24th Sep 2023

A credible future beyond growth has to be feminist

  • Women and the value of nature are systematically excluded from what is considered productive in national economies (Photo: Moises Gonzalez)
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Measures of economic success are both inherently sexist and unsustainable. The reality of climate injustice and discriminatory gender practices can no longer be ignored.

Precisely as the 2023 Beyond Growth Conference gears up for the construction of a policy shift towards a more sustainable and just Europe, our message is clear: economic, social and environmental sustainability and justice must be profoundly feminist.

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Women and the value of nature are systematically excluded from what is considered productive in national economies. The almighty GDP as a measure to gauge a country's prosperity is a misleading measuring stick.

Since its creation in the backdrop of the Great Depression and of World War Two, it has been used so ubiquitously that its very origin as an entirely artificial construct to track war-time activity is often forgotten.

In the eyes of its conceivers, neither care-giving nor volunteering or communities were deemed relevant for the score-based metric of an economy that devalues anything stereotypically associated with women and upholds a deep-seated culture of inequality.

This is even more ridiculous considering that certain national GDP statistics actually do calculate black market dealings such as drug sales, prostitution and illegal trade of natural resources or weapons.

This makes it perfectly clear that conventional economic measures treat human life and natural resources simply as means to doctor some abstract numbers, even if this fosters inequality, war and environmental degradation.

The two crises of the last years further underline the absurdity of this system. The Covid-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine brought extraordinary suffering but also triggered unprecedented waves of solidarity in European societies. The selfless work of volunteers combined with political decisions that contravened the profit-maximising principles of the market have saved lives and helped avert many disaster scenarios.

Still, the GDP numbers failed to reflect any of this — they remained a vestige of an alternative reality guided by simplistic economic models, reflecting how much more economic value could have been created if we turned a blind eye to destruction.

The real wealth of nations is not merely financial but includes the contributions of people and our natural environment, argues political scientist Riane Eisler. The work of trailblazing economists such as Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) can be a guide to meet human needs within planetary boundaries.

Women's invisible work

Half of the world's work is unpaid, and women carry out most of it. According to estimates, activities like cooking, cleaning, collecting food or caring for children and the elderly may be valued at up to 60 percent of GDP.

As care-giving is often unrecognised, many women are forced into unwanted unemployment or part-time work. Not to mention that caregiving comes at a significant human cost: across all EU countries, on average about half of care workers declare emotional strains, 38 percent are exhausted most or all the time after work and 30 percent feel their work impacts their health negatively.

As underlined by economist Jayati Ghosh in a FEPS-FES study, the misallocation of precarious care work — resulting all too often from cultural norms and lack of public services rather than choice — is not just unfair but also clearly inefficient, given the great potential it could have to contribute to the economy, human wellbeing and social development.

Gross National Happiness?

When we discuss in the European Parliament how to go beyond growth, we should be careful not to repeat old mistakes. Policies falling short of support for the essential work of caregiving can no longer be tolerated. Beyond growth policies that are not feminist risk adding inequality to existing inequalities if they do not focus on quality, on nature, on education and on the underlying social economy and biodiversity that make our world possible in the first place.

Reducing gender imbalances in unpaid work is already included in the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals specifically identifying the need to recognise and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and family. Yet, we are still far from reaching this goal.

To guide us in our endeavour to be successful as a society, there is a long history of alternative indicators, such as the Index for Sustainable Welfare (ISEW) and the Social Wealth Index (SWI) that include both care work and the environment in their metrics.

The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) builds on criteria such as health, education, leisure and sustainability.

Likewise, the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index measures the collective happiness of a nation through a set of nine domains (psychological wellbeing, material wellbeing, good governance, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity, balances time use, ecological diversity).

The recent experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine triggered new policies — to a significant extent under the lead of progressive women — centring on social and environmental wellbeing, notably with greater investments in public health, the reduction of air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions or biodiversity conservation.

These have thus joined the wellbeing economy alliance to advance their shared ambitions, which is supported by a growing group of academic researchers, civil society organisations and concerned citizens.

We must seize the moment for a paradigm shift and reorganise our societies and economies, away from a GDP-driven model of growth towards a post-growth approach that is people-centred, care-focused and respects the environment, acknowledging that human and planetary health are two sides of the same coin.

In the face of rising uncertainties, we need resilient and multi-stakeholder alliances to collectively construct our joint paths towards a more sustainable, humane, socially just — and therefore inherently feminist — Europe.

Author bio

Evelyn Regner is an S&D MEP and vice-president of the European Parliament. Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield is a Green/EFA MEP and board member of the Green European Foundation. This op-ed was drafted with the support of the respective European political foundations FEPS (Foundation for European Progressive Studies) and GEF (Green European Foundation).


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