Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde is an expert in international relations, international security, peacebuilding and prevention of violent conflicts, and the Arab-Muslim world. He is an economist from the Autonomous University of Madrid and a retired military officer. He is the co-director of the Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH). He is also a professor of International Relations at the Universidad Pontificia de Comillas, as well as a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a member of the Spanish Committee of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Alfons Pérez is a researcher at the Observatori del Deute en la Globalisation (Debt Observatory in Globalisation) specialising in energy and climate. In 2021, he published the book Green Pacts in times of pandemics. The future is now in dispute, a critical review of the Green New Deal concept, the European Green Deal and recovery plans. He is currently working on the global impacts of the ‘green and digital transition’, with an emphasis on the demand for critical raw materials for ‘clean technologies’ and their industrialisation processes.

The main pillar of the European Green Deal remains economic growth and GDP growth. In this context, do you see real possibilities for the European institutions in the short and medium term to start planning for a post-growth Europe? Is it on the European political agenda?

[JN] “I believe that the mantra of growth as a fundamental guide to compare one country with another, to explain to public opinion that things are going well, isn't going to be abandoned in the short term. Unfortunately it is not on the agenda. The idea of growth means good news, that things are going well. Why? Well, basically because both international relations and domestic politics are based on the short term. The war at the end of the world for any ruler is the next election and no one looks beyond that.

Let me refer to Francis Fukuyama and his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama wrote that, with the end of the Cold War, humanity was witnessing the expansion on a universal scale of the Western model, based fundamentally on parliamentary democracy and market economy, with growth as the central element. Fukuyama assumed that there would be no major conflicts on the same scale as those experienced in the 20th century, beyond local resistance to this model in some parts of the world, with the United States and, to a large extent, the European Union as the driving forces. Today we still do not understand that this model, whether we call it capitalist or neoliberal, carries in its essence the seeds of inequality, and this is a huge problem. Those of us who are dedicated to the study of conflict prevention and peacebuilding know that inequality gaps contribute to war more than anything else.

In 2023, we're still committed to that growth-centred model. The EU does not understand that it is unsustainable. In my opinion, the main obstacle to recognising the need to change the model is short-termism and the idea that there is no other model that can be sold to public opinion.”

Jesús A. Núñez Villaverde
Jesús Núñez

[AP] “The European institutions do not currently have any clear post-growth proposals. What we are seeing, especially since the pandemic, is a change in the narrative. There is talk of green recovery and green growth, a narrative that wants to be distinctive at the international level, with a repositioning of Europe as the guarantor of this green transition. Growth as such is not contested. Growth can now be green, there can be a decoupling of environmental impact and growth, a dematerialisation of the economy, markets are the driving force behind this transition and technology is the totem at the centre of it all. I think it has some different connotations with respect to how economic growth was described before but, basically, it's still the same old growth strategy.

For example, it is said that there is absolute decoupling in the EU, that GDP has grown and, at the same time, emissions have been reduced over a period of two decades. And there is talk of dematerialisation of the economy and moving to a service economy. But in these two decades, imports from China have multiplied fourfold. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, the energy crisis and the Ukraine war, we have woken up to our dependence on global supply chains. Therefore we are seeing proposals for a green European reindustrialisation. So there is no dematerialisation. What was called dematerialisation, was in practice a dependence on imported technology, mainly from China or South East Asia.”

[JN] “In any case, in this process of green reindustrialisation, there’s a clear increase in military budgets and this trend will continue to rise. Moreover, a reindustrialisation that doesn't question the foundations of the model will ultimately lead to more competition.”

Given this lack of initiative on the part of national and EU political powers, do you think that pressure from social movements and collectives will be able to influence their decisions and force them to take a step forward in a short period of time, or is this still a long way off?

[AP] “A collective claim for post-growth seems complicated to me right now. There may be impulses that go in that direction. After the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath in Catalonia in 2012, there was a lot of interest in degrowth, but after the crisis it faded away and was very much restricted to academic circles. From 2019 onwards, climate justice movements, such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future, have been critical of the economic model, but the debate was not so much focused on economic growth and GDP as its indicator, but rather on CO2 emissions, without connecting ecological overshoot to all the complexity that goes with it. It's easier for me to think that many social movements are going to demand basic rights. The struggle for social rights will have to take up the criticism of economic growth and turn it into policies that will trigger the paradigm shift towards post-growth.”

“ Post-growth is a bit like disarmament: either it's multilateral or there's no way that any one country will adopt it ”
Jesús Núñez

[JN] “The Paris Agreement on climate change has clearly shown us how far the United Nations and other international organisations can go, an agreement that has no monitoring or sanctioning capacity and is basically a declaration of will. It goes no further and it is not foreseeable that the UN or any other international organisation is suddenly going to have more authority, certainly not in this very challenging area. If we think of national governments, it’s very difficult for me to imagine a government that is directly committed to post-growth. How do you sell it to the public? It's a bit like disarmament: either it's multilateral or there's no way that any one country will adopt it.

So my hope is clearly in organised civil society. That is where I believe there is room for manoeuvre, although it is not a short-term instrument, it's an instrument for a sustained long-term effort. The key here is academia and civil society organisations with the capacity to create a change of mentality that puts pressure on institutions.”

Without economic growth, would the EU be able to maintain its relevance in the international sphere?

[AP] “Not in the short term. As Jesús commented, if you are the first on the international scene to opt for a model that differs from the hegemonic one, in the short term you lose relevance. This is what has happened historically. But it's a different matter in the medium or long term. If the EU develops a more self-sufficient model, I would say that in the medium or long term it can gain relevance, because being less dependent on oil and gas is positive for a territory. However, this doesn't mean that there won't be geopolitical impacts. Territories that depend on exporting raw materials would seek other strategic partners outside the EU. There would be a strong reconfiguration in the international context.”

[JN] “According to Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU is the most privileged place on the planet in terms of well-being and security, but our well-being depends on a thug like Putin, for energy, and on another thug like Xi Jinping, for consumption. To make matters worse, our security depends on the United States.  Although we have common interests in many issues on the international agenda, we don’t always share the same positions and priorities. Regarding China, for example, Washington drags us into a course of action that is not beneficial to our interests. In the Sahel, it doesn’t heed our requests for cooperation to address problems that have a direct impact on our security.

Therefore, it seems that the EU's course is to correct these three dependencies – energy, manufacturing and security – if it doesn't want to be an irrelevant player in the world. This vision, far from incorporating a different model, forces the EU to compete on the same playing field as China and the US in order to be their equal. Even if I agree with Alfons, for me the problem is again one of timing because nobody is going to wait for us. Assuming that the EU takes this change of model seriously, other powers will take the lead and turn the EU into a subordinate actor along the way. Who wants to be subordinate? In principle, no one, and that makes it more difficult to reach that medium-term point where you can say: ‘Look, I have another model and it works.’”

Everything suggests that the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels will decrease significantly. On the other hand, new key players have emerged in the energy transition, such as countries that own strategic metals and those that control their processing. How will the energy transition impact geopolitics?

[JN] “The centre of gravity of world affairs is currently, and will be for decades to come, in the Indo-Pacific. There is competition between the US, which wants to maintain its hegemony, and China, which aspires to that same position of world leader. The greatest tensions will occur in this region but, obviously, they will have repercussions for the entire planet. On the other hand, there is a renewed interest in Africa. In what terms, in terms of African welfare or development? Obviously not, what we have is a competition for scarce resources with an added technological component. Right now we are in a technological race between two giants because they understand that in addition to land, naval, maritime and cybernetic competition, there is also that of space, and this requires resources. What I foresee is more competition to control these African territories, to have them on their side.

In this hegemonic economic framework, the EU is the worst endowed, without oil and gas. Only with a completely different energy model could we Europeans play a role in this story, and only with a different energy model would the problems that the Middle East has been generating for decades disappear, insofar as we wouldn't be dependent on its resources.

What has happened over the last three decades in the Middle East could be seen tomorrow in the Sahel or in Latin America, where there is this competition between giants, and this indicates to me that there is no clear interest in seeking a different model. The new niches of competition between the big ones, between the giants, follow the old model.”

[AP] “It's not really about replacing the fossil geopolitical map with the map of critical minerals needed for the technology-based green transition. What is happening is that a new layer of complexity has now been added to  the old map. To extract these minerals that are essential for the green transition, to transport them to the areas of refining, processing, manufacturing and sales, we still need hydrocarbons. Mining doesn't run on renewables, it runs mainly on diesel and other petroleum derivatives, just like transport. I would like to put this fact on the table because sometimes it's thought that everything will revolve around critical minerals, but really what it means is that a new layer of complexity is added to one that already exists, and is not going to go away, which is hydrocarbon relations.

Alfons Pérez
Alfons Pérez

According to the International Energy Agency, between 2020 and 2040, the extraction of lithium will increase 42-fold, cobalt 25-fold, nickel 21-fold, rare earths 8-fold. In the green growth model, technology is very high up in the hierarchical pyramid of energy transition decisions, which is why I say it is a technology-based energy transition. There could be others, but the one that is being proposed is technology-based and that technology has ingredients that are spread around the world in a very specific way. International institutions such as the International Energy Agency propose various climate scenarios. The more ambitious they are, the more aligned with the Paris Agreement, the more mining is needed and, therefore, the greater the impact will be on the territories where extraction takes place. This is a very harsh reality.”

In line with this reflection on the new poles of geostrategic complexity, do you think there is any chance that the worst of neo-colonial extractivism won’t be repeated?

[JN] “As long as there is competition for control of resources, I have no doubt that the same pattern will continue. The only way out would be to empower local populations to have a voice. Basically, in the previous stages, the affected populations have had no voice at all. To the extent that they do, and bearing in mind that nowadays the media make it possible to replicate and multiply the effect of what is said in any corner of the planet, it will be possible to limit certain predatory or abusive practices. But not much further.”

“ The proposal is to give a voice to communities, but it is all focused on a yes to extraction ”
Alfons Pérez

[AP] “Agreeing with Jesús, the question I have is whether, with the order of magnitude of the demand that this technology-based green transition is generating, we will be able to give the territories their own voice. Or will this voice be appropriated so that they basically say yes to extraction? Because that is to a large extent what is happening, even with the new progressive governments in Latin America. The proposal is to give a voice to the communities, to make public-private community partnerships where there are compensations, but it is all focused on a yes to extraction. Whereas, before, the countries of the Global South had to respond to the demand for development, now it's as if they must respond to the higher good of the green transition – to solve a problem that they haven't caused, in a way that will see them miss out on the profits. So the question is, with the projected volume of demand, to what extent will we be able to give affected communities a voice so that they can make sovereign, free and informed decisions about their future and their territories?”

EU countries bear the greatest historical responsibility for the climate crisis and the depletion of natural resources. What should a post-growth EU do to assume its responsibility and repair the damage caused?

[AP] “The issue of reparations has a past and hence the complexity of the response. In the international context, there are instruments that, if taken seriously, would be characterised as reparations. In the climate negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the Paris Agreement and subsequent negotiations, there are instruments such as ‘loss and damage’ that recognise the impacts that global warming is having in the countries of the Global South. Since they didn't generate these adverse impacts themselves, they must be provided with funding. The transfer of funds of 100 billion dollars approved at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 for the affected countries has not been fulfilled and, although it is certainly insufficient, it must be completed.

[JN] “With my feet on the ground, I do not even think of a new international organisation, a new agreement or a new treaty. It would be enough to honour what has been signed. Debt conversion and cancellation programmes, reform of the international financial architecture, fair trade, North-South technology transfer and classic development aid – even that mythical 0.7 per cent target for official development assistance – would allow us to go much further than what we have now.

“ It's doubtful that Lula, Boric, Petro and company will get out of a game that is basically about being wooed by everyone else ”
Jesús Núñez

Moreover, it's doubtful that Lula, Boric, Petro and company – and the same goes for Indonesia and elsewhere – will get out of a game that is basically about being wooed by everyone else and trying to get the best out of Beijing, trying to get the best out of Washington and trying to get the best out of Brussels. The game is again played in shortsighted terms, trying to take advantage of competition among the big players for something they covet and that you have in your own territory. The repercussions of playing that game will be seen later.”

How do actors such as large multinational corporations fit into a no-growth scenario? Will ISDS (the arbitration of investor-state disputes) be an obstacle to promoting post-growth?

[AP] “I find it hard to believe that transnational corporations can live with a post-growth model when they are designed for growth, obsessed with quarterly results, with dividend payouts. The EU is putting public incentives on the table in order to steer these transnational actors towards something resembling the green growth of the European Green Deal. The European green recovery funds, NextGenerationEU, can be read in many ways, including as an industrial policy incentive to steer companies towards this new horizon with a somewhat different patina. But these actors have a very strong autonomy, they are guarantors of economic growth, and I don't think they can fit into a post-growth model.

As for ISDS, it offers no space for guaranteeing social rights. It is a space for guaranteeing commercial rights, in which transnational corporations always have the upper hand. Historically, arbitration tribunals have ruled overwhelmingly against states that have tried to implement progressive policies. They have been an instrument to curb or threaten states.”

[JN] “I would say that we are in the last round of a struggle that began with Reagan and Thatcher and their formulation that the state is the problem and markets are the solution. Since then, not only have capital markets been deregulated, but multinational corporations have gained a prominence far beyond the capabilities of any national government. On a hopeful note, the pandemic and the economic crisis of 2008 have shown the need for states to regain a certain protagonism, and this is where the EU fits in, which now, with incentives for companies, is trying to take them along the path of the European Green Deal. Therefore, to the extent that states and international organisations regain protagonism, an actor created precisely for a model of permanent growth will end up modulating its behaviour.

There would also be another way where we, consumers, become aware of what and how we consume in order to try to determine the behaviour of companies. But I dare not go much further because I find it difficult to see how to redirect a dynamic that has elevated multinational companies to a level that practically no national government can reach. I think this will be one of the biggest obstacles to a change of model.”

Would this new post-growth Europe need a change in governance or is it fine as it is? At the global level, should the UN's functions be extended?

[JN] “Let me turn to the facts: 1995, the 50th anniversary of the UN, the Cold War is over. A window of opportunity opens for reform and for a body to govern globalisation. Nothing is achieved. 2005, secretary-general Kofi Annan's report, very relevant, which stated that there can be no development without security, there can be no security without development, and there can be neither development nor security without full respect for human rights. The aim is not only to change the Security Council but also to turn ECOSOC (the UN’s Economic and Social Council) into an executive body with the capacity to manage the issue of development in broad terms. The only result is that the Commission on Human Rights becomes the Human Rights Council. In the year 2020, the 75th anniversary of the UN, its reform is no longer on the agenda. As of today, the reform of the governance body of globalisation is not on the agenda, as simple as that, as crude as that.”

It looks like a pretty dark picture – is there any room for hope?

[AP] “I declare myself a militant in hope, but it is not a hope that all will be well. The American journalist and educator Richard Heinberg speaks of deadly optimism or useful pessimism. I tend towards useful pessimism because, despite the difficult international situation, there are always windows of opportunity. The international context of global crisis will bring us a future full of exceptionalities, which are the scenarios we have always worked with, but when we project green or eco-social transitions, we basically do so based on the idea of normality. I think we have to incorporate exceptionalities progressively in our political processes and in our proposals. A recent European document on the transformation of European industry, the Net-Zero Industry Act, states that security of energy supply will be a key issue for the sustainability of the economic model of growth and, ultimately, of public order and security. This is the first time I've seen a document on industry or energy that refers to law and order. So even the European institutions are starting to prepare for exceptionalities.

“ In the darkest moments, networks of mutual support emerge between people in need, bringing out the best in us ”
Alfons Pérez

The American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote about how communities organise themselves in moments of exceptionality and how, even in the darkest moments, people are not so much Adam Smith and Darwin as they are Kropotkin or Margulis. In those moments we strengthen our cooperative side and, as seen in the pandemic, networks of mutual support emerge between people in need, bringing out the best in us.”

[JN] “I certainly subscribe to the useful pessimism. I’ve been settled in it for quite some time now. I would say that my hope lies in the individual and in the capacity, for those of us who have the privilege of being citizens, to elect our political representatives and to react to the situation, but understanding that there are actors in front of us with much more power to continue imposing their agenda in the short term. The issue is to achieve a sufficient critical mass with the capacity to influence those at the helm.”

With thanks to Soledad García-Consuegra

This article is also available in Spanish.


Video plays via YouTube Afspelen op YouTube

Webinar Post-Growth Geopolitics - Europe at a crossroads, 8 February 2024, with Jesús Núñez, Gaya Herrington and Richard Wouters. This video is also available in Spanish.

Video plays via YouTube Afspelen op YouTube

Roundtable North-South relations in the face of the post-growth challenge, Málaga, 12 September 2023. In Spanish, subtitles available.

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