Is a ‘post-growth’ future possible?

The first ever ‘post-growth’ conference was held this week in Brussels, examining how the world might move away from an aggressively growth-focused economy to one that prioritises the wellbeing of its citizens. MEP and Professor of Green Economics Molly Scott Cato, one of the event’s organisers, discusses the possibility of a life beyond growth.

Molly Scott Cato MEP
Molly Scott Cato MEP
Molly Scott Cato

This week, MEPs from five different groups in the European Parliament have come together to organise an exciting conference laying the groundwork for life beyond growth. It has been gratifying to also have the support of 238 academics from across the EU who share our vision, and who this week published a letter in the Guardian calling on European member states to decouple progress from economic growth.

But as somebody who still proudly bears the title Professor in Green Economics and who has battled for a sustainable economic vision for 25 years, I think we should be clear what we are up against if we want to bring about change in this arena.

I was shocked when I was elected an MEP to learn that jobs-and-growth is not only the mantra at the heart of the European project but that for many in the institutions it is a compound noun. ‘People needs jobs and jobs means growth and so we must have growth’, goes the thinking.

This is an approach to the economy that not only puts quantity first but actually refuses to consider quality. So nobody asks what the working conditions are, or how much people are paid, or whether their labour adds anything to the sum of human happiness, or whether it is just about chopping up the resources of our precious planet and recombining them into tat with a price-tag attached.

The planet has told us, in no uncertain terms, that an endless increase in material ownership just isn’t possible; nor does it make us happy

The post-growth conference, which took place in Brussels on 18 and 19 September, was a wonderful opportunity to exchange thoughts with people from across our continent who share the view that we need to rethink how the economy works and learn to cherish nature’s abundance, sharing her resources fairly with each other – and with other species.

Interesting policy proposals emerged over the two days. The academics suggested that we should favour consideration of wellbeing rather than growth in our political debates. To do so requires a significant change to the fundamental economic paradigm guiding the EU project, a tough challenge and one that would be made considerably easier if there were more Green representatives in the Parliament – and fewer representatives from the larger right-wing group, the European People’s Party. A socialist MEP suggested having a standing rapporteur for degrowth in each of our committees, which might be a useful way of keeping this agenda at the forefront of the policy-making process.

A shift from growth to wellbeing would directly challenge some entrenched ideas and mindsets – like that which sees single mums under pressure to find themselves a job, no matter how bad, because that job adds twice to employment figures (both the mum’s job itself and the equally poorly-paid nursery nurse). This shift would also raise questions about whether moving an increasing number of things and people over ever larger distances actually brings benefits, or just wastes more resources – key challenges for policy-makers in the areas of trade and transport.

It is entirely appropriate that our conference comes in the week following the 10-year anniversary for the collapse of Lehman’s, because this underlines the important connections between growth, inequality and the politics of populism.

I have lost count of the number of socialist politicians over the years who have argued with me that their vision is for everyone to have a Ferrari. The planet has told us, in no uncertain terms, that this just isn’t possible; nor does an endless increase in material ownership make us happy. But the vision of the wealthy taking far more than their fair share not only makes it harder for us all to stay within planetary limits, it also fuels the politics of populism.

Because the laws of ecology limit the size of the pie, the end of growth forces the issue of equality to the top of the political agenda. The academics who signed the Guardian letter have challenged us to set equity and sustainability as our political goals, rather than the vacuous and outmoded tracking of growth for its own sake. I am glad that they are committed to working with us to achieve this.