Five thousand people participated onsite and online in the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference, a cross-political initiative that took place at the European Parliament in Brussels between 15-17 May 2023. The event focused on questioning the endless pursuit of economic growth at the expense of societal and environmental welfare - with MEPs from five different political groups and more than 60 partner organisations discussing the policy goal of economic growth for the EU. Members of the EU 1.5° Lifestyles team were also present to provide inputs from our project.
The Beyond Growth 2023 conference, held at the European Parliament, was an historic event – and a great success – showcasing the cultural and political progress of research and thinking on what an economic system focused on providing sustainable societal prosperity within environmental limits might look like. The conference was a gathering of high-level speakers from EU policy-making, academia, trade unions, businesses and civil society organisations. The aim was to challenge conventional policy-making in the EU, as well as to redefine societal goals across the board, moving away from the harmful focus on economic growth as the sole basis of our development model. This was reflected in Ursula von der Leyen’s opening speech of the conference, “A growth model centred on fossil fuels is simply obsolete.”
Research from the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project has previously highlighted that European researchers consider the “Economic Growth Paradigm” to be the number 1 structural barrier to enabling societies to live 1.5° lifestyles, with many other issues (lack of coherent policies, lack of education, the role of vested interests, and a lack of alternative narratives of the good life similarly highlighted during the conference).
Similarly to the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project, the conference also highlighted the importance of addressing psychological and cultural changes alongside major socio-economic reforms, reflecting the research of the EU 1.5° Lifestyles project on mainstreaming sufficient lifestyles in the EU. The need to overcome anthropocentrism in addressing the cultural politics of sustainability transformations was also addressed by multiple speakers. The separation from nature, rooted in the colonial and capitalist origins of the growth paradigm, was identified as a key driver of unsustainability. Recognising the global divide between wealthy (mostly Global North) countries and the majority of humanity worldwide, speakers at Beyond Growth called for a decolonisation of the economy to prevent neocolonialism being imposed on the Global South in the name of the green transition. The conference emphasised the importance of returning to a safe operating space within planetary boundaries, and of addressing the overstepping of multiple planetary boundaries (6 out of 9, as of 2022) by EU countries.
One of the key concerns raised was the ecological and social impacts of the current economic system. The conference called for a shift away from the goal of continuous economic growth towards prioritising the well-being of citizens and the health of nature. This was suggested through redirecting investment towards universal basic services and essential sectors, including care. The proposal also included setting minimum and maximum income thresholds and reducing the standard working week to overcome the productivity trap while giving people more time to enjoy their lives.
The feasibility of green growth was debated at the conference, with post-growth and degrowth advocates presenting compelling arguments for a transition to a steady-state economy. The focus shifted from GDP-centred growth to well-being, health and a care economy. The conference emphasised the need for sufficiency, reduction of consumption, just transition and reduction of inequalities.
A key takeaway from the scientific inputs in the conference showed that current solutions such as technology, carbon and biodiversity offsets, were insufficient to limit warming to 1.5° and avoid additional environmental crises, such as biodiversity loss. Solutions focusing on “efficiency” and simply “greening” current production (instead of focusing on sufficiency) often had a “carbon tunnel vision” while failing to take into account the material and environmental impacts of green technologies. Our project has been also researching the effects of rebounds on consumption (i.e. thanks to increases in efficiency), which undermine sustainability goals. The issue of rebound effects further highlights the need for more comprehensive transformative changes to the economy.
The event brought together a diverse range of participants, including policymakers, politicians, scientists, researchers, students, activists, and trade unionists, all committed to bringing about change. The conference thus highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and the need for permanent structures within European institutions to assess post-growth strategies and pathways. It also emphasised the role of active democracy, citizens' assemblies and trade unions in formulating socially acceptable sufficiency strategies.
- The European Parliament’s Research Service published a report on the leadup to the conference which highlighted that sustainable growth is “an oxymoron” and that Europe must find a new development paradigm “beyond growth”.
- The Open Letter produced in conjunction with the conference, signed by over 400 academics, activists and politicians, played a crucial role in raising the visibility and awareness of degrowth and post-growth concepts.
- More information, including the recordings of the full speeches, as well as detailed notes on the speakers and the speeches, is available on the conference website.
- The Youtube channel featuring the “best of videos” of speakers at the conference provides a good overview of the discussions.
Halliki Kreinin - University of Münster
© EU 1.5° Lifestyles pictures