Joeri de Wilde: No middle ground possible within the degrowth debate

Joeri de Wilde: No middle ground possible within the degrowth debate

Politics ESG
Joeri de Wilde (Triodos Investment Management)

This column was originally written in Dutch. This is an English translation.

By Joeri de Wilde, Investment Strategist at Triodos Investment Management

Our current economic system squeaks and creaks, so the discussion about how we should proceed is becoming increasingly heated. On the one hand you have the conservatives, who are digging themselves deeper and deeper. On the other hand, you have those who, under the banner of degrowth (or postgrowth), advocate an economic system that is no longer addicted to (unsustainable) growth. And there is a third group that advocates a middle path based on alleged economic neutrality. It is precisely this group that delays any change.

Nowadays, the degrowth debate no longer only takes place in dusty university back rooms, but also in the full spotlight of the media landscape. That in itself is of course a good thing, because other views must first mature before they take hold. The more people are reached, the better. But because the discussion has now become quite polarized, many journalists and economists try to approach this subject as 'neutrally' as possible. This includes a few 'neutral' comments about degrowth, which ignore the fact that economics is by definition not neutral. This apparent neutrality implicitly defends the current economic system.

It is not feasible and affordable, is it?

A logical first focus in a 'neutral' analysis of degrowth is that of affordability. Less economic growth must mean impoverishment, right? This seems like a neutral question, but it is based on the dynamics within our current system, in which living standards are indeed closely related to – actually dependent on – economic growth. The fact that this link disappears with degrowth is ignored (whether consciously or not). In addition, questioning the affordability of degrowth implicitly conveys the message that our current system is more affordable. While it is now clear that continuing on the current path will actually cause the most damage to people and the planet.

Questioning political feasibility is also based on the assumption that the pain of less economic growth outweighs the possible benefits. This is indeed the case in our current system. That is why degrowth also advocates a different system. 'Neutral' observations that the population will not tolerate multi-year recessions are therefore anything but neutral.

Aren't pricing and innovation enough?

A second form of apparent neutrality is to acknowledge the flaws in the current system, but then propose solutions that do not address these flaws at their root. For example, many economists argue for government pressure to price external effects such as CO2 emissions. Not a bad idea of ​​course. But if you leave it at that, the system based on consumption growth, with a wealthy middle class that is not afraid of price increases, remains intact. Not to mention the disproportionate influence of the wealthy on government policy. How realistic is it to expect that pricing will have the desired effect in the short period that we have left before the earth has warmed up too much?

The same logic shows why many economists' insistence on innovation is not neutral either. Certainly, innovation is necessary, especially if we want to move towards a degrowth system. But technological innovation within our current system has so far mainly led to more consumption: because cars are becoming cheaper, people are driving increasingly larger cars. Arguing that technological innovation makes system change unnecessary tends to be an argument in favor of the status quo.

Communism doesn't work, does it?

Another reflex that is also common among 'neutral' parties: we have already tried communism and it doesn't work. Once again an incorrect line of thought formed from our current capitalist system, of which communism was the only real counterpart for almost three quarters of a century. In almost every interview with a supporter of degrowth ideas, the word communism is mentioned. Degrowth economist Jonas Van der Slycken summarized the ridiculousness of this equation of degrowth and communism in one sentence: 'Communism and capitalism are both growth-driven systems that run on social and ecological exploitation.'

Apparent neutral

The desire of journalists and economists to be a neutral, contemplative party within the degrowth debate is an impossible one. Questions and analyzes are of course always biased, but in this case the middle path really leads to the maintenance of the current system. Fine, if this is a conscious choice. If you advocate a more radical change, you would do well to avoid the pleasant warmth of apparent neutrality. Because this kind of heat also does not benefit the climate.