I will start with some general remarks about geopolitics and degrowth, then zoom in on Europe’s relationship with the Global South.

For the European Union, geopolitics can never be just about defending its interests. It also has to reflect its values and aims. These include human rights, democracy and the international rule of law. That is why we help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian aggressor. It’s not only our security that is at stake, but also our values. Ukraine is the victim of an imperialist and colonial attack by a Russia in the grip of toxic masculinity – a cult of violence, with Wagner’s sledgehammer as a horrific symbol. We must resist imperialism and colonialism, also when Russia is the perpetrator. This cannot be repeated often enough within the degrowth movement.

The global aims of the EU also include the ‘sustainable development of the Earth’ and the ‘eradication of poverty’, according to the EU Treaty. Evidence is piling up that if we want to avoid ecological breakdown and free up natural resources for the Global South, the EU and other rich countries need to stop chasing economic growth. That’s why geopolitical thinking needs to take degrowth seriously.

Again, both values and interests are at stake. An EU that renounces economic growth might gain in resilience, at least in some respects. It is better to manage the end of growth through democratic deliberation than to have it imposed on us by ecological breakdown or resource conflicts. That’s an important lesson from degrowth thinking.

Resource conflicts are there already. Russia turning off the gas tap, China limiting its export of critical metals – the EU is very vulnerable to blackmail over resources, since it imports so much of its energy and materials.

Richard Wouters at the 9th International Degrowth Conference, Zagreb
Richard Wouters

Putin thought he could get away with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine because the EU was so dependent on Russian gas. This was a miscalculation, but he did unleash an energy crisis that undermined the livelihoods of many Europeans, forcing some to choose between heating and eating.

In response, the EU has accelerated its transition to renewable energies. But that only makes us more dependent on China, another aggressive autocracy. China dominates the supply chains for critical metals as well as the solar panels, batteries and magnets made from them. Thus we appear to be stuck between two aggressive autocracies.

Degrowth policies would make it easier to break free from this catch-22. One degrowth policy in particular stands out: reducing private car ownership. Not replacing ever fossil fuel car with an electric car, but promoting cycling, public transport and shared electric vehicles instead. If one e-car were enough to replace five fossil-fuel cars, the EU would only need half as much lithium (for batteries) as is currently projected.

“ Even in a degrowth scenario, we would still need lots of lithium ”

We would still need lots of lithium though. Even in this degrowth scenario, EU demand for lithium might increase six-fold between now and 2030.[1] And we would also need more cobalt, copper and rare earth metals to complete our energy transition.

As Greens we love to talk about recycling (and it is important). But there is simply not enough lithium, cobalt or rare earths circulating in our economy at present, let alone available for recycling, to meet the demands of the energy transition – even if the EU were to embrace degrowth.

Only a small part of these ‘energy metals’ will come from mines in Europe. If only because it takes time to open up new mines. The European Commission aims for metal mining in Europe to have a market share of 10 per cent by 2030.[2]

New geopolitical map

This is where the Global South comes in. All over the world, resource-rich countries – from Chile to Indonesia – are aware that the energy transition is redrawing the geopolitical map. And they want to benefit from it. The EU, for its part, sees an opportunity to diversify its supply of energy metals, to become less dependent on China. It is offering ‘strategic partnerships’ to countries that can provide it with these metals. It is becoming increasingly clear that these partnerships will have to include ‘value addition’ in the mining countries. In her keynote yesterday, Diana Ürge-Vorsatz suggested that factories that make batteries for electric vehicles should be built next to rich neighbourhoods, so that the people driving e-cars become aware that these cars are not completely clean. They too come at an environmental price.

“ Battery production is far more profitable than mining ”

But if you ask the governments of Chile or Indonesia, they would say: No, these battery factories should be built in our country! We do not want to simply export metal ores, we want to process them within their own borders. Battery production is far more profitable than mining. It creates better jobs.

Given our need for energy metals, they have a strong negotiating position. Chile and Indonesia might get what they want. In fact, Indonesia is already building battery factories, with the help of foreign investors.

In the end, the EU might have to abandon its ambition to produce almost all batteries for electric vehicles itself, and accept that many of these batteries will come from a variety of mining countries. That still fulfils the geopolitical goal of diversifying the EU’s supply chains, of becoming less dependent on China.


I realise this scenario is uncomfortable for degrowthers. On the one hand, it involves transfer of technology to the Global South, industrial development, better jobs. On the other hand, it’s not a clean break with extractivism. In order to kick the habit of fossil fuels, even a post-growth EU would still import products from metal mining in the Global South. And even a strong European value chain due diligence law, which is being discussed right now, would not completely prevent the damage mining does to biodiversity and local communities. There’s no such thing as sustainable mining. Responsible mining is the highest we can aspire to.

“ There is a lot of pain and resentment to be addressed ”

Many countries in the Global South refuse to see the Russian invasion of Ukraine for what it is: an imperialist, colonialist attack by a regime that has no regard for international law or human suffering. Many in the Global South associate imperialism and colonialism exclusively with Western Europe and the US. So there is still a lot of pain and resentment to be addressed. That requires apologies for slavery and colonialism, debt relief, investments in global public goods, climate finance and so on.

But it also requires a certain modesty from us. Yes, we in Europe need to move beyond growth, but we must be careful not to impose any particular model of development on the Global South. If the governments of Chile or Indonesia – mind you, these are democratic governments – want to build batteries for us, batteries that we do need even in a post-growth Europe, who are we to say we know better? We’ve done that for far too long.

video plenary session Geopolitics of degrowth at 9th International Degrowth Conference, Zagreb


A recording of the session ‘Geopolitics of Degrowth’ at the 9th International Degrowth Conference in Zagreb is available on YouTube.


  1. According to the European Commission, EU demand for lithium is expected to increase twelve-fold by 2030 and twenty-one-fold by 2050. EU demand for rare earth metals is expected to increase six-fold by 2030 and seven-fold by 2050. Draft Critical Materials Act, 2023.
  2. European Commission, Draft Critical Raw Materials Act, 2023.
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