The European Parliament in Brussels recently hosted a three-day conference titled Beyond Growth – Paths towards Sustainable Prosperity in EU, which, according to the organizer, is “a multi-stakeholder event aiming to discuss and co-create policies for sustainable prosperity in Europe, based on a systemic and transformative approach to economic, social and environmental sustainability and its encompassing governance framework”.
If these seductive fuzzwords seem to you to sound “too good to be true”, you are not deceived. Because, judging by the speech of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, with which she solemnly opened the conference, it reveals that the masters and mistresses of our lives are still not ready to listen, let alone follow alternative economic models, among which the post-growth model stands out in the West (German Postwachstum) or Degrowth (French Décroissance) and Doughnut Economics. No, the message of one of the most powerful wo_men in the world is clear, namely that “economic growth is not an end in itself” and that “it must not destroy its own foundations”. Rather, “that growth must serve people and future generations.”
In the last sentence of her speech, in the style of a growing number of authoritarian rulers emerging around the world, the President of the European Commission even dared to say “This is exactly what you will discuss today and during the next two days”. Thus, she framed the discussion and sent a clear message to all those heretics who have been arguing for more than half of a century, on the basis of empirical models and scientific evidence, that if we are to reduce the use of natural resources on a global level, so that Earth’s biophysical capacity will not be exceeded, the societies and economies of the “developed” West and of the “fast developing” East should adopt sustainable degrowth as the dominant economic paradigm. Namely, it is a paradigm of the planned reduction of production and consumption through equitably downscaling throughputs of materials and energy in the global North, while simultaneously increasing human and ecological well-being and ensuring global justice.
No, instead of accepting scientific evidence that it is virtually impossible to achieve absolute decoupling of economic growth from resource use in the time window available to us to reduce greenhouse emissions if we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming, Europeans have once again been deliberately misled (lied to?) that they can increase material prosperity indefinitely. For the truth is that even if we pursue or favour only a certain type of economic growth, and whatever adjective we put in front of it – “green”, “inclusive”, “smart”, “sustainable”, “resilient”, “blue” or “creative” – further growth will irreversibly undermine the Earth’s ecosystem processes.
So, what are we actually dealing with? Is it ignorance, self-deception, or simply techno-utopian wishful thinking? I believe that none of this is the decisive reason for the fact that the European chief woman continues to persistently push us in the direction of a final ecological collapse. And, I am even more sure that we are merely dealing with another act camouflage, a desperate attempt of the levitation of the imploding neoliberal capitalism, which has been in a crisis of legitimacy since the outbreak of the financial, economic and social crisis in 2008.
As belonging to a considerably large group of Earthlings living today who have experienced in their lifetime the collapse of the world in which they grew up and as they knew it, I smell the stench of the rulers’ fear of an imminent collapse that will wash them away into the dustbin of history. I am sure that many other “children of socialism” who were born in Yugoslavia in the period from the mid-60s to the mid-80s also know that feeling of the approaching end. In fact, if I try to recall the state of our generation’s collective consciousness from the turn of the 80s to the 90s, I can say with certainty that in those years we suffered from the collective world pain (Weltschmerz), captured by the iconic post-punk Belgrade band Catherine the Great (Serbian Ekatarina Velika or EKV for short) with the song Only Few Years for Us (Serbian Samo par godina za nas) released in 1989. To this day, pain cuts through me every time I hear the voice of the late Milan Mladenović, woven into the verses “My friend and I sit on the bench / We look at the stars / Listening to the news that just arrived / They say we have / just a few years for us. / We had toys and we lived all those / all those games of chance / those games for people / that someone invented / only a few years ago for us”. It is a pain of a generation not yet socially and politically empowered to be able to prevent the collapsing socialist paradise from turning from the humanist vision of brotherhood and unity into a hell with concentration camps, mass graves and mass rapes, in which we had ended up solely thanks to a handful of old men who were unwilling to relinquish power.
Today, when I see the helplessness of the last generation (letzte Generation), to which my daughter also belongs, how they beg arrogant world leaders not to destroy the world and their future, I cannot but say that the invocation of Robert Kennedy’s words by the president of the European Commission to be nothing else than an arrogant and cynical slap to the young and future generations of Europeans. What sounded downright nauseating, however, is her claim that she is sure that if Kennedy were to give a speech today, he “would have included the sound of birdsong and the joy of breathing clean air”.
No, the President of the European Commission is deeply mistaken if she thinks she understands Kennedy’s wisdom “at a very fundamental level,” as she puts it. For if she understood what Kennedy wanted to convey when he said that GDP “measures everything except what is valuable in life: the health of our children or the joy of their play”, which he uttered in the 1960s, she would no longer be painting castles in the clouds and nor would she praise electric cars and hydrogen technology, which should ultimately save us from self-destruction. If Ursula von der Leyen had really understood what Kennedy was trying to say, she would have paid tribute in her speech to Sicco Mansholt, one of her predecessors who led the European Commission for less than a year (1972-1973). A thought that would have been appropriate on this occasion, however, could be borrowed from his State of the Community speech at the first enlargement of the European Economic Community, on February 1, 1973, in which he said:
“It is clear by now to all that we cannot simply go on in the same old way. That we must seek new ways to realize new ideals. The future needs a less formal approach, and greater political action and imagination.”
Being a contemporary of the Club of the Rome, Mansholt recognized that an economy dependent on growth could not ensure the equitable distribution of food and well-being in the world, nor could it ensure the circular process in the economy that we now call the circular economy. New European policy should therefore be based on a “precisely planned economy with the aim of securing the material needs that are strictly necessary for every individual” and on a “production system without pollution and the development of a circular process”. Furthermore, the decline in material welfare that would follow these measures would have to be replaced by a “greater public concern for intellectual and cultural development”.
Mansholt’s words can be easily recognized in an open letter signed by more than 400 academics and civil society organizations urging the European leader “to see the geopolitical crisis as an opportunity to disengage from the socially and ecologically harmful growth competition and instead embrace a wellbeing cooperation.” Furthermore, in light of the pressing challenges and stimulating opportunities, they called on the European Union, its Institutions, and Member States to implement:
1. Post-growth European Institutions: constitute permanent structures at the
Commission, the Council, the Parliament, and within Member States to assess post-
growth strategies and pathways.
2. A European Green Deal beyond growth: design a new flagship programme shaped
around a systemic change approach that aspires to create a thriving future within
planetary boundaries, with degrowth as a necessary transition phase towards a post-
3. Beyond growth policies based on the four principles of:
• Biocapacity: fossil fuel phase-outs, limits to raw material extraction and nature
protection and restoration measures for healthy and resilient soils, forests,
marine and other ecosystems. E.g., a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, a
Resource Justice and Resilience Act including a binding material footprint
reduction target and real, area-based nature restoration. Open Letter published all over Europe on day 1 of the EP Beyond Growth Conference (15 May 2023)
• Fairness: fiscal instruments to foster a more equal society by eradicating income
and wealth extremes, as well as super-profits. E.g., a carbon wealth tax, both
minimum and maximum incomes.
• Wellbeing for all: secured access to essential infrastructures via an improved,
ecologically-sensitive welfare state. E.g., Universal Basic Services (including the
human rights to health, transport, care, housing, education and social protection
etc.), job guarantees, price controls for essential goods and services.
• Active democracy: citizen assemblies with mandates to formulate socially
acceptable sufficiency strategies and strengthen policies based on ecological
limits, fairness and wellbeing for all and a stronger role for trade unions. E.g.,
local needs forum, climate conventions, participatory budgeting.
However, judging by the opening speech of the President of the European Commission, this appeal, like many before it, will not reach the heads and hearts of the rulers who cling to growth at any cost, even at the cost of destroying the planet and the future of future generations. And, just as the former Yugoslav leaders were unwilling to relinquish power when their hour came, and just as many post-Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, to mention only the most notorious couple, are clinging to it, so too will the servants of neoliberal techno-feudalism, gathered in the Group of Seven or G7, will be persisting to the last.
That is why I am no longer signing appeals, nor am I begging the decision-makers to take action and stop this madness, because I have seen so far that they will not do so. They have shown countless times that they will not do what they should because they either cannot or dare to. And since there is no point in counting on them anymore, they just need to be f***** off. All that remains is for us to “spit in the face of the truth” (orig. Pljuni istini u oči!), to borrow the title of the debut album of the progressive rock band Buldozzer (orig. Buldožer), released in 1975, the year I was born.
Because if we continue to agree to their lies, evasions and manipulations, in the end we will not be able to protect the living world, the environment, water, air, women’s (reproductive) rights, family, democracy, society, culture, art, creativity, in short, nothing of value to us. Indeed, it has not been the time for jokes for a long time, as we have found ourselves in the end game for our planet, as environmental journalist George Monbiot wrote a year ago in one of his heartbreaking columns:
“Since 1985, I’ve been told we don’t have time to change the system: we should concentrate only on single issues. But we’ve never had time not to change the system. In fact, because of the way in which social attitudes can suddenly tip, system change can happen much faster than incrementalism. Until we change our political systems, making it impossible for the rich to buy the decisions they want, we will lose not only individual cases. We will lose everything.”
In memory of Tonči.