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“Growth below zero”: in memory of Sicco Mansholt


By Joan Martinez-Alier,  RESPONDER conference, Brussels, 21 March 2014

In 1971 Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch agrarian unionist and social-democratic politician, who had promoted an expansionist agricultural policy in Europe as commissioner for agriculture pushing for consolidation of farms and increasing subsidies so much that mountains of surplus butter were produced, suffered a radical change of outlook after he read an advance copy of the Meadows report.

In his speeches and writings at the time he did not refer to the “Report to the Club of Rome” but to the “MIT report” because he read it before it was published by the Club of Rome. This report propelled the Meadows to well-deserved fame, and made the Club of Rome also famous although we know that the men behind the Club of Rome, such as Alexander King, disapproved of the anti-economic growth conclusions of the Meadows report.

The Club of Rome’s representatives also disapproved of Sicco Mansholt conversion to a doctrine of non-growth, or even of “growth below zero”, that is, degrowth. Alexander King wrote to the president of the European Commission Franco Malfatti explicitly arguing against Mansholt’s interpretation of the findings and recommendations of the MIT report to the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome was not in favour of zero growth.

Sicco Mansholt was in favour of zero growth. He went on in 1972 to be president of the Commission for ten months. Before that, he had written a letter to President Franco Malfatti proposing a change in objectives and policy. Europe should not aim at maximizing economic growth, measured by the Gross National Product, but it should aim to increase le Bonheur National Brut.

Broad economic policies, not only sectorial environmental policies, should exploit a new large tax base, taxing polluting industrial processes and products. Products should have environmental certificates, many products should be just forbidden, including some types of imports. The EC should have a general economic plan to push its economy into an environmental direction. He gave some interviews and gave some speeches on these lines.

Already as president of the European Commission he gave a long interview to Le Nouvel Observateur and he took part in a large open meeting in June 1972 in Paris with 50 times more people than we have here today in the Petra Kelly room. By the way he knew well Petra Kelly who later was a German Green Party’s founding member with Rudi Dutchke and other Achtundsechziger.  Sicco Mansholt was one generation older. He had been in the Dutch resistance to the Nazi invasion.

At the crowded meeting in Paris organized by Le Nouvel Observateur on the Meadows report Sicco Mansholt was the only politician. There was one older philosopher, Herbert Marcuse (he talked against militarism) and one younger philosopher, Edgar Morin, who talked already about uncertainty and complexity, and against the notion of ecological equilibrium.

There was André Gorz (with his other pseudonym, Michel Bosquet) who asked whether capitalism was possible in a non-growing economy. He was skeptical about this although a new sector of depolluting industries could give new opportunities of investment to capital. This is what now some people call a “green economy” in which they include not only compensatory corrections (defensive Ausgabe) but also appropriation and payment for environmental services.

Gorz also used at this meeting the word décroissance, saying that zero growth was not enough. At the meeting in Paris there was also Edward Goldsmith who had published Blueprint for Survival, and Edmond Maire, a trade-unionist.

Sicco Mansholt not only gladly joined such bad company but he reiterated his views against economic growth, and against population growth. This has been censored in the official short biographies of Presidents of the European Commission where his strongly expressed views against economic growth and even in favour of “below zero growth”, his irony against GDP growth as a policy objective, his proposals for a general  economic plan for Europe and for using anti-pollution taxes and environmental quality certificates to guide consumption, his proposal for environmental barriers against some cheap raw materials and products in international trade, go unmentioned.

Already at the time he had been attacked by the French president Georges Pompidou and by Georges Marchais, the secretary of the Communist Party.

I do not know whether he read Georgecu-Roegen’s The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, or H.T. Odum, Energy, Power and Society, or Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle, all published in 1971. Was he was aware, given his agrarian interests, of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring of 1962? Did he perhaps read in 1973 Herman Daly’s Steady-state economy? He was not an economist. Did he know K.W. Kapp, The social costs of business enterprise, 1950, where externalities are not interpreted as market failures but as cost-shifting successes? I would like to know but I do not know.

But he read certainly very carefully the Meadows report of 1971 based on Forrester’s system dynamics, a report often and mistakenly known as the Club of Rome report. He was converted by it. He became for about six months the first and so far only green President of the European Commission before green politics existed. He retired early, before he was 65 year old, failing to move European social-democracy in an environmental direction.

Social democracy was at the time fixated in Keynesianism and social pacts (corporatist policies if you wish). Regarding long term economic growth, Keynesianism after Keynes had become with the Harrod-Domar models of the 1950s, a doctrine of long term economic growth, oblivious of energy and material flows, oblivious of social metabolism. After Keynesianism, came the neo-liberal wave in the late 1970s (starting already in 1973 in Chile), a market fundamentalism that forgets about environmental damage to future generations, damage to poor people and damage to other species unable to come to the market.

Social democratic Keynesianism tried in the 1980s to acquire a green disguise with Brundtland’s report on sustainable development. This was not very different from today’s so-called green growth. It is not serious.

Intellectually and politically I feel the Sicco Mansholt of 1971, 1972 to be more our contemporary as ecological economists than today’s silly notions coming from Brussels and Beijing such as a “circular economy”, while we know that the industrial economy is entropic.

His notion of Bonheur National Brut (he mentioned Tinbergen, and we can remember also another Dutchman, Roefie Hueting’s critique of GDP only a few years later) has now been developed by Tim Jackson’s in his ecological macroeconomics as human “flourishing”, épanouissement, as the objective of a society of “prosperity without growth”.

This is related to notions of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay coming from South America, to Ashish Kothari’s proposal in India for a Radical Ecological Democracy, to debates on post-Wachstum or Décroissance in Europe (as we shall discuss in Leipzig in September 2014).

The post-growth economy of Europe (which in fact is already a reality) is related to proposals to leave the unburnable fuels in the ground, oil in the soil, coal in the hole, gas under the grass, to Ogonization and Yasunization.

The main push for an ecological economy comes from the South, from the global movement for environmental justice. Let us look beyond Europe not through rapacious Raubwirtschaft eyes scheming how to secure raw materials (we know that the EU imports three times more than it exports, measured in tons). Let us look outside Europe searching for allies for a world ecological economy that deals with poverty through solidarity and redistribution and not through economic growth.