I wrote the following text as an amendment / introduction to the “New Deal for Nature, the Climate, and Europe’s Green Transition”. My amendments are based on the conviction that it is necessary to question the structure of the present economic system based on growth if we want to tackle the ecological catastrophe that is already underway. Proposing approaches that are only cosmetically while keeping the underlying problems intact will surely not suffice.
"During the past 60 years, progress has been measured by GDP growth. However, GDP includes all economic activity, whether good (organic agriculture, construction of cycling paths etc.) or bad (revenues from tobacco sales, healthcare costs due to traffic accidents, cleaning up of environmental pollution etc.). Furthermore, only monetized activity is included whereas everything that is done outside the formal economy such as caring for one’s children or elderly parents, helping a neighbor repairing his roof, or doing household chores of any kind, are not accounted for unless we pay somebody to do them.
Since the beginning of the last century, we have been able to an exponential increase of productivity due to automation, robotization and digitalization of economic activity, and this has permitted a raise in living conditions in Western societies. Ideally, a significant increase in productivity would mean that everybody would have to work less to guarantee an adequate living standard for all. However, at some point, the increase in productivity is leading to high unemployment if not compensated for by ever increasing consumption. Between WW2 and the end of the 1970s, progressive reduction of working hours was used by governments to balance the pressure on the labor market. Since then, the mindset of neoliberal politics has led to a spiral of increased consumption and working hours while boosting inequality.
If we accept the concept of a limited carrying capacity of the Earth, its sinks and resources, all available data shows that humanity is already in overshoot that is accelerating worldwide as countries outside Europe and North America approach living conditions and modes of consumption of industrialized societies. As has been shown by system approaches like the “Limits to Growth” report to the Club of Rome, continued overshoot will lead to collapse, possibly within the next 50 years. The Ecological Footprint of human societies is already exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity by 1.6 times, and even more so in Europe and North America, according to data from the Global Footprint Network.
Therefore, we should embrace concepts like the “Doughnut Economy” proposed by Kate Raworth to maintain a safe operating space for humanity (“the sweet spot”) with an ecological ceiling and a social foundation. As such, at the same time as we address environmental overshoot like ocean acidification, chemical pollution, biodiversity loss, air pollution or climate change, a stable and sustainable system for future generation will have to secure basic human needs for the Earth’s population like water, food, energy, health, education, and social equity, among others.
Breaking free from the goal of economic growth based on GDP will mean to develop other indicators that include an appraisal of human well-being in an ecologically sustainable world. While using GDP per capita instead of GDP alone (nationally and without considering increasing or declining population) would improve the assessment of the individual economic status, median income and particularly the Gini index could be measured to get a better idea regarding existing inequality. We believe that individual happiness and societal progress are ulterior goals of human activity and its assessment should be included in any type of system analysis. For instance, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) permits to account for so-called externalities, either environmental or societal.
In summary, our society needs an urgent change of paradigm, departing from a policy based on economic growth (measured in GDP), even if it’s green (-washed), toward a policy founded on a stabilized economy that takes the ecological limits of the planet and the basic necessities of every human being into account. Having in mind that the European ecological footprint would need almost three planets Earth to be sustainable, it becomes obvious that our way of living in society will have to change profoundly to avoid an ever-accelerating degradation of our eco-system. Particularly, the most privileged members of society, mainly educated urban elites, responsible for the largest share of their country’s ecological footprint and serving at the same time as an example for the remainder of the population, will have to assume their role as a leader in this transformative process.
Yet, we can observe evidence that the transformation is already about to happen. The degrowth movement (inspired in Serge Latouche, among others), the transition networks, and ethics and design principles that underlie permaculture (as proposed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren) reflect the demand for an organization of society based on the human need to live in community and in harmony with nature. At the same time, in a highly industrialized world that requires people to live subject to forces beyond their control, attempts are being made to reconquer the possibility to live autonomously without being the object of “progress” or “development”. Under present circumstances, progress has already started to invert its undoubted benefits into the opposite, from mobility mutated into an increase in distance traveled and lost lifetime in “transportation”, associated with local and planetary environmental deterioration, to labor organization that obliges human beings to compete in an unequal struggle with automated production processes.
Consequently, the reconstruction of our economic and political system requires not only an increase in ecological sustainability or an augmented efficiency in the use of resources, but must also be subordinated to the need of guaranteeing the capacity of autonomous action of every human being in the context of a collaborative lifestyle in a community."
Maybe we can agree on some of this, at least?