Version 1.1

Academic Special Session: A Swedish Society Beyond GDP Growth – potentials and hindrances

Event large 4b8aa978adbb7c8e80151f5a83c6782a12e763374ae3a042a55e7e626a64d93b

This session is based on the research project ”Beyond GDP Growth – Scenarios for sustainable planning and building” which started in 2014 and ends in December 2018. The aim of the project is to explore scenarios for developments beyond traditional GDP-growth, understand the implications of such development within various sectors, and subsequently develop strategies and policies that can be used for sustainable planning and building in Sweden. The results concretely indicate how a steady state or degrowth economy can materialize on a societal level, how economic, ecological and social sustainability problems can be tackled, and how different policies and other strategies can address these insights and transform challenges into opportunities. The scenarios are set in a Swedish context where discussions about degrowth so far have been relatively scarce. In different ways they offer alternative visions beyond the gloomy horizon reflected by the current political agendas. 17 researchers from various fields such as environmental strategic analyses, sociology, urban studies, political science, social anthropology, economics, and human ecology are participating in the project. Approaching the end of the project the bulk of the results are available, forming a story of the hindrances but also potentials for Swedish society beyond growth. The four presentations given here are intended to represent some of the most important aspects and insights in more detail. We will allow time in this special session for discussions about the politics of degrowth and possible ways of expanding the geographies of degrowth.

1. The economic context and the importance of alternative scenarios
Mikael Malmaeus, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute

GDP is primarily an indicator of economic activity and measures the total production cost of the goods and services in the economy. The monetary costs reflect the use of labor and natural resources and apparently correlate with environmental impacts. As soon as efficiency gains reduce production costs the impact on GDP growth is negative. Hence decoupling of GDP growth from resource use is inherently difficult. In addition, in the last decade GDP growth has been a disappointment from a social perspective. In Sweden, for example, GDP has increased more than 100 percent during the last 30 years. During the same period, unemployment more than doubled and the welfare state has gradually been eroded. Nevertheless alternative strategies challenging the growth agenda meet resistance on the grounds that the economic consequences of lower growth rates would be harmful or even disastrous. In this presentation an overview is given of potential consequences on the economy of low or no economic growth as identified by researchers from different branches of economics. Conclusions are based on models and experiences from individual countries or shorter time spans of economic depressions. Potential consequences are identified concerning, e.g., labor markets, financial markets, individual businesses and the public sector. Short term effects are sometimes dramatic as evident from experienced economic depressions. However, in the longer term the effects may be less dramatic but may require substantial adjustments to a new normal. In a very general sense, many effects of low or no economic growth are directly or indirectly linked to failed expectations. Decisions made on the premise that growth will continue turn out to be wrong decisions, with various consequences following the realization of an unexpected growth trajectory. Thus opening up for new expectations is in itself a strategy to manage a transition beyond GDP growth.

2. Sustainability aspects in scenarios – potential opportunities and challenges
Eléonore Fauré, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Division of Strategic Sustainability Studies

Future scenarios are often used in policy-making in order to guide action towards sustainability. In our project four normative, so-called backcasting, scenarios depicting Swedish society in 2050 were developed, with the stated aim of fulfilling four distinct sustainability goals, regardless of economic growth assumptions. Two goals are environmental (climate and land use) and two are social (power, influence and participation in society as well as welfare and resource equity). Each scenario is based on a distinct strategy: circular economy combined with a strong welfare state, automatization combined with reduced working hours, local self-sufficiency and collaborative economy (in the cases of local self-sufficiency and collaborative economy, these are both strategies and scenarios). But what are the potential opportunities and challenges of these four scenarios, when it comes to reaching the sustainability goals? And can these strategies also potentially impact positively or negatively on other sustainability goals than those presented above? This presentation builds upon the findings from several publications based on different methods from semi-quantitative methods mixing excel models, literature studies and workshop discussions to interviews with researchers or Swedish municipalities. The preliminary insights point to some challenges that are common to all scenarios, albeit to a different extent, when it comes to e.g. diets or transportation (in particular air transport) for reaching the climate goal. Other challenges, on the contrary, seem to be more inherent to the strategy chosen behind each scenario e.g. regarding potential risks of exclusion from participation in society and/or access to resources depending on socio-economic groups, rural or urban population or gender.

3. Barriers to degrowth – hindering structures and institutional conditions for radical transition
Pernilla Hagbert, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Planning and Environment
The Swedish policy context could be (somewhat simplistically) characterized by a strive for consensus in outlining a triple bottom line approach, where a historically strong social welfare system, middle-of-the-road economics and relatively ambitious environmental management has merged in prevalent eco-modern notions of a Scandinavian “brand” of sustainability. As a counter-narrative to this largely de-politicized mainstream sustainability discourse, there is nonetheless a growing recognition that we will need to move towards ensuring social justice while keeping within planetary boundaries, and that this will require fundamental changes in society. In this presentation, explorations of the institutional conditions, the role of different sectoral actors, but also the hindering structures for approaching more radical transitions in Swedish society are presented, based in empirical studies within the areas of transport, agriculture, work, and housing. The insights point towards a need to challenge contemporary power relations, dominant institutional logics, prevalent norms and attitudes, as well as outline more concrete tools to move towards a future beyond growth. Particularly, there is an identified lack of competency, combined with an inertia in established planning structures and forms of production that hinders alternative understandings of development to be taken up by more than a few driven enthusiasts. The overarching story of consumption and technological salvation is however being questioned in different ways, emphasizing what is seen as inherently conflicting agendas of growth and long-term sustainability, proposing counter-narratives that outline transitional agency, despite prevailing structures.

4. How to make degrowth happen? Windows of opportunity and how to catch them
Åsa Nyblom, IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute

This presentation will focus on the question: What sorts of opportunities for transitions towards a degrowth society has been found in the different parts of the Beyond GDP-growth project? Two different paths within the project can be noted. Either the research focus has been on the reasons and opportunities to go beyond a norm of economic growth. Key findings here suggests that there is little evidence indicating long-lasting negative consequences of non-growth, although having correct expectations on future levels of growth is important to avoid states of crisis. Or the focus has been on researching what a sustainable future society and everyday life based in alternative ideas about economic growth might look like. Key opportunities found in this line of inquiry stresses the importance of expectations: How change is imagined in local communities and in local authorities is crucial for if- and what type of development towards a sustainable society beyond growth that will take place. The opportunity and importance of municipal involvement and, more broadly, institutional embeddedness and capacity for making local initiative grow and flourish is highlighted. Moreover the prospect of everyday life as an arena for change is underlined. Homes are in a degrowth context not just objects of investments and high mortgage loans but also sites of reskilling; inner transition; experimentation; and arenas for a diverse economy. Findings show that great change potential rests within reformed social structures and norms regarding the everyday life of people (their needs, home, view on work, consumption etc.). Findings also point to that reducing private consumption may be easier than generally believed, drawing on field studies that situate degrowth notions in stories of well-being and meaningfulness.