As countries around the world slowly emerge from lockdown, many are crawling into a reality characterized by economic crisis and soaring levels of unemployment. According to the World Bank, the global economy is set to shrink by 5.2% this year, rendering this the deepest recession since World War II.
But even this historic contraction doesn't go far enough for environmental economist and degrowth proponent Niko Paech. He argues that we need to transition permanently to a post-growth economy if we want to ensure our survival on this planet.
DW spoke to Paech for the new series of the environmental podcast On the Green Fence.
DW: You would like us to switch to a post-growth economy because you say it's the only way for us to survive on this planet. How do we reduce production and consumption without jeopardizing our prosperity?
Professor Niko Paech: Our prosperity must be compromised because it is killing us. It must be reduced, especially since there is no right to this prosperity. The same applies to other consumer democracies whose prosperity is the result of decades of blatant plundering. This means that by reducing prosperity we are not relinquishing something, but rather giving back the booty that we in our insolence have presumed to claim as ours.
DW: What would people have to relinquish if your concept of a post-growth economy were to be implemented?
Paech: Your question is all wrong from the outset. It's not about relinquishing. How can you relinquish something that you've never been entitled to in the first place?
DW: But isn't that a question of perception? Many would argue they are entitled to this...
Paech: Hang on! I can't just rob a bank and say I am entitled to this booty and the two dead people lying on the floor are simply collateral damage. It's the same with the ecologic side effects of my air travel or consumption. Or let's say you go to the doctor tomorrow and the doctor says: "You have a huge malignant tumor on your back. I'll have to cut it away for you to survive.” Of course I'm not going to make a fuss and say: "Oh God, how can I do without this tumor?” No! It's a relief to get rid of it. I wouldn't mix up relief and renunciation. That is way I don't talk about renunciation, but prefer the more neutral terms of reduction or self-limitation.
DW: So what would this self-limitation entail for us in concrete terms? What would change?
Paech: First off, the vast majority of holiday travel by plane, cruise ship or car is simply no longer tenable in the twenty-first century. Next it's crucial to dismantle digitalization. We will not survive in a digital world. Then of course there is consumption. We must learn to use durable goods in a way that their useful life is at least doubled, if not tripled. And we will need a major change in the agricultural sector. Meat consumption must be cut by at least two thirds. Creating more living space is also off the cards. But above all, we will need to share more at a local or regional level, for instance with neighbors sharing a lawnmower or car.
This will not only save a lot of ecological resources, but will also reduce our dependence on money and consumption. And that in turn will create greater resilience, including socio-political resilience. This means that people are no longer so dependent on their current jobs or transfer payments from the state. Instead, they become more adept at providing for themselves in networks in a more collaborative manner. But having a big clear out also means we need to dismantle things without replacing them. This is crucial.
DW: Don't you think you are overburdening people here? Do you really believe this can be achieved by consensus?
Paech: No. Of course this won't be achieved by consensus. This can only be achieved if people rise and act together by forming alliances within social niches and by creating counter-cultures with a post-growth lifestyle that challenges society as a whole. It's never an attack on democracy to simply say no. No to air travel, no to meat, no to smartphones, no to home ownership or to some absurd new acquisition. No one can take that right away from you in a democracy.
DW: But to actually stop people from flying or driving cars, you'd need very strict measures and lots of bans, or not?
Paech: There are all sorts of bans in a democracy. In Germany you can't drive through red lights for instance. Nobody would consider this dictatorial. People often pretend that bans are not democratic. We currently don't have a majority for this anyway. But there will come a point when people will revolt and then they will confront those are still behaving like ecological vandals at the expense of others.
DW: Aren't you worried that a sustained shrinking of the economy would wreak havoc with our social systems?
Paech: Our social systems will have to be restructured, of course. We would even, in the sense of socio-political autonomy, make people more resilient. So instead of feeding the factors that people are fighting over all the time anyway, wouldn't it make more sense to make people more independent and reduce the rivalry? The resilience I'm talking about simply means being less dependent on consumption.
DW: A lot of the change you'd like to see would probably be hard to accept for most people right now. If you tried to give it a positive spin, what could people look forward to in a post-growth society?
Paech: We've never been so free. We've never been so educated. We've never been so rich. We've never been so eager to assert our moral superiority at every opportunity. And at the same time, we've never lived in such an ecologically ruinous way. And this contradiction is eating away at us. Mental illness is on the rise. We are in the midst of a rampant identity crisis. It's clear that the quality of life needs to be improved. We also need to reduce our fears about the future. No one can have a good life if they are constantly afraid of what the future might hold.
We also need to become more independent of markets, of technology, of money, of the state, of companies. Achieving that is perhaps the highest degree of freedom. We are not free today. In fact, ultimately, we are all puppets of a consumer dictatorship. If all supermarkets in Germany were to close for four weeks, we would become extinct, because as we grew richer we also lost our ability to satisfy our most basic needs.
DW: You're not just critical of consumerism and economic growth but also of green growth in particular. Why?
Paech: We have established a new religion. It's what I would call the Church of Progress. Our faith in technology is helping us create completely new alibis and excuses. We argue that it is not really our lifestyle that is the problem but rather the fact that we still haven't achieved the necessary technological progress. Take Germany's energy revolution for example – it's the perfect alibi. I can fly to the Caribbean as long as I buy green electricity. It's all a bit reminiscent of the Catholic trade in indulgences. One could say that the air traveler's guilty conscience is drowned in organic lemonade.
And this technological compensation logic is fueling a green economy which is setting new records everywhere, not only in Germany. But the ecologically harmful things are also setting new records everywhere at the same time. And that is no coincidence, but rather the systemic connection between eco-vandalism on the one hand and a new ecological indulgence trade.
DW: Do you have an explanation why it's so hard for us to slow down, consume less, and produce less?
Paech: As long as people haven't practiced how to reduce things they won't be able to do it even if they have long understood that it is necessary. And we are not practiced in reducing things, on the contrary we have been collectively trained in the logic of growth. But if a society really wants to practice reduction, somebody must set an example. We need pioneers. But we simply don't have any role models for a sustainable life.
DW: We're running out of time over the climate crisis and we need a global solution. If we look to the developing or emerging countries, how realistic is your post-growth model there? Surely we can't just tell them: ‘Don't make the same mistakes as we made! Don't grow! You mustn't reach our standard of living or the world will have a problem.'
Paech: Until a country of the global North actually implements a post-growth society, there is absolutely no chance to inspire so-called emerging and emerging countries to follow suit. I believe that there is a moral duty on the part of the North, which has caused so much damage through colonialism and the subsequent industrial plundering of this planet, to take the lead. Especially since the very people who are suffering most have not contributed to the damage at all. We need to implement this as a blueprint for others. And the rest is fate. The rest depends on how crises impact on us, like corona for instance.
Environmental economist Niko Paech is one of Germany’s leading sustainability researchers and growth critics. He’s a professor at Siegen University. Paech believes that transitioning to a post-growth economy is the only way for mankind to avoid global environmental catastrophe.
Paech was interviewed by Neil King and Gabriel Borrud for the DW podcast, On the Green Fence. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.