The Wisdom of the Snail

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The idea of an autonomous economical society, implicit in the concept of degrowth, is not something that developed yesterday. But you do not need to go back to the utopias of early socialism or the anarchic traditions of situationism: the idea of degrowth was formulated in a similar form to ours at the end of the 1960s by André Gorz, François Parlant, Cornelius Castoriadis and, in particular, by Ivan Illich. The failure of development in poor countries and feelings of disconnectedness in richer countries led various thinkers to revive debate about the consumer society and its illusions, progress, science and technology. Realization of the developing environmental crisis has brought about a new attitude in which a society based on growth is not only undesirable but not even sustainable. So we have to change, and the sooner the better.

In the degrowth project, autonomy is understood in a strong sense with its etymological meaning (autos–nomos: issuing its own laws), in contrast to the heteronomy of the market’s invisible hand and the dictates of science and technology in our (over)modern society. Criticizing modernity does not imply a pure and simple rejection but aims to evolve beyond it. It is through our emancipation as a result of the Enlightenment and the construction of an autonomous society that we can now denounce the failure of this model, so arrogantly and triumphantly controlled by financial markets. The conviviality that Ivan Illich borrows from the great 18th-century French gastronome, Brillat-Savarin (The Physiology of Taste: Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy), aims to recreate the social linkages that have been broken by ‘economic horror’ (Rimbaud). Conviviality reintroduces the spirit of giving to social relations alongside the law of the jungle, and re-establishes philia, Aristotelian friendship.

‘A degrowth society’ involves doing better or more, with less. But this does not imply ever greater economic rationalization: on the contrary, it means the rediscovery of spontaneous giving and escaping the grip of purely commercial values. Deciding for degrowth corresponds to a triumph of quality over quantity. According to Illich’s prescription, we end up with ‘ the joyful intoxication of voluntary restraint’. Self-imposed limits reduce waste. ‘Live simply so that others can simply live’ said Gandhi. If there is asceticism, it is an asceticism of the spirit. There is absolutely no question of sacrificial masochism, it is a question of rediscovering the flavors and knowledge of nature’s food as opposed to a false overabundance.


Here we have an interaction of three cultures: a culture of learning and knowledge, of tradition and of gastronomy: the dialogue between them can be very fruitful. It is a crucially important dialogue, not so much for its consequences for economics as for its role in saving society and human beings from economics.
The culinary art, the art of the table, is both a metaphor for the art of living and a part of its biological infrastructure … It is art with a capital A and the only context where a connoisseur is the equal of an artist … A wine connoisseur is not an amateur. Also when it comes to haute cuisine, as Molière humorously relates in his play The Miser, it is a question of doing better with less … This is equally true whether someone has the ‘gift’, or the art has been learned.
Artisan know-how, for its part, strives to do ‘a good job’. In the Middle Ages, a University included the corporations of trades: one such was the University of Shoemakers thar donated the magnificent altarpiece in Turin Cathedral. This artisan know-how is also closely linked to knowing how to live. Economic relationships are deeply embedded in the social structure, to quote the great anthropologist Karl Polanyi. However, we can observe that distinguished anthropologists have identified the essential connection between cuisine and culture (the entire work of Claude Levi-Strauss bears this out: The Raw and the Cooked; From Honey to Ashes; The Origin of Table Manners etc, and we can also mention Jean-Pierre Vernant and his The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks).
A wise culture, one that belongs to the Renaissance humanist tradition and subscribes to the liberal arts values of the early universities and academies, works for the well-being of human beings and citizens of a town. It will speak out against the misdeeds of a science and technology dominated by the profit motive (Aristotle’s ‘wealth accumulation’) which confuses ends and means. Rabelais reminds us that science without a conscience is the ruin of the soul. Science uses reason of course, but relegates what is sensible beyond the limits of the reasonable.

5 – Wise traditional cuisines unite with wise traditional cultures in condemning the delusions of junk food, a source of diseases ranging from obesity to cancer. José Bové’s fight against McDonald’s and other fast food businesses is also a fight against the lobbying power of multinationals involved in the agrifood sector (chemistry, biology, seeds, fertilizers), against GMOs (together with the Faucheurs volontaires, ‘Volunteer Reapers’), and against the dangers of biotechnology (genetic manipulation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other toxic products used in agriculture). The decision by the EU and the technocrats corrupted by lobbies to block the free exchange of seeds and use of macerated nettles (a traditional natural pesticide of proven effectiveness) is scandalous. A return or reinvention of small farming (agri)-culture involving an artisan approach, based on traditional knowledge of the diversity of species and variety of flavors, is part of the same struggle. It is salutary to realize that when we eat a kilo of meat from the supermarket, we are in fact consuming six liters of oil, never mind the pesticide residues, chemical fertilizers and POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants); and then there are the CMRs, substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction. The fight against suicidal standardization can be illustrated by the example of wine (as shown in the film Mondovino). Parkerian reductionism (from the name of the well-known American wine writer, Robert Parker) of wine to a few grapes with standard flavors (cabernet and merlot) leads to all kinds of abuse and manipulation (for example, oak shavings in casks) and we will soon have wine in aluminum cans. I would willingly swap Parker’s scientific winemaking approach for the enlightened amateurism of Christoph Backer, also an American, but living in Rome and author of the book Il vino raccontato ai miei figli (Telling My Kids About Wine).
Finally, we need to urgently rediscover the wisdom of the snail —Slow Food’s symbol — and degrowth. The snail not only teaches us the virtue of slowness, but has another even more important lesson. ‘The snail’, writes Ivan Illich, ‘constructs the delicate architecture of its shell by adding ever increasing spirals one after the other, but then it abruptly stops and winds back in the reverse direction. In fact, just one additional larger spiral would make the shell sixteen times bigger. Instead of being beneficial, it would overload the snail. Any increase in the snail’s productivity would only be used to offset the difficulties created by the enlargement of the shell beyond its preordained limits. Once the limit to increasing spiral size has been reached, the problems of excessive growth multiply exponentially, while the snail’ s biological capability, in the best of cases, can only show linear growth and increase arithmetically’. The ability of the snail to abandon the exponential growth it adopted for a certain time shows how we can imagine a degrowth society, if possible calm and convivial and respectful of the trinity of traditional knowledge, culture and cuisine.

Serge Latouche, a specialist on the Third World and the epistemology of science, teaches History of Economic Thought at the University of Paris XI.

Translation by Ronnie Richards

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