Denmark’s political alternative

Source: DR
Source: DR

by Rune Wingaard

The Danish political party the Alternative (Alternativet) was officially established in November 2013 and was elected into Parliament in 2015 with 9 seats and 4,9 percent of the total votes. The party’s main goals are to achieve a ’serious sustainable transition’, a new political culture and better conditions for entrepreneurship. The Alternative is critical towards pursuit of economic growth as a primary goal for policy makers and aspire to a new understanding of progress.

The Alternative is aware of the existence of a number of relevant indicators for sustainable progress, yet we have not found one that is considered politically applicable. For example, the ‘five headline indicators for progress’ by the New Economics Foundation is compelling but we find the five headlines to be too complex to communicate to the public in the hyped speed of contemporary media.

Many Danes respond positively when we talk about economic, social, and ecological sustainability, and we wanted our indicator for progress to include these concepts. Accordingly, we decided to have one headline indicator for each type of sustainability in order to make it easily understandable.

We are still in a developing phase of our indicator, but it seems we will decide on the following: Economic sustainability is improving when the rate of employment on collective agreement terms and self-employed increases. The rate of employment has a significant impact on the public budget, so it is a key indicator to the health of the economy. Additionally, we want quality jobs and strong labour unions, hence we decided to only include jobs on collective agreement terms. Social sustainability is measured by improvements in economic inequality in terms of the income difference between the top 20 and the bottom 20 percent of the population. Research has found equal societies to have fewer social and health problems, so equality is a very important indicator of the well-being of citizens. Ecological sustainability is measured by the degree to which the Danish CO2-emissions are declining at a tempo where Denmark makes a fair contribution to securing the internationally agreed goal of avoiding more than 2 percent increases in global temperatures and aim at a 1,5 increase up till 2100. Climactic changes are likely the gravest danger to modern society and CO2 emissions are therefore a relevant indicator for ecological sustainability.

Our general idea is that the main indicators for economic, social, and ecological sustainability have to be positive if we are to propose a policy in Parliament. If we are to vote for a policy proposal from another political party, at least two indicators must be positive, and optimally all three. We will be able to communicate this very clearly to the public and be accountable with regards to these indicators of sustainability.

We are aware of the fact that many other indicators are needed for serious sustainable development. Therefore, each of these indicators will be supplemented with second-level indicators relevant to their area. Economic supplementary indicators could be job employment measured by gender and other ethnic background, job stability, job satisfaction, balance of payments and ratio of private investments to private savings. Social supplementary indicators could be happiness, children’s wellbeing, mental wellbeing, social trust, quality of health care, health inequality, inequality in wealth and income inequalities between gender and for ethnic minorities. Ecological supplementary indicators could be biodiversity, air quality, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, resource consumption and so forth. The supplementary indicators are considered important, and if a significant number of them are deteriorating or improving, this can affect our attitude towards a specific proposal.

We will decide on the main indicators shortly, and we will ask ecological sustainability experts to help us decide which supplementary indicators are relevant to their field. We will also host what we call political laboratories where we will invite citizens, experts and our own members to discuss the details of our new indicator for progress. This is in accordance with our vision on a new political culture with more democratic bottom-up processes.

We have discussed whether we should follow the headline indicator for New Economic Foundation’s indicator on ‘good jobs’. This includes the amount of the population with a secure job above the ‘living wage’. We are currently in favour of using the more simplistic percentage of the population with a job on collective agreement terms (and self-employed), since we wanted the indicator to be as simple and easy to communicate as possible.

If we vote for our own or a proposal by another political party in Parliament and the proposal passes, we can go to the media and evaluate whether the policy is improving the three main indicators for sustainability. If so, we can argue that it increases triple bottom line sustainability. When we participate in longer discussions we can discuss to which degree the policy improves or deteriorates relevant supplementary indicators.

Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

We find this to be an accountable and transparent way of communicating with the public and participating in the political process. It matters to citizens whether new jobs are created and inequality and CO2-emissions are reduced. Also, we hope this approach can raise awareness of a triple bottom line understanding of sustainability in the public.

So is degrowth needed to ensure climate justice?

It is highly likely, but to us this is not the key question of our time. Whether or not GDP increases is less relevant, the central goal is to ensure economic, social, and ecological sustainability. Our indicator does not include GDP as we want to measure what really matters in relation to the wellbeing of mankind and nature. The public policy must be centered on achieving these goals and can only be successful via an intelligent cooperation with the private sector, civil society, and international actors.

Mother Teresa once said: “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

The Alternative wants to communicate as clearly as possible that we are for a sustainable development rather than against growth, as we find this inspires and resonates deeper with the public.

Naturally, the main institutions of the current economic model will have to be reformed in order to ensure a serious sustainable development. Therefore, the Alternative proposes reforms of the financial sector, lower working hours, an ecological tax reform, increased investments in green research and infrastructure, more redistribution, increased financial transfers from the developed to the developing world partly focused on climate change mitigation and adaption, and a slowdown of the massive subsidies for conventional agriculture and the fossil fuel industry.

Rune Wingaard has a Masters degree in social science and international development studies from Roskilde University, where he also works and teaches economics, politics and quantitative methods. He is part of the Economic Council of the Danish political party the Alternative and is very engaged in co-creating a transition towards a much more sustainable, just and thriving society.

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The growthocene

Degrowth demonstration, Leipzig, 2014. Source: Wikimedia.

 

by Ekaterina Chertkovskaya and Alexander Paulsson

Lately there has been a rising interest in degrowth – an umbrella term that critiques the centrality of economic growth in our societies and embraces various alternatives for ecological sustainability and social justice (see Kallis et al., 2015). This interest is shared not only by the proponents of degrowth, but also its critics, who often support many of the ideas behind degrowth, but have reservations about using the term.

It seems to us that these reservations at least to some extent arise from economic growth itself being an ambiguous and contested concept. For example, Kate Raworth suggests that it is not clear whether degrowth refers to the decrease of the economy’s biophysical throughput or its monetary value, measured in GDP, and argues that the difference matters. Or, John Bellamy Foster proposes that it is important to argue not “for degrowth in the abstract, but more concretely for deaccumulation – a transition away from a system geared to the accumulation of capital without end.”

These reservations about degrowth point to the need to clarify what growth traps to avoid when making a transition to sustainable degrowth. In what follows, we articulate three ways of understanding growth that should be challenged by degrowth: first, reliance on biophysical throughput; second, capital accumulation and productivism more generally; and third, the perpetual strive for quantitative expansion of national economies (measured in GDP). We also propose that growthocene can be a suitable way to characterise the epoch we live in, broadening the notion of capitalocene while opposing the now mainstream notion of anthropocene.

 

Biophysical throughput

Economies across the world rely on growth of biophysical throughput, which has led to severe ecological consequences for Earth and its ecosystems. In contrast, degrowth would involve descaling biophysical throughput. This critique of growth has been partially integrated into the mainstream discourse, as captured by the notion of anthropocene. However, this concept is deeply problematic as it suggests that all human beings are responsible for the ecological crisis. Differences related to class, gender, race, geopolitics or economic systems themselves are glossed over or totally disregarded.

While renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice.

Green economy has become a buzzword that is often suggested as a solution to the world’s ecological problems, whether by the left or right. Such an economy, however, is neither sustainable nor just because it focuses on incorporating (supposedly) green solutions into the economy with all its flaws and divisions rather than changing the economy itself. For example, the economic valuation of nature is green only on paper, in reality, it enables continuous ecological destruction and the appropriation of local governance (see Kill, 2015).

And while renewables are of course an important way forward, the transition to them does not automatically lead to sustainability or justice. For instance, in Brazil, the way the shift to renewable energy is implemented—on top of challenging the biodiversity of the Amazon—often threatens the very way of being of indigenous communities and the livelihoods sustained and inhabited by them (e.g. as the case of Munduruku Indians demonstrates).

So in striving for sustainability and justice, degrowth goes beyond the question of biophysical throughput and the physical limits of our planet. It would need to involve challenging the problematic and potentially harmful solutions positioned as ‘green’, such as the carbon and biodiversity markets or nuclear energy. This also would also require problematising how these proposals have been promoted under appealing banners like ‘inclusivity’, ‘poverty reduction’ and ‘development’. Therefore, it is crucial to ask questions like: ‘what is at risk?’; ‘who benefits and who loses from the proposed solutions?’. Pushing this line of thinking further, we must also ask what societal divisions, injustices and inequalities are maintained, reproduced or enforced by such policy proposals.

 

Capital accumulation and productivism

This brings us to challenging growth understood as capital accumulation. Not only are the conditions under which capital accumulation occurs demarcated by class, gender, race, and other divisions, but when surpluses are reinvested in the economy, these divisions become amplified. As has been powerfully observed by a broad spectrum of critical theories, such as anarchism, feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial thought, the strive for surplus accumulation relies on maintaining injustices and inequalities. Some of this critique has been captured by the notion of capitalocene, which suggests that capitalism, and not all humanity, is responsible for the ecological and also social problems we are facing (see Haraway, 2015; Malm, 2015; Moore, 2014).

The popular slogan ‘system change not climate change’, then, should imply not only a systemic change in the way we deal with climate or ecology, but in the very way our societies are organised. Degrowth also problematises these forms of accumulation, including, commodified consumption with a ‘sustainable’ or community-oriented appearance. For example, the notion of the sharing economy often commodifies social and communal spaces and depends on  precarious labour conditions (see also Schor, 2014).

While capitalocene is a powerful idea to understand ecological and social problems without decoupling them, it does not capture the whole picture. For example, it struggles with how to grapple with the environmental history of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, whose economic systems, too, had devastating ecological and social consequences. Industrial production was the key driving logic for organising these economies, if not in shaping their entire societies.

It is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself.

Therefore, it is important to challenge not only capital accumulation, but more broadly productivism, that is, the growth of production as desirable in itself. Apart from industrial production, this includes many other forms of production found in contemporary economies, such as production of information, knowledge, technology, and services.

However, it is also crucial to note that challenging productivism does not suggest descaling of all production as there are different types, ways, consequences and understandings of it. For example, it would be desirable to see more permaculture as a sustainable production practice in agriculture. Or the expansion of initiatives like platform cooperativism—as opposed to the ‘sharing economy’—would also be appealing to many.

In line with the argument that has been presented so far, we suggest using the notion of growthocene – i.e. the strive for perpetual growth—consisting of reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation and productivism more generally—to describe the epoch we live in and the ecological and social problems we are facing. Degrowth, then, captures both the conditions and the consequences of the growthocene.

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Kto-kogo ? Dognat’ i peregnat’ [Translation: Who will (beat) whom? To catch up and overtake]. Soviet Poster, 1919-1930. Source: National Library of Scotland.

Quantitative expansion of national economies as measured in GDP

The perpetual striving for quantitative expansion of national economies is in line with prioritising production as desirable in itself, which is part of the growthocene. The assumption underlying this ideology is that quantitative expansion automatically leads to an increase in prosperity. Based on this assumption, GDP is being used as the dominant measure of the monetary value of national economies. It was introduced as a tool for the US government to deal with the Great Depression and then to plan production during the Second World War, but eventually became the central measure of almost every nation’s progress.

While degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity.

GDP and other similar measures, on top of being inadequate indicators of prosperity, have had problematic consequences. First, they produced a norm, which allowed countries with lower national incomes to be ‘analysed and framed in a way that suited their assumed future compliance with the industrialized model’ (Speich, 2011: 19). Second, gearing crucial public institutions—such as education and healthcare—towards increasing GDP has made them more exclusive and subordinated their core functions to economic demands.

So while degrowth is not aimed at shrinking GDP or the monetary value of the economy, we would also like to stress that degrowth should not be evaluated in light of GDP and similar measures as these are essentially flawed indicators of prosperity. GDP has been convincingly criticised by many scholars already (e.g. Fioramonti, 2013), but, due to its hegemonic status, this remains part of the task of degrowth as well.

Toward the notion of growthocene

To sum up, striving for growth – or the growthocene – is manifested in reliance on growth of biophysical throughput, continuous capital accumulation, and productivism more generally. Hence degrowth can be understood as descaling of biophysical throughput, deaccumulation and anti-productivism, and aimed at bringing together the alternatives that fit these principles.

Such an understanding does not decouple ecological and social problems. It acknowledges that capitalism bears a large share of the responsibility, but is not the only system that has led to the problems we face today. It also highlights that productivism itself is part of the problem and hence cautions against proposing solutions rooted in its logic.

A version of this article has been published in the blog of ENTITLE, a network of European Political Ecologists.

Ekaterina Chertkovskaya is part of the degrowth theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies and the Sustainability, Ecology and Economy research group at the School of Economics and Management, both at Lund University. She is also a member of the editorial collective of ephemera journal.

Alexander Paulsson is part of the degrowth theme at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies and the Sustainability, Ecology and Economy research group at the School of Economics and Management, both at Lund University. He is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Swedish Knowledge Centre For Public Transport.