The link between forever growth and Belgium’s ‘forever chemicals’ scandal

Toxic pollution is not an inevitable byproduct of prosperity. The choice between poisoning or poverty is a false one, writes the EEB’s Senior Policy Officer for Economic Transition Nick Meynen.

The massive and growing ‘forever chemicals’ scandal in Belgium marks the culmination and possible endpoint of the endless growth logic, not to mention the privatising of profit and the socialising of costs. 

This was reflected in the leaked secret settlement, reached in 2018, between a Flemish government-owned company (Lantis) and a mega-multinational (3M), which leaves the taxpayers footing the bill, currently estimated at €63 million, for just a small part of the enormous PFOS pollution that seeped into the soil and water around the 3M plant in Zwijndrecht. 

The reason Lantis agreed to this disadvantageous deal, despite its conviction that 3M was solely responsible for the contamination, is because the Belgian company did not want to become embroiled in a lengthy legal process that would delay its own project.

End of the road

If we have a problem with this abrogation of responsibility, then we have an “unsolvable problem” with the economic growth paradigm, a columnist for the Belgian newspaper De Standaard wrote.

Well, we sure have a problem with the growth model. Psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe even explained that in great detail in in his essay inspired by Jason Hickel’s book Less is more. How degrowth will save the world. And it’s not just ecological economists who are making noise about this, even the official European Environment Agency (EEA) now advocates “growth without economic growth”. 

But is it really so hard to go against the narrow interests of big industry? Is the choice really one between learning to live with mass poisoning on a mammoth scale or engaging in “legal warfare for every project”. Pardon me?

The Oosterweel link, the mega-highway that Lantis is building, is not just any project. This is probably the most expensive infrastructure project in Europe right now. It plans to cut through what is arguably among the most polluted soil in Europe. 

It is a gigantic fossil fuel lock-in that will cause massive emissions during construction and for decades afterwards, as efforts to control traffic through road building tend to create more traffic.

Regarding the PFOS pollution, that covers a radius around the 3M factory of at least 15km, in which over a million people live: do these people really need to learn to live with forever chemicals all around them? 

We’re talking about a group of chemicals that, in high concentrations, can cause a host of health problems, including shorter penises, earlier menopause, damage to our immune systems (COVID-19, anyone?) or cancer. 

Due to the long-term staying power of PFOS chemicals, this pollution does not just affect people who live there now, but even their yet unborn grandchildren. Doing something about that does not equate with legal warfare against every project, it equals demanding accountability and justice. It means ending impunity.

Diagram courtesy of the EEA

Wellbeing: The logical choice

The PFOS scandal, in all its dirty details, has got many in Belgium openly questioning the economic growth model. Beyond Belgium, a major pan-European poll conducted in 2019 found that a majority of Europeans is in favour of protecting the environment even at the cost of economic growth.

A recent pan-European poll – commissioned by the Climate of Change project, of which the EEB is a partner – found that 71% of young Europeans were convinced that the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful. Reflecting an apparent perceived need for systemic change, more than half (52%) believe that business and industry, followed by governments (49%), bear the greatest responsibility for tackling climate change.

Let this groundswell for popular opposition spell the end to the growth logic, the illogic by which we are not allowed to cause even a bump on the road to profitabilty for unscrupulous multinationals or create any delays for megaprojects. 

The quality of our lives should not be sacrificed at the altar of the growth gods in which we have put our faith blindly for too long now. Instead, what we need is to replace it with the healthy logic of wellbeing.

Here are the pillars upon which a wellbeing economy should be built:

  • The polluter must pay for the pollution they create and the authorities see to it that this happens, no matter what the price tag is or who the polluter is
  • Politicians who neglect their duty of care by keeping mass poisoning secret must resign and be prosecuted for their negligence
  • There must be zero tolerance for revolving doors between politics and industry
  • A healthy living environment is a constitutional right around the world, driving a car without traffic jams is not
  • Replace gross domestic product (GDP) with wellbeing indicators in economic policymaking because a healthy environment leads to healthy people and that leads to a healthy economy
  • Instead of a conventional budget, produce a wellbeing budget and re-organise the whole economy accordingly
  • Say goodbye to TINA (There is no Alternative) and welcome TAPAS (There are plenty of alternatives)

The sweet taste of doughnut economics

There are many sustainable alternatives to the neoliberal growth paradigm. Amsterdam and Brussels are experimenting with the doughnut economy, a model for prosperity within planetary boundaries first proposed by Kate Raworth. Scotland, Iceland, New-Zealand, Finland and Wales are united in a Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) coalition

Europe is home to tons of economists ready to help policymakers to develop a new economic order that offers prosperity without growth, or a positive postgrowth way of policymaking. 

We have even created a handy blueprint and guide for constructing a wellbeing economy, which we developed in collaboration with Oxfam Germany and with support from the Climate of Change project. If you support this vision of a future founded on wellbeing and fairness, sign this Climate of Change petition.

The choice between poisoning or poverty is a false one. The truth is that a prosperous post-growth future is possible. It just requires policymakers who work for the common good of society, even when that goes against the interests of the most powerful. It also requires accountability and justice if these standards are not met.