Beyond Growth – A Government’s View
State secretary Sven Giegold and co-author of the 1972 Club of Rome report Jørgen Randers discuss the Limits to Growth and their impact on German policymaking.
PUBLISHED1. SEPTEMBER 2022
READING TIME4 MIN
Already 50 years ago the Club of Rome in its famous “Limits to Growth” report warned of the devastating consequences of a world growing beyond its limits. Today, the debate around the limits to growth has resurged with new urgency. But how far has the paradigm shift from a growth-oriented economy to a post-growth era progressed beyond an intellectual exercise into actual policymaking?
At our Symposium marking the 50th anniversary of the 1972 report, we invited BMWK State Secretary Sven Giegold to share his perspective on the question of the limits to growth and their applicability, as well as impact, on German policymaking. Jørgen Randers, co-author of the 1972 report, related the government’s perspectives to the findings identified by the consortium and shared his outlook on the sufficiency of prevailing policies to steer the world away from its current devastating course. The conversation was moderated by Die Zeit journalist Petra Pinzler.
Sven Giegold started off by emphasizing that a balanced economic model that also takes seriously social and ecological needs is something European as well as German policymakers have tried to consider for a long time. As such, policymakers are well aware that GDP alone cannot be considered a sufficient indicator for wellbeing. However, Giegold also acknowledged that the government’s efforts to account for the social and ecological dimensions of the economy have not been entirely successful.
“Despite all the efforts, so far, we are operating well beyond the limits of the planet. The description of these limits has changed, we now talk about planetary boundaries. But we have to recognize that despite all the discussions and regulations - we have failed.”
At the same time, he rejected the notion that the reason for this failure can simply be attributed to the goal of growing GDP. Rather, we are lacking real effective limits that regulate and measure the use of the main indicators of the planetary boundaries. According to Giegold, counterexamples, such as the ban of certain chemicals, show that enforcing limits while growing GDP is in fact possible. He therefore insisted to shift the debate away from the eternally smoldering question whether or not to grow the economy, and instead focus on the planetary limits. This should include limits well beyond the often discussed reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Policy makers should consider all planetary boundaries, including biodiversity and other harder to measure resources.
“Please, let us stop talking too much about GDP. Let us talk about the limits and the possibilities, what to grow and what to de-grow.”
Giegold also mentioned the importance of connecting a policy of limits to a narrative of optimism. A feeling of connective guilt cannot be considered a promising starting point to mobilize support for policy reforms, argued Giegold. An economy that respects planetary limits has to be successful economically, secure social cohesion, and distribute the costs of transformation fairly between regions. It also has to respect people’s freedom to choose their own version of a good life within those limits.
Jørgen Randers welcomed the overall position, but criticized the idea of focusing too strongly on academic definitions, and cultural positions, such as granting people their individual freedom, and defining what this may encompass. Rather, according to Randers, the emphasis should be on gathering support for the right policies quickly and decisively. Achieving this change, according to Randers, may require installing a veto capacity within parliaments to overcome the democratic deficit, that can block any legislation or decision that would increase the emission of greenhouse gases. He undermined his case with his experience as a policy advisor to the Norwegian parliament, and the difficulty of convincing even the well-off Norwegian public to sacrifice a small fraction of their income to allow Norway to meet its climate targets.
Both in the end found unanimity in their post-growth position, agreeing that increasing the wellbeing of people, and doing so within planetary boundaries, has to be considered much more important than the question whether GDP does or doesn’t grow.