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Beyond Growth: a new vision of progress for a sustainable future

June 15, 2023
topic:Sustainable Development
tags:#EU, #Beyond Growth, #sustainable consumption, #climate action
located:Belgium, Bhutan, Canada, Finland
by:Katarzyna Rybarczyk
Instead of relying on GDP to measure nations’ prosperity, the Beyond Growth approach prioritises human well-being and ecological sustainability. Could this emerging paradigm revolutionise our understanding of progress and help steer us towards a more sustainable and equitable future?

Against the backdrop of intensifying impacts of climate change and ecological degradation, the recent Beyond Growth Conference held in Brussels from 15-17 May emphasised the urgent need for a shift in the economic mindset of leaders, businesses, and individuals. The event championed a new vision of progress that prioritises sustainable development and environmental stewardship.

As explained by the organisers, which included members of the European Parliament, NGOs and various pro-EU institutions, the purpose of the conference was to “challenge conventional policy-making in the European Union and to redefine societal goals across the board, in order to move away from the harmful focus on the sole economic growth - that is, the growth of GDP - as the basis of our development model.”  

Beyond Growth, Degrowth, and Post-Growth

“The critique of economic growth, once a fringe position, is gaining widespread attention,” writes John Cassidy for The New Yorker. This critique has, over time, given rise to concepts of beyond growth, degrowth, and post-growth. 

As the European Parliament explains, beyond growth “aims to steer policy-making towards multiple economic, social and environmental goals rather than treating growth as an end in itself.” Degrowth, on the other hand, “means shrinking rather than growing economies, to use less of the world’s dwindling resources,” reports the World Economic Forum. 

Should these approaches be implemented, a new, post-growth society which “views all things through the lens of wellbeing” will unfold, argues Tariq Al-Olaimy, a social entrepreneur and global sustainability advocate. He adds that “the metrics are no longer based on GDP growth and contributions to each sector. The metrics prioritise compassion, empathy, and well-being in society.” 

Stepping Away from GDP

The central premise of the Beyond Growth concept, as we can read in a manifesto published by Generation Climate Europe, is that the current economic model, characterised by the endless pursuit of growth, has exceeded planetary boundaries, causing resource depletion and social inequalities. 

“Every year, our demand for ecological resources exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in the same year. We are living beyond the limits of our planetary boundaries and this will lead us to collapse,” Marta Messa, Secretary General of the global Slow Food movement and one of the speakers at the Beyond Growth conference, told FairPlanet. “We are getting the bitter taste of what collapse looks like: Covid-19 and the climate crisis, for instance, are the very tangible and painful evidence of where we are heading as a global society if we continue with business as usual.”

Some proponents of the Beyond Growth concept aim to build upon existing ideas and systems, altering them to adjust the existing economic model, rather than pointing out that continuous economic expansion is inherently detrimental to environmental sustainability and societal wellbeing. But the approaches and interpretations of this concept vary widely. 

As reported by the European Parliament, “There is a wide array of voices in the debate on going beyond growth. These range from positions which advocate minor adjustments to GDP calculations, propose additional indicators or question the central position of growth in policy-making, to more radical positions postulating reduced growth.” 

But how can we, as individuals and societies, actively contribute to this change? 

Individual Initiatives

The transition from a GDP-focused economy requires a multi-faceted approach that involves significant changes in societal systems, personal habits and, crucially, in how we approach sustainability, experts highlight. 

Hans Dubois, Senior Research Manager at Eurofound who spoke at the Beyond Growth conference, told FairPlanet that preventative measures, particularly in terms of healthcare and environmental issues, are crucial. 

“The whole idea of the green transition is about prevention. Prevention of environmental problems, including climate change. For instance, obesity and overweight are among the main problems of our societies. They can be prevented by better diets and more physical activity. Eating less and [choosing] more plant-based food is good for the environment and prevents health problems, [and thus reduces] care needs.”

Similarly, Messa of Slow Food explained that “Degrowth efforts can be reflected in people’s lifestyles. Change is possible, within reach and can be joyful. We can combine the pleasure of delicious food with the respect of those who grow it and of the planet. In other words, food free of the bitter aftertaste of environmental pollution and social injustice, free of the very tangible costs of those externalities on the wellbeing of our society.”

Additionally, in order to support the transition towards a GDP-focused economy and address the challenges of sustainability, it is crucial to facilitate active modes of transport and implement preventative measures, according to Hans Dubois. “It is key to facilitate active modes of transport, especially cycling and walking, but also public transport - not just recreationally, but in a way that people integrate them in their daily commutes, for instance to school or work,” he said.

Dubois also referenced a new report on housing by Eurofound, which “argues that decreasing households’ energy dependence insulates homes better and provides care needs (health/cold hospitalisations), makes people less vulnerable to utility price increases, and is good for the environment.” 

Scaling Effectively

Both experts concurred that individuals and communities play a vital role in instigating change. However, Dubois pointed out that "these choices will only be made if societies facilitate them." 

He mentioned the example of the lack of safe cycling infrastructure in Greece and Romania, observing that contrary to the Netherlands, people in these countries are deterred from cycling due to not having access to safe and convenient routes. This shows that while the willingness may be there, the absence of the necessary support structures hampers the adoption of environmentally friendly habits. 

But there is also the matter of scaling such infrastructures, and whether it can be done sustainably.  According to a report by Eurofound and the European Environmental Agency that Dubois shared with FairPlanet, “Effective multilevel governance at EU, national and regional levels, requires investment in capacity development and the consistent use of an integrated EU-wide evidence base, down to regional and local levels. This is key for the kind of long-term systemic change needed to reconfigure wider production and consumption systems.”

For Messa, on the other hand, diversification is key. “If you ask the farmers, food artisans and cooks involved in our Slow Food movement whether they want to scale up their business, their answer is in most cases ‘no,’ “ she said. “They want to diversify their business, improve the quality of the work and of their final product, which means improving the relationship to nature, to the farmed animals, to the other individuals they work with and with their communities. 

“It is about growing the depth and quality of the work and the relationships, more than the sheer size of their land, output or clientele.”

Alternative Measures to GDP

Researchers from Huazhong University of Science and Technology reported that indicators measuring social progress that diverge from GDP focus on “three other main aspects: human wellbeing, ecological sustainability, and a combination of the two.” 

As the most prominent example they presented the Human Development Index (HDI), which was created by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and which, as they explained, “Measures human development in the dimensions of the economy, education, and healthcare.” 

In the field of sustainability, they drew attention to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), developed by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP), which looks at “the performance of ecological sustainability using two dimensions: environmental health and ecosystem vitality.” 

In addition to alternative indicators, various initiatives are emerging worldwide that offer solutions that could replace a GDP-centric view of prosperity. The European Union's Circular Economy Action Plan, for instance, “Promotes circular economy processes, encourages sustainable consumption, and aims to ensure that waste is prevented and the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible.” 

Beyond the EU’s borders, Bhutan proposed a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which measures living standards, health and education, culture, as well as psychological wellbeing. In a similar vein, the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership - consisting of Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, Wales, Finland and Canada - adopts a holistic approach aiming to prioritise wellbeing in government policy and focusing on dimensions such as health, environmental sustainability and social cohesion.

The Journey Forward

The above examples illustrate the growing global momentum towards building economies that value more than just economic output, pointing towards a possibility of a future where prosperity is defined in terms that transcend GDP. Still, Beyond Growth advocates highlight that the status quo presents a significant obstacle to achieving a more sustainable and equitable economic model. 

“It’s tricky, because it is hard to see a true transition with so many vested interests at play," Dubois said. Messa expressed similar concerns: “‘Let’s talk about business’ is the mantra of many political discussions. When it comes to food systems, for instance, the political debate is dominated by the narrative of ‘we need to feed the world.’ The ‘feeding the world’ narrative is incorrect in its statement: we are already producing enough food to feed everyone, the issue is the access to land, seeds, water and to food.”

“Ultimately,” she concluded, “it is about upholding business as usual, concentrating resources and wealth in the hands of a few.” 

With its focus on questioning perpetual economic growth, the Beyond Growth conference and the concept itself might be clashing with conventional narratives of economic prosperity. But proponents of this approach hope that we will experience a more widespread adoption of measures that leave common perspectives on economic prosperity behind. 

Now, a critical question that remains: will this change happen soon enough to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis and environmental collapse?

Picture by name_gravity

Article written by:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk
Belgium Bhutan Canada Finland
Embed from Getty Images
The recent Beyond Growth Conference held in Brussels from 15-17 May emphasised the urgent need for a shift in the economic mindset of leaders, businesses, and individuals.
Embed from Getty Images
“The critique of economic growth, once a fringe position, is gaining widespread attention,” writes John Cassidy for The New Yorker. This critique has, over time, given rise to concepts of beyond growth, degrowth, and post-growth
Embed from Getty Images
“Every year, our demand for ecological resources exceeds what the Earth can regenerate in the same year. We are living beyond the limits of our planetary boundaries and this will lead us to collapse,”