Time for Europe to stop growing and grow up

As the European Union’s economic prospects improve and leaders vow to accelerate growth, life on earth is dying out at an alarming rate. To deal with this unprecedented emergency, the EU must forge a new Sustainability and Wellbeing pact which focuses not on growth but on quality of life, tax reform and zero waste, over 200 academics and policy experts urge.

Economic growth is picking up steam in the European Union. Over the next five years, the European Commission wishes to “foster growth and ensure sustainable prosperity by deepening the Economic and Monetary Union”.

While the economic outlook may sound promising, the view on the ecological horizon looks bleak. This was depressingly highlighted in the latest report from the innocuously named Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which showed, among other things, that a previously inconceivable million species is threatened with extinction.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” cautioned IPBES chair Robert Watson. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The IPBES report demands that policy-makers steer away from the limited paradigm of economic growth, replacing it with more holistic measures looking at quality of life instead.

Similarly, a group of prominent academics and policy specialists urge the EU not to deepen economic and monetary unity but, instead, to build a deeper ecological and human union. Rather than a Stability and Growth Pact, Europe needs a Sustainability and Wellbeing Pact, they argue in a letter (pdf) released on 9 May 2019, to coincide with Europe Day.

“We have to stop sacrificing the environment and people on the altar of GDP growth,” Nick Meynen, policy officer for environmental and economic justice at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “The current economic system is pushing people and planet to burnouts. This is unnecessary, since so many economists are showing us that well-being within planetary limits and without economic growth is possible.”

The letter is the initiative of the EEB, Europe’s largest network of environmental organisations, with around 150 members in over 30 countries.

Nothing is more important for Europe than system change to make sustainable wellbeing our number one priority – it’s time to act and make the transition we all so badly need,” Professor of Epidemiology Kate Pickett, who is a global ambassador with the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and a signatory of the letter, told Meta.

In a bold shift away from the prevalent culture of quick fixes and partial remedies, the open letter, which garnered over 200 signatures, outlines a three-pronged strategy for boosting human welfare while safeguarding the environment upon which that welfare depends.

Three pillars of change

The first pillar of this expert vision is to replace the policy fixation on economic growth with a focus on human and ecological welfare. “Prosperity without growth is possible,” insists the open letter.

The second prong focuses on tax reforms which will make European tax systems more progressive and shift the weight of taxation regimens away from taxing labour and towards taxing wealth and polluters. This would not only narrow inequalities but would also reduce waste and wastefulness.

The final pillar rests on formulating and implementing zero-waste strategies that bolster resource efficiency. This would involve transforming the EU into a truly circular economy in which waste is minimised from the inception stage and what waste is created is mostly recycled.

The EU and its member states have committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The time is ripe to challenge both political and business leaders from the EU, a region struggling with over-consumption and excessive resource use, on their growth addiction.

“No longer can outdated economics and parochial politics trump the necessity of building an economy and institutions fit for people and planet,” concludes co-signatory Katherine Trebeck, who leads policy and knowledge at the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and is a senior visiting researcher at the University of Strathclyde. “The world needs politicians and civil servants, in the EU and beyond, to act in accordance with scientific realities – a Sustainability and Wellbeing Pact is a vital part of pioneering policy-making aligned with the needs of today.”