‘Ecological and social transition will not happen under the banner of green growth’

‘Ecosocialism (including degrowth) is the way forward’

© Theo Beck

Jonas Van der Slycken, guest lecturer on sustainable development at the University of Antwerp: ‘I would have a degrowth scenario calculated alongside the existing scenarios for additional gas-fired power stations.’

Jonas Van der Slycken, guest lecturer on sustainable development and columnist for mo.be, where he writes articles on the topic, believes in an ecosocialism that says farewell to the growth economy. ‘Ecosocialism does not need to be as counter-hegemonic as the degrowth movement, but as system-changing.’

Jonas Van der Slycken is a guest lecturer on sustainable development at the University of Antwerp while also working as a coordinator to promote a sufficiency economy for De Transformisten, a Brussels-based non-profit organisation promoting a system change in society so that everyone can live well within the limits of people and planet.

In 2021, he obtained his doctorate at the Department of Economics (Ghent University) on alternative welfare indicators that move beyond GDP by taking into account welfare’s social and ecological aspects. He also writes articles on the matter for mo.be

Not surprisingly, Van der Slycken can identify with the ecosocialism that the Chairman of the Parti Socialiste (PS) in Belgium, Paul Magnette, launched in September. ‘Ecosocialism is the way forward. The big challenge today is to simultaneously reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, let people live well and tackle inequality through redistribution.’

Paul Magnette’s idea of free public transport immediately met with fierce resistance.

Nevertheless, it is not a silly idea. This concept is an integral part of Universal Basic Services, the services you need for your well-being, such as mobility, but also housing, education and health care. The government has an important role to play in order to steer the transition in the right direction. Nonetheless, for now, the PS, like the Green parties, is not distancing itself from the growth economy. Socialists traditionally favour the redistribution of productivity gains.

More high-quality, free public transport would mean fewer cardiovascular diseases and, in the long run, savings for our social security.

That redistribution of course brought enormous prosperity after the Second World War. Should we just abandon it?

The productivity gains are undeniable. But increased material affluence comes at a great cost. Take our extensive fleet of private and company cars. That brings affluence and consumption, for sure, but also leads to huge amounts of air pollution which in turn has a detrimental impact on our health, hospitals and social security. More high-quality, free public transport would mean fewer cardiovascular diseases and, in the long run, savings for our social security.

Where is the ecosocialist story as you envision it being told?

Bernie Sanders’ Green Deal is in line with it. It wants to roll out renewable energy capacity quickly and create jobs in a fair way. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party Manifesto 2019 was ecosocialist too. It was about more than just climate. It was also about investing in public services, democratising businesses, introducing a shorter working week, and so on.

Especially that shorter working week is an important battle point for well-being. Internationally, there is already a Wellbeing Economy Alliance, including Finland, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales and Iceland. Belgium could join it.

Is ecosocialism the same as degrowth?

There are many overlaps, but I see the degrowth movement more as a free space to think about policy proposals that could fit within ecosocialism. The advantage of degrowth is that its name allows it to connect to activist grassroots movements and therefore it will not be easily absorbed by capitalism, as happened in the past with parts of the feminist and ecological movements.

It would be good if the European Commission were to transform the Stability and Growth Pact into a Stability and Well-being Pact.

Does ecosocialism need to be revolutionary?

Ecosocialism does not need to be as counter-hegemonic as the degrowth movement, but as system-changing. The reason is that the ecological and social transition will not happen under the banner of green growth. The Green Deal of the European Commission is unfortunately a green growth story.

Climate activist Anuna De Wever calls the Green Deal’s targets, 55% fewer emissions by 2030 and carbon-neutrality by 2050, ‘ridiculous’. Isn’t that exaggerated, given the major shift in policy?

Indeed, the Green Deal means something compared to where we came from, but it is definitely too little compared to where we have to go. The Green Deal will not keep us below 1.5 degrees, not even below 2 degrees. From that point of view, I understand Anuna De Wever. The Green Deal could be more ambitious. It would be good if the European Commission were to transform the Stability and Growth Pact into a Stability and Well-being Pact.

That sounds like political fiction.

We are stuck in the growth system and that narrows our view of alternatives. But it can be done. Look at the mass mobilisation of the US during the Second World War. At that time, the government managed the transition of the industry toward a real war economy. Right now we can effectively tackle the social, climate and ecological crises with a comparable transformation.

The Green Deal envisages massive public investment, doesn’t it?

Certainly. But it does not escape from the logic of growth. An even more drastic turnaround is required at European level. We need to focus on universal basic services, invest in job guarantees for people working in the Green Deal economy and democratise the euro. The European Central Bank must put the money into circulation to make our economy run differently.

Ecosocialism fights poverty, but should it also fight wealth?

Extreme wealth is a problem from a democratic and social point of view, but equally from an ecological point of view. Luxury goods — such as (big) second homes, yachts and SUVs – use lots of resources.

What do you have in mind then?

A substantial tax on wealth. It would be good if the word billionaire disappeared from our vocabulary. A 90% tax rate for the highest incomes, as was common in the US in the 1950s, could also reduce inequality. We could decide socially, through a citizens’ parliament, how much wealth is enough.

The Austrian economist Christian Felber estimated a socially determined maximum income. He arrived at a factor of 10 compared to the minimum income. In other words, you should not earn more in one month than someone else earns in one year.

This makes perfect sense from a well-being viewpoint since income no longer contributes to happiness beyond a certain threshold. And extreme material consumption is not interesting from a well-being perspective either.

We can perfectly ban advertising for polluting products. In the Amsterdam metro there is no advertising for fossil fuels.

Are people willing to step into a story of consuming less?

“If there are good basic social provisioning systems and more time for the aspects of life that really matter, yes. It is important to provide these goods collectively. A general reduction in working hours, measured in terms of the current GDP, would result in less growth. But if there are more public services in return, you have well-being benefits and create time-rich lifestyles and sufficiency mindsets of having enough and that didn’t exist before.”

Material consumption is also driven by advertising. How do we tackle that?

We can perfectly ban advertising for polluting products. In the Amsterdam metro there is no advertising for fossil fuels. In Grenoble you have no advertising in public spaces at all. Perhaps it would be interesting for a Belgian city to do the same?

In addition to ecosocialism, is ecosyndicalism needed?

There is an important role for trade unions in the climate struggle and also for the ecological movement in the social fight. There is still work to be done here. The environmental movement needs to be more concerned with fair wages and taxation, while trade unions need to focus more on ecological aspects, to let go of the growth economy and focus more on the transformative rather than the reformist. In reducing working hours, they already share a vital common demand.

So they can find each other?

Absolutely. The environmental and labour movements can build a lot of counter-power together. They share the same agenda: a fair tax system, a better distribution of wages and work, more attention to unpaid work, the development of good public services, a job guarantee, a hard cap on fossil fuels, a carbon border tax, and so on.

With which parties can the transition be achieved?

In the first place Vooruit, Groen, PVDA and part of CD&V [these are respectively the Socialists, Greens, Marxists and Christian-Democrats in Flanders]. Even though all of these parties still run into the current system’s growth imperative and against political opponents, such as the Liberals, for whom higher taxes remain taboo.

A frequent flyer tax would have been more equitable than the airline tax for flights of less than 500 kilometers.

However, it is nonsense to be pinned down to an average figure for the “tax burden”. What is more important is what we do with the revenues. Today, the Belgian government provides 13 billion euros annually in subsidies for fossil fuels. That can no longer be justified.

The Belgian budget agreement has now decided that the tax benefit for diesel for the transport sector will be phased out.

In the light of the bigger picture, this is too little.

Isn’t the aviation tax for flights of less than 500 kilometres a good thing?

That as well is a small adjustment to a hugely twisted situation. The aviation tax is totally disproportionate compared to global CO₂ emissions. Moreover, imposing a tax on all tickets is socially unjust. In 2018, 1% of the world’s population was responsible for half of the emissions from aviation.

A frequent flyer tax would have been more just. Now, rail traffic under 500 kilometres might be affected, but the slots of Brussels National Airport will not change. Short-haul flights will simply be replaced by long-haul flights. From an ecological point of view, that is no improvement.

So what should be done?

It is better to put a hard cap, a limit, on the aviation sector. There is still too much emphasis on price incentives to adjust demand. It is better to adjust the supply side. If you put a hard cap on the total amount of fossil fuel that is allowed to enter the economy, we can phase it out year after year and achieve zero emissions within 10 or 15 years. You really need that hard cap. Rather than tinkering prices.

Because then you’ll get yellow vests?

The rich will pay those taxes with a smile. By focusing more on supply of public services such as public transport, and not so much on adjusting the price, you avoid price increases that hit people in poverty and, as a result, you will get less political resistance to climate policy.

Meanwhile, there is also fierce debate about the nuclear power plants that must close in 2025. Green nuclear energy is gaining support every day.

Techno-illusionism is a typical strategy of climate delay. People have been talking about nuclear fusion for years. It would solve everything, but it is still not there. We also hear a lot about the world’s largest factory in Iceland that extracts CO₂ from the air, even though such things are completely disproportionate to what is needed. They are tactics of distraction to avoid talking about what is needed: fast and drastic emission reductions. We must ask ourselves: who benefits from these dangerous fantasies?

I would have a degrowth scenario calculated alongside the existing scenarios for additional gas-fired power stations.

The tricky thing in this story are the gas power plants that are seen as a transitional fuel and that emit a lot of CO₂. Is it a good thing that Flemish Energy Minister Zuhal Demir (N-VA) is refusing to license some gas plants?

Her decision is right in some cases – if there is a national park nearby, the nitrogen problem there will worsen. Of course, it is partly also a deliberate policy to sabotage the federal government and Groen, and to greenwash N-VA as ecological. But this is a red herring that diverts attention from the climate killers that the Flemish government is pushing: the Oosterweel project and Ineos Project One in the Antwerp harbour. Not to mention the toxic PFAS saga.

The federal government calculates that we need 2 to 3 large gas plants to maintain security of electricity supply. Agreed?

I doubt that. The capacity is estimated too high. The question is also about whether we should subsidise those gas plants. If they are used to run oil refineries in the port of Antwerp, that’s just insanity. We would better use those subsidies for a just transition. We can have a good life with less consumption of energy and electricity. Therefore, I would have a degrowth scenario calculated alongside the existing scenarios for additional gas-fired power stations.

Then the new gas power plants are not needed at all?

Exactly. Do we need an economy that runs at full capacity at all times? If there is an energy security problem in the winter, we might as well introduce a number of energy holidays. That fits perfectly with the story of the shorter working week.

Change the system to save the climate?

Also the system of company cars could be tackled by allowing employees to choose between an electric car and shorter working hours – now that phasing out company cars altogether via higher gross salaries does not appear to be an option. It is never easy to phase out privileges, but perhaps we can do it this way. I am convinced that many highly skilled workers would then choose to work less and live the good life.

This interview first appeared in Samenleving & Politiek, Jaargang 28, 2021, nr. 9 (november), page 14 to 19.

Jonas Van der Slycken (born at 354.93 ppm CO2) works at De Transformisten on an economy of enough that allows everyone to live a good life within planetary limits. This academic year he is a guest lecturer in sustainable development in the master’s in environmental sciences at the University of Antwerp.

He obtained a doctorate in economic sciences at Ghent University in 2021, immersed himself in ecological economics and degrowth during two summer schools in Barcelona and followed a postgraduate course in energy and climate.

He is co-founder of Rethinking Economics Ghent and has previously written pieces that appeared in MO*, De Standaard, Knack.be, Apache, think tank Minerva, Sampol, Oikos, Arbeid & Milieu and DeWereldMorgen.

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