‘Croissant’, other than the delicious pastry, is a good adjective to describe our current economic system. The warnings about the disastrous effects of exponential economic growth are not new: they have been out there for fifty years already, following the well-known 1972 report ‘The limits to growth’ (Meadows et al.). Today, more and more actors – mostly from the academic world and social movements – agree and argue that the economic system is not only incapable of solving the current climate and social crisis, but that, in fact, it perpetuates them by its own growth-searching design.
The week of May 15 to 17, more than 2,000 people gathered around these questions at the “Beyond Growth 2023” conference at the European Parliament in Brussels. I had the chance to take part in these exchanges, co-organized by twenty Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from five political groups – with a majority of the Greens and the Left – as well as more than 60 partner organizations – among others, the same Club of Rome who published the aforementioned ‘Meadows report’ half a century ago. Across 7 plenary sessions, around twenty discussion panels and four ‘policy labs’, participants from European political institutions, universities, trade unions, businesses and civil society organizations questioned conventional European Union policy while calling for greater pluralism of economic thought and for alignment with scientific evidence from climate, ecological and social research: ‘when GDP goes up, the ecosystems that support life go down’.
During these three days of exchanges, with a remarkable presence of youth among the public, the conversations touched, among others, on the post-growth/degrowth narratives, models and economic indicators to move towards well-being rather than towards growing; on governance structures to ensure the active role of all actors – workers and businesses among others – for a true ‘just transition’; or on the biophysical limits to growth or the relationship to work. Among the ideas that emerged regularly is the – already extensively discussed- need to substitute the GDP as the leading economic indicator, given that it ignores the inequalities in the distribution of resources and the depletion and degradation of the environmental common goods. It was also noted how the discourse on ‘saving’ technology that would allow economic growth to be decoupled from resources use would not only be, by now, a fairy tale, but also dangerous as it would lead to political inactivity in a context where the reaction towards the transition is urgent. “The only technology that can save us is a time machine that takes us back 50 years” said Club of Rome co-president Sandrine Dixson-Declève. The notion of sobriety was also very present. Yamina Saheb, scientist of the IPCC, pointed out with obvious concern the absolute need to include in public policy this concept, defined as “avoiding the demand for energy, materials, land and water while ensuring human well-being for all within planetary boundaries”.
Other than the somewhat ‘groupie’ pleasure of listening in first person to internationally renowned experts such as Joseph Stiglitz, Kate Raworth, Jason Hickel, or Giorgos Kallis, there was a strong movement-building atmosphere at this second ‘Beyond growth’ conference– after the more unnoticed premiere in 2018 – which far exceeded its attendance expectations. Although there coexist different visions and concepts around the subject – post-growth, degrowth, prosperity, happy sobriety, voluntary simplicity, etc.- the holding of such a debate in the European Parliament is a strong symbol. As well as a first and necessary step towards shaking the political agenda.