Rethink the Economy: Beyond Growth 2023 Conference | Interview mit Julia Steinberger

Pappschild auf einer Demonstration: "Planet over Profit"Foto: Markus Spiske | unsplash


Rethink the Economy: Beyond Growth 2023 Conference

 Interview mit Julia Steinberger | online veröffentlicht am 12.11.2023

„Their concerns have, slowly but surely, moved from the fringes of Europe’s policy debate to at least being granted a hearing in the EU institutions“, so die Financial Times in einem Beitrag zur Beyond Growth Conference 2023, die vom 15. bis zum 17. Mai 2023 mit mehr als 4000 Teilnehmer*innen im Europaparlament in Brüssel stattfand. Sie wurde auf Initiative von 20 Mitgliedern des Europaparlaments (MEP) aus fünf Fraktionen durchgeführt – Linke, Grüne, Sozialdemokrat*innen, Liberale und Mitglieder der konservativen European Peoples Party (EPP) – und wurde von mehr als 50 Organisationen unterstützt.

Was sind die Bedenken, von denen im Financial-Times-Kommentar die Rede ist? Im Wesentlichen haben diese damit zu tun, dass eine Entkopplung von Wirtschaftswachstum und Ressourcenverbrauch nicht für möglich gehalten wird. Das schien unter den Teilnehmenden die Mehrheitsmeinung zu sein, darunter führende Vertreter*innen der Degrowth- und Postwachstumsbewegung, der Klima(gerechtigkeits-)bewegung sowie heterodoxe Ökonom*innen, die nicht nur Umweltzerstörung, sondern auch fortbestehende koloniale und patriarchale Muster kritisierten. Während den wachstumsskeptischen oder -kritischen Stimmen noch 2018, als die erste Beyond Growth Conference stattfand, von hochrangigen Vertreter*innen Ablehnung und Feindseligkeit entgegenschlug, nahmen an der diesjährigen Konferenz unter anderen Kommissionpräsidentin Ursula von der Leyen (EPP) und Parlamentspräsidentin Roberta Metsola (ebenfalls EPP) teil. Dass diese in ihren Statements versprachen, Wohlstand und Wachstum könnten gesteigert werden, ohne die planetaren Grenzen weiterhin massiv zu überschreiten, wurde von Wissenschaftler*innen und Aktivist*innen teils vorsichtig, teils deutlich kritisiert. Die Physikerin und Ökonomin Julia Steinberger, die als Referentin an einer von sieben Plenarsitzungen (Understanding the biophysical limits to growth to build an economy that respects planetary boundaries) und an einem von 20 Fokuspanels (Building an energy sector compatible with ecological limits) teilgenommen hat, merkte zu Beginn eines Vortrags an, dass die Kluft zwischen den Reden der Politiker*innen, die sich auf einem guten Weg wähnen, und jenen der Wissenschaftler*innen, die drastische Maßnahmen zur Reduktion der Umweltzerstörung anmahnen, bedenklich sei.


European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen opened the Beyond Growth Conference by promising other “green growth”, that would respect planetary boundaries. On the other hand, many of the speakers and activists questioned the possibility of such growth and, for example, argued from a degrowth perspective for a shrinking of production, especially in the energy-intensive economies of the Global North. So do we have to put economic growth behind us? What trend did you perceive in the discussions?

Julia Steinberger: The vast majority of the conference participants disagreed with EC president Von der Leyen on the possibility of green growth delivering on its dual promise of planetary protection while continuing economic business-as-usual. However, in society at large, green growth is still the dominant position. I believe the discussions on post-growth alternatives within the Beyond Growth Conference are vitally important, for the basic safety of our societies. If, as my colleague Timothée Parrique brilliantly exposed, the flaws in green growth prevent it from being effective, we will need to rapidly move towards other policy frameworks. The Beyond Growth Conference demonstrated we are making significant strides in mapping out what safe and just societies, which do not depend on growth, will look like.


In one of your presentations at the conference, you criticize the neoclassical image of the market as a relatively egalitarian playing field in which providers and consumers come together and the latter have free choice. The real economy, on the other hand, presents itself as a hierarchical structure: interdependent production chains that require dependencies on the part of the consumer in order to sell their products. How are these dependencies established? What would be an example of this? And how could the neoclassical image of the market hold up to this day?

JS: The neoclassical picture holds up to this day because it serves a purpose, the same way the illusion in a magic trick serves a purpose of distraction. It serves the purpose of dissimulating the role of powerful production-side actors in dominating economic trends, including creating dependencies on the consumer-side. The car-focused transport system is a great example of how the real economy functions: major industrial lobbies, including automobile manufacturers and retailers, team up with the road industry and real-estate in order to get our politicians to pass legislation increasing major spending & subsidies for private car infrastructure (from motorways to parking), while simultaneously defunding public transportation. More legislation imposes car-dependent lifestyles, through parking-place mandates in residential sectors, and imposing low-density and highly separated residential and retail zoning, like in US suburbs, to ensure that households simply cannot live or function without a private car. These households then become, by coercion, effectively, a political constituency that will only elect pro-car politicians, and the vicious cycle continues. In contrast, policies that free us from car dependency include investing in public transit and excellent walking-cycling infrastructure, and integrated neighborhoods that foster residential, commercial, education, health, services and leisure all within a walking-cycling perimeter. These policies free us from car dependence: they are inherently emancipatory, as well as less costly and healthier.

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Your presentation was less about growth or degrowth and more about power. You claim the way forward is democracy: “we need active economic citizenship through an expanded decision making at the level of workers, community members, households and all different levels of governance”. How would democratization help us to break the dependence on growth?

JS: Excellent question. Right now, our politics stops at the edge of the economy. Our current ideology, our state religion, really, claims that a perfectly functioning economy will deliver good outcomes for all (this is the myth of the “invisible hand”), and thus, according to this ideology, any political intervention in the market will be detrimental for all. This is obviously wrong, in multiple ways that are essential to our societies and our futures: markets left to themselves serve a minority to accumulate wealth and power, increase inequality, reinforce patterns of international exploitation, and hence conflict, and are well under way to destroying our livable planet. If we want the slightest chance to change course and provide equitable good living conditions that preserve the ecosystems we all depend upon to live, we need to take power back over markets. And my proposal is to do this via democratic structures: where communities and citizen groups are able to take control over the production-consumption chains, or provisioning systems, we all depend upon to live: housing, mobility, food, energy, water, health, education … We already know, via structures of public, commons and cooperative provision, that this kind of democratically managed economic activity is more equitable, more environmentally sustainable and provides better living conditions for workers and communities. It’s time to end our century-old secular religion, where we trust the market-god more than ourselves and our communities. It’s time to take power back in our economies, and make citizen engagement in provision a core part of our professional and civic activities, every day.


At the end of your presentation, you mention a research project that you will carry out with Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel, which will deal with a “post-growth deal”. How does this post-growth deal differ from the approaches that are circulating under the label “green deal”?

JS: This project is the largest EU post-growth project ever, and probably the largest in the world, which is both a huge honor and an enormous responsibility. We will be doing quite a bit of foundational research in this project, investigating the social and material determinants of well-being worldwide, unequal exchange, assessing labour and energy footprinting of unequal consumption, as well as modelling post-growth policies and developing post-growth climate scenarios. The “post-growth deal” part of the project is where we propose coherent and comprehensive post-growth policy frameworks. Whereas the “green deal” is basically an investment push, accelerating the swapping out of dirty technology and fuels for cleaner ones, post-growth deals are far more ambitious. We will put forward pathways towards systematic transformations in production and consumption, in working and living. Our goal is to rethink the economy: what would it look like if we oriented our massive productive and creative capacities towards providing the basic conditions of good lives for all, a social foundation? How can we ensure that every part of the population, of every age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, migration status, skills and interests, be involved in actively shaping their own economy within planetary boundaries, in really creating their own prosperous and secure destiny? By elaborating post-growth deals for the Global North and Global South, our goal is to be part of a salutary and emancipatory movement, for people and planet, and away from inequality and destruction. ■

Julia Steinbeger auf der Beyond Growth Conference 2023
Julia Steinberger ist Professorin für Societal Challenges of Climate Change an der Universität Lausanne, dort forscht und lehrt sie in den interdisziplinären Bereichen Ökologische Ökonomie und Industrieökologie. Sie ist Hauptautorin für den Sechsten Sachstandsbericht des „Weltklimarats“ (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) in der Arbeitsgruppe II: Bewältigung des Klimawandels (im April 2022 erschienen).
Foto: Julia Steinberger auf der Beyond Growth Conference 2023 (© Greens/EFA)

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