Faced with the environmental crisis, a political economist wants economic activity, growth and consumption to be reconsidered | D+C


Societies and economic systems need to be transformed towards greater sustainability and resource efficiency. This is the greatest challenge facing humanity. Experts offer various solutions. German political economist Maja Göpel is one of them. She has been working on related issues for years. She challenges established mentalities and wants to change mentalities.

Maja Göpel, who teaches at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, has held leading positions in major advisory bodies, including as general secretary of the German Global Change Advisory Board (WBGU). For the transformation towards a sustainable society, she wants concepts such as “productivity” and “economic activity” to be reconsidered, reassessed and redefined in ways that seriously consider planetary boundaries and ecosystem services. Society should not aim for individual growth and gain, she says, but for individual and societal well-being.

In her book “Unsere Welt neu denken” (Rethinking our world), she takes a quick look at the challenges facing humanity. It considers “the outline of the transformations that can be observed today”. For a “sustainable common future”, she offers ideas that mediate between people who demand change and “preservers and blockers”.

Planetary boundaries

Göpel makes it very clear that “business as usual” cannot continue because it will destroy the very foundations of human life. The plain truth is that resource growth and exploitation will end once “nature and its ecosystems are deprived of the ability to reliably regenerate”.

The current economic system does not respect planetary boundaries, but remains focused on the pursuit of uncontrolled growth. The fact that this cannot go on forever was understood by scientists as early as the 1970s and was accepted by the international community at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Nevertheless, there has been no significant change in resource consumption. The reason, according to Göpel, is: “We refused to face the new reality. We have spent almost 50 years in a bubble of self-deception, paying attention to financial indicators rather than biological indicators.

Göpel sees the proof of his evaluation in the current economic system. According to her, it is a manifestation of human presumption. “By subordinating natural systems to human needs, we reduce their diversity, make them more vulnerable and must make ever greater efforts to stabilize them. If we don’t learn to rebuild social systems, she warns, they will inevitably collapse.

New mindset

Göpel points out that we must first recognize the rules on which our economic system is based. Only then can we change it. She recommends reconsidering “what prosperity will mean for people in the world of tomorrow.” New language and new terminology will be of crucial importance. She sees a need for new concepts to “express what will be relevant in the future”. Right now, says Göpel, “growth” means “destroying the planet,” while “adding value” is nothing more than “making money.”

The researcher also considers that social equity is essential to achieve a sustainable economy. Where the gap between rich and poor widens, she sees social cohesion and the perceived standard of living at risk. However, it is not only concerned with equity within societies, but also between rich and poor nations. She sees it as a huge problem that high-income countries outsource environmentally harmful industries to low-income countries and exploit the commodities of these countries.

Göpel assesses what “technological progress” means in the transformation she wants to see. She laments that technology is not seriously taken into account in environmental debates. High-tech solutions are synonymous with opportunities and risks (see my contribution on the D+C/E+Z platform). For example, electric cars and the high-performance internet require a lot of energy and consume resources, thus contributing to global warming. On the other hand, high hopes rest on technological options for carbon sequestration.

In “Unsere Welt neu denken”, which is currently only published in German, the author concentrates on explaining the problems to readers. His book “The Great Mindshift” was published in English in 2016 and focuses on how to bring about transformation (see box).

Göpel, M., 2021: Unsere Welt neu denken (“Rethinking our world”). Ulstein, Berlin.

Sabine Balk is a member of the editorial staff of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.

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