In December 2019, two former Leeds students met for a conversation about System Change and Degrowth in Zurich. Rosie Watson (BA Environment & Business graduate) was passing through on her amazing New Story Run: Climate Activism journey, a solo and unsupported run across Europe and Asia. Viktoria Cologna (MEnv Sustainability and Environmental Management graduate) is working on a PhD in the Institute for Environmental Decisions at ETH Zurich, and is one of the founders of Post-growth Zurich. The following conversation originally appeared on Rosie's blog; you can support her adventure on Go Fund Me.
The words ‘system change’ are often batted about when talking about the extent of changes we need to truly combat the climate crisis. I use it a lot, and understand what it means, but in terms of the exactly-what-and-how, it often falls down a bit as it’s so complex. In Zurich I met Viktoria, who I had previously studied at the University of Leeds with, and we talked about an alternative to the current economic system. It turns out ‘Degrowth economics’ has probably the most robust ‘roadmap’ I’ve heard of for a proper system change, and relates to basically… everything! I’ve decided to let it be explained in Viktoria’s words… enjoy!
Viktoria! It’s so good to catch up again. How did Post-Growth Zurich and your interest in this begin?
For me it began with our Ecological Economics module at the University of Leeds, and that really changed my perspective on how I viewed sustainability issues. I read Dan O’Neill’s book “Enough is Enough”, and went to the International Degrowth Conference. It made me realise that basically our economic system is driving most of the environmental issues we see today. We have a capitalist system based on continuous economic growth – the growth of GDP – which most people presume somehow equals progress and happiness. But many studies show that beyond a certain point, more money doesn’t increase well being or happiness, it has almost no effect.
When I moved to Zurich, I really wanted to do something to get the topic out, especially as Zurich is a big financial centre in Europe. On the 1st June 2018 we celebrated the ‘International Degrowth Day’, where about 20 people turned up even though we’d barely advertised it, which was amazing! We had a picnic and discussions, and these connections led to Post-Growth Zurich being born.
What we try and do is raise awareness on the consequences of our current economic system – we have a monthly reading circle, and we host panel discussions with experts, researchers, and journalists to explore degrowth-related issues.
Last year, during the Swiss Sustainability Week, we organised a debate on “Degrowth vs Green Growth” – a topic that is key. Degrowth advocates that we need to degrow certain industries e.g. the fossil fuel, airline and the fashion industry, while growing other industries such as renewable energy or healthcare industries, as they provide benefits to society. The ultimate goal is to have a more just society that increases people’s wellbeing while staying within planetary boundaries. For this to happen, the global north needs to ‘degrow’ and reduce its consumption and production, to allow the global south to meet their needs. Overall degrowth means having a way lower material throughput in the economy.
Green Growth on the other hand advocates that we can keep growing GDP, while efficiency gains will allow us to decouple GDP growth from resource use. It says technological improvements and efficiency gains will allow us to maintain our high resource use; can continue everything we are doing, just swap our fuel sources and that will solve the climate problem. However, there is no evidence that we will decouple resource use and CO2 emissions in time to avert a climate crisis.
So I know there are some key principles… what exactly is Degrowth Economics ‘pushing for’?
There are 10 policy proposals of Degrowth which you could see as a degrowth roadmap. One is working less. There are so many reasons why working less (e.g. reducing standard working hours, having a four day week etc) would be more sustainable. One is less people would be commuting every day. Second, there would be more employment opportunities. There would be more opportunity for gender equality, e.g. its easier to share childcare roles – this is especially important as the capitalist system is basically dependant on this ‘free care work’ that happens but which isn’t recognised. People would also have more time to live sustainably – sustainable actions are often not compatible with a 40hr+ week working pattern, e.g. building community resilience, growing more food locally, repairing and mending, and creating sharing systems in the community (for example projects like time banks where swapping 1hr cooking lesson with 1hr piano lesson is possible).
Partnered with this there would be a basic income for all – how much this would be would depend on each country, but in essence it would allow everyone to meet their basic needs without the pressure to keep the economy growing to create more jobs!
Another degrowth policy entails a cap on maximum income, so for example the highest earner in a company couldn’t earn more than 20 x the lowest earner. It tackles huge questions of social justice this way – how much money is it ethical for one person to have? Another is considering inheritance – this would be taxed at a much higher level, as this is simply wealth people have been born into by chance!
Another of the principles is reduced advertising, which essentially drives consumption and the economy’s throughput by creating artificial needs.
And, we would change GDP as our main indicator of success. There is such little understanding by people of what GDP actually means! There is also a huge link between mental health and a growth society – there are increasing levels of depression and burnout in many Western countries.
At the end of the day only a tiny % of people actually benefit from the current economic system. It is based on the idea that for one person to do well, it must be at the expense of another.
So overall the goal is to shrink certain damaging parts of the economy, and grow others, but also in a way which considers ‘sufficiency’ instead of ‘efficiency’. There is so much emphasis on efficiency but there is evidence that due to rebound effects, making something more efficient doesn’t always decrease consumption, but can increase it even more. We need to consume LESS overall, so that’s where the principle of Sufficiency comes in.
OK, so this truly is a whole system change which would involve rethinking everything about how we live, make decisions and the values they are based on! How do we make this happen?
In terms of how this shift can happen… even the financial crash wasn’t enough to shift this mindset, that aiming for endless economic growth is damaging and not a good aim for society! But lots of people in this ‘movement’ basically say we keep working on creating this alternative vision, a new social imaginary, because we know from psychological research that without an alternative vision system, people won’t change, and when we have the next inevitable financial crash, that’s when alternatives will be called for.
Otherwise there are two ways being worked on – the bottom up approach e.g. transition towns, repair cafés, cooperatives – and the top down approach which tackles the political framework. Some places have reduced working hours already or have trialled 4 day weeks.
There is no perfect ‘vision’ of what a degrowing society would look like, although there are the core principles – but with lots of ideas from lots of people – that is how a vision is made.
Another key thing is that our economic system would be strongly democratised – people should be allowed to vote on what needs to shrink and what needs to grow. They need to be involved and given power to decide. People should decide on what their tax money goes to, and have a democratic say on this.
So capitalism doesn’t seem like part of this new story… what instead?
There is this fear in people when you challenge Capitalism, it brings out this emotion in people, as if it would take something from them. But it’s not saying we should replace it with something we’ve had before e.g. socialism or communism – but we DO know there needs to be an alternative, because this system is currently failing us.