Recap of the Beyond Growth Conference
A historic European Parliament-hosted event just took place, asking how to let go of economic growth and forge a path beyond it. Here’s a recap of what happened, summarising some of the key moments, ideas, and highlights from the event.
Organized by 20 Members of Parliament (MEP), with 60 partner organizations, the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference — or the “Woodstock of Post-Growth” as it came to be called during the final day — was attended by the most powerful and eminent politicians and scholars.
It may well turn out to be a real turning point for Europe, and the world.
For three full days, around 2,000 people, consisting of pathbreaking scientists, politicians, activists, and representatives of organisations, gathered in Brussels to share moments of inspiration, drama, anguish and joy.
The building was humming with extraordinary energy, and the vibrations reverberated across the globe with over 4,000 people listening online. The main organiser, MEP Philippe Lamberts, said that he had never felt the hemicycle vibrate like it did during this event. This event was not normal. What started out as a scientific conference metamorphosed into something totally new.
Day 1 begun with a somewhat dramatic and revealing opening plenary in the Hemicycle. In her speech, Roberta Metsola — President of the European Parliament — said that “Funds are finite and debts have to be paid back, which is why we need sustainable growth”. This raised an awkward murmur in the audience, who were largely there to discuss how to get beyond the usual growth rhetoric.
Then, Ursula Von der Leyen — President of the European Commission — gave a more carefully crafted speech. She stated that…
“A growth model centred on fossil fuels is simply obsolete.”
…which got big applause. Inspired by Robert Kennedy, she also clearly outlined:
“That economic growth is not an end in itself. That growth must not destroy its own foundations. That growth must serve people and future generations”.
This is substantial, coming from such a position of power.
However, her speech was carefully worded in a way that could appeal to almost anyone, regardless of whether they think economic growth can be decoupled from its harmful impacts on people and the planet. She also repeated the argument that “only a sustainable economy has the resources to invest in social goals.”
So, from the get go, the status quo of technology driven sustainable growth was making its presence felt, providing a sharp contrast for what was to come next.
Sandrine Dixson-Declève — Co-President of the Club of Rome — took the stage. She said that the obsession with growth is the root cause of our problems, and that the only technology that could save us is a time machine that will take us back 50 years. Huge applause. It’s not technology we need, and “people don’t want economic growth. They want economic security.” Growth in social cohesion is the priority, she emphasised.
Up next was Jason Hickel — Professor from the Autonomous University of Barcelona — whose global justice argument for getting beyond growth got a strong positive response from the audience. Rich countries must substantially reduce their resource use.
The first step is to abandon GDP as the goal. Then, we must decommodify universal public services, implement a job guarantee to liberate us from the growth imperative, and we urgently need to cut the purchasing power of the rich. His call to cancel unpayable debts also got big applause. Anything we can do, we can afford, he said, when presenting how a post-growth deal could be a popular and feasible political agenda.
Last on the stage was Adelaïde Charlier — Climate Justice and Human Rights activist. Her message was that it is time to lift our nations from the quick sands of unlimited growth to the solid ground of inclusive prosperity.
“The daydream of green growth is over”. “Beyond this point, economic growth is harmful”.
And this was just the opening act.
The rest of the conference included 6 more plenaries, 20 focus panels, and a number of side-events, all focused on detailing different aspects of a just transition beyond growth. And we should not overlook the immense power of the networks and ideas created in the parliament corridors, as people from different backgrounds socialised during the gaps in their busy conference schedule.
The second plenary of the opening day sought to propose a redefinition of prosperity beyond the mere criticism of GDP growth.
A personal highlight for me was when Kate Raworth — Senior Associate at Oxford University — eloquently presented her doughnut economy concept and showed how there are already 70 local hubs implementing it in practice around the world.
I got to ask the panel a question, and I asked how the concept of sufficiency relates to redefining prosperity for businesses.
Kate Raworth’s response was that the world of enterprise is currently designed to deliver maximum profits. She said that many companies have approached DEAL — Doughnut Economics Action Lab — asking what it would mean to do business that helps bring humanity within the doughnut. She said, we do not want to talk about the design of your products, we want to talk about the design of your enterprise itself, which determines what you can be and do in the world. What is your purpose and why do you exist? How do you engage with others, how are you governed? Who has voice in decision making? Is nature on the board? Are workers and the supply chain on the board? How are you owned and financed, and does this create an expectation for growth or to be in service to humanity? She concluded that:
“We have a system now that is finance versus life, and we need to turn finance in service to life”.
The last speech of the plenary was given by Giorgos Kallis — Professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona — about how degrowth is based on simplicity, relating and sharing. By presenting a practical example of one Greek village, he showed how we really do not need to reinvent anything, if we learn from these different ways of prospering that exist.
Plenaries in day 2 sought to address the issue of unsustainable interdependencies between resource consumption, emissions and GDP growth, and to discuss planetary limits.
One of my personal highlights was when Yamina Saheb — a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — talked about the power of sufficiency policies, which currently go mostly ignored in the Western world even though they are, and always have been, key to sustainable prosperity. She said that by tapping into sufficiency policies, the EU could be carbon neutral by 2030, but…
“sufficiency is overlooked in EU policies and modelling”.
Her talk got a standing ovation.
Reflecting these conclusions, Julia Steinberger — Professor at the University of Lausanne — also stated in a later plenary that “the way forward is sufficiency”. However, for sufficiency to take root, she said we need a change in philosophy and a recognition that overconsumption is not freedom, it is a trap.
Virjinijus Sinkevicius — European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries — told the audience in clear terms that “Nature is our biggest producer.” It is not just a form of credit you can take without consequences. “Being responsible is not an expense. Consider it as an investment for the future.” He also said that GDP tells absolutely nothing about the cost of growth.
Olivia Lazard — Fellow of Carnegie Europe — warned that we have entered a fragmented geopolitical world. Mineral endowed countries will suffer the highest impacts of climate change. Security anxieties rise and the impetus for growth rises along with it. Superpowers are driving towards more extraction and growth to complete for critical minerals, which is why planetary security now requires the EU to build true mutually beneficial partnerships with mineral rich countries from the global south.
Drama continued in Plenary 4, as Valdis Dombrovskis — Executive Vice-President of the European Commission — gave a recorded speech in which he said that the process of decoupling is ongoing in the EU, that now we really need to turbocharge our efforts in order to create “Fair and sustainable economic growth”. This actually made a part of the audience boo.
In a speech earlier that day, Timothée Parrique — Researcher and decoupling expert from Lund University — had received a standing ovation after explaining how the decoupling relies on separating growth from ALL harmful impacts, not just CO2, quickly enough, and that decoupling needs to be maintained through time, making achieving it highly unlikely and rendering the approach risky. He said that emphasising the decoupling that has occurred is like celebrating a diet after losing just 200 grams.
Later in the same plenary where Dombrovskis made his remarks, Dan O’Neill — Professor at the University of Leeds and President of the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE) — gave a the following response that resulted in a round of applause and cheers:
“Let me be clear. It is not possible to achieve sustainable economic growth on a finite planet, and certainly not within planetary boundaries.”.
Prof. O’Neill also emphasised that a greater equality is a substitute for growth, and much better for the environment and society. He made the following memorable quote about the ambiguousness of GDP: “If the police came to your house and said that the level of activity has increased in your area, you would like to know what kind of activity.”
He highlighted that we should replace GDP, not complement it with additional indicators. Importantly, he also called for changing the EU stability and growth pact into a sustainability and wellbeing pact, foreshadowing discussions which strongly emphasised this same point during the final day.
The strong message of Aurélien Barrau — Professor from the University of Grenoble — was that current actions are dramatically insufficient, and the green growth vision is too restrictive. She said that there is no sense in calling something as growth that is leading to decline. She also raised an alternative way to think about planetary limits as something beneficial, because boundaries help us think. There is beauty in these restrictions. They mean we are alive.
Farhana Sultana — Professor from Syracuse University — also highlighted the global justice perspective of moving beyond growth. She said that the speed of mitigation in the global north is not fast enough and called for ending the extractivist growth model. The world economy continues to rely on exploitation, and this has been normalized. Externalities are being exported to marginalized people, and the EU competing for critical resources is skewing what is accessible to others. According to her, we must look beyond growth and hyper-consumption to alternative ways of achieving wellbeing.
The last day surprised me completely.
The goal of the final three plenaries in day 3 were to outline new macroeconomic policies for a post-growth Europe, discuss the role of economic models (those in use and alternatives to them) in economic policy decisions, and to provide concrete recommendations in order to shift the European economy towards a new post-growth model aiming to flourish rather than to grow.
Now, at this point, I had basically already done three intensive 14-hour days, counting Sunday when I travelled from Finland to Brussels and had my first conference meeting in the evening. But I didn’t feel all that. And neither did the rest of this audience, as the energy level of the final day was on another scale.
The day began with the plenary chair, Manon Aubry — Co-Chair of the Left group in the European Parliament — noting how the EU has a Directorate-General for growth, but not one for wellbeing. Like others, she talked about the importance of reforming the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact now that it has been suspended for three year to allow governments to invest in securing the wellbeing of their citizens during pandemic and war times.
Joseph Stiglitz — Professor at the University of Columbia and Nobel Prize winner in economics — then provided a talk in which he repeated the argument that the priority shouldn’t be economic growth but increasing wellbeing. With inequality increasing, trickle-down economics is evidently not true, he said. He criticised neoliberal austerity policies and said that we cannot just focus on debt, without looking at assets on the other side of the balance sheet. On the other hand, he repeated the argument of decoupling, already debunked earlier, which prompted some incredulous looks to be exchanged in the audience.
According to prof. Stiglitz, the macroeconomic governance of Europe needs to undergo important changes to facilitate Europe going beyond growth, and to make an economic agenda that promotes wellbeing both for Europe and for the planet. He, too, emphasised global justice, stating how advanced countries have provided insufficient help to emerging markets. Therefore, EU fiscal framework needs to include substantial assistance to developing countries to motivate them on board.
In the second to last plenary, there was once again one pre-recorded speech that really initiated a part of the audience in whistles and boos, as Paolo Gentiloni — European Commissioner for Economy — outlined his beliefs that “degrowth is not the path because a shrinking economy will have fewer, not more resources for a green transition”. Economic growth remains as a positive engine for change, he said, adding that we need to transition to a new growth model.
Luckily, the plenary was chaired by MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen, whose response was legendary: “Okay… here we heard the message of our Commissioner for Economy. And what do you think, shall we raise the bar?” — reigniting the audience in cheers. Interestingly, due to the absurdity and repetitiveness of Gentiloni’s remarks, the rest of the panel continued completely undeterred.
The next highlight for me was when Robert Costanza — Professor at University College London and one of my PhD supervisors — took the stage to conclude the plenary. He talked about the need for new system dynamics models, capable of representing the economy as a system in which different types of capital (natural, built, human and social), which have limited substitutability, all contribute to the economic process.
He argued that to make GDP obsolete, we need to replace the static system of national accounts with a more dynamic model that has new indicators built into it. He also called for societal therapy to the prevailing societal addiction to economic growth, which got a strong and positive response from the audience.
In the final conference plenary, Philippe Lamberts — MEP and Co-President of Greens/EFA — received a standing ovation as the main conference organiser. He then invited Tim Jackson — Professor at the University of Surrey — to the stage to talk about the myth of our time, the myth of growth. Prof. Jackson talked about the ways in which imaging a post-growth world can help relieve anguish and anxiety, particularly among the young, as the dream of growth has failed and morphed into a nightmare.
The plenary was concluded by two young climate advocates, and unbeknownst to us, activists had implanted themselves all across the hemicycle. First, Agata Meysner — Director of Generation Climate Europe — delivered a clear message of how “Young people are not responsible for giving you hope. And future generations are not responsible for fixing today’s failed leadership”, which received a standing ovation mid-speech. She continued to say how extreme affluence drives overconsumption, and how…
“a transition to a post-growth economy is the opportunity to redefine prosperity and progress in a way that respects our planet’s limits and enhances human wellbeing.”
To those decision makers who in their earlier speeches had promoted the “myths of decoupling and fairy tales of sustainable growth”, she responded:
“Let me be clear. Future generations don’t need our obsession with economic growth”.
The last speech of the conference was given by Anuna De Wever — Climate and Social Justice activist — cheered on by the audience. She said that we are fundamentally rethinking the global economy, because we must. We have to ask who we are growing this economy for, and what stories do we use to justify it?
She emphasised that underlying European growth is a system of white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism, which drive a global system of exploitation, extractivism, and wealth accumulation. “There is no degrowth without decolonialisation”. Huge applause. We fight for the deep freedom to build meaningful lives without depending on growth, she said.
After bringing up the important point that we need to move from panels to real dialogue, she asked everyone in the audience who commits to continuing this conversation after the conference to stand up. Everyone did. Then, she invited her fellow activists in the audience to share their message by lifting up their signs.
Afterwards, one of the activists told me that by doing this they didn’t only seek to protest the limited amount of audience participation during the event, but also to show unity, coordination, and remind of the need to continue pushing regardless of how far we have come.
It was fascinating to witness the great battle of ideas that defines our time, when green growth proponents gave their speeches and were met with stark resistance. In a way, this also presented a missed opportunity. I would have hoped for a more strategic and positive discussion of post-growth.
Shame and blame can sometimes be useful social cues, a form of negative reinforcement, but they can also increase resistance and make the transition harder. Rather, post-growth proponents should focus more on showing a better way with empathy, employing positive reinforcement and a more therapeutic approach, as prof. Costanza emphasised in his talk. This would allow people a safe space to learn from their mistakes instead of only fearing the consequences of voicing their opinions. Instead of ostracizing those who still maintain the traditional economic mindset, the task of post-growth proponents is to show a better way and a new vision that will make the existing approach obsolete.
During the conference there were many mentions to the need to change mindsets. In my view, the best way to do that is to convince people, rich and poor, producers and consumers, that a transition beyond growth can be made in a way that ensures economic security and people’s wellbeing. Provide a new image of a better future, a better way of existing, and a path to get there. A path created with stakeholder participation, tested with new ecological macroeconomic models, and measured with new indicators.
The Beyond Growth conference was extremely well organised, given the scale of what was achieved. This “Woodstock of post-growth” was huge, and I feel lucky to have participated in it. The content would have been enough for three separate events — and perhaps that is the way forward. It seems clear to me that there is enough supply of new research and certainly enough demand to host a large post-growth conference annually.
Nonetheless, to some extent I agreed with the sentiment that spurred the activists to action. More time should have been allocated for questions and discussion in the panels and plenaries. There should have been more self-criticism to find ways of improving the post-growth arguments. There were too many panels in total, spaced so tightly that little time was left in between for informal discussions and personal meetings. Personally, I ended up overworking and hurrying from place to place to take advantage of the rare opportunity to meet colleagues who were all gathered in one place. Next conference will surely learn from these lessons and be even better.
If you are not yet familiar with post-growth ideas, now is the time to start learning! A great place to begin is to watch the recordings of the conference talks from the conference website https://www.beyond-growth-2023.eu/programme/, or through this YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlnSHTORjnc&list=PLCsKDAfAp2L1V3CyZokKQbfCJRZ7hldh7
Note that due to a need to place limits on the focus and length of this text, I have left out many important details, takes, and talks that were given during the conference, so I highly recommend watching the recordings if you’re interested to learn more!
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