Timothy Makepeace, JWST Vertical Primary Mirror, 2017, charcoal and pastel on paper, 49 x 49 inches.

Looking Beyond Economic Growth


When the Unspeakable Is No Longer Taboo: Growth Without Economic Growth
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In “When the Unspeakable Is No Longer Taboo: Growth Without Economic Growth” (Issues, Summer 2021), Zora Kovacic, Lorenzo Benini, Ana Jesus, Roger Strand and Silvio Funtowicz call for radical transformation in how, why, and by whom society is governed. As they rightly observe, the “obsession with measuring growth seems to have derailed public policy.” Focusing on economic growth, and on measuring gross domestic product (considered the broadest measure of goods and services produced by an economy) has led to governance and policy lock-ins that are inconsistent with the radical transformation required to respond to the climate and ecological crises. These reflections should spur urgent and deep questioning among policy actors, knowledge actors, and community actors on their assumptions, modes of working, and values.

Although policymakers in the European Union acknowledge the need for transformation, the implications of this are poorly reflected in policy and governance plans. Many programs, such as the European Green Deal, advance sustainability policies on paper, but they do not necessarily question the underlying assumptions of the desirability, fairness, or attainability of continued economic (“green”) growth. Research on institutional change warns us that EU institutions are sticky, that change is often slow and incremental. Procedural rules, customs, habits, culture, and institutionalized values all interact to prevent radical transformation. The realization of institutional or policy change frequently requires the pressure of external crises, combined with the fruition of good ideas.

These reflections should spur urgent and deep questioning among policy actors, knowledge actors, and community actors on their assumptions, modes of working, and values.

But the development of integrated, transformational policy and governance programs also requires integrated knowledge and wisdom. What does this mean for our academic knowledge systems? There is an urgent need to break down the artificial disciplinary silos upon which the academic knowledge system relies. When it comes to societal and planetary challenges, no single discipline can provide insights on when, where, how best, or how not to develop governance responses. Relying on single-indicator or aggregated indicator analyses to assess something as qualitatively subjective as “well-being” is flawed, and this means that scientific knowledge must integrate knowledge and wisdom beyond economics, incorporating all the social sciences, arts and humanities, and natural and physical sciences. Such integrated, interdisciplinary knowledge is key not only for providing sufficient and relevant evidence to the policymaking process, but also for establishing valid forms of evaluation and learning as policies are implemented.

Furthermore, insights from research on the quality of democracy in the EU highlight the importance of citizen participation. The EU has long suffered from a reputation of democratic deficit. Research on deliberative democratic processes that engage citizens at all stages of policymaking has shown that such processes can alleviate perceptions of democratic underrepresentation, and can also be particularly appropriate when developing policies for sustainable transformation—policies that tend to have direct impacts on citizens’ lives. Such citizen participation can occur at the stage of knowledge-creation, by drawing on local, indigenous, and lived experiences and wisdom to cocreate the “actionable” knowledge or wisdom for policymakers. Deliberative processes with citizens help codevelop appropriate policy options. Groups of citizens can decide together with policymakers on the final policy option and on the scope of the evaluation and learning processes to follow implementation.

Imagining, investigating, and implementing a radical, societal, and governance transformation that moves away from entrenched ideas of growth is a collective endeavor. The call raised by the authors challenges policy, knowledge, community, and other societal actors to face the implications of this necessary transformation.

Assistant Professor of European Governance

Ghent University, Belgium

Zora Kovacic and her colleagues provide a valuable critique of gross domestic product and the challenges of uncoupling economic growth from environmental damage. The idea that getting rich helps the environment as some proponents advocate is simply magical thinking. Currently, the faster GDP grows, the faster we destroy the natural world that supports us, and a semicircular economy spinning faster may actually end up doing more damage to nature than a sluggish economy.

I applaud the authors’ call to recast government as facilitators of local deliberation, to seek plural views on progress beyond GDP growth. The European Commission’s vision to “live well within the limits of the planet” is useful rhetoric, but what is needed is more facilitated dialogue on the key elements of “living well” (and presumably how to reconcile trade-offs when one person’s good life impacts others’).

For the latter part of the commission’s vision—“within the limits of the planet”—there are a growing number of initiatives to measure sustainable progress at the local level that go beyond GDP. These include, for example, city-level assessments of progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or attempts to downscale the planetary boundaries concept, so that economic activities do not exceed biophysical thresholds supporting human flourishing.

The idea that getting rich helps the environment as some proponents advocate is simply magical thinking.

These creative approaches must continue “breaking the taboo,” as Kovacic et al. put it, of focusing primarily on economic growth. Yet if such approaches are to be successful, they might also need to tackle another taboo: questioning the self-identity and attitudes of citizens.

The authors highlight how materialist values influence people’s response to the idea of limits on economic growth. There is evidence, too, linking self-identity, values, and attitudes to the exceedance of planetary boundaries. Excessive individualism and narcissism are associated with fewer pro-environmental behaviors, while a greater sense of connection to other people and the natural world promote greener actions, such as recycling and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Many Western democracies are reticent to influence the self-identity of citizens. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the tragic history of interventions in some communist and fascist regimes, which aimed to transform (“brainwash”) the characters of citizens. Nonetheless, the laissez-faire attitude of liberal governments toward self-identity does not mean citizens experience a lack of influence: people’s mindsets are continually shaped by media, business, education systems, and government action (even if unintentionally). Over the past half century, evidence shows self-identity shifting toward more individualistic values and attitudes in most countries, accompanied by a greater focus on the accumulation of material wealth.

The paradox is that by framing progress primarily in terms of economic growth, governments have all the time been modeling (potentially misleading) views on what people need to live well, while at the same time undermining tendencies to live within planetary limits.

Although tracking citizen attitudes is increasingly common, active intervention is still somewhat taboo. To deal with the sustainability crisis, however, it is a matter that must be navigated soon. The role of governments in stewarding self-identity for planetary health is a ripe area for ethical research.

Professor of Applied Ecology

University of Reading, United Kingdom

Cite this Article

“Looking Beyond Economic Growth.” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 1 (Fall 2021).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2021