Growing France Towards a Degrowth Economy

Wind Turbine in a Sunflower Farm in France (courtesy of Jamiecat via flickr)

This past week the European Edition of The Wall Street Journal published my op-ed of recommendations to the new French President, François Hollande, on how he can still prioritize short-term growth but in ways that over time reduce ecological impact and uneconomic growth, and better distribute opportunity among all French peoples. In other words, how to chart a course to sustainable prosperity for an overdeveloped country where people are dying from car accidents, obesity, air pollution, and causing suffering to others (including future generations) by driving climate change and the decline of essential ecosystem services around the world.

Much of these ideas are explored in further detail in chapter 2 of State of the World 2012, “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries.” Perhaps not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal gave the op-ed a bit more provocative title, but I include the original above. Enjoy!

How to Shrink the French Economy

By Erik Assadourian

There are many competing priorities that demand the new French president’s attention: a shaky euro, public debt, French troops in Afghanistan. But with jobless rates hovering near 10% and 23% of French youth now unemployed, stimulating growth is surely at the top of François Hollande’s to-do list.

Yet considering France’s ecological footprint is 64% larger than the planet can sustain, France will have to shrink its economy by two-fifths over time to prevent widespread ecological decline in France and beyond, even as its population continues to grow.

In other words, there’s a responsible way to grow the economy and there’s an irresponsible way. Here are some suggestions on how Mr. Hollande can bring France closer to sustainable prosperity, rather than just create another short-term economic bubble that the breakdown of Earth’s systems will pop a decade or two down the road:

Tax the rich. A lot. Mr. Hollande should follow through on his campaign promise to increase tax rates to 75% on those earning more than €1 million. This will curb the market for unsustainable luxury goods while providing revenue to fund France’s transition to a sustainable society.

Tax social ills. Fossil fuels, carbon emissions, junk food, automobiles, advertising—these are all ripe for additional taxes to curb their abundance, while generating further state revenue.

Invest in renewables to improve France’s path to energy security. At the same time, Mr. Hollande must help normalize much lower rates of electricity usage, such as through tiered electricity pricing, which would charge users progressively for higher levels of use.

Make French cities nearly car-free by 2022. Invest heavily in mass transit, bicycle lanes and pedestrian-friendly development so that the only urban vehicles 10 years from now will be shared and rented cars, taxis, delivery trucks and ambulances. This one measure would save billions of euros in traffic fatalities and air pollution-related illnesses, reduce CO2 emissions, and create far more local jobs in bicycle maintenance and sales than those lost in the French auto industry.

•Follow the Netherlands’ lead and create a 200-year plan to address climate change. The Dutch are investing a billion dollars a year preparing their coastlines, infrastructure and agriculture for climate change. That’s a step in the right direction, though the standard assumption of an increase of only two degrees Celsius over the next two centuries is probably optimistic at this point.

Facilitate a return to traditional living arrangements. Although youth unemployment is a challenge, multigenerational housing can help address it, creating new ways to share costs among family members. Increasing the desirability of multigenerational housing could be done through tax incentives, social marketing and stimulating new local economic opportunities—such as small-scale farming and animal husbandry, artisanal crafts and repair.

Together, these could help reduce economic insecurity and ecological impact as housing density increases, local economies develop and families once again turn to social capital instead of financial capital to maintain high-quality lives.

Over time, humanity will once again discover that a consumer economy of dispersed car-owning single-family homes is ecologically impossible and socially harmful. Proactively facilitating the transition away from this model and toward one centered on sustainable prosperity would be the best contribution this French presidency could make to France, the European Union and the planet.

Mr. Assadourian is co-director of Worldwatch Institute’s Sustainable Prosperity Project.

Bike Sharing Station in Paris (courtesy of slettvet via flickr)

(Op-ed reposted from the June 13th edition of the European edition of The Wall Street Journal.)

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