Last month, we looked at a suggestion from Peter about moving away from a focus on economic growth and towards a new paradigm emphasising quality of life and “community wellness”. We’ve had an earlier suggestion sent to us from the appropriately named Cassandra, so it’s a question several of you want to discuss.
The former European Commission Director General (DG) for Industry, Riccardo Perissich, was highly sceptical when we interviewed him – calling the idea of a paradigm shift a “hoax”. Sustainability comes from technological solutions, said Mr Perissich, and technology needs investment and research – which need growth.
Not everybody agrees, however. Andrzej Kraszewski, the Polish Minister for the Environment, has a rather different opinion on the matter. In fact, it’s safe to say he’s been rather outspoken on this issue. At a recent Friends of Europe event, he even went so far as to say that “economic growth will lead us to a dead end”. We asked him about the possibility of switching to a low-growth / non-growth model:
We have a lot of wonderful ideas [for sustainability], like for example green-labelling and other initiatives. In my opinion, it’s not adequate. In my opinion it’s just moving in a good direction but it will not dramatically reduce the use of resources. What’s really important is to reduce consumption. We have to reduce consumption: we have to consume less, consume more wisely and consume things for longer before we throw them away, and I think this will result in real protection of natural resources.
Is the idea of reducing consumption not a very difficult message to send? Especially for a politician who wants to be re-elected? Minister Kraszewski joked at the Friends of Europe event that he was only really free to say what he wanted because he was going to retire soon. But what about for other politicians?
I think, for politicians it’s very difficult because reducing consumption has a very strong influence over industry, so I’m not in the position of saying we will do something to harm industry. But, we have to discuss with industry that shortening the technical life of products, especially consumption products, leads to nowhere – that they must also take into consideration environmental costs of what they are doing. If so, it will result in saving materials and enlarging the technical lifetime of projects.
Concretely, though, what does that mean? What measures could we actually take to shift to a new paradigm?
There are various measures we could take to ensure this. For example, the euro charger – now it will be a unified model for different mobile phones, so I will not be obliged to go to my summer house and keep four or five different chargers for the different gadgets I used to take with me. So, it can be a success and we have to work in this direction.
Now, a sceptic might argue that having an entire house you only use for part of the year and enough gadgets to justify five different chargers is more wasteful than buying a couple of spare mobile phone adapters. However, Minister Kraszewski’s point is that the way we use products has to change:
The washing machine I use in my home has served me for 37 years. New washing machines are programmed to technically die after 5 or 10 years. Of course my washing machine uses much more water for each load of laundry than a contemporary product, so I’m not trying to convince you to use this 37 year old machine, but of course I’m trying to convince industry to stop shortening life in such a way that it wastes resources.
Nevertheless, even advocates of a paradigm shift recognise that it’s a difficult juggling act balancing economic prosperity with sustainability. Minister Kraszewski himself came under criticism when, just nine days before Poland assumed the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU, he announced that his country would be unilaterally blocking the adoption of the EU’s 2050 energy roadmap. The reason? Higher emissions targets in the EU might have damaged the (largely coal-powered) Polish economy.