Just over thirty years after the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise. While one temperature record after another is shattered, we are witnessing the devasting effects of heatwaves, wildfires, and floods. ‘The era of global boiling has arrived,’ according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.[1]

Humankind is disrupting the Earth system that has allowed it to flourish, not only by wrecking the climate but also by destroying biodiversity and forests, depleting fresh water, and polluting ecosystems with nutrients and other chemicals. We have now transgressed six out of nine ‘planetary boundaries’, which define the ‘safe operating space for humanity’. These transgressions increase the risk of ‘large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes’ according to the Stockholm Resilience Centre, driving the Earth system into a far less hospitable state for humans.[2]

Planetary disruption is largely driven by the growing use of energy and materials. The environmental gains from decarbonisation and from greater energy and material efficiency are being outweighed by an increase in production and consumption, which translates into economic growth.

Some parts of the world, notably the European Union, have managed to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions while growing their economies, partly because energy-intensive production has relocated to other places, but nowhere near fast enough.[3]  And there are other red flags related to their environmental performance. In the EU, ‘biodiversity continues to decline at an alarming rate,’ the European Environment Agency (EEA) warns.[4] It also observes that the quantity of materials extracted both within and outside the EU to satisfy European demand exceeds the safe operating space for humanity, with no sign of a decrease.[5]

In the face of the deepening ecological crisis, science is increasingly expressing doubt as to whether continued economic growth is compatible with a liveable planet.[6] ‘It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale,’ according to the EEA.[7]

The only sustainable growth is degrowth
Photo: Mathieu Despont, 2010. CC0 1.0

It seems that ‘green growth’, the narrative underpinning many environmental strategies including the EU’s Green Deal, may well be an illusion. It is in this context that the ‘degrowth’ movement is gaining traction. Degrowth advocates a shift from accumulating material wealth to promoting well-being in a more equal society with high-quality public service provision.

This shift should first take place in rich, industrialised countries where economic growth no longer positively impacts well-being. Reducing overproduction and overconsumption by the Global North (and by rich elites elsewhere) should not only bring us back within planetary boundaries but also free up natural resources for the Global South. In many low-income countries, human needs cannot be met without increasing resource use.

The most widely used definition of degrowth comes from economic anthropologist Jason Hickel: ‘Degrowth is a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.’[8] It follows from this definition that degrowth is less about reducing gross domestic product (GDP) than about reducing the throughput of energy and materials.

However, Hickel argues that ‘it is important to accept that reducing throughput is likely to lead to a reduction in the rate of GDP growth, or even a decline in GDP itself, and we have to be prepared to manage that outcome in a safe and just way’.[9]

It makes sense for the EU to be a frontrunner in the transition to a society beyond growth. Firstly, as a matter of justice. A large chunk of the blame for the ecological crisis falls on the EU. Its 27 member states represent less than 6 per cent of the world’s population today. Yet historically, they are responsible for approximately 22 per cent of global excess CO2 emissions and material use.[10]  

To put it bluntly, ruthless extraction of natural resources from all over the world has made us one of its wealthiest regions. If we Europeans abandoned our pursuit of economic growth and focused on sparing the planet, we would likely make a sizeable contribution to a more equitable sharing of wealth and resources – both between North and South and between generations.

“ It is better to manage the end of growth through democratic deliberation than to have it imposed on us by ecological breakdown ”

Secondly, a post-growth EU might gain in resilience. GDP growth is already being slowed by Europe’s ageing population; it need not be long before ecology retaliates so strongly against the economy that GDP growth comes to an end. It is better to manage the end of growth through democratic deliberation than to have it imposed on us by ecological breakdown, which would spell massive social upheaval.[11] The sooner we change course from growing the economy to growing well-being, the more likely we are to preserve internal peace. Without that, we cannot cope with external threats.

Facing conflict

For many in the world, a post-growth EU would be a more credible partner in the fight against the ecological crisis. However, international politics is not just about cooperation; it is also about rivalry. At a time when ‘global boiling’ cries out for united action, we are witnessing increasing hostility and violence. Failure to act on the ecological crisis would produce even more strife. How would an EU beyond growth fare in a conflict-ridden world?

Russia’s assault on Ukraine brought war to the borders of the EU and taught Europeans hard lessons about resource dependency. Vladimir Putin thought he could get away with his war of conquest because the EU was addicted to Russian natural gas. That was a miscalculation: the EU maintained its support for Ukraine, even in the face of drastic cuts to gas supplies. But it paid the price in the form of an energy crisis. EU governments have spent hundreds of billions of euros helping residents and businesses with their energy bills. And almost two years into the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU still hasn’t managed to fully wean itself off natural gas, oil, and uranium from Russia, adding to Putin’s war chest.

Responses to the war have included a push to accelerate the transition to renewable energies. However, this makes the EU more dependent on China, which dominates the supply chains for many critical raw materials as well as the solar panels, batteries, and magnets made from them. The EU wants to reduce its import dependency through domestic mining, better recycling, and strengthening its own greentech industry. However, that can’t be done overnight. In the meantime, we are stuck between two aggressive autocracies.

A ‘slower’ economy as proposed by the degrowth movement would allow the EU to reduce its over-reliance on imported energy and materials more rapidly. This would make the Union less vulnerable to economic blackmail and thus deliver a gain in strategic autonomy. For example, current decarbonisation policies aim to replace all petrol and diesel cars with (mainly) battery-powered electric cars. Since batteries need lithium, EU demand for this metal is forecast to increase twelvefold by 2030.[12] Under a degrowth scenario in which private car ownership is scaled down in favour of cycling, public transport, and shared vehicles, the demand increase for lithium and other critical metals would be significantly tempered. Also, more energy would be saved.[13] We could well live to see the day when our economy can no longer be derailed by trade coercion from either Russia or China.

A post-growth EU could also help mitigate another type of resource-based conflict. The expansion of mining and export farming is often a violent and destructive process, especially in the Global South. Communities are driven off their land and see their water sources polluted and their forests destroyed. Militias finance their activities by seizing commodities. At the frontiers of extraction, where our supply chains start, conflict is rife, to the point of destabilising governments and spilling into neighbouring countries. The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice bears testimony to this.[14] By reducing our material footprint, we would slow down the advance of the frontline.[15]

“ Geopolitical strife extends to the very values on which national societies and global governance are based ”

In short, a post-growth EU would gain resilience in the face of inter-state resource conflicts and would be less complicit in intra-state conflicts. But geopolitical rivalry is by no means limited to resources. Russia’s war in Ukraine, for instance, can hardly be explained by a scarcity of resources. The delusion – widely shared by the Russian populace – of restoring the former empire through recolonisation and the fear within the ruling elite of the contagious effects of democracy in post-Soviet countries make for better explanations. This shows that geopolitical strife extends to the very values on which national societies and global governance are based. The outcome of such conflicts will influence how much planetary operating space is left for humanity.

Defending democracy

One of the major fault lines in geopolitics runs between democracy and autocracy. Today, the rivalry between democratic and authoritarian governments is grimly playing out before our eyes in Ukraine. Tomorrow, or perhaps in a few years’ time, a violent confrontation could unfold in the Taiwan Strait. Mainland China’s sabre-rattling against Taiwan compels us to anticipate an armed attempt at unification, which would kill democracy in Taiwan.

Critics of economic growth cannot look away from the threat that aggressive autocracies pose to democracy, human rights, and the international rule of law. There is no doubt that the transition beyond growth must be democratic. Democracy offers a public space to challenge the growth dogma; autocracies would rather squash the debate on ‘a new utopia’ for fear of losing authority.[16] Many ‘degrowthers’ even advocate deepening democracy by extending it to the economic sphere as a way to overcome the compulsion to grow inherent in shareholder capitalism. Democracy in turn relies on constitutional safeguards that protect the rule of law, pluralism, and human rights. These include the right to protest against those in power for their failure to address the ecological emergency.

Preventing the worst will not only require green policies at the national level but also unprecedented global cooperation. This will not happen in the ‘might is right’ world that autocrats dream of; that would be a world with even more violent chaos. Admittedly, democracies can also resort to violence, but they rarely go to war against each other. They are more inclined to resolve conflicts peacefully, in accordance with the rules that just about every country has ever agreed to.

A rules-based order is indispensable not just for preventing more wars, but also for tackling ecological threats. With Russia gone rogue, China behaving more and more aggressively towards its neighbours, and the US prone to exceptionalism, the EU has an important role to play in upholding the international rule of law.

Squaring a circle

The question therefore arises: could a post-growth EU play a part in shaping global politics instead of simply being subject to it? Would it be able to defend itself, its allies, democracy, human rights, and the international rule of law against attacks by the likes of Russia or China? The power of countries and alliances is usually measured by their wealth and military capabilities. Ukraine teaches us that moral strength must also be taken into the equation.

Still, the Ukraine war largely confirms the standard metric. Without billions in Western support, both money and arms, Ukraine would not be able to withstand the Russian aggressor, who is intent on destroying not only the Ukrainian nation but also the European security order.

Seen this way, a post-growth EU risks increased vulnerability. It would see its share of global GDP shrink even faster than it already is. A diminishing share in global trade would give it less leverage over third countries and multinational corporations. The armed forces would compete more strongly with other public sectors over money and natural resources.  There could well be less funding available for technological development, both civil and military, leaving the EU even further behind in the global technology race. Clearly, in rough times, degrowth and geopolitics is not an easy pairing. They rest on contradictory logics. Can the circle be squared?

Strengthening external action

One way to mitigate the tensions between post-growth and geopolitics would be to reduce division and dissipation in the realm of external action. Too often, European diplomacy is a cacophony of national self-inflation, obstructing a united approach. In the absence of a common strategy, the EU is a mere bystander in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite being Israel’s biggest trading partner and Palestine’s largest aid donor. Money can’t talk without a script.

Divisions between EU countries partly explain why the democratic world has not yet set clear red lines for China. The US, the EU, Japan, and others jointly signalling that they would meet an attack on Taiwan with tough economic sanctions – to the point of inflicting pain on themselves – could make Beijing think twice. Maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait has planetary significance, because China going to war could very well lead to a breakdown in the global climate talks.[17]

The difficult balancing act between rivalry (over democratic values) and cooperation (on ecology and health) with China would benefit from a common EU approach. Does war really have to reach the EU's doorstep before it closes ranks, as it did by and large when faced with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine?

European defence is plagued by fragmentation, duplication, and a lack of interoperability between national armed forces. Whereas the US military uses 30 major weapon systems, the EU’s militaries have around 180.[18] This incoherence is a waste of public money as well as material and human resources. It reduces our collective strength, which is all the more worrisome now that Russian imperialism is forcing us to take deterrence seriously again.

“ The better the member states’ military forces fit together, the more bang we get for our buck ”

The EU can no longer afford these ‘costs of non-Europe’; this would be even more true for a post-growth EU. It would need to embark on deeper integration. This means speaking with one voice: no more vetoes in foreign and security policy; an EU foreign minister backed by a unified diplomatic service; upgrading the French seat on the UN Security Council to an EU seat. It also means getting serious about defence integration. Of the 200 billion euros that the 27 EU countries spend annually on defence, 20 to 120 billion could be saved, depending on the level of integration.[19] These savings could be used to increase combat power. The better the member states’ military forces fit together, the more bang we get for our buck. The Netherlands and Belgium are showing us how it’s done by merging their navies, for all practical purposes.[20]

In the global rivalry between democracy and autocracy, the US may well defect from our camp at the next presidential election if Donald Trump or one of his supporters prevails. Either way, the US will increasingly focus its defence on threats from China rather than Russia.[21] Therefore, even a post-growth EU would need to reduce its security dependence on the US by increasing its strategic autonomy in defence. Plugging capability gaps in European defence would require the development and/or procurement of new weapon systems,[22] preferably involving European consortia. It is paramount that member states – especially France and Germany – do this together. Unified or shared armament saves costs and fosters interoperability. It could be a decisive step towards integration of the armed forces.[23]

A post-growth EU committed to reducing the throughput of energy and materials would also need to reduce the environmental footprint of its armed forces without undermining their combat power. This would be a costly and lengthy task. The defence sector will continue to impact the planet for decades to come, but we must keep in mind that the ecological costs of war may well outstrip those of deterrence.[24]

Imposing sustainability requirements on the defence industry would be easier if member states moved to joint procurement.[25] Under such a system, fewer types of arms would be produced in larger batches. It would be easier for the arms industry to recoup the costs of development and manufacturing, thus weakening their argument that exporting weapons is a commercial necessity.[26] This could facilitate the adoption of more restrictive EU arms export legislation, with stronger oversight by the European Commission, so that arms are no longer sold to countries that misuse them. The need for stricter rules is evidenced by the fact that no fewer than ten member states continued supplying military hardware to Russia after its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.[27]

For a post-growth EU, it would be all the more important not to be threatened by weapons of its own making. To temper the rise of defence expenditure, it would also need to make a greater effort to achieve arms control agreements, even with Russia. Transparency on military capabilities and investment plans is conducive both to these agreements and more generally to walking the fine line between effective deterrence and an arms race.

Still, even a post-growth EU would have to invest more in external action. Mutual defence, strategic autonomy, and, by extension, the long-term support of Ukraine’s defence are vital to our security – as are development assistance and climate finance for the Global South. Such a comprehensive security approach would be a large bill to foot for an EU without GDP growth, but the degrowth movement rightly stresses that we should sacrifice excess private consumption for the common good. A post-growth EU would do well to include diplomacy, defence, and foreign aid in the list of high-quality public services it pursues.

Enlarging and deepening the Union

For an EU pursuing a future beyond growth, allies – who bring additional resources and legitimacy – would be all the more important. With the risk of the US lapsing into authoritarianism, isolationism, and climate denial after the 2024 presidential election, the EU cannot afford to lose any more of them. It should keep the United Kingdom close and underline that the door is open for re-entry. EU membership offers the closest form of alliance.

demonstratie voor solidariteit met Oekraïne

Taking in the Western Balkans countries, Ukraine, and Moldova would become an even stronger geopolitical imperative for a post-growth EU. Such an EU would have to put in place an adapted ‘green growth’ policy to accommodate the needs of acceding countries seeking to narrow the economic gap with the older member states or rebuild after war. Ukraine, if it survives the Russian onslaught with our help, could be a formidable ally even before accession, both in terms of civil courage and military strength.[28]

There is an undeniable tension between deepening and widening the EU. The more members the Union acquires, the harder it is to reach agreement. This is especially the case if national governments jettison the EU treaty values they signed up for. It only takes one outlier – like the authoritarian Hungarian government today – to undermine mutual trust and cripple decision-making.

Therefore, EU enlargement must be accompanied by an extension of qualified majority voting and a more robust oversight of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law within the EU’s borders. This is not excessive meddling in domestic affairs, because subversion of European values in a single country affects us all. The rules we live by partly come about through supranational decision-making in which each member state has a stake. The EU’s standing as a global actor depends not only on its diplomatic, economic, and military strength, but also on its adherence to its own values. Finally, EU security is at stake when, as in Hungary under Viktor Orbán, the backsliding of democracy goes hand in hand with pandering to Moscow and Beijing.

The EU should be an ally to citizens fighting back against democratic decline. In the case of Hungary, the evidence of serious breaches of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights is so overwhelming that the Article 7 procedure against Hungary must be taken forward urgently, leading to the suspension of the Orbán government’s voting rights in the EU Council. The EU institutions need to make much better use of their existing tools to protect European values.

For all that, the EU can only do so much on its own. Constitutional democracy requires constant care at all levels, not least by political parties.[29] From the centre right to the left, they should not form alliances with far-right populists, mimic their scapegoating of migrants and other minorities, or let their attacks on the judiciary, the press, and science go unchallenged. Nobody benefits from courting, copying, and trivialising the far right except the far right, as the 2023 Dutch parliamentary elections demonstrated once again.

The battle against illiberal right-wing populism can be won. Creeping authoritarianism is not an irreversible trend. In 2023, opposition parties and voters in Poland proved that. After the opposition rallied around European values, Polish citizens voted out their bigoted and abusive government.

Partnering with the Global South

Would a post-growth EU that considerably reduces its environmental footprint with the express purpose of freeing up natural resources for the Global South find allies there? This is an appealing but unlikely scenario. In a multipolar world, the governments of developing countries are disinclined to ally themselves with a single great power. Instead, it pays to sit on the fence, to play the US, the EU, and China off against each other so as to secure as much trade, aid, and investment as possible. The best the EU can hope for is a series of strategic partnerships of a non-exclusive nature, which are nonetheless vital for greater security and legitimacy.

Establishing and deepening partnerships would be easier if the older EU members came to terms with their colonial pasts. It should come as no surprise that many governments and citizens 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. They associate imperialism and colonialism with Western Europe and the US. There is a huge amount of historical pain and anger that has still not been sufficiently addressed. Doing so would require unequivocal apologies for slavery and colonialism by all EU countries involved, as well as a frank recognition that the crimes of the past carry forward into present-day injustices, whether economic or ecological. Such declarations should be backed up by significant EU contributions to poverty reduction, global public goods, tax justice, legal migration routes, international climate finance, and compensation for climate loss and damage.

The EU should also team up with democratic governments in the Global South to develop proposals for the better representation of the South within the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Last but not least, double standards must be avoided. An EU that helps defend Ukrainian statehood should also stand up for a viable, democratic Palestinian state, alongside a secure state of Israel.

This part of the geopolitical agenda is a good fit with the degrowth movement’s aims of decolonisation and redistribution. It would benefit peace and democracy too, all the more so if interwoven with a feminist foreign policy that promotes the rights, representation, and resources of women and other disadvantaged groups. According to the World Bank, ‘Having more gender-equal societies results in more stable and peaceful states.’[30] All of this highlights that it would be unwise for a post-growth EU to cut costs on external action.

The biggest obstacle to partnerships between a post-growth EU and countries in the Global South might well be trade. In principle, many governments of developing countries would applaud firm action by the EU to reduce its overconsumption of global resources. In practice, however, such action could easily clash with their development strategies. Increasing the export of natural resources is often still viewed as a way to grow the economy, even by democratically elected, progressive governments of not-so-poor countries such as Brazil and Chile. Telling them that we know better might bring back memories of colonial times.

Action speaks louder than words. An EU that pushes through debt cancellation, for instance, would ease the pressure on developing countries to sell off chunks of their lithosphere and biosphere in order to pay back foreign creditors. This could open up the debate to alternative (de)growth strategies for the Global South, not focused on exports.[31] But still, it is up to the polities of the South to choose their own development paths. For now, these are not aligned with post-growth in Europe.

“ Even a post-growth EU would need huge amounts of imported metals to kick the fossil fuel habit ”

The way out of this dilemma, albeit only partially, starts with recognising that even a post-growth EU would need huge amounts of imported metals to kick the fossil fuel habit. Take lithium. In an energy transition scenario involving fewer and smaller cars with smaller batteries, EU demand for this metal would still rise considerably: not twelvefold by 2030, as is currently projected, but around fivefold.[32] Only a minor portion would come from mining within the EU.[33]

This awkwardly high metal demand presents both a concern and an opportunity. Of concern is the damage that mining inevitably inflicts on the environment, including biodiversity, water supplies, and the climate. This damage must be minimised, the voice and benefits of impacted communities maximised, in order to reduce conflict. The value chain due diligence law championed by the European Parliament[34] would go some way to promoting responsible mining, but this remains a daunting challenge.

The opportunity lies in shifting a greater part of the value chain to mining countries. More and more governments in the Global South want to process their raw materials before exporting them. Refining plants and battery factories create jobs and can drive industrialisation on a broader scale. An EU that wants to secure the materials for its energy transition must meet these aspirations. The strategic partnerships it is offering to the countries in the Global South should include investments in local and regional value chains, as well as technology transfer.

This would be easier if the EU were less bent on economic growth; the incongruities in its policies could then be eliminated more quickly. Lodging a complaint with the World Trade Organization because a country decides to process nickel ore before exporting it, as the EU did in the case of Indonesia, smacks of neo-colonial extractivism.[35] As does setting a goal of 90 per cent of annual battery demand to be met by EU manufacturers while the metals are dug up elsewhere.[36]

Strategic autonomy does not mean that all ‘critical goods’ have to be made in Europe. Sourcing a proportion of the batteries that we really cannot do without from a range of countries – preferably democracies like Chile and Indonesia – would just as well fulfil the geopolitical goal of becoming less dependent on autocratic China. And it could provide the EU with some much-needed partners.

Maintaining a technological edge

As we have seen, forging partnerships with countries in the Global South depends partly on technology transfer. So does global climate action: a rapid roll-out of renewable energies worldwide is indispensable to avoid catastrophic heating. But the role of technology goes way beyond trade, development, and climate: it is intertwined with geopolitics across the board.

In the West’s rivalry with China, technology is a major battleground. Here, tech transfer comes up against geopolitical and ethical limits. The EU and the US greatly need leverage over China in order to get it to play by international rules, not least those of human rights and peaceful conflict resolution. China’s 35 'chokepoint' technologies, which the country will be obliged to import for the foreseeable future according to Chinese academics, provide such leverage. China's access to these key Western technologies must be made contingent on its willingness to act as a responsible great power.[37]

Knowledge and technology that can be used to perfect state surveillance or weaponry should stay out of Chinese hands no matter what. The importance of cutting-edge tech in modern warfare is all too evident in the Russo-Ukrainian war. If Ukraine survives despite its troops being vastly outnumbered, it will be largely thanks to the technological superiority of the Western weapons it receives.

“ With technology cutting across all dimensions of geopolitics, the EU cannot allow itself to fall behind ”

With technology cutting across all dimensions of geopolitics, the EU cannot allow itself to fall behind. This goes for both civil and military technology, since they cross-pollinate. The EU has only a few cards in its hand; chip-making machines are the best-known example. Would we drop out of the game entirely if we let go of economic growth?

In a post-growth EU, there might well be fewer company profits and less venture capital available to invest in research and development. But it would be premature to conclude that such an EU would be doomed to lag behind in technological innovation. We should not overlook the inefficiencies in our current growth-oriented economy. Shareholder capitalism pushes companies to focus on quarterly results rather than long-term value creation. This inhibits R&D spending.

Many market-led innovations have negative social value. Instead of meeting essential needs, they spur conspicuous consumption and spurious convenience, setting people apart while wasting resources. SUVs are a prime example.

The financialisation of capitalism is a major ‘innovation’ that creates artificial scarcity, for instance of housing, drives inequality, and tempts many of our brightest minds to devote themselves – at top salaries – to extracting value instead of generating it.

To make matters worse, today’s capitalism locks up useful data, knowledge, and inventions under intellectual property rights.[38] This hampers their dissemination – even when lives are at stake, such as in the case of vaccines.

If capitalism seems innovative, it is in no small part thanks to governments. Public funding stands at the cradle of many technological advances. Just look at the digital revolution, which is reshaping both trade and war. The internet, GPS, and artificial intelligence all originate from publicly funded universities and government institutions. The journey from lab to market is often made through public-private partnerships, where most of the risk-taking falls on governments.[39] Capitalism falsely claims inventiveness.

If it heeded these lessons, a post-growth EU would not have to lose the tech race. It would be well advised to shift control over companies from shareholders to stakeholders, including workers and nature. Democratising our economy, moving up the scale from capitalism to post-capitalism, promises a smarter use of both natural resources and human ingenuity. It would also resolve a painful contradiction in contemporary democracies, which is that most of us spend almost a third of our lives under the authoritarian rule of bosses.[40]

A post-growth EU would have to put a considerable amount of public money into both fundamental and applied research. It could use both subsidies and democratic rule-setting to steer technological innovation towards applications that really benefit us – socially, ecologically, and geopolitically. By claiming public co-ownership of inventions in exchange for public money, it could more easily prevent technology leakage to China or Russia; technology could instead be shared with trusted partners or made available as global public goods.

Medicines and vaccines should be open source to allow domestic production by the Global South. A post-growth EU venturing into post-capitalism would also need to ramp up its efforts to snatch our digital lives from the claws of US-dominated surveillance capitalism. It should invest in a resource-efficient public-civil digital infrastructure and in open-source software to the benefit of global society.

We should not forget that technological progress in the EU is also due to clever minds from abroad who work in European academia and corporate R&D centres. An EU beyond growth would not be able to tempt these international knowledge workers with the highest salaries, but there is more to life. Vibrant cities, green spaces, clean air, good public services, social connection, and a culture of welcome would be vital for a post-growth EU keen to avoid losing out in the global competition for brainpower. A well-being economy can be a geopolitical asset.

Emerging stronger

In authoritarian societies, human hierarchies are maintained by coercion and violence, and nature often comes last. Oppression weakens the social fabric and corrupts the state. Depletion of natural resources erodes both living conditions and power. In comparison, democratic, egalitarian societies are more resilient and will ultimately turn out to be stronger, especially if they focus on well-being within planetary boundaries.[41] But it can take a long time before authoritarian regimes succumb to the rot. Today, faced with expansionist autocracies, democracies cannot afford to neglect their defences and leverages, lest they be swallowed up or vassalised. In a world plagued by both armed aggression and ecological crisis, they are bound to juggle rivalry with cooperation.

“ Insofar as post-growth pre-empts conflict, both within and between European countries, it can be seen as a prolongation of the EU peace project ”

For an EU abandoning economic growth, defending itself and asserting its values in the global arena would be no easy feat. Geopolitics start at home, by preserving internal peace. The degrowth movement is right to emphasise that post-growth policies must prioritise redistribution, satisfy basic human needs, and promote well-being for all. These policies should kick in before the end of GDP growth is brought upon us by ecological collapse. Such a contingency needs to reckoned with, as it would cause widespread grievance and turmoil. Insofar as post-growth pre-empts conflict, both within and between European countries, it can be seen as a prolongation of the EU peace project.

Internal security is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition for external security. Post-growth should provide a strong impetus for deepening and widening the EU, for partnerships with the Global South, and for common investments in diplomacy, defence, foreign aid, and technology. These would take sizeable slices of an economic pie that won’t get any bigger. A post-growth EU might well be ‘spartan’ in more than one sense. But if we keep social justice in mind, that is not too high a price to pay for protecting our democracy and looking after our planetary and geopolitical security. The EU would still be one of the best places in the world to live – or least bad, if we factor in the hardships of climate disruption.

The concept of a well-being economy can also be identified in non-Western approaches such as the Latin American indigenous social philosophy of buen vivir. But few governments are ready to renounce economic growth. For the EU, post-growth would be a lonely venture. Other parts of the world are unlikely to join such a project anytime soon. Yet they too will eventually have to face the fact that a finite planet cannot sustain infinite economic growth. If by that time the EU has proved that it is feasible to increase well-being without growing GDP, it may be able to offer some useful templates to the rest of the world. Normative power – the power to export one’s values – is an integral part of geopolitics.

The normative power of a geopolitical actor also depends on its external policies. Do they reflect its values? If so, are they effective?[42] In both respects, the EU needs to clean up its act. If post-growth pushes us to overcome the inefficiencies and incongruities in our external action, to become more self-reliant and more trustworthy, we might emerge stronger than we are today.


  1. ‘Hottest July ever signals “era of global boiling has arrived” says UN chief’, UN News, 27 July 2023
  2. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Planetary boundaries, 2023
  3. Jefim Vogel & Jason Hickel, ‘Is green growth happening? An empirical analysis of achieved versus Paris-compliant CO2–GDP decoupling in high-income countries’, The Lancet Planetary Health, 2023
  4. European Environment Agency, Biodiversity: state of habitats and species, 2023
  5. European Environment Agency, Europe’s material footprint, 2023
  6. Ivan Savin & Lewis King, ‘Idea of green growth losing traction among climate policy researchers, survey of nearly 800 academics reveals’, The Conversation, 20 September 2023
  7. European Environment Agency, Growth without economic growth, 2021
  8. Jason Hickel, ‘What does degrowth mean? A few points of clarification’, Globalizations, 2020
  9. Ibid.
  10. Jason Hickel, ‘Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary’, The Lancet Planetary Health, 2020; Jason Hickel et al., ‘National responsibility for ecological breakdown: a fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017’, The Lancet Planetary Health, 2022
  11. See the interview with Gaya Herrington in this dossier.
  12. European Commission, Proposal for a Critical Raw Materials Act, 2023
  13. Green European Foundation, Metals for a green and digital Europe – An agenda for action, 2021, chapter 8
  14. http://ejatlas.org
  15. See the interview with Peter Newell in this dossier.
  16. Joschka Fischer, Zeitenbruch – Klimawandel und die Neuausrichtung der Weltpolitik, 2022, p. 95
  17. Casper Wits, EU-China climate cooperation in an age of geopolitical rivalry, 4 July 2023
  18. This estimate is based on Niall McCarthy, ‘Europe has six times as many weapon systems as the U.S.’, Statista, 20 February 2018
  19. European Parliament Think Tank, Europe’s two trillion euro dividend: mapping the cost of non-Europe, 2019-24, 2019, p. 221
  20. See the interview with Sven Biscop in this dossier.
  21. Pierre Haroche & Camille Brugier, 2027: The year of European strategic autonomy, 2023
  22. International Institute of Strategic Studies, Defending Europe: scenario-based capability requirements for NATO’s European members, 2019
  23. See the interview with Sven Biscop in this dossier.
  24. This applies not only to nuclear warfare, but also to conventional wars like the one in Ukraine. The greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the first year of the Ukraine war have been estimated at 120 million tonnes of CO2e. This likely exceeds the annual emissions of all EU armed forces combined, including supply chains, which can be roughly estimated at 100 million tonnes of CO2e. Other ecological costs of war need to be added, such as large-scale pollution, ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss – not to mention the loss and devastation of human lives. Estimates are based on Initiative on GHG accounting of war’s Climate damage caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine, 2023 and Scientists for Global Responsibility & Conflict and Environment Observatory, Estimating the military’s global greenhouse gas emissions, 2022
  25. The EU is already considering rules for the green public procurement of defence assets. European External Action Service, Climate change and defence roadmap, 2020
  26. ‘Europe’s new reality: defence spending after the invasion’, interview with Alexandra Marksteiner, Green European Journal, 16 August 2022
  27. Ingeborg Eliassen & Maria Maggiore, ‘EU closed loophole for arms sales to Russia only after public disclosure’, Investigate Europe, 29 April 2022
  28. The EU could invite Ukraine to participate in EU defence projects even before it becomes a member state. EU Council, Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/1639 of 5 November 2020 establishing the general conditions under which third States could exceptionally be invited to participate in individual PESCO projects
  29. Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How democracies die, 2018
  30. Catalina Crespo-Sancho, ‘Can gender equality prevent violent conflict?’, World Bank blogs, 28 March 2018
  31. See the interview with Gabriela Cabaña Alvear in this dossier.
  32. Transport & Environment, Clean and lean – Battery metals demand from electrifying passenger transport, 2023, p. 48
  33. The European Commission aims for metal mining in the EU to supply 10 per cent of EU demand of strategic raw materials such as lithium by 2030. European Commission, Proposal for a Critical Raw Materials Act, 2023
  34. European Parliament, Corporate due diligence rules agreed to safeguard human rights and environment, 14 December 2023
  35. Green European Foundation, Metals for a green and digital Europe – An agenda for action, 2021, chapter 4 
  36. European Commission, Proposal for a Net Zero Industry Act, 2023
  37. Casper Wits, EU-China climate cooperation in an age of geopolitical rivalry, 4 July 2023
  38. Jason Hickel, ‘On technology and degrowth’, Monthly Review, 1 July 2023
  39. Robbert Bodegraven, ‘Green growth and the right kind of innovation’, interview with Mariana Mazzucato, Green European Journal, 26 May 2020
  40. This paragraph is inspired by Hans Rodenburg, Noortje Thijssen & Koen Bruning (ed.), Er is wél een alternatief. Postkapitalisme – een einde aan de roofbouw op aarde en mens, 2023, notably the chapters by Sjors Roeters and Merijn Oudenampsen et al.
  41. See the interview with Gaya Herrington in this dossier.
  42. See the interview with Trineke Palm and Hans Stegeman in this dossier.
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