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Discussing Degrowth with Giorgos Kallis

Questioning some concepts in the name of the planet.

We met Giorgos Kallis during Barcelona’s Universidad Pompeu Fabra’s Sustainability Walk last June. In a memorable fireside chat, we tried to find together the leading paths towards sustainable cities. The least we can say is that we were impressed with the articulate argument Dr. Kallis put forward in favour of degrowth and alternatives mean to economic and social welfare. To be fair, he also wrote a book  (Columbia University Press) about these concepts. To push our conversation further, we sent him a few questions right off the bat. If you were confident in your economic concepts, now is the time to put your goggles and fasten your seatbelt. Giorgos Kallis might knock a couple out of the park.

Giorgos, you are an environmental scientist working on ecological economics and political ecology. Tell us a bit more about what that means and what you are researching at the moment.

I am looking at the conditions under which an economy can be stable without growth. I am also interested on the politics of limits, that is how and under what conditions a social force could emerge that would institute the new limits that we need – limits in our use of fossil fuels, limits in our destruction of biodiversity, limits to inequality.

How do you define ecological economics and political ecology and why is this important?

Ecological economics is an economy where matter matters. Mainstream economics sees the economy as a flow of money, we see it as a flow of energy and matter. Political ecology looks at power relations and injustices in the distribution of environmental goods and bads – who wins and who loses from environmental change, and how can we change this?

Rice fields, palm trees and human settlement illustrate the integration of all live systems
Where does the frontier between human and natural assets lie? How can we integrate their value to our understanding of politics and economy?

Developing new economics is vital since the current economics dominates public discourse and is failing us badly. Thinking also of ecological issues in political terms, and looking at power relations, is important, as opposed to thinking that environmental problems are just technical or market problems.

What is the link between growth and the environment? Are they necessarily negatively correlated?

Yes, they are. Growth as we know it, and until we see something different, is directly linked to the extraction of resources and disposal of waste. There is a lot of wishful thinking that we could have some sort of immaterial growth based on some abstract, weightless form of ‘value’, but this is, and is likely to remain a fantasy. Economies based on services consume more resources than conventional, industrial economies. You cannot make money out of thin air (actually you can, but only for a while before it catches up with you).

What is degrowth? Why this name?

First a foremost a critique of the ideology of economic growth, an invitation to liberate ourselves from the pursuit of growth, hence the ‘de’. Then also a hypothesis that we can live well and prosper without economic growth and with much less resource use.

Snails on a leaf
Degrowth’s totem animal is the slug. Does that mean they want to live sluggish lives? Not quite. Who said snails were unhappy?

Do you think that degrowth can be a large-scale solution for the world to solve the climate crisis, or more largely the Anthropocene crisis?

I think it is the only way. Whether it is politically possible though is a different question. As scientists, of course, we cannot constrain ourselves to what seems politically correct, we have to say what is true.

In case you wanted to watch (again) our full-length conversation in Barcelona

How do you fuse natural sciences and social sciences into one nexus? What are the biggest challenge and the biggest advantage of this method?

You can fuse them by understanding as well as you can both. But by doing a little bit of each, you can’t be as good as if you were going to do each one separately. This is the cost of interdisciplinary research. You gain something in relevance and breadth, but you lose something in depth.

What do you think is the single greatest socio-political factor of environmental degradation?

Capitalism. As long as money has to be invested to produce more and more money, more and more resources will need to be mobilized. As long as we need to invent new consumption to absorb this growing production, we will keep wasting resources. And as long as there are the super-rich and the super-poor, we will never settle with enough.

Barcelona anarquista y anticapitalista ocupa y resiste
A squat in Barcelona that does not believe that capitalism is the answer.

What is a finding that you thought was counter-intuitive and instrumental to understand environmental conservation?

That paying for ecosystem services in many contexts might lead to degrading rather than protecting ecosystems. If people were taking care of a forest, for one or the other reason, and then you pay them to do it, then next time they are to do it they will ask for money, and if you don’t have to pay them, then probably they won’t protect it.

Read also on the Academy: A Deep Dive into Ecosystem Services

What message would you like to pass to the people who want to change the way we think about sustainability? Where do we go from here?

Try to think out of the box, and by this, I don’t mean try to fantasize about technologies that don’t exist, or wishfully think that capitalism will magically change its ways after three centuries. Rather try to imagine that society and institutions can change. If there is one sure message from history is that societies do change, for better or for worse. Changes are imperceptible when they happen, but they do happen. Try to make yourself part of the change, and not part of those who sustain the status quo by reproducing fanciful but ultimately impossible myths.  

Giorgos Kallis is an environmental scientist working on ecological economics and political ecology. Before coming to Barcelona, he was a Marie Curie International Fellow at the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California at Berkeley. Giorgos holds a PhD in Environmental Policy and Planning from the University of the Aegean in Greece, a Masters in Economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and a Masters in Environmental Engineering and a Bachelors in Chemistry from Imperial College, London.

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