shifts remain glimpses and cannot be genuine systemic alternatives unless they are accessible, and rooted in justice and dignity for humans and Mother Earth. In times of economic and political crisis, people and planet are both put under pressure. If the land is not well, we are not well. The crisis is the economy itself and Lebanon is yet another microcosm of this structurally ‘doomed to fail’ global system. The solutions are not technical but hyper-political. This period of transition is bringing to the surface what can replace it for a more prosperous existence on this planet. The financial crisis is paramount with rethinking notions of development. Wellbeing must be ingrained in the political programming for Lebanon’s transition. Our development cannot be rooted in destruction. Lebanon’s recession shows outlines that could heal the metabolic rift between economy and ecology. It calls for new ways of living, manufacturing, growing food, transportation, and every other aspect of our existence. This is the prosperous way forward.
Footnote 1: While the economic crisis is the most recent, austerity in daily practices has been forced by many of Lebanon’s previous experiences with crisis, including the period of the prolonged civil war, the Syria and Israel regimes’ occupation, and other intermittent periods of local and global conflicts.
Three things you can do right now
- Find out more about what’s unfolding in Lebanon at The Public Source, a Beirut-based independent media organization dedicated to reporting on socioeconomic and environmental crises afflicting the country since the onset of neoliberal governance in the 90s, and providing commentary on events unfolding since the political protests of October 17, 2019.
- Help promote this article by sharing these posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. Sign up here for email alerts when articles like this are shared on social media.
- Donate to a grassroots organization in Lebanon. I recommend Nation State, who, after months providing emergency relief, are now building sustainable approaches to more chronic problems; and the Anti-Racism Movement, which is working to address systemic racism through awareness raising, advocacy, and community building. Here is a list of solidarity initiatives.
Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.