29th Sep 2023


Matthias Schmelzer: 'Changing to an electric car isn't enough'

  • 'Electrifying our SUVs will very likely not be the way, rather we should move towards a mostly collective transportation system, especially in cities' (Photo: Lauren McKown)
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A smiling, slightly ascetic face appears on screen. It belongs to Matthias Schmelzer, a historian and economist at the University of Jena, a small town in Germany an hour's drive southwest of Leipzig.

He is an organiser, academic and author in the degrowth movement whose work seeks to transform our growth-obsessed society from within.

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  • 'It's important to say that degrowth doesn't aim for a capitalist recession — but rather has to do with different ways to live to organise a society' (Photo: Pictures of Money)

EUobserver sat down with Schmelzer to talk about his recent work on degrowth, why growth is such a powerful paradigm, and how to imagine a world not based on ever-increasing consumption and waste.

EUobserver: I want to ask about your climate activism. Many academics believe their place is not on the blockades. As an organiser and activist, you take a different approach, and activism informs and is an integral part of your academic work. Why do you think it is important scientists get involved in activism?

I've been an activist for many, many years, starting with anti-globalisation work and the anti-nuclear and climate justice movement in the early 2000s. Over the last few years, I have become involved with the scientist rebellion — a group of academics using civil disobedience to draw attention to the magnitude of the emergency. The more the climate emergency progresses, the more urgent I think it is for scientists to be outspoken. The rationale for doing so is pretty solid: if the people who know most about the climate crisis don't step out and do something, why would ordinary people?

In your book Degrowth in Movements, you suggest that the power of degrowth lies in bringing together movements that, however different, can connect on the premise that the economy has to fit within planetary boundaries. Could you tell me about that approach?

Sure. So in 2014, in Leipzig, Germany, with a collective of many people, we organised the International Degrowth Conference, which became the largest-ever physical conference with more than 3,000 people attending. It sparked what has become a social movement. It brought together people from different contexts, from the alternative economic scene — people working on transition towns, 'commoning' projects and the 'nowtopias' — and people from traditional trade unions and NGOs. This made us realise the need for degrowth to step out of the academic ivory tower to interact with existing societal movements. The book Degrowth in Movements is an effort to try and learn from those movements.

One of the pillars of degrowth is non-reformist reform. Could you explain to me what that is?

Non-reformist reform goes back to André Gorz, who coined the term. It has been taken up in degrowth scholarship and another term by Rosa Luxemburg, which is revolutionary realpolitik. These reforms aren't intended to fix the system but rather to transform the system. Both words basically describe transformative policies that are not utopian in the sense that they could only work in a totally different society after some form of social break but can already start today.

These can be intellectual visions of what is actually possible, but non-reformist reforms are often very material. For example, the introduction of a mixed maximum income, a radical reduction of working time, and the introduction of universal basic services are such reforms that create conditions for transformation, basically by changing the way we work and live, improving the power of social movements along the way.

How do you feel about the label 'degrowth'?

On the one hand, it's powerful because people immediately know what it means. It's been widely picked up because of it. But it also creates a lot of misconceptions. It's often assumed degrowth simply means we should shrink the economy. In my work, I have made clear that's not really what degrowth is about. Degrowth isn't the perfect term. In certain settings and social movements, it can be offputting. But its contribution lies in the provocation, which is still very necessary.

What do you mean?

It is not enough to switch to clean energy sources and keep living the same lives. The change has to be more profound. For example, it has to include lower resource and energy use in the wealthy world. The irritation degrowth produces by insisting on that change can be very productive.

In what way is it productive?

Degrowth has politicised environmental debates. Questions of power, distribution and global inequalities are central to it. It offers a holistic picture that makes it possible to think critically about alternatives to what in academia is called 'the imperial mode of living', where resource-intensive consumption is so ingrained in our conception of what a good life is but which comes at the expense of the immiseration of the poor, and externalises its costs onto the Global South and future generations.

It strikes me that degrowth innoculates against siloed thinking. So what we love doing in the EU is cutting the environmental crisis up into small technocratic, slightly abstract nuggets — which may make sense from a policy perspective — but can also act as an obstacle to our understanding of what is truly at stake.

We need to think holistically about decoupling the various sectors and connecting people working in those sectors and parts of the world. Underlying this is the fact that rapidly reducing emissions is much easier if the energy demand is not continuing to grow over the next decades.

What I didn't realise before reading your book Hegemony of Growth is that growth as a policy goal is actually a pretty recent invention — one rooted in the early Cold War years.

There are many other aspects, but Cold War competition is key to understanding how growth became the dominant paradigm. An early, very concrete example happened in 1961. At the first ministerial meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a growth target of 50 percent over the next decade was proclaimed. So you could say the Western economies were working from a planned economy based on projections but were also very much inspired by the fear of the Soviet Union overtaking the West in terms of growth.

As a result, a lot of effort was made to get various sectors of the economy — the workforce, fiscal and monetary policy, education, research and development — to contribute to increasing economic growth.

During the 1980s, that fear of being overtaken was directed at Japan. And we're seeing a similar situation today. There is a lot of anxiety about Chinese growth in Western media, where it is often portrayed as a threat even though fundamentally, it's about people trying to get to a standard of living comparable to Western standards, which shouldn't be that threatening to us as it is rather obvious.

How did GDP growth become the globalised norm it is today?

GDP measurements made it possible to calculate who contributes what to an international effort such as the United Nations and OECD but was also needed to allocate development aid under the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe. This is why international organisations were keen on using and producing these numbers, which played a role in the growth paradigm becoming hegemonic.

The international standardisation of specific norms, statistical standards, policy conventions, and policy frameworks built around GDP growth became powerful by being adopted by more and more statistical offices worldwide in the same fashion. And this is also one of the key reasons why it's so difficult to establish an alternative statistical measure beyond growth or GDP in the current situation because it requires a large group of countries to start measuring well-being differently.

After the Second World War, there was yet to be an internationally agreed-upon standard, which allowed GDP to spread as the new norm quickly. A blank sheet, and we're not in that situation anymore.

So what was going on before the Second World War? Countries were competing with each other in that period as well. Nazi Germany, for example, was pursuing rapid population growth. How do these post-war ideas of growth tie back to this earlier time?

If you look at the discourses, before that time, there was a lot of talk about other goals such as full employment, the expansion of specific sectors or increasing the output of certain materials; there was talk about rising income. Broadly, the aims were similar, but governments measured it in very different ways: how much gold a country had, how much steel it produced, or whether there was full employment.

The key difference with the post-war period is they did not have statistical tools to gauge the wealth of a country in a single measure. Interestingly, from the late 1940s onwards, the idea takes hold that the government's main responsibility is to grow the economy.

So fast forward to today: the geopolitics of growth has now entered the phase of a race for clean technologies. Some expect this to speed up the green transition. What is your position?

Historically, you can distinguish growth cycles where various technologies were driving growth. People in industry and governments know that green growth offers the potential for another round of green growth; another phase of accumulation through investments in green technologies.

This is the opposite of degrowth. A transition predicated on competition for resources; for energy technology; for patents and growth, makes it much harder to achieve rapid decarbonisation on a global scale. From our perspective, a convergence of living standards makes more sense. So reducing energy and resource use in wealthy countries and increasing it in large parts of the Global South.

Europe, since the great financial crisis in 2008, has been on a pretty level growth path as it is. How does this impact your view of what needs to happen?

One of the critical challenges of the growth transition is that ordinary people rely on economic growth. The way they eat, how they transport themselves, what clothes they wear, their jobs, their income, their rents: everything people do depends on growth because if there is no economic growth, our economy goes into recession, which immediately translates into a social crisis.

Kind of a hard sell.

This is one of the key reasons there's a lot of scepticism in society against degrowth. It's important to say that degrowth doesn't aim for a capitalist recession but rather has to do with different ways to live to organise a society. One of the key proposals is to provide universal basic services to everyone, so to move basic services out of the markets which are dependent on economic growth and thus creating abundance independent of growth and its fluctuations.

So things like…

Internet, heating, housing, healthservices, increased access to food, and public transport—the things people need to flourish independent of their economic situation. This should be met by a reduction of private wealth. Obviously, this raises many complicated questions, but if we transform privatised systems based on waste and growth towards more collective provisioning systems, we can provide enough services for everyone using much less energy.

The key example here is transport: simply electrifying our SUVs will very likely not be the way to go for many reasons, probably most importantly because of resource constraints. A real alternative means that we shouldn't just change the engine of our cars but rather move towards a mostly collective transportation system, especially in cities.

Without growth, the economy goes into crisis, which has to do with how debts are structured. How to solve the issue of financial instability in a stable growth economy?

Key is debt cancellation, in particular in the Global South. And we need to transform the debt-based monetary system, which is so prone to blow up and needs growth to function.

Finally, we need capital control to prevent massive capital outflows when a crisis strikes. It's interesting to remember that in the post-war period, the Bretton Woods economic system relied on controlling international capital flows, which enabled a level of monetary autonomy in countries we don't have in the current system of floating exchange rates.

What are the hopeful developments here?

I am very much inspired by the Debt for Climate campaign, a transnational mobilisation with the Global South in the lead, which campaigns for debt cancellation. And I've been in action with them. We occupied the finance ministry in Berlin last October. And it's a very inspiring campaign.

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