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European project explores pathways towards post-growth economics

Researchers: Giorgos Kallis, Jason Hickel and Julia Steinberger

The ERC is providing 10 million euros for an ICTA-UAB project that will study how to escape from a growth economy and ensure social welfare and planetary sustainability.

Photograph Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

“It’s the first time that a project of such scale and scope is granted on the topic of post-growth”, says Giorgos Kallis.

Could societies shift away from growth-oriented economics and sustain human well-being within planetary boundaries? A new international study led by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland will address this important question thanks to a €10 million grant from the European Research Council (ERC).

Over the next six years, the ICTA-UAB researchers Giorgos Kallis and Jason Hickel, alongside Prof Julia Steinberger from the Institute of Geography and Sustainability of the University of Lausanne (UNIL), will develop the project “A Post-Growth Deal” (REAL), which promises to advance ecological economics in radical new directions.

To reduce emissions fast enough to meet the Paris targets, and to reverse other ecological pressures, the high income economies will need to dramatically reduce their use of energy and material resources. But sufficient reductions may be difficult to achieve if countries continue to pursue economic growth – that is, ever-increasing levels of industrial production -as a primary objective.

Scientists increasingly recognize the need to explore post-growth pathways. Recent calls for post-growth transition have been discussed in major reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN panel on biodiversity (IPBES), and the European Environment Agency. But the existing knowledge base cannot yet meet this demand. The REAL project will advance the science so that post-growth pathways can be fully described and successfully implemented.

To this end, the ERC has awarded the researchers a €9.9 million Synergy Grant a highly competitive grant and one of the most prestigious awards for advanced research in Europe. With this funding, scientists will join their respective expertise to explore “how dramatic reductions in energy and resource use can be achieved, while at the same time ending poverty and ensuring decent lives for all”. They aspire to propose new models of politics, policies and provisioning systems in a post-growth direction, and engage with questions of development in the global South. The goal here, explains Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist at ICTA-UAB, is “convergence between the global North and South, and within countries, to a level of resource use that is sufficient for high human development and is compatible with planetary boundaries”.

The “Post-Growth Deal” refers to the need for a new political and institutional compact between government and citizens equivalent to that of the New Deal, or the welfare state, but now geared around the security of well-being in an era of prolonged economic stagnation and unfolding climate breakdown. Creating such a “Deal”’, requires new research, new data, and new models that the REAL project intends to develop.

“It’s the first time that a project of such scale and scope has been granted on the topic of post-growth”, says Giorgos Kallis, environmental scientist at ICTAUAB. “This is a recognition and validation of the efforts many isolated researchers have made for years – against mainstream opposition, and with little institutional or financial support. It is an opportunity that carries significant responsibility”. Kallis emphasized also the importance of synergy: “Every time the three of us meet, we feel like the different pieces of a puzzle coming together. This is a truly inter-disciplinary project. We hope to set a new paradigm for how to approach questions of planetary importance“.

“This project is nothing short of revolutionary”, said Julia Steinberger, ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. “It gives us what we think is the best chance to explore the transformative ideas necessary to protect humanity from the intertwined crises of the coming decades: to reorient our economies away from risky growth dependence, and towards human flourishing.”

ICTA-UAB was accredited as a María de Maeztu Unit of Excellence by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness in 2015 and 2019.


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