Well, that was a very brief respite, wasn’t it? Last post, we wrote that the Eurozone was experiencing some rare breathing space and a break from economic turmoil. Now, however, news that the Greek Prime Minister wants to hold a referendum on the EU bail-out has thrown everything back into the maelstrom. Perversely, though, should Europeans be welcoming the return to chaos?
One topic we’ve been discussing in some depth on Debating Europe is a question raised by Peter Schellink about whether we need a “paradigm shift” away from our obsession with economic growth. Could the Eurozone crisis be bad for the economy but good for the environment? With economic growth slowing, is this a chance to re-evaluate our priorities and switch to an alternative model? We asked Tony Long, Director of the European Policy Office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), whether we needed a “no-growth” approach:
We know that the task is to live within the physical boundaries of the planet – whether it’s in terms of water, soil, biodiversity, ecological cycles of rainfall, or watever these are. These are enormous challenges, and the fact is that we’ll never meet these challenges if we have a stale debate about ‘growth’ versus ‘no-growth’. The issue is how do we bring all our innovative solutions to the problem. It probably also means we’ll have to create a lot of new jobs in a lot of sectors – if you want to call that ‘growth’, I don’t care.
Shoe-horning environmentalists into this ‘no-growth’ box is counter-productive. The predicament of the resource and ecological crisis are so severe now that we’re going to need all instruments, including economic growth, to help us solve that. So, it’s not a growth versus no-growth argument anymore – it’s how to urgently find the solutions to solve those problems.
When we spoke to Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green Member of the European Parliament (MEP), however, he saw things rather differently:
You don’t need economic growth to have innovation. I can sit in my armchair and think of better ways of doing things. Of course, I need revenue – but do I also need growth to innovate? That’s another question.
I’m a physicist – and infinite material production of waste in a finite world is something that doesn’t hold. I don’t believe in magic, and as long as we’re dealing with a finite planet we have to recognise that. Those who don’t want to recognise that are outside the circle of reason. The climate change we are witnessing today is a sign we are touching the physical limits of our world, and the unsaid equation that presides over this debate is that we define GDP growth = well-being.
To some extent, we have witnessed empirical evidence for this equation. If you are very low on the revenue side, indeed, then increasing your revenue and your purchasing power will correlate with your well-being. So, typically, for a Sub-Saharan African, a Western Chinese, a Latin American living in favelas – for them an increase in their available revenue will increase their well-being. So, to some extent, there is a link between per capita income and well-being. But there is a point where that relationship collapses. There’s a point where you simply have enough and an increase in your wealth has no impact in your well-being.
When you have a car, having another may be variable, but adding two or three or four adds very little; you can only drive one car at a time. Likewise with adding more than one TV; you can’t watch more than one at a time. You have enough.
Material consumption is not the solution to the equation. We have to split measuring well-being from measuring growth, and that’s this whole debate about having the right measurements and having the right metrics. And that means other indicators than GDP growth. Even within GDP, we have a problem because we don’t measure negative externalities. We don’t measure biodiversity. We measure negatives; spending on cancers, spending on clearing up after flooding, spending on cleaning up oil-slicks are all counted as positives in GDP, whereas in impact it’s a big negative. Not only do we need to measure other stuff than GDP, but GDP needs to be redefined. It’s not an old thing, it started being used since WWII and it’s very definition has changed since then; so it’s very definition can be changed again.
What do YOU think? Is the Eurozone crisis the best thing that could have happened to Europe’s environment? Is “no-growth” versus “growth” a stale debate? Does it risk shoe-horning environmentalists into the wrong box? Let us know your thoughts in the form below, and we’ll take your comments to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.