Steve Coulter of the ETUI and LSE reports on a recent conference which tackled difficult questions over the fight against climate change.
The question of how environmental sustainability can be achieved alongside social justice was debated at a meeting of experts earlier this month hosted by the ETUI in Brussels. A lot of interesting points were raised at the meeting. But there is no hiding the fact that difficult trade-offs exist in creating an economy that protects the planet through curbing GDP growth, but doesn’t do so at the cost of curbing its ability to create employment.
The ‘Post-Growth 2018’ conference on 20 September, which wrapped up a series of discussions that began two days earlier at the European Parliament, heard experts discuss whether, and if so how, combatting climate change can be reconciled with European’s demands for good jobs and a social safety net. With an increasing number of economists now calling for a low or even zero-growth society – against a backdrop of austerity, populism and the jobs threat from automation – the assembled economists and trade unionists got to grips with the question of how to manage the Green transition in a socially-sustainable way.
The politics of ‘de-growth’
The debate revealed a surprisingly wide consensus about the need for a radical change in economic thinking from the exhausted neo-classical growth model. However, there was an equally stark gulf in views about how to manage the social and political repercussions of a transition to a world without continual economic expansion.
As Philippe Pochet, General Director of the ETUI put it: “It’s not just an economic transformation we need but a social transformation.” Pochet argued that to get consensus policymakers need to convince 95% of the population, not 5%. The rest of the debate focused on how this could be achieved.
Frederico Demaria of the Autonomous University of Barcelona argued that ‘de-growth’ was now firmly on the agenda, with young people particularly aware of the need to trade an ever-increasing material standard of living for long-term environmental sustainability. This view was amplified by Tom Bauler, of the Free University of Brussels, who argued that entire sectors of the economy would need to be shut down. Vincent Liegey of the French DeGrowth Movement claimed: “There is an appetite in this society to get out of this cycle of consumerism.”
Another crisis brewing?
What might be the catalyst for this? Gael Giraud, an economic advisor to the French government, felt that another economic crisis was brewing, partly due to the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. He argued that concerted moves to push for a more sustainable economy could provide a new, less damaging, engine for growth by embracing new technology and ending the reliance on financial engineering.
Others felt that there were more serious roadblocks to this in the form of opposition from ‘technocrats’ and the political difficulties surrounding radical reforms that might threaten jobs and social safety nets.
Karl Pichelmann, a Senior Advisor at DG EcFin, said that EU policymakers already focused on inclusive and sustainable growth. However, he warned that, for global standards of living to converge on and maintain indefinitely the current average of around 7,000 USD in purchasing parity terms would require redistributing 40-50% of the current global stock of wealth.
The political ramifications of this would be immense. Giorgios Kallis of the Autonomous University of Barcelona admitted that a post-growth society might mean fewer jobs in richer countries to go around and so workers would need a better social safety net, including perhaps a guaranteed basic income, to sustain them. Sotiria Theodoropoulou, an economist at the ETUI, said the Green transition would be challenging and called on the EU to use all policy levers to achieve it, for example by altering the remit of the ECB to soften restrictions on public investment in Green technologies.
Poverty and jobs in a post-growth world
Jeffrey Franks, Europe Director of the IMF, added that eradicating poverty was intimately linked with a steady rate of growth and said that it was easier to redistribute from a growing, rather than static pie.
But the most cautionary note was struck by Luca Visentini, General Secretary of the ETUI, who insisted that a post-growth world could not come at the expense of people’s jobs and standards of living. “Workers are angry and desperate. A large proportion of them are in precarious jobs, facing low wages and a lack of rights in an insecure society. I don’t know whether a post-growth society will work, but I do know that we need to change the current economic setup.”
Steve Coulter is Head of Communications at the European Trade Union Institute and a Visiting Fellow in the LSE’s European Institute.