Recently more than 200 academics published an open letter in support of the demands for an economic system that abandons growth as its central objective. In the European Parliament a major conference was organized on ‘post-growth’ and the European Trade Union Confederation held a ‘post-conference’ on the same topic.
The open letter contains many statements that can be questioned, since it is obvious that not all economic growth destroys nature. Care work, translations, insurances or gardening are but a few examples of economic activities that lead to growth without being destructive. If the unpaid household work of women were integrated into Gross Domestic Product, it would lead to 30 % growth … Destructive? Or evidence of the inadequacy of GDP as an indicator? While all of us can support the demand for measures accelerating the ecological transition, the demands for de-growth or zero growth are not so convincing. Many activities, especially in the service sector, lead to growth and are not damaging for the environment.
The positive element in the set of arguments heard at these meetings was that most speakers insisted on the necessity of striving for both environmental AND social sustainability.
The problem though is not growth as such but the economic and industrial system. The many references to thermodynamics and the thesis of Georgescu-Roegen confirm this. The dangers for the environment represented by industrialisation have been identified way back in the 19th and beginning of the 20th century by many socialist thinkers, but unfortunately they were marginalized.
And even extractive or manufacturing industry as such cannot be condemned. I guess that we will still want to have mobile phones tomorrow, which means we will still need the commodities to make them. I have difficulties in believing we can entirely stop building airplanes. Some production processes/products may be questioned, such as nuclear energy or space travel. Activities that are now very polluting can maybe become ‘clean’ with less damaging consequences for humans and nature. What this means is that we should not condemn growth as such but some types and ways of extractive output and overall production. We need a serious debate on what we need and want and what we do not need and want for the future. Gold mining is another good example: do we need so much gold that new mines should be explored or can the existing mines suffice for the limited needs we have? These are democratic and political choices to be made.
Secondly, we need to do some serious (re)thinking about our economic theories. There is no evidence at all for many of the concepts that are still in use today, such as the ‘homo economicus’, or ‘trickle down’ or ‘market efficiency’. We do indeed require other economic models. Kate Raworth has given a good example with her ‘doughnut economy’ of how the new reasoning might go. More generally, feminist economics also delivers new concepts and new insights that could be very useful for the economy of the future. The awareness is growing that production should never be de-linked from re-production. Economists, then, do have urgent work to do.
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Finally, ecologists never seriously consider the social consequences of their proposals. I think it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ask people constantly to be satisfied with less: less income, less consumption, fewer city-trips, fewer cars … This was the sobering statement of the head of ETUC, Luca Visentini: Today, workers are afraid, he said, because they live in a very unsecure situation. They are afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of robots, afraid of migrants becoming competitors. Workers are also angry because the institutions that normally protect them, have not done so in the recent past. Political parties and trade unions are criticised. ‘One third of our members’, Visentini said, ‘have already voted for the extreme right. Should I now address them and say we can no longer have economic growth?’ Will it help to make them come back to the progressive part of the political scene?
Putting the social first
That statement could lead to pessimism. But what if we turn the reasoning around, as the World Bank did some years ago? Where the Club of Rome in 1972 said growth should be stopped if we want to save the planet, the World Bank said we should protect the planet – and humankind – in order to be able to continue to grow! (see also here). We could say that instead of looking at how we can equitably share the burden of the ecological transition, we can start with social policies in order to save the planet – and humankind.
The best example is housing: a serious public investment in environmentally-friendly housing can help humans and the planet. Preventive health policies can require the end of some toxic pesticides in agriculture or the use of dangerous chemicals at the workplace. Allowances can be given to start-ups for activities that promote the ecological transition. Public transport can be developed.
There are thousands of possibilities to show that not only the man in the street but transnational corporations as well can be reached with well thought out social policies.
The most important advantage is that it leads to a positive message of ‘more’ for people instead of the moral message of ‘less and less’ that people do not want to hear.
In the same way as, a century ago, soup kitchens played an important role to convince people of the relevance of socialism, today, a positive social policy can convince them to help and save the planet.
We do not need then, to stop growth overall, but we need another economic model and a well thought out set of social policies. It is a concrete and positive alternative that will not make people afraid of the future but involve them in shaping it and making it sustainable.
Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences. She is a researcher and activist on social development, and coordinates the network of Global Social Justice. She has worked at different European institutions and at the universities of Brussels (ULB), Antwerp and Ghent. She is now chairwoman of Global Social Justice, an association working on the promotion of transformative universal social protection and the Common Good of Humanity.