“le seul réalisme c’est de vivre heureux ici et maintenant sans attendre des lendemains qui chantent ou déchantent même si vous ne votez pas” (“the only realistic thing to do is to live happily in the here and now, without anticipating either singing or sighing in the days to come – even if you don’t vote”) said the wonderful poster I bought in Paris in 1979. That was three years after the poster had been created for the election campaign of the Ecologist candidate, Brice Lalonde, standing in a Paris electorate in a by-election for the French National Assembly. The original version carried his name and that of his supporting candidate René Dumont, who stood for President on an ecology platform in 1974. By the time I bought it, it had become a generic (and much reprinted) Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth) poster. Lalonde was a co-founder of Les Amis de la Terre.
What did this new political tendency, which was challenging the existing rightwing and leftwing parties and movements, stand for? The poster spells what it is for and against in two long lists. On the left side, what it is for, and on the right side, what it is against. It says – do you want it things like this:
a reduction in hours of work
the disappearance of advertising
co-operative neighbourhood workshops for trades and crafts
time to cook – and to make love
buses and bicycles
a reduction in consumption
pedestrians run over
nuclear waste radioactive for 20 centuries
beaches covered in tar
fish with mercury
computer files on citizens
water in plastic bottles
two hour commutes…
The first list sounded like the answer to the question friends had posed when I told them I was reading up on degrowth: “What does degrowth look like?” The second list describes what Parisians were experiencing when the poster was created in 1976 for Brice Lalonde’s campaign. It also looks more like what the whole world is experiencing now than the first list, doesn’t it?
The geographer David Harvey references the poster on the first page of his 2012 book Rebel Cities.[i] I recognised it instantly from his description. He had a copy once, obtained in Paris in the 1970s. He threw his out when it became too tattered and torn, but I found that I still had mine, in an old poster tube from forty years ago. A little torn on the edges (it’s a big poster) but still in reasonable condition.
Looking at the poster closely for the first time after all those years, it became clear that Harvey had either misremembered what it says, or misunderstood it from the beginning. It is most definitely not a “portrait of old Paris reanimated by a neighbourhood life” (Harvey, 2012, p ix) and nor does it show any “nostalgia for an urbanism that had never been” (Harvey, 2012, p xiv). No Paris past ever had wind turbines, solar panels or rooftop food gardens, let alone a poster advertising a Les Amis de la Terre event with a speaker describing ‘How we eliminated nuclear power’, or a current politician (Charles Hernu) marching through the streets wearing a sandwich board saying “Non au solaire”. (“No to solar power.”) A century ago, perhaps, there were no private cars to be seen in the streets of Paris, only bikes and buses (and horsedrawn transport, which is absent from the poster), and a long time before that the Seine was clean enough to swim in and even drink from – but this was not in the living memory of Lalonde or the creator of the poster.
On the contrary, the poster captures their vision of a future Paris – a brighter, safer, cleaner, more convivial and sustaining city – full of this, and no longer blighted by that. But as the column of negative actualities and possibilities concludes, that is what you get “Si vous vouler continuer voter pour les “réalistes” de droite ou de gauche”. (“If you want to keep voting for the “realists” of the right or the left”.)
Lalonde got 6.57% of the vote; the “realists” got the rest. Given that the economic and social limits to growth had been scientifically established by the mid-1970s [ii] how is it that infinite growth on a finite planet is still considered “realistic”, and is still a bedrock policy position of every electorally successful party that gets to establish a government? That’s regardless of whether they consider themselves to be right, left or centre, liberal, moderate or conservative.
A quarter of a century after the poster first went up on the walls of Paris, when the French word décroissance changed from being a descriptive word for a decline in economic activity to a direct challenge to pro-growth politics and economics, there were debates about what degrowth was for, rather than just against. Two words were used – ‘sustainable’ and ‘convivial’.[iii] All the words in the ‘this’ column of the poster refer to some aspect of ecological sustainability or social conviviality, whereas all the words in the ‘that’ column refer to unsustainable and/or socially negative things and behaviours. So to me, this is what degrowth looks like in an urban European context, and the Quand vous voudrez… poster is very likely the world’s first visual representation of this.
Although degrowth was not a word or concept in the 1970s, there was a lot of research and writing on the limits to growth, in French, English and numerous other languages. The international environmental organisations founded in the 1970s, such as Friends of the Earth, were well aware of the ecological and social damage being caused by the pursuit of perpetual economic growth, and the urgency of ending that crazy pursuit. This is evident in the list of those damages in the ‘that’ column.
David Harvey says “I loved that poster … I wish I had it back! Somebody should reprint it.” (Harvey, 2012, p. ix) Indeed they should – or even better, create a 21st century update. Hopefully then Harvey could see what it is really about. He might also like to read the new literature on degrowth. Jason’s Hickel’s succinct three pages on ‘The anti-colonial politics of degrowth’ [iv] would be an excellent place to start. Hickel points out that if any form of socialism is to be realised it will have to be an eco-socialism which is anti-colonial, and that degrowth is an anti-colonial position, whereas ‘green growth’ is just colonial extractivism all over again.
In the 1970s it was possible to be hopeful about the adoption of ‘green’ technologies such as solar power, wind power, bicycles and organic growing to substitute for fossil fuel energy sources for heat, light, transport and food production. Indeed, if they had been widely adopted then, instead of the global capitalist system doubling down on fossil fuel use, this may well have been possible for cities like Paris. Given the time and energy wasted in going in the wrong direction since then, however, it seems that if Paris couldn’t or can’t do it – who could? Yet this does not mean that the vision is wrong, and even at this dark point in global history it seems to me to be both more sensible as well as more beautiful than Harvey’s advocacy for sophisticated worker control of global chains of production and consumption.[v]
But Harvey and I would both agree that it is very sad that Parisians continued to vote for the ‘realists’. Their names are listed in the ‘that’ column. One name occurs three times in the list and once in a speech bubble on the poster – the Socialist Party politician Charles Hernu [vi] who within five years of appearing on the poster had become France’s Minister of Defence, and within the next five years had been been forced to resign that position in the wake of French secret service agents bombing the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior docked in Auckland harbour, New Zealand. Hernu died in 1990, but the other ‘realist’ whose name appears twice on the poster, Jean Tiberi, [vii] is still alive. He was a Parisian councillor in the 1970s and 1980s, and went on to become the mayor of Paris 1995-2001. He was also a member of the French National Assembly from the 1970s to the 2000s, and held government positions in the 1970s.
In the bottom right hand corner of the poster a younger person says to an older one “Vous vous souvenez, du temps de Tiberi?” (“Do you remember the times of Tiberi?”) to which the response is “Tiberi, c’est qui?” (“Tiberi – who’s that?”) Alas, Tiberi and his times are still very much alive, in Paris and elsewhere, while the vision in the Quand vous voudrez… poster remains unrealised. But forty-five years on, it makes more sense than ever, and new friends of Earth are keeping the vision alive and well.
Christine Dann is a writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand who has been active in and writing for and about social and environmental movements since the 1970s. She is on the core team of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives (https://globaltapestryofalternatives.org).
[i] Harvey, David (2012) Rebel Cities From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso
[ii] Daly, Herman (1971) Toward a Steady State Economy
Dubos, René and Ward, Barbara (1972) Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet
The Ecologist magazine (1972) A Blueprint for Survival
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971) The entropy law and the economic process
Hirsch, Fred (1977) Social Limits to Growth
Illich, Evan (1974) Energy and Equity
Meadows, Dennis; Meadows, Donella (1972) The Limits to Growth. A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (with Jorgen Randers, William Behrens)
Schumacher, E.F. (1973) Small is beautiful. A study in economics as if people mattered
Mishan, E.J. (1967) The Costs of Economic Growth
[iii] Liegey, Vincent and Nelson, Anitra (2020) Exploring Degrowth A Critical Guide, Pluto Press
[iv] Hickel, Jason (April 2021) The anti-colonial politics of degrowth
[v] Harvey, 2012, p 123
“While worker control or communitarian movements can arise out of the concrete intuitions of people collectively engaging in production and consumption, contesting the operations of the capitalist law of value on the world stage requires a theoretical understanding of macroeconomic interrelations along with a different form of technical and organizational sophistication. This poses the difficult problem of developing a political and organizational ability both to mobilize and to control the organization of international divisions of labour and of exchange practices and relations on the world market. Decoupling from these relations, as some now propose, is close to impossible for a variety of reasons. Firstly, de-coupling increases the vulnerability to local famines and social and so-called natural catastrophes. Secondly, effective management and survival almost always depends upon the availability of sophisticated means of production.”
The pictures used in the article are taken from the internet.
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