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Milana Büchs and Max Koch Discuss Challenges to Sustainable Welfare

In this interview Milena Büchs and Max Koch, co-authors of Postgrowth and Wellbeing, discuss their recently published book, the incompatibility of economic growth and sustainability, and the opportunities of alternative economics structures and systems

A lot has been written about postgrowth - what is novel about your book?

In this book we take a relatively unusual, mid-way, position: on the one hand we agree with important arguments developed over the last few decades by a range of ecological economists that unlimited economic growth is likely to undermine human wellbeing in the long term, especially due to impacts of climate change. So we agree that we will need to establish postgrowth economies. But on the other hand, we critically challenge the widely established view amongst postgrowth supporters that postgrowth will almost automatically continue to maintain or even improve people’s wellbeing.

How do you think will this position be perceived?

This “middle” position won’t please those who think economic growth is compatible with long-term sustainability. But also many postgrowthers will disagree with this more critical view of the challenges to achieving wellbeing under postgrowth. However, we take this position to provoke further debate amongst postgrowth researchers because we think it can only benefit from this.

Why then do you think economic growth and sustainability are incompatible?

Here we agree with one of the core arguments in ecological economics about decoupling. While it is true that environmental impacts can be reduced in relative terms (resource implications / wastes per unit of GDP) through technological innovation and efficiency gains, there is very little evidence so far that decoupling can be achieved in absolute terms: if the economy is growing as a whole, this inevitably implies rising resource inputs and waste outputs, just at a lower rate of growth. We do make it clear in the book that we are mainly concerned about climate change here, the impacts of which are already being felt across the globe. So we very urgently need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, and we find it plausible that this is not possible as long as we have a globally growing economy.

Why have other people argued that wellbeing can be maintained without growth?

Many supporters of postgrowth have argued that no-growth economies will support people’s wellbeing because a) money and the consumption don’t really make us much happier once our basic material needs are met, and b) economies that are organised around growth can have negative impacts on people’s health and wellbeing due to competition and stress, status anxiety, lack of time to spend with family and friends or to engage in other “meaningful” activities. While these ideas are plausible to some extent, we point to several major challenges to maintaining people’s wellbeing that a transition to a zero-growth economy is likely to be up against.

And what are your concerns here?

One important concern is that the transition to a no-growth economy would affect a variety of social systems that are currently involved in making people well and healthy – and the transformation of multiple and coupled social systems is unlikely to be quick or easy. For instance, the whole welfare state, education and health systems, which all make such an important contribution to people’s health and wellbeing, currently all rely on or are institutionally linked to economic growth.

But is this not also related to how we define wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely, and we discuss this in the book. Here, we support more “objective” measures of wellbeing, as for instance represented by the universal needs approach, because this helps to define levels of material living standards that can be held stable and fulfil people’s needs (in contrast to more subjective “wants” which tend to be insatiable). However, there will always be a subjective element in the conceptualisation of wellbeing due to the important role played by culturally dominant perceptions of what it means to be well. These cultural perceptions currently highlight the role of consumption, personal wealth and success as essential for people’s happiness and wellbeing. While we can only speculate with what speed or effort cultural perceptions might change, we think it is important to bear this in mind as an important and potentially limiting factor for achieving wellbeing in the context of postgrowth.

This all sounds very pessimistic! Do we have to resign in despair then?

There is no doubt that the challenges ahead cannot be underestimated. However, we do end the book on a more positive note by outlining some of the principles and institutions that we think can support the transition, including setting global limits of resource use and emissions, international coordination and multilevel governance, and the redistribution of wealth and work. There are already many examples at the small scale of running the economy in alternative ways. In many ways we don’t need to re-invent the wheel, instead we need to concentrate on finding ways of increasing public and political support for these changes to happen. However, activists who politically attempt to overcome the growth paradigm should be aware of the many and powerful structural ways in which it is inscribed into core institutions of contemporary society but also into people’s minds and bodies. Our book can be helpful in this regard.

Milena Büchs is Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions, University of Leeds, UK.
Max Koch is Professor in Social Policy at Lund University, Sweden.