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In the Spring of 2007, enveloped in an increasing flood of information about global warming and a potential meltdown of the earth itself, 18 students at Sciences-Po in Paris got together to brainstorm in search of a new paradigm that could reverse the ominous degradation of our world but at the same time improve our quality of life.

These students come from various European countries, mainly France but also Germany and Denmark. Among them were some who had lived or traveled in the USA, Australia and England, and several in the group had done volunteer work in so-called developing countries of the “south”.

We approached the subject by studying the Smart Growth movement in the USA, holding on to what has worked well, and then trying to fix what has not produced the best possible results. I suggested three guidelines for our work at the outset of the course:

A search for alternatives to the icon of Growth. First, I noted that “growth” is repeated ad infinitum in other university classes so this would be a rare chance to consider alternatives. We stipulated that the economic growth model as we know it has failed the majority of the earth’s population, not only environmentally but economically. For every $100 of economic growth, only 66 cents actually leads to the alleviation of poverty.

Quality of life as a motivation, rather than fear. Second, we decided that even if the potential of global catastrophe is an entirely legitimate concern, saving the environment cannot be a question of sacrifice based on fear. Rather, it needs to be linked to an improvement in quality of life.

Exclude sectarian politics. Third and last, we decided that we should steer clear of partisan politics or sectarian stances. We felt from the get-go that even if a majority of environmentalists seem to come from the left, many of the smart growth principles are certainly embraced by citizens on the right, while the “developmentalist” left seems to be in conflict with many environmental principles. In order to emphasize this point, I showed the students an article about the catastrophe of single-use zoning (separation of residence from commerce) and sprawl from an American magazine on the libertarian right.

Though we did draw up these guidelines, we decided to not box ourselves into any one notion, and we were willing to think the unthinkable and look into the possibility of sustainable degrowth, from Ivan Illich through Serge Latouche, considering that a contracting economy in developed countries might be best for everyone if the degrowth were targeted to the most destructive industries.      

These three points seem simple enough but it took us many lively exploratory debates in order to decide on our ultimate areas of focus. The following essays included in this work in progress begin with basic principles and then extend to more specific approaches and solutions. The participants were encouraged to think a lot, do as much research as possible but then to write as concisely as possible, with the idea that sometimes less can give us more.

Smart growth advocates in the USA might benefit from the different nuances that come from European perspectives, while opponents of smart growth might do well to consider the opinions of students and scholars who are not part of the American political landscape.

One final note of applause for the contributors to this collection: they are not writing in their language of birth, but I would wager that they would perform magnificently in an English language work setting.

Mark Cramer

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