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Academic Special Session: Post-growth as a possible new basis for dialogue in environmental policy discourse

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The discourses dealing with strategies for keeping our societies inside the planetary boundaries are broadly based. They alternate between radical degrowth and green growth approaches. These debates are conducted to a large extent at the theoretical level, whereby the respective representatives assume that the ecological goals can be achieved with the respective approaches in terms of both content and time. These antagonistic representations turn out to be too schematic and at the same time they stand in opposition to a pragmatic analysis and the options for action.

Within the framework of the project “Approaches to Resource Conservation in the Context of Degrowth Concepts” sponsored by the Federal Environment Agency (UBA), an attempt was made to structure these diverse partial discourses from degrowth to green growth, particularly with a view to economic approaches. This was done in particular with a view to specific fields of action arising from the discourses on planetary boundaries (in this case, the conservation of resources). The aim is to develop orientation for action for administrative practice, especially perspectives beyond the paradigm of green growth. Within the framework of this research project, it became clear that pragmatic approaches have to be developed for concrete policy recommendations, which on the one hand take into account that various strategies and instruments have to be used for realizing the socio-ecological transformation processes and on the other hand that a far-reaching restructuring of the institutional setting has to take place.

The study carried out by Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW), Leibniz Institute for Economic Research (RWI) and Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy (WI) is still in progress. Most of the key findings are already available. In this special sessions, we will focus in particular on developing and concretizing the post-growth (German: Postwachstum) position, the importance of institutional change using the example of growth-independent institutions and highlighting the challenges involved in implementing post-growth concepts in concrete fields of action.

As a central result, it was found that the scientific base of the prominent approaches green growth and degrowth can be criticized. The green growth proponents cannot demonstrate that the environmental goals can be implemented with a reasonable probability and within the necessary time horizon, nor can the degrowth supporters show that the necessary decoupling is in principle not possible.

At the same time, it should be noted that the discussion is often based on the GDP indicator, which in principle is only very limitedly useful for developing environmentally relevant policy strategies. The green growth proponents assume that there is a positive correlation between GDP and quality of life. In contrast the degrowth supporters are questioning this assumes positive correlation and therefore are demanding other indicator systems.

Thus, it becomes clear that very different strategies can contribute to ecological sustainability (here understood as remaining within planetary boundaries), whereby, as stated above, it is unclear to what extent and in which time horizon the goals can be achieved. For this reason, the project team developed an ideal-typical post-growth position, which looks for pragmatic starting points reflecting the uncertainties of the "pure" approaches.

From our point of view, the post-growth position is open to results in the sense that it does not have a strong ex ante assumption regarding (i) the evaluation of future economic growth or potential future shrinkage and (ii) the possibility of sufficient decoupling. According to this position, it is uncertain how economic performance will develop if the wealthy, early-industrialized economies are transformed in line with global environmental goals. There is a serious possibility that economic performance would not increase or even decrease significantly in the course of this transformation. Due to the current institutional settings of the early industrialized countries, economic performance (and the incomes generated) play an important role for the functioning of fundamental social institutions that enable components of a good life (e. g. social security systems, education expenditure, etc.). In line with the post-growth position, it can now be argued that social institutions should be transformed as a precautionary measure in such a way that these institutions can provide their services independently of economic performance, so that a high level of quality of life can be maintained even in the case of a stagnating or declining economy. If it were possible to design social institutions so that they would function (more) independent of growth, policymakers could create and implement the (environmental) policy instruments needed more independently of their supposedly negative effects on economic growth. From an action perspective, a post-growth position understood in this way can be served as a starting point or an essential component of an overarching resilience strategy which is motivated by the principles of responsible action and the precautionary principle, as suggested by Konrad Ott (Kiel University) in discussions with the project team.

Any strategy that strives to maintain planetary boundaries requires huge social changes. A common feature of any strategy will have to be that the framework conditions are designed in such a way that resource consumption is significantly reduced (through different instruments). Post-growth strategies also require a significant change in institutional structures. In our analyses we have also taken up these challenges on several levels. For example, we have investigated how so-called growth-dependent areas (such as social security funds) can be redesigned in such a way that they become less dependent on growth. The focus of the considerations has also been placed on (possible) so-called drivers of growth that are relevant in this context. With regard to the realisation of growth-independent areas, the project results have shown that this goal is ambitious and little research has been carried until now: market-based instruments for reducing dependence on growth in social security systems have little impact with regard to the goal of growth-independence; proposals from the degrowth and post-growth discourses have in common in many cases that there is only little knowledge of their (empirical) effects.

In addition, we have also examined approaches and instruments for conserving resources in order to ascertain which knowledge about the effects of the use of different instruments on resource consumption exists. In our view, the pragmatic approach of post-growth might by be highly relevant, since it has been possible to work out for the concrete action field of resource conservation that, in view of the concrete (ecologically oriented) management approaches, little knowledge exists with regard to the use of different instruments (typically differentiated according to post-growth and green growth approaches). Even in the case of supposedly well-known and widely discussed instruments such as eco-taxes, there are only a few empirical studies available on how these actually affect resource consumption, and instruments such as those considered relevant in the post-growth discourse in particular, such as the reduction of working hours or the regionalisation of the economy, are also proving to be quite unclear in terms of their concrete effects.

Before dealing with these central questions, we will give an overview of the background of the study and the thematic focus at the beginning of the session. In doing so, we also address the special constellation of the scientific project partners (RWI as one of the big mainstream German economic research institutes) and the interests of the project funder (e. g. formulating a consensus position of the project team). Furthermore, we also explain the international relevance of the (German) project results.

According to the current status of planning, scientists of the IÖW and Daniel Constein from the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) are involved in the session. In accordance with the further concretisation of the session, it is planned to involve other participants from the project context (e. g. WI and RWI as project partners) and to integrate additional external comments if realizable. The previous planning is based on a 90-minute session. Depending on the final time available, the planning and setting of priorities will be specified and adjusted if necessary.

The last slot “About the implementation of a post-growth strategy in politics and administration” (Daniel Constein, UBA) might also be the headline of a separate participatory session which could follow after the third presentation. In this case there might by supplementary questions for the discussion like: Why might the post-growth concept be a new relevant basis for a dialogue with decision-makers in politics and administration? What are the starting points for practical action? How can the political administration deal with the other two strategies (degrowth and green growth)? How can politics, administration and research funders deal with the discursive diversity of transformation approaches? What does that mean in practice? What could be the role of political administration in further defining and implementing a post-growth strategy? What would be the next important steps?


Day: 2018-08-23
Start time: 16:00
Duration: 02:00
Room: ABF (Lilla sallen)
Track: Politics of Degrowth




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