Giorgos Kallis (1972) is an ecological economist and political ecologist working on environmental justice and limits to growth. He has a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a Master’s in environmental engineering from Imperial College, a PhD in environmental policy from the University of the Aegean, and a second Master’s in economics from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. He is an ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies) professor since 2010. He is best known for his numerous publications on degrowth.

Cristina Monge (1975) is a political scientist with a PhD from the University of Zaragoza, where she teaches sociology. Her areas of interest are sustainability and democratic quality, and especially governance for the ecological transition, on which she works in research centres such as Globernance, BC3 and Ecodes. She is a political analyst for El País, Cadena SER, RTVE, Infolibre and the Green European Journal. She participates in the Open Government Forum and in the Advisory Council for Development Cooperation.

Is the EU ready, at the political level, to take the first steps in post-growth planning?

[GK] "No, I don’t think there are signs of any serious political commitment to move in a post-growth direction. There is an unprecedented openness to discuss post-growth, as evidenced by the large conference at the European Parliament in May. And after so many years, there is, at last, some funding for related research. One could say that some ears are more open than they have ever been. But we have to remain realistic. Discussing something for the first time is very far from seriously planning about it, especially in a context of a general conservative turn within most EU countries."

[CM] "I agree with Giorgos. This is a debate that has already taken place in the EU at the level of social and environmental movements, but it’s still far from being embraced by the institutions. In fact, the recent Beyond Growth conference mentioned by Giorgos was a first step towards opening up this debate, but it’s still a long way from being taken up by the institutional side of the EU.

Even more so if we also take into account how the correlation of forces in Europe is changing. The countries that make up the so-called Visegrád group [Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia], which were a priori among the most reluctant on issues of ecological transition, are now joined by countries such as Italy and Finland. In these countries, extreme right and far-right forces are coming to power, which see the fight against climate change and other international policies, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as establishment policies to be opposed. This emergence, or rather, the growth of these forces and their incorporation into some governments makes it difficult to believe that the European institutions are in a position to raise the debate on post-growth. The political and economic uncertainty in which we live makes it even more unlikely."

On the post-growth path, what are the main internal and geopolitical barriers to overcome?

[GK] "The internal barriers are clear. The wealthy who hold more political power want growth, so that their profits grow and they can keep getting richer and richer, without the poor getting so much poorer that they will revolt. Growth is necessary for the internal stability of the capitalist system. But this stability is temporary, because in the long run compound growth is a very destabilising force, not only for the climate, but also for the economy itself which cannot be forced to meet this exponential race to infinity.

At the geopolitical level the barrier is also clear: the competition for military power and geopolitical advantage is tied to economic growth. After all GDP was an invention put to practice in the Second World War, and GDP growth really became a general goal in the context of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were trying to outpace one another in the arms race with their growth targets. To the extent that powerful nations vie for political and economic power, it goes without saying that they need growth to control others nations by military or economic force."

Giorgos Kallis
Giorgos Kallis

[CM] "Apart from the correlation of political forces I mentioned earlier, there are obviously other barriers, because even in countries where the far right is not in government or close to being in government, the debate around growth and post-growth is not shared by society as a whole. At present, it is still a niche debate for social movements, environmentalists or intellectuals. It is restricted to these coordinates. It is not on the streets. Not even in the political forces, neither on the left nor on the right. I can't imagine anyone in Spain standing in the general elections promoting a post-growth or degrowth discourse and winning.

Probably the main barrier lies in the very term 'growth', which has a fetishistic character in our cultures and in our way of life. That is why I believe that if we stop focusing on everything related to the word growth, whether post-growth or degrowth, which are automatically associated with the idea of impoverishment, and start focusing on the positive, that is, on reconsidering welfare or the social pact, always within the parameters of sustainability, we may be able to find a more acceptable path for citizens. When these discourses are put forward, they should be incorporated into a positive paradigm, a paradigm of desirability, which has to do with well-being."

In your view, what are the main tensions and synergies between planned degrowth within the EU and the EU's ability to achieve its geopolitical objectives, such as strengthening security in a broad sense?

[GK] "If you ask for my personal desire, I think Europe should adopt the role of the wise and peaceful elder, old enough to know better than to pursue destructive world wars or cold wars and old enough to know and regret its past sins and be ready to repair them. This maturity should translate into an acceptance of and adaptation to a new era where constant expansion is no longer necessary nor possible. And within these contours, Europe should find for itself a post-imperialistic and post-colonial role of co-living with other nations and world cultures, acting as a force of mediation and peace, and not as one of quest for supremacy and power. Degrowth, in the broad sense of the term, is perfectly compatible with such a serene path.

“ Europe should adopt the role of the wise and peaceful elder ”
Giorgos Kallis

More realistically, to the extent that the EU is trapped in global geopolitical competition, which takes shape as competition for military power, the tensions with degrowth are obvious."

[CM] "I dare not give an answer, because talk of planned degrowth within the EU right now is distant 'political fiction'."

A large part of the degrowth movement is inclined towards pacifism and anti-militarism but, at the same time, insists that the transition towards a degrowth society must be democratic. How does degrowth approach the defence of democracy against hostile autocracies? Can it be defended without armaments?

[GK] "Yes, why not? Most EU countries belong to NATO and NATO has enough armaments to destroy the whole world a few times over if it were to be attacked.

I understand you ask this question having the Russian invasion in mind, but I don’t think the causes of Russia's aggression can be reduced to some sort of hostility towards democracies in general. The causes were much more specific and, as in other wars and invasions by great powers, the war has to do with competition for zones of influence, internal politics, historical myths and fantasies, and much else. I don’t think Russia invaded Ukraine just because the latter had elections. Vice versa, the world's so-called largest democracy, the US, has waged a number of illegal wars as well as covert operations against elected leaders in the last decades, again driven by what American elites perceived as a defence of the US's (narrowly defined) national interests and quest for global supremacy. So I fail to see this existential military threat to democracies that you are alluding to, at least up to now. I worry much more about the internal erosion of democracies, with the rise of antidemocratic parties and leaders, and antidemocratic and authoritarian practices, even by governments that ostensibly see themselves as bulwarks of democracy."

“ The pacifist discourses that were once more prevalent in Europe are now in the doldrums ”
Cristina Monge

[CM] "This is a basic question, especially in a context of a war like the present one. But we are seeing that European societies have not mobilised strongly against war, as they have on other occasions. This is undoubtedly because, in this case, we are talking about an invasion, with a clearly identifiable aggressor and aggressed, which, moreover, is taking place on the doorstep of the European Union. These two factors change anti-war terms and attitudes. The pacifist discourses that were once more prevalent in Europe, for different reasons in each country, are now in the doldrums."

[GK] "I think pacificism is and should remain at the heart of the Green movement, though lamentably this is less and less the case. I agree with Cristina’s diagnosis, though with some differences. The war in Ukraine has put the Western peace movement in the rather rare situation where it is not the West itself invading another country, in a preventable war. A peace movement in the West to convince Putin to stop the war is obviously a futile exercise, as the last thing Putin cares about is peaceniks in Europe protesting.

On the other hand, there is still a need for a peace movement within Europe to curb the belligerent excesses that are emerging within Europe itself right now, with this sudden love for NATO. We need to mark a very clear line between reasonable defence, with an eye on peace, and a gung-ho armament preparing to fight for zones of influence and against potential challengers to Western hegemony."

Europe has increased military spending by 13 per cent in the first year of war. Is it possible to reconcile increased defence and security expenditure with energy transition and climate commitments?

[GK] "No, I don't think it is compatible, and this spending should stop. Europe and NATO have enough nuclear warheads to protect themselves if it gets down to that. They should cut military expenditure to the absolute minimum, definitely not increase it. And they should invest all money that there is in climate mitigation and social protection, plus forgive debts to the Global South, not build tanks and submarines for god’s sake. How can we be seriously discussing that, I mean we Greens, in an era of climate breakdown?"

How do actors such as large multinational companies fit into a scenario without economic growth? Are they a brake or an ally in the change of model?

[GK] "A brake obviously. They are the embodiment of the hyper-accelerated globalised economy that depends on the extraction of underpaid labour and resources from the rest of the world."

[CM] "Indeed, these types of companies are embedded in a growth model without which they cannot survive, so they are unlikely to be an ally. However, it is also true that business movements are emerging, such as, for example, B Corp, with different approaches and a clear understanding that for their businesses to be viable in the long term, they have to be within a paradigm of sustainability. Obviously, these are companies that have neither the power nor the capacity of the large multinationals, but they do pave the way for a new business model and a different approach to economic development that is closer to the criteria of sustainability."

Cristina Monge
Cristina Monge

What role should the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund have as regulators? Should the United Nations’ economic governance functions be expanded?

[GK] "In their current function, the first three serve mostly as instruments of protecting the economic hegemony of the West and the interests of creditors and financiers. In an ideal scenario, yes, the UN should develop economic institutions that allow for balanced, democratic and fair economic relations between different countries."

[CM] "The UN has no executive capacity, nor does it have the capacity to manage even conflicts. Beyond declaratory issues, it is very difficult for it to implement policies with their corresponding sanctions. The other international organisations of a more commercial nature that you mention respond to the ideology and interests of the famous Bretton Woods agreements. In order for them to raise debates such as post-growth, they would have to completely reinvent themselves and that is highly improbable."

Finally, in your opinion, what should be the EU's main geostrategic objectives in a post-growth context? Could they be shared by all members?

[GK] "We are very far from a context that makes possible even just a debate on post-growth. So here we are purely speculating. I would wait to see first a major EU country that wants to move in a post-growth direction, and then this discussion could start to have some meaning. If we want to imagine such a scenario, then I would repeat what I said before. Europe's geostrategic interest should be to maintain some sort of active neutrality and independence, becoming an agent of peace and stability around the globe, focussing internally on strengthening democracy and on finding new forms of social security and well-being without growth."

[CM] "I agree with Giorgos that we are a long way from that scenario. That is not the debate at the moment and we must focus on the challenges that lie ahead even more urgently. EU member states that wish to maintain the European Green Deal will have to make a big effort to defend it against governments where the presence of the far right is so important as to question the very existence of climate change."

This article is also available in Spanish.

Further viewing

Video plays via YouTube Afspelen op YouTube

Roundtable North-South relations in the face of the post-growth challenge, Málaga, 2023 (in Spanish, subtitles available)

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