Beyond growth: opening plenary speech by Sandrine Dixson-Declève

Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of The Club of Rome and Earth4All co-lead, delivered this speech during the opening plenary of the Beyond Growth conference on 15 May, 2023

I want to start by giving credit to Ursula Van Der Leyen and her exemplary leadership. With the support of this house she has steered Europe through a global pandemic, towards a European Green Deal and steered Europe’s response to an ongoing war in Ukraine. 

Today I want to bring hope. We won’t be able to end the rolling crises. But we can build more resilient societies better able to deal with shocks and stresses. And we can build societies that support transformation not reject it.

The first glimmer of hope is the very fact that we are here today at the European Parliament  talking about the root cause of the polycrisis: the obsession with growth. This is genuine leadership and I applaud Philippe Lamberts and colleagues for their vision  to host this conference.

Before I talk more about growth I want to say a few words about democracy. It is now very obvious that these two ideas are inextricably linked. 

The discussion today comes one year ahead of big elections in major democracies: including the United States, the UK and of course the European Union. 

In these elections every party, left and right, will talk about economic growth. They will all have their solutions to drive growth. The media will challenge them on whether these solutions will actually foster growth. But the growth narrative is never challenged. 

We are here to change that. We are here to show that the emperor or the empress has no clothes. 

The obsession with economic growth is clearly failing the majority of people. Democracies are under threat. Social tensions are rising. Citizens simply don’t believe the political elites are on their side. We are seeing a slideback from democracy at the very moment we need strong democracies that are able to take historic decisions – giant leaps – to transform economies away from luxury carbon and biosphere consumption. 

I will make the case that we can have strong democracies, or we can continue our dangerous obsession with growth. But we can’t have both. The centre cannot hold. The most important thing we can do right now is invest in social cohesion. At the heart of that is human wellbeing, economic security and ecological resilience… not growth. 

Last year was the 50th anniversary of a report to the Club of Rome: The Limits to Growth. At an event to commemorate it, one of the original authors, Dennis Meadows, spoke. He described the moment he first presented the report to a group of politicians and business leaders. 

He said he was extremely nervous. He thought he was wasting their time. He thought he was going to spend an hour telling them things they already knew: that exponential growth on a finite planet will have catastrophic consequences for people and planet. 

Dennis said he was simply astounded that this appeared news to his audience. Yet, here we are, 50 years on. Somehow this continues to be news.  

The Limits to Growth warned about overshoot and collapse in the 21st century. The scenarios indicated that the human footprint could end up exceeding the carrying capacity of planet Earth. 

What has happened since? Today, 50 years later, it is a historical fact that political leaders chose to follow the most destructive scenarios of Limits to Growth

The human footprint has continued to grow and  it has now been established scientifically that we have exceeded 6 of 9 planetary boundaries – most worrying is climate. 

Yet the Limits to Growth science is still challenged. There is an assumption that technology will fix our problems. The only technology that will fix this is a time machine to go back 50 years, and change course. It is not technology we need. We need to change the economic paradigm. And we need political leadership. 

Last year, myself and colleagues published a new analysis: Earth For All: A Survival Guide for Humanity. We looked at this century – a single human lifetime. 

We explored just two scenarios which we call Too Little Too Late and The Giant Leap. To develop the scenarios we brought together a Transformational Economics Commission of economists and thought leaders from across the globe. And a novel system dynamics model – called Earth4All. One of the novelties of the model is that we included two indices: a wellbeing index and a social tension index. 

The Too Little Too Late scenario is essentially the road the world is on. Incremental progress on climate, poverty, gender empowerment and food system change. It is a world of regional rivalries. It could have been called the Road to Hell. In our scenario we will cross the 2°C climate limit within a few decades.

And we know that there is, then, a very high risk of crossing multiple tipping points including the loss of the Greenland ice sheets and critical parts of Antarctica.

In this scenario, business as usual, we destabilise the planet for all future generations to clean up our mess. 

The wealth is distributed much like today, with the richest on Earth taking almost all the gains. Unsurprisingly, this leads to rising social tensions. We conclude that rising social tensions will reduce the capacity of society to act rationally and strongly in the face of adversity, like today. 

That was the first scenario.  

The second scenario is the Giant Leap. We wanted to identify a small set of actions – a minimum viable product – to reach as many Sustainable Development Goals and Europe’s vision of a social and green region. We wanted to take a systems approach to explore if we can achieve an acceptable level of wellbeing for the global majority on finite planet! 

We conclude that  nothing less than the following five extraordinary “Turnarounds” are needed to have wellbeing for all while respecting planetary boundaries:

  • Ending poverty. 
  • Addressing gross inequality. 
  • Achieving full gender equity.
  • Transforming the food system and the way we eat.
  • Transitioning to clean energy.

We argue that these five extraordinary turnarounds, and the set of economic reforms that will drive them, form the basis of a wellbeing economy. It is not a blueprint, but more of a guide for systemic transformation.

In this scenario, poverty ends a generation earlier than Too Little Too Late. We see gender empowerment in one generation not ten. We see a switch to healthier, plant-based diets. There is still meat consumption, but at sustainable levels. And we halve carbon dioxide emissions every decade to reach net zero by 2050. The economic model everywhere is circular, regenerative and efficient. Material consumption of unsustainable resources is reined in. And we see a significant redistribution of wealth. 

This is achieved through more government expenditure on health and education. Progressive taxation. More empowered workers through stronger unions and more representation on boards. Full gender equity in leadership positions. 

Most importantly, in this scenario we see social tensions fall and wellbeing rise. 

In this scenario we introduce a Universal Basic Dividend, operating like a Universal Basic Income, with dividends coming to all people from sharing the wealth of the global commons and public goods. This is not utopic this is what a fair and just society in transformation is all about.

Why do we think this is important? We know the Giant Leap will be disruptive. We are talking about a complete shake up. This is Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. It will create shocks. 

If it is to succeed, then we must bring the majority of people along the journey. It must be fair. And it must provide essentials.

The Giant Leap scenario is not utopia. We miss the 1.5C target. In fact we only have about 73 months left of our carbon budget for 1.5C.  It really is exceedingly challenging to keep temperatures “well below 2C”. The world still takes huge risks and may still cross some climate tipping points. But acknowledging this, it is even more important to build resilience into our societies. It is even more important to adopt wellbeing economies based on dignity and equity. 

There are a huge array of ideas that can drive the Giant Leap scenario. We don’t see it as “either/or”. We will need to adopt several economic models at once – mission economies are perfectly compatible with doughnut economics which is compatible with post growth thinking. We will need green growth – we need growth in renewables, in regenerative farming. The least developed nations of course need to grow but we need to work in tandem to enhance a different type of growth that fosters an economy that services people, planet and prosperity at the same time not windfall profits for example on the back of energy, transport or food poverty. 

We can see more countries openly discussing wellbeing economies. We already have 5 well being economies in NZ, Iceland, Wales, Scotland and Finland and In recent weeks, the Irish President Michael Higgins challenged the country’s obsession with growth. Last year we ran a survey of G20 countries with Ipsos  Mori. We found that three quarters of citizens in G20 countries support a shift in economic priorities beyond increasing wealth to focus more on human wellbeing and ecological protection. This view is consistently high among all G20 countries. 

This is a message to politicians campaigning on an “Economic Growth” platform. 

People don’t want  economic growth, they want economic security. They want ecological stability. They want government investment in their future and economic and financial systems that foster their well being.

If we need growth, it is growth in social cohesion to empower democratic governments to act. That is the priority. 

The opportunity for the EU is huge. This is equivalent to a new Marshall Plan. Within a single generation the EU could achieve Energy Security, Food Security and Economic Security. How do we achieve it? We need leadership from the EU to shift the economic system from one that is grounded in power, profit and patriarchy to one that is anchored in people, planet and prosperity.

Thank you.

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This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of Earth4All or its supporting organisations. 

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