Too big to fail: Limits to growth as discussed at the McPlanet congress in Berlin

By Friederike Mikulcak

From April 20 to 22, the McPlanet congress entitled “Too BIG to fail” took place in Berlin ( The title thereby aimed at deconstructing the common picture of giant banks or global corporations with practically undisputed claim for political support in times of financial crisis, reasoning to be too relevant for the global system. Or simply: too big to fail. Instead, the conference organizers (such as attac, Greenpeace, BUND) aimed at providing a platform for discussing issues such as the green economy concept, the sustainable provision of food and energy for a rising population, the deregulation of financial markets, and alternative lifestyles. The international congress, consisting of a variety of thematic workshops and panel discussions attended by a total of 1700 participants, did not only serve for knowledge exchange. Moreover, participants could ‘network’ and become inspired to take action.

One very interesting panel discussion I followed was on the green economy concept (as prominently promoted with view on the upcomingRio+20 summit in June). Panelists were Achim Steiner, head of UNEP; Camila Morena, grass roots activist and researcher from Brasil; and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey (UK) and author of the book “Prosperity without Growth”. Central to the discussion was the question on how to build an environmentally and socially sound economic model. Steiner (diplomatically) accused many environmentalists in that they too often just articulated “what we don’t want to have on the planet” and “what not to do”, instead of providing clear answers and concepts to global issues such as food crisis, water stress, or climate change. Too often, economics was merely blamed as the cause, but not as potential part of the solution. The green economy concept thus attempts to bring economics to the issue of nature conservation, and to describe nature in (economic) values. According to Steiner, we can only preserve what we value. Camila Morena criticized the concept in that the notion of natural ‘capital’ was accompanied by a shift in property regimes. She warned that many local communities were being expropriated for the sake of green projects. Too often, termed ‘green’ investments were destructive and ‘new wine in old wineskins’. However, she could not answer Steiner’s question for the way of sustainably providing/ producing energy for the planet.

Most inspiring, however, was the approach offered by Tim Jackson.Jacksonexplained that growth is not always bad. Only because of growth we (say: the global Northern hemisphere) have better health standards, nutrition, education, the ability to travel across the world, and time to think about the world. However, the good life as we conceive it – a world in which all have the same material standards as in theUS– is simply inaccessible. We are thus trapped in a dilemma. If we rapidly reduced growth we would “trash our system”. In continuing our current lifestyle, in turn, we’ll “crash the planet”. According toJackson, our system is structurally deficient. We are incapable to move technological innovations fast enough. We have misconstrued who we are and too often are purely materialistic, selfish consumers. We built systems to support this notion of humanity. So how to bring predicted 9 billion people to western standards, while still retaining growth? His answer: We need to change both our institutions and economic structure. We need to put our investments “back in the heart of the model” of good life. Investments need to be protecting and nurturing the ecological assets on which our future depends. We need to incorporate the idea of meaningful prosperity; of a global society that provides possibilities for people to flourish, and which is less materialistic. We need to “make room for growth where growth really matters”, for example by investing in places where we can connect (such as public spaces or community centres). According toJackson, a necessary transformation is not about changing human nature. But about targeting “a more realistic vision of what it means to be a human”. How to tackle this transformation in practical terms, however, remained unexplained.


3 thoughts on “Too big to fail: Limits to growth as discussed at the McPlanet congress in Berlin

  1. Thanks Frieda for this update. Good question at the end. That question, in the whole context of the text show to me that in what we are certainly good is talking and suggesting. And not good in doing things (we = everybody and not selected people). I would suggest one potential way: lets tart to renounce. Give up of things we have: our extra cars, shoes, socks, knowledge, houses, love and everything. Make them public:) and freely available to people who need them. And effectively show them that we can be happy without them. From rich to poor – everybody should do this:) other way will not work. Very ambicious project hm?:D

  2. Below I paste a translation of one of mt favorite thinkers, Hamvas Bela. He vas a writer. But he interpreted ‘writing’ in a different way than others. You write down what you actually do. In his view, you are not able to write down something and do different things in your real life. If you do this, he would say you deserve sorries.

    And he was a really beautiful person, wise person. Lived and died in very modest way.

    “The most difficult is the easiest, what everyone knows anyway. What can be easier and what can be harder than to go and give up everything you have? But really all what you have. Not only your clothes and your house and your animals and furnitures and diplomas and pots and pillows and your bed and don’t keep any single cup, sheets and books. Give your education and principles and knowledge as your wealth, all the certainties and hiding places and your world view and your refuges, all in all give everything you have.” (Hamvas Bela)

  3. I think Jackson’s point is somewhat facetious, or at least, misleading. To say “Only because of growth we (say: the global Northern hemisphere) have better health standards, nutrition, education, the ability to travel across the world, and time to think about the world” ignores both those in the Northern hemisphere who DON’T have those things — particularly the ability to travel across the world and time to think about it, which is very limited to upper classes! — and ignores the fact that it was not growth that got us those things per se, but articulation. That is, the Fordist compromise of paying workers enough to buy the products they make was key to creating our middle classes… and US’s being able to spread this throughout its citizenry is in no small part due to the post WWII economic boom, and the GI (Veterans) Bill that “spread” wealth, education, and economic access to our many, many veterans. (This unfortunately also was not spread equitably along race lines.) In any case, crediting “growth” per se is ridiculous. Political and labor rights have been at least as important, and most of our growth now, if not for a long while now, has accrued to making the most well off even more well off. That kind of growth is neither sustainable, nor necessary, nor wise, nor (in my opinion) ethical. Yet it’s arguably the dominant mode.

    Sorry, but the “growth” mantra gets me going. Growth per se means nothing — just like yield increases per se! Without rights and equity it’s hogwash and waste.

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