Beyond Growth 2023 Conference – a journal

An extract from the journal of the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference of Nils Kreft, communications assistant at ZOE Institute

Dear Journal,

It’s Friday the 19th of May and enough time has passed since the Beyond Growth 2023 Conference to put our emotions aside and reflect thoroughly on what has happened this week. From the beginning…

We knew things were about to get serious when all our friends and colleagues from multiple countries arrived at the hotel on Sunday 14 May. With excitement in the air, some of us were meeting in person for the first time. But as we queued to enter the European Parliament on Monday morning, all that was forgotten – we had made it to the heart of European politics. And more than that, over the next three days it was our own agenda that was to be discussed.

As we gathered in the rows of the Hemicycle, in the seats usually occupied by MEPs, waiting for the opening speeches, there were smiles all round. Then, one by one, the first group of speakers entered the room: Phillipe Lamberts, Ursula von der Leyen, Roberta Metsola, Jason Hickel, Sandrine Dixson-Declève and Adelaïde Charlier. The mix of high-level politicians, senior researchers and civil society leaders set the stage for what was to follow in the coming days.

The speech by the President of the European Commission was nothing short of ground-breaking. The initiator of the EU’s Green Deal, Ursula von der Leyen, focused her speech on the ‘Limits to Growth’ report, acknowledging that “a growth model centred on fossil fuels is simply obsolete”. It was a surprising and much welcomed step towards the conference participants. However, as reported by Euractiv, ZOE co-founder Jakob Hafele noted that her message did not provide the “truly transformative economic vision that Europe needs”.

After a half hour break, it was time for another co-founder of ZOE, Jonathan Barth, to discuss the role of industrial policy in the transition to climate justice in focus panel 2. With many of us in the crowd, we listened as he presented ZOE’s recent 5-point plan for EU industrial policy. Surely our message was heard.

We expected this to be the last big highlight of the day for us, but we were counting without the wonderful Kate Raworth, who publicly referenced our EU 2030 Doughnut in her speech at the second plenary of the event. It turned out she wasn’t the only one – the European Parliamentary Research Service also referenced our report ‘A Compass towards 2030’ in its Beyond Growth research.

Thank you, Kate. We are very grateful for the many people who support us – time to talk about their contributions to the conference: Maja Göpel offered a reality check on some of the key narratives around growth currently experienced and envisaged. Julia Steinberger shared her insights on the potential of an energy sector that respects ecological limits, and Rutger Hoekstra talked about what he always talks about with such passion: Going beyond GDP with alternative indicators for wellbeing and sustainability.

Day 2

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we went to the rooms of the European Economic and Social Committee, where we organised three policy labs. In total more than 100 participants from diverse organisations and departments which don’t usually collaborate worked together on proposals for mainstreaming Beyond GDP indicators, fiscal policy, and the just transition. Thank you to all the participants and the ZOE helping hands who came up with innovative solutions to many of the challenges we face in implementing change at the policy level. We will undoubtedly take these results forward.

What an honour and pleasure it was to bring together policymakers and other changemakers for dinner on Tuesday evening. We gathered figures from the European ecosystem working to create an economy that is compatible with environmental and social goals, and explored how to strengthen cooperation between different organisations, institutions, and individuals to build an economy fit for the future. This was a very special evening, followed by a good night’s sleep.

Day 3

And a good night’s sleep was needed, especially for Jakob. After all, he was due to speak at the conference’s closing plenary, where he appeared alongside Tim Jackson, whose deeply meaningful words resonated with many in the room. Standing on the centre stage of European democracy, Jakob offered policymakers a new ‘North Star’ for economic policymaking; economic resilience.  And he showed how mobilising finance and engaging people in the transition are key to its success.

After three intense days, it was time to celebrate. In the evening, we gathered for drinks and Belgian fries, proud of our achievements after months of preparation. From the activities mentioned here to the less visible organisational efforts, such as the graphic recording/visual sensemaking, the ‘Slido’ polling- and questions app for the audience, and the timeline of the conference. The Beyond Growth conference was a milestone in moving the debate forward on how to transform Europe’s economies to deliver a good life for all within environmental limits. We’re confident that the impact of these three days will be felt for years to come.

Talk to you soon…