May 23. 2024. 8:36

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Post-growth thinking in the Brussels Bubble


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A study released this month by the Hot or Cool Institute found that more consumption does not translate into higher levels of human well-being.

The findings are the latest in a long line showing that once people have their basic material needs catered for, more absolute levels of money or possessions don’t do much to improve their happiness. [The relationship is more complex when researchers consider people’s relative income – how wealthy they are compared to their peers.]

This truth is one of the conceptual cornerstones of the ‘post-growth’ movement, which holds that economic growth is pushing us past fixed planetary boundaries, like the twin climate and biodiversity crises, without fundamentally making us happier.

Post-growth proponents want society to orient away from rampant consumerism and towards activities that do actually boost people’s well-being and have limited ecological impacts. For example, spending more time with loved ones, having creative hobbies, or better supporting the sick and infirm.

Detractors point out that people seem to quite like consumption, if their behaviour is any guide.

They also say that environmental challenges can be solved by that one limitless resource – human ingenuity. Society has developed technical solutions to big problems like food shortages or the threat of nuclear war – we will always think up clever new fixes.

The concept is extremely popular in academic circles and amongst NGOs. European centrist parties accept that GDP cannot be society’s only goal, but they are not prepared to jettison it either.

Both proponents and detractors will often distil the concept down to its purest form. But in practice, there is a spectrum of societal outcomes that are closer or further away from an absolute post-growth state.

For example, Europe traditionally has slower growth relative to the US. Many economists attribute this to Europeans’ preference for more holidays and a better work-life balance.

Europe is de facto swapping some economic growth for greater well-being. It’s post-growth thinking, but it doesn’t feel particularly radical.

Like most grand theories of everything, we’ll never get a definitive answer on whether post-growth is the right way forward or an idealistic pipedream.

But with issues of economic competitiveness and security continuing to dominate the election campaign, it is no bad thing to remember the things that ultimately make life worth living.



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