Dimitar Sabev: Growth of ideas will make Europe safer

Dimitar Sabev (1976) is a Chief Assistant Professor at the Economic Research Institute of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. As a green economist and journalist he investigates and studies the social and environmental impacts of mining, monetary assessment of ecosystem services, fiscal justice issues of foreign investments and quantitative indices for regional sustainable development. He defines his research interest as ‘ecohomics’: the interaction between economy, nature, and culture. Sabev is the author of Earth Humiliated (2010) and Marketing, Consumption and Economic Growth (2021), among other books and articles.

With war at its doorstep, in Ukraine, and conflicts flaring up worldwide, can the EU afford to discuss degrowth?

According to some thinkers, Europe should respond to the current geopolitical challenges by growing even more than its adversaries. Yet talking about winning wars by whatever means necessary is a dangerous thing. Europe should rather stick to its commitment to democracy, environmental preservation and citizens' rights because otherwise we are turning into the monsters we want to fight. Growth, as a way to fight monsters, is not a solution. There should be another solution.

How can the tensions between degrowth and security be eliminated?

The full equilibrium is associated with death – or rather with lack of life. There are always tensions in the living world. The big question is how to manage these tensions.

Returning to the issue of economic growth, I would say that growth is a natural process. However, socio-economic growth is something different than growth in the natural world. A proverb has it that 'trees don't grow to the sky'. So there are natural limits to growth. In the animal world, there are mechanisms that limit the growth of populations in order not to endanger the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Those mechanisms are absent in modern human society, including in Europe.

Europe should seriously consider the idea of post-growth. However, this new paradigm will not find approval from the USA since America is in an entirely different position: their population density is much lower than Europe's – they have much more free space to grow. On the other hand, in Western Europe, the population density is very high, and so is the economic activity. In one way or another, Europe should start living without growing.

Should a post-growth Europe scale back on its geopolitical ambitions?

Europe should create a military power on its own, of course being aligned with NATO. However, Europe could arrange its defence capabilities in an economically and environmentally effective manner. Modern defence technologies are very advanced. The required growth of military capabilities does not need to be at the expense of a larger environmental footprint. We could digitalise our defence and we have the technological means for that.

But this question brings up the correlation between the strength of the ideas and military and economic power. Japan, for instance, has a very strong economy and considerable technological power, but it's not growing anymore, partially because of its huge population density, and is lacking military strength on its own. Yet Japan’s influence in the world is relatively greater than its GDP: the Zen culture had highly influenced modern Western culture. It’s about being in harmony with nature and about internal self-improvement. These ideas and notions, rooted in traditional Japanese culture, make degrowth an easier choice there.

We see a similar phenomenon in Russia, although not in a positive way. Russia’s geopolitical influence is three times stronger than its economy. It is partially because Russians are using the power of propaganda, deliberately spreading ideas of the ‘rotting West’, ‘the decline of democracy’, etc. And they are very successful at this. Their sophisticated propaganda, bundled with their nuclear weapons, makes Russia’s geopolitical presence much larger than the size of their economy.

Historically, Europe has always been the cradle of humane ideas. In the last centuries, these ideas have deeply impacted the whole world, more than its machines or money. Now Europe should again pursue this kind of soft power – while not forgetting to build its modern, digital defence capability as well.

Apart from its democracy and commitment to values around human dignity, human rights and freedom, Europe is attractive because of its high living standards and access to consumer goods. Which of the two is more important?

You are right that we are speaking about democracy and we value this most – some of us, of course, in some circles. But others, especially people in poorer countries, place more value on consumption, quality of life or social security. Some envy Europe for this, others simply want to destroy it.

The most valuable thing that Europe has produced over the past centuries is maybe the idea of human dignity. This dignity must be defended in an organised way, because we should not be too idealistic. Being naive means, in the end, losing the war for values and democracy.

But I will indirectly answer your difficult question. In the last month, I visited three parts of the world – one in the heart of Europe and two in emerging economies. I attended three scientific meetings, with researchers from all around the world. And I observed that the scientific depth of the European event was markedly shallower than that of the other meetings.

We should admit that Europe has perhaps grown too complacent and self-centred. Whereas in emerging economies, people feel the urge to prove the merits, the advancement, and the potential of their country. Europe’s self-complacency is a really dangerous.

Consumption makes people weak when it is turned into an ultimate goal, a life’s objective. One, two or three generations of full consumption make the population less ambitious. They take consumption for granted. One does not have to choose between money for education and money for a new car, for instance. It is possible to have both. When you have to choose, you are turning into a saner, more rational person. Thus consumption of which Europe is proud is actually playing a very bad joke.

According to mainstream economic textbooks, consumption could and should be the life’s objective of modern human beings. But we are still homo sapiens – ‘wise men’. Consumption could be just a means to something greater, something bigger. However, the sophisticated modern economic theory says: ‘Okay, we have this high consumption, we have achieved our economic goal. We are done with everything’.

Yet the iconic thinkers of economic science, such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes, with all their differences, have something in common. They rationalise what will happen to our society when we reach exactly this point, the point of being rich. When we grow rich as a society, we should pursue non-economic, higher goals.

The point when there is no need for additional consumption – when the marginal utility of consumption is close to zero, is where modern economics stops. This is inexplicable and I can’t imagine why. In a systemic view, this is where economics should start instead of stopping.

Would you agree that our contemporary society in the Global North is focusing too much on generating profit?

We humans are weird creatures, we need to prove ourselves. In the economic and social system we live in, profit and material gains provide proof that we are successful. These values dominate our everyday life. However, speaking from a degrowth perspective, we could identify different ways of proving one’s worth, such as contributing to society.

Some social rewards might be similar to those in Ancient Rome. It had a quite developed society, and all the materially advanced persons there used their profits to gain the respect of their fellow citizens. We should go in the same direction and devise a system of citizen praises, or social rewards, to replace the pursuit of respect by growing material wealth.

Some assume that all that is required for a shift to a green economy is just some technological amendments. And then we could continue as usual – preserving our profit motives, our aspirations for material gains and consumption. A green economy, they say, should simply replace some technological elements of our production system, such as swapping fossil fuels for renewable energy. In my opinion, this is an unrealistic assumption.

Trust in technological solutions is very characteristic of rational thinkers, such as Bulgaria’s current minister of the Environment and Waters, Julian Popov (see this interview with him). But if we want to have a sustainable and prolonged existence on Earth, we have to change not simply technology but values – what motivates us, what gives us incentives.

These are the two big schools of thought in green economics and I adhere to the latter. The first one offers only partial solutions that are not sustainable.

Given the importance of technology in areas such as defence and energy security, should the degrowth movement reconsider its preference for low-tech solutions?

In many cases, the high-tech solutions would decrease the material footprint. But there are other cases, especially in emerging economies, where we should maintain less advanced systems, because we should also care for people’s employment. The alternative is to replace and displace huge crowds of people and turn them into migrants. Technology should serve the needs of humanity, not vice versa.

How should the EU engage with autocratic powers such as China?

China has a poker face: its motives are rather impenetrable for Westerners. As far as I am aware, in 2008 when the Chinese introduced their huge stimuli against the financial crisis, they declared that they would pursue a different kind of growth, more based on domestic consumption and internal development. On the other hand, they have a long-term strategy for exporting growth.

China is exporting growth to Africa and South America, trying to outmaneuver the West in this respect. There is a big difference between having your assessment based on numbers - which is characteristic of the financially governed Western world, or the Global North – and having objectives that are not confined to numbers but result in power, as is the case in the Global South.

I am counting Russia among the Global South now, although they are the northernmost country in the world. Autocratic countries such as China, Russia and some rich Arab countries in the Middle East are ready to pay a lot of money just to acquire new strategic positions.

Their growth strategy is not recognized fully by Western researchers. What matters for Westerners is the financial numbers, while the Chinese are not pursuing numbers at any cost but rather use them as an indicator of whether their policies are right or wrong. In the West, we are making a huge mistake basing our policy on GDP growth. GDP should be an indicator of our advancement toward our goals, not a goal in itself.

Do you think the relationship between Europe and the Global South could benefit if Europe decreased its dependency on imported fuels and imported resources, which creates resentment and is compared to new colonialism?

A ‘Fortress Europe’ strategy is really dangerous because a fortress doesn’t only stop those who want to enter but also makes the population inside vulnerable to deficiencies of food, resources and materials.

Europe has highly productive agriculture and plenty of resources, so we could be self-sufficient. But this is not the solution to global problems. And if the problems of the Global South remain Europe could never feel truly safe.

Europe should be more open to the Global South, so that it can develop and in some instances grow. It is simply unfair to declare that we are living in a post-growth world and no one is allowed to grow anymore, when huge swaths of the Earth are economically and infrastructurally lagging behind. I am a proponent of a much higher international collaboration regarding economy, policy and the environment. We shouldn’t be naive but realism is something quite different than selfishness and brutality.


The project The Geopolitics of a Post-Growth Europe is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks, Fondation de l’Ecologie Politique, Etopia, Transición Verde, BlueLink Foundation, Center for Green Politics, and Green House think tank, and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.



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