No economy on a dead planet: why we need to move beyond “growth” to a sustainable economic system

As the age of throwaway culture and profit-driven business-as-usual comes to an end, our Greens/EFA co-President, Philippe Lamberts, explains why we need a shift to a new, sustainable economic model and how the Beyond Growth Conference 2023 will help shape the journey to a fairer, greener society.

👉 Register here and join the Beyond Growth Conference 2023 👈

Half a century ago, a report was published that shook the foundation of the field of economics. It laid out the stark reality that, contrary to what mainstream economists would have us believe, Planet Earth is not an unlimited store of raw materials. Nor is it an infinite rubbish dump. The Limits to Growth report made clear that our planet will become uninhabitable if we do not urgently change our economic model.

Yes, our economic system has brought a degree of prosperity to billions of people. It has also brought climate change dangerously close to the point of no-return. It has initiated the sixth mass extinction of species and degraded 40% of our usable land. We can now find traces of pollutants in 100% of the rainfall across the globe. This economic system has fuelled inequality within our societies to levels rarely seen before in human history. And all the while, life satisfaction is decreasing – especially in economically rich societies. Making sure that the billions of people who inhabit our planet have the chance to live fulfilling lives – which, after all, is the stated goal of the universal declaration of human rights – demands a drastic change of course.

Shifting towards a beyond growth society means respecting planetary boundaries

The good news is that awareness of the dead end of our economic system is growing. We still have the collective resources to carry out the paradigm shift that this planet needs so urgently. 

The European Union has a key role to play in that shift. We sit on barely 2.2% of the land of this planet. There is a limit to our planetary resources. Becoming leaders of the just transition to a sustainable economic model will give meaning to our economies and position them as sustainable value creators in the 21st century. There is also an ethical obligation here. So far, we have been a primary beneficiary of the extractive economic paradigm. Much of the damage sustained by the planet is on our shoulders. We have a primary responsibility to bring about the necessary change for the future of humankind.

As the murmurs of change get louder, however, so do the howls of resistance from the powerful beneficiaries of a dying economic model. Witness the rising backlash against the European Green Deal, the first serious attempt by the EU to take a step on the path of transformation. It is not by chance or by sheer ignorance that the Limits to Growth report has been gathering dust for half a century. Following through on its advice means going head-to-head against vested interests and those who have always enjoyed privileged access to the corridors of political power.

Accepting that we need to operate within the planetary boundaries forces us to ditch the illusion of wanting more of everything for everyone forever and ever. Instead of maximisation, the keyword for our economy must become sufficiency. Recognising that there are constraints forces us to make choices about what to do and what not – or no longer – to do. In order to be accepted by society at large, these choices must be fair and made through democratic deliberation.

Let’s move beyond GDP as a measure of a healthy society

We need an economic system that prioritises human well-being and ecological sustainability over GDP growth. Our planetary resources are not limitless, and so neither is our economic growth. This is why we need a new way to organise our economy. We need to move away from the exploitation of our planet and labour force. But let’s also end the never ending cycle of production and consumption.

It’s really just what science is saying. So let’s start making decisions with scientists, with social society and with the citizens, not just based on a variation of GDP figures. Would it not be better for everyone if we started using the respect for planetary boundaries? What if we took the improvement of social well-being as a measurement for progress? How would a world look like with an economy that helps to realise gender equality and climate justice?

The Beyond Growth Conference 2023 

This is why I have initiated the second edition of the EU’s Beyond Growth 2023 Conference. It brings together 19 fellow Members of the European Parliament from five different political groups. We have invited scientists, thinkers, changemakers and EU policymakers to discuss ways to achieve flourishing societies within planetary boundaries. The blueprint of a beyond growth society does not exist yet. Nor is there a plan for how to get us there. We have to mobilise our collective intelligence to start designing it ourselves.

This conference is a step on a journey to put the economy in its rightful place as a subsystem of human society. The ecnonomy should improve the lives of all of us. Our planet and our societies are breaking under the pressure of being driven to work for the economy. It’s time we make the economy work for us.

👉 Register here and join the Beyond Growth Conference 2023