The thought that we can have human progress without constant economic growth is absolute nonsense for most political and business decision-makers. And their scepticism is understandable. Look at what negative growth has brought about over the last 18 months in terms of people losing their jobs or houses and governments blowing up their financial deficits.

That said, the debate about limits to economic growth and the “post-growth” economy for the developed world is re-igniting. There was a similar debate in the 1970s but it had very little impact on the traditional narrative of societal progress. Now, with the climate crisis, new resource scarcity and other unsustainable trends (biodiversity, water, soil, food), the issue is back on the table, although not yet seriously on the political agenda. Only a “narrower” debate about the measuring of economic growth has reached some policy-makers (the EU’s “GDP and beyond”, the Stiglitz-Sen report for French President Sarkozy and the OECD project “Measuring the progress of societies”).

There are some new developments though which indicate that the subject might become a political hot potato in the next years, especially if the current economic crisis might go into a second round and our developed economies find it hard to get back to 3% GDP growth figures and more.

  • In France, there is a strong movement of “décroissance” (de-growth) which gets regular attention even in established media like Le Monde.
  • In the UK, the Sustainable Development Commission last year published an excellent study “Prosperity without growth?”, questioning the traditional “green economy” narrative of “decoupling economic growth from its resource use and environmental impacts”.
  • Last week, the British New Economic Foundation came out with another, even more radical report which asserts that “Growth isn’t possible” .
  • And, last but not least, in an interview with The Ecologist, Deutsche Bank senior economist Pavan Sukhdev says: “I do believe society can get better, people can get happier and economies can get more robust whilst not actually increasing GDP, production or growing in the classical way”.

Unfortunately, at EU-level, these new stories about future prosperity and the REAL transformative agenda are seriously absent from the EU-2020 Post-Lisbon strategy debate.