By Nina Treu, Riccardo Mastini, Joëlle Saey-Volckrick

This and many other questions around European politics were discussed at the first Post-growth conference, which took place at the EU Parliament on September 18 and 19. Hosted by ten Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from five party families, it attracted around 600 people to Brussels. Through panel (and solely panel) discussions, they engaged in debates around economic models, technology, climate policies, eco-suffiency vs. -effiencieny, basic income, wage bargaining, financial regulation, trade, taxes, money and markets. The debates between members of the European Commission and scientists or NGO representatives were always facilitated by a MEP.

The conference ran under the label “post-growth” instead of “degrowth”, in order to be more open and not to scare away potentially interested persons. This, however, led to some confusion. The definition of degrowth was only given in the closing session by Giorgos Kallis. In the opening session, Tim Jackson had outlined the necessity to degrow because of climate change, inequality and the rise of the productivity rate. Yet, he is not a representative of degrowth (he calls it “scary”) and his speech therefore lacked the idea of degrowth to decolonize our imagineries. Degrowth is not purely about growing or not growing in terms of GDP or as a society, but about questioning the very way we think about our society and economy. Moreover, as said above, the panels included members of the Commission, science and civil society. Unfortunately, there was hardly any panel with an advocate for post-growth or degrowth – which led to the rather absurd situation that the questions of the degrowth-oriented audience could often not be answered and the debate didn’t focus on (post)growth. (This could have been a chance to ask the audience to answer the questions, but was not clearly encouraged by the chairs and no extra time was attributed.)

In the debate Does the EU still need wage moderation or a pay rise? Is collective bargaining a useless relic of the past?, members of the union side showed why and how collectively bargained wages reduce inequality and are to the benefit of society, not only employees. The mantra of Lars Vande Keybus, FGTB, to overcome social problems was: “organize, organize, organize“. The “other side”, meaning representatives of the capital or the Commission had unfortunately not agreed to come and were therefore missing in the debate. The conflict between unions who defend jobs in the industry and ecologists who call for a transformation, which is a real debate in many European countries, including Germany, was discussed in several remarks from the audience.

The panel The role of money and interest rate in a post-growth economy presented the importance of the current banking system and its legislation in pushing towards a growth-dependent system. Chaired by the MEP Molly Scott Cato, rather open to the ideas of the audience, the discussion started with Fran Boait (Positive Money) who pointed out the private sector and our dependence on commercial banks as a key element preventing us from achieving a sustainable banking system – if such was to exist. The interventions from Josh Ryan-Collins (UCL Institution for Innovation and Public Purpose) and Thorsten Guthke (Association of German Public Banks), while punctuated by interesting policy options, seemed to drive away from the post-growth debate with claims such as “we need to shift from brown growth to green growth”.

The session Can the regulations on financial services truly contribute to the sustainability of Europe? showed that financial regulation is necessary and can contribute to achieve to sustainability. This should not only limit the risks of the financial products but establish positive social-ecological goals for the financial sector. However, financial regulation is not enough to reach an ecological economy. Therefore, it must be accompanied by other policies.

On the panel Technology, growth and sustainability – the modern Holy Trinity?, two representatives of the Commission from the Directorate-General (DG) Industry and Research&Innovation were challenged by an NGO representative and a journalist. José Bellver Soroa showed that decoupling of growth and material use as well as energy throughput is not possible and therefore techno-fixes won’t be enough to solve our problems. Guillaume Pitron, who wrote a book about the war on rare metals, pointed to the very physical footprint of the so-called dematerialized digital products. There is no such thing as sustainable mining and the imperial mode of living in the global North is based on the exploitation of human and nature in other countries. These perspectives were quite contrary to the perspectives of Doris Schroeker, DG Industry, who believes that along with the industry and through research & innovation, solutions can be found. Paul Hudson, DG ENER, estimated the rebound effect below 100% and therefore pushes for eco-efficiency programs.

In the discussion Energy sufficieny: rebound effect and capping / rationing schemes, Blake Alcott, a well-known expert on the rebound effect, showed how difficult the effect was to prove on a societal basis but that he was convinced it was at least 100%. Riccardo Mastini (Friends of the Earth Europe) introduced the concept of Tradable Energy Quotes (TEQs) to limit energy consumption effectively. The idea received wide interest but was also challenged as being “market-based” because it involved the tradability of quotas. However, Riccardo Mastini explained that TEQs is in fact a “quantity-based” rather than a “price-based” scheme (such as the EU ETS) and that the tradability of quotas would in fact be a progressive redistributive mechanism and increase the efficiency of the energy transition. Fulvia Raffaeli, DG GROW and Philippe Tulkens, DG Research & Innovation, contrasted these ideas with the current policies of the European Commission and contested that the TEQs scheme would be hard to put into practice both nationally and internationally.

Overall, the conference was very different from the other degrowth conferences. Bringing it to EU politics apparently also meant going along with rules of the game. As said above, the sessions were only panels, and unfortunately very male-dominated. Out of 66 speakers in 18 events, there were 49 men and 17 woman. All but two events had more men and three sessions had only male speakers. The ratio of moderators was 11 men to 6 women. (This is very binary, sorry – the statistics might miss a person who does not identify by the sex their name shows.) This is not according to the standards of the degrowth conferences, which includes feminism and quotas on the panels. Besides, there was no event for networking or interaction during the conference and no slot with cultural events or similar. This choice of formats is not necessarily wrong for a first conference and for setting the scene at the EU. However, to keep within the spirit of degrowth and to decolonize our imaginery, different ways of interaction should not be missing in the future.

Besides the shortcomings mentioned here, the conference was clearly a huge success through challenging the hegemony of growth in its European heart. Stimulating a debate between representatives of the European Union and more socially and ecologically oriented speakers was something much needed. The long-term success of the endeavour, however, remains to be seen. Among the attendees from the degrowth community, opinions about the fruitfulness of dialogues with technocrats varied largely. Some considered it a necessary step towards a social-ecological transformation which can only come through a broad involvement. Others questioned the influence of individuals who are part of a large bureaucratic institution and believed change would only come through bottom-up pressure from social movements on politicians which changed the constituency of the EU as such. In any case: a degrowth perspective should be a vital part of both and a first step to include it in the EU debates was taken. Congratulations to the organizers!

https://www.postgrowth2018.eu/ / #PostGrowth2018

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Nina Treu, Riccardo Mastini, Joëlle Saey-Volckrick