“Economic growth cannot continue as before”. “We need to consider the possibilities of de-growth”. These were some of the concluding remarks at the Growth in Transition conference held in Vienna last week. The kind of thing you hear radical economists and think tanks saying more and more nowadays. But here the context was a very different. A conference organised by the environment ministry of a European nation (Austria), and sponsored and supported by seven other ministries including the Federal Chancellery, and the Federal Ministry for Finance, the nation’s leading banks, main supermarket chain and the Chamber of Commerce.
The event was perhaps the first time that such a broad spectrum of mainstream bodies have agreed to confront the challenge of our times – how to transform our growth-hungry economy into something more sustainable, stable and socially just. Of course, not everyone jumped at the solution of doing without growth – and the rhetoric of ‘green growth’ continued to be bandied about. But in plenary on the morning of the second day, over 40 minutes, Professor Felix Ekardt of the University of Rostock drilled home the message that such green growth was not enough – that we needed to stop growing. You could almost hear the audience wincing.
It’s clear that this is a message which will take some time to sink home. A representative of the Austrian National Bank spoke excellently on the need to shrink the financial system, reduce inequalities and reduce debt. But she quickly, and without much discussion, expressed the faith that economic growth could be decoupled from resource use. I approached her later and highlighted that, allowing for ‘business-as-usual’ economic growth, this would require a 95% increase in resource efficiency by 2050 (as nef has recently calculated in the report Growth isn’t Possible). When I asked her whether we can really gamble humanity’s fate on the ability to achieve such efficiency gains, she did something quite unusual. She squirmed. It was only momentary, and was soon followed up by a repetition of the same mantra of efficiency. However, I have hope for her.