It is an insight we can no longer ignore: the economy cannot keep growing on a finite planet. The illusion of infinite growth disrupted the natural processes that provided a stable living environment, with ever more frequent heat waves, forest fires, hurricanes, and floods worldwide. And although the Global South is and will be hurt the most – which makes the ecological meltdown a global justice challenge of the first order – it is an illusion that rich countries in the Global North are or will be untouched. In Belgium, people died due to climate-related water bombs and the consequent flooding. In Germany, four out of five trees in the forests are sick due to consecutive extremely hot and dry summers, and what today is considered extreme, could become the new normal.
But Prosperity without Growth, as British professor Tim Jackson described it in his eponymous bestseller more than a decade ago, is still difficult for many economists and opinion makers to conceive, as it contradicts the dominant thinking. And yet, thinking and acting beyond growth – call it degrowth or postgrowth – is just what we need for a viable future. It is a positive vision of the future that seeks to drastically reduce the throughput of energy and materials, which would allow everyone on earth the prospect of a good life within planetary boundaries. Perhaps the biggest source of resistance to this future lies in the fact that it goes head-on against vested interests and power relations. Especially oil and gas companies have an awful track record of financing lobby groups to poison the public debate and discredit climate scientists. And as researchers have shown, there are also other types of climate delayers, like those betting on technologies that don’t yet exist. So, it is important that degrowth proposals, like the one developed below, are part of a difficult but necessary uphill battle.
A degrowth economy requires types of economic institutions whose goal is to seek to meet people’s needs, rather than today’s corporations with their focus on growth and competitiveness, short-term profits, and shareholder interests. This requires a thorough rethinking of how we organise society.
A first recalibration is the revaluation of universal basic services. Most known examples are public services, such as public transport, necessary to achieve a sustainable mobility system. But citizens organising themselves in so-called commons (also described as institutions for collective action) can also play a crucial role in building a future-oriented economy. Commons are a group of citizens who together carefully manage or produce a good. It is a way of organising that is centuries old and is now re-emerging everywhere. Think of citizens who jointly manage a piece of land, realise a co-housing project together, or set up an energy cooperative because they want to produce green electricity themselves, each time considering care for each other and the planet crucial. Commons as an essential way of organising was for a long time put aside as futile, until the American scholar Elinor Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her decades of study of commons worldwide. As our political institutions are relatively young, the commons can thrive for centuries if designed properly.
A strong example is energy cooperatives, which citizens have been establishing for the last two decades all over Europe. For the most part, they use their own windmills to produce electricity directly for their members, making them much less dependent on the vagaries of the energy market. This proved extremely important last year when the energy market in the European Union became totally dysfunctional. Citizens had to pay skyrocking energy bills while energy companies made more profit than ever. The figures are outrageous: The five biggest energy corporations – Shell, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, cashed in record-high profits of €141 billion in 2022.
Energy cooperatives function in many ways totally different from “normal” corporations. They, for instance, don’t want to sell more and more of their product. On the contrary, they inform and concretely encourage their members to consume as little electricity as possible. This means the economic governance model is categorically different from traditional energy corporations, which want to sell as much energy as possible to satisfy their shareholders on the stock market. To make this argument concrete, I use the example of the biggest Belgian energy cooperative: Ecopower. As Ecopower informs and stimulates its members to take measures to reduce their energy demand, the average electricity consumption of an Ecopower family is more than 40 percent lower than that of an average Belgian family. Community cooperatives like Ecopower also invest part of the profits in their local community. Instead of the dominant extractive economy, which removes the produced surplus value from a place or community, this is a strong example of a generative economy, which generates various forms of surplus value for the community.
And next to energy cooperatives, citizens are involved in the needed transition to sustainable energy. A research paper recently published in Nature counted more than 10.000 initiatives that, in total, involve more than two million people in Europe. The researchers write that they “find strong evidence for the historical, emerging, and actual importance of citizen-led collective action to the European energy transition”.
A crucial contribution of commons is that they – in the words of the sociologist Karl Polanyi – are examples of partly decommodification and re-embedding of the economy in social norms. They are so-called prefigurative practices, as they show how it is possible to take parts of the existing economy out of the growth-addicted market society. You can observe these initiatives also in agriculture, with citizen initiatives taking farmland out of the speculative market. They start foundations that buy farmland and then make it available to organic farmers. This is crucial as the latter invest a lot of time and energy year after year in improving soil quality. It is therefore vital that this farmed land does not revert to agribusiness. Or consider the example of housing cooperatives, which take buildings out of the crazy housing market and guarantee their members housing security for the rest of their lives at an affordable price.
The good news about this range of examples is that it shows that [CITAAT]we already have the new types of businesses we need to build an economy that fits within the planet’s boundaries while striving for a good life for all.[EINDE CITAAT] And as citizens increasingly shape this new economy themselves, the question politicians invariably ask – is there support for the socio-ecological transition? – can be answered in the affirmative. Commons are usually established in the juridical form of ethical cooperatives – which include internal democratic decision-making and a cap on profit distribution – and can form the basis for restructuring entire economic sectors. Governments can support this turnaround by, for example, providing fiscal support to ethical cooperatives. This would also be a logical choice, as these companies add value to society in various ways.
Of course, all this also requires a cultural shift, not least in economic thinking and how that permeates society. For decades, economic thinking has been dominated by neoliberal dogmas, such as Milton Friedman’s thesis, who wrote in the 1970s that the social responsibility of companies is only to make more profit. Meanwhile, with ecosystems on the verge of collapse and staggering inequality, reality tells a different story. The new economy we need has the first task of meeting the basic needs of everyone, within the limits of the planet. That requires an economy that, instead of producing more and more and fueling consumption, wants to care for people and the web of life they are part of. That means restoring ecosystems and ensuring we make our economy really sustainable. All in all, the good news is that citizens are already establishing and expanding the new types of businesses we need to build a postgrowth economy.
This article is part of the publication ‘Imaging Europe Beyond Growth’, a co-production of he European Environmental Bureau, Think Oikos and the Green European Journal, in the context of the Beyond Growth conference organized by the European Parliament from 15-17 May 2023.
 Julia Dahm (2023). Four in five German trees are ‘sick’. EURACTIV. Available at <https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/news/four-in-five-german-trees-are-sick/>.
 William F. Lamb et al (2020). “Discourses of climate delay”. Global Sustainability, Vol. 3, E17. Available at <https://doi.org/10.1017/sus.2020.13>.
 Dirk Holemans (2022). “Commons as Polanyian countermovement in neoliberal market society. A case study in Belgium”. Community Development Journal, Vol. 57/3, July 2022, pp. 552-569. Available at <https://doi.org/10.1093/cdj/bsab007>.
 Valeria Jana Schwanitz et al (2023). “Statistical evidence for the contribution of citizen-led initiatives and projects to the energy transition in Europe”. Scientific Reports, Vol. 13, 1342. Available at <https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-28504-4>.
 Dirk Holemans (2020). Emancipation in the Neoliberal Era: Rethinking Transition with Karl Polanyi. Green European Journal, 11 March 2020. Available at <https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/emancipation-in-the-neoliberal-era-rethinking-transition-with-karl-polanyi/>.