Degrowth and Social Policy: Towards a Sustainable Welfare State

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Max Koch. Click here to access the aricle.

The literatures of ecological economics, degrowth, and sustainable welfare has demonstrated that an encompassing social-ecological transformation would need to be initiated very soon if we hope to re-embed Western production and consumption patterns within environmental limits. ‘Green growth’ is the proposed mainstream policy solution, yet given the continued lack of empirical evidence for its feasibility, the required social-ecological transformation would need to occur without GDP growth – at least in Western countries.

In a recent article in Social Policy and Society, I focus on some of the implications for the welfare state and social policy if the economy was to enter a postgrowth or degrowth phase. I theoretically apply the concepts of ‘sustainable welfare’ and ‘safe and just operating space’ and present empirical data in relation to Sweden about the popularity of selected eco-social policies designed to steer economy and society towards this safe and just operating space. I conclude that a sustainable welfare state is required to assist and steer the social-ecological transformation that can address the climate emergency and the ecological crisis. 

The framework of ‘sustainable welfare’ in combination with Rockström et al. and Raworths’s ‘safe and just operating space’ systematically considers both the planetary and social boundaries of human economic and non-economic activities. Here, economy and society develop within critical limits: resource use is below the level of planetary limits (the outer boundary of the safe and just operating space), but above the level of sufficiency required to meet people’s basic needs (the inner boundary of that space). The economy is hence understood as a subsystem of biophysical and social systems. In a similar vein, welfare systems would also be regarded as being embedded within the ecological context where they assist people to satisfy their needs in sustainable ways. 

Considering the outer boundary of the safe and just operating space, welfare state activity and social policies could no longer simply redistribute ever greater tax revenue within expanding economies, as was the case in the post-war period, but would involve controversial decisions that target the power resources of affluent and influential groups. Degrowth and sustainable welfare perspectives call for limitations to living beyond certain thresholds through, for example, taxation of inheritance, high incomes and wealth. Such policies would not only serve ecological targets (since the rich emit overproportional amounts of greenhouse gases) and promote social equality but also constitute an important means to decouple the financing of welfare state provision from economic growth.

Currently, active support in Sweden for a cap on wealth and incomes of approximately 145,000 Euro per year is limited to about a quarter of the population. This may be in part down to the novelty of a policy proposal that no major political party is Sweden is currently campaigning for. It is conceivable that backing for such a policy would increase if it were promoted more actively. Perhaps unsurprisingly, support for the comparatively moderate but better-known wealth tax, which was abolished in Sweden in 1997, is significantly higher (42.5 per cent).

With regards to the inner boundary of the safe and just operating space or satisfaction of basic needs, the sustainable welfare literature has suggested the introduction of universal and unconditional basic income (UBI), the expansion and/or introduction of universal basic services (UBS), or a combination of the two. Welfare regime affiliation and institutional path dependency may well be important factors for determining policy combinations of UBS and UBI at national level. It may be easier to expand UBS systems in countries where there is already a strong universal tradition in welfare delivery (such as the Nordic countries), with UBI playing a lesser role. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that less than 20 per cent of the population are in favour of the introduction of UBI in Sweden. In other locations, where there is only rudimentary provision of UBS and liberal welfare traditions predominate, UBI may be the easiest and quickest option. 

These and other empirical results point to a considerable gap between the far-reaching measures that scientists consider necessary to meaningfully address the climate emergency and the measures that citizens of an advanced welfare state such as Sweden are presently prepared to support. Explanations for this gap include the thorough inculcation of the growth imperative in people’s minds, bodies and day-to-day social practices, often appearing as the ‘natural’ way of doing things. Since it is part of the collective consciousness that a range of institutions such as the legal, educational and welfare systems, proven to be crucial for the relatively high subjective wellbeing scores measured in Western societies, historically co-developed with the provision of economic growth and are presently coupled to it, any political move beyond the capitalist growth economy would need to reckon with concerns about wellbeing loss, anomie and social exclusion.

One way to defuse these concerns is to expand the alternative social spaces that already exist such as citizen forums. Here, alternative, sustainable and cooperative forms of working and living together can be tested and could increase in relevance, for example as advisory institutions for policymaking. This echoes recent discussions on governance and, specifically, the role of the state within sustainable welfare and degrowth circles. State capacity to act both in the environmental and the social domain would increase significantly if the growth proviso were replaced by a sustainability proviso. State power could then be used to build transnational networks and, acting as primus inter pares, could work with a range of private, semi-private, and non-profit actors to ensure that ecological limits to production and consumption patterns are respected. However, such a turn towards a sustainable welfare state is only likely if there is sufficient bottom-up pressure from civil society on policymakers. 


About the author

Max Koch is Professor of Social Policy and Sustainability at Lund University, Sweden.

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