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Germany, an economy for the future. The new “social” model: less GDP and increased sustainability 

“Outside a growth-oriented society? An ethical and social analysis and assessment of post-growth strategies” : it’s the 94-page document drawn up by fifteen scholars commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, presented today in Munich. A shift in parameters for sustainable economy and a fairer society.  

An intense, lengthy document was presented in Germany with the intention of resuming the reflection on economic and sustainable growth and seek to define a new understanding of development, “more sustainable” than the one enshrined in the 1992 Rio Declaration that paved the way to the Millennium Development Goals. “Outside a growth-oriented society? An ethical and social analysis and assessment of post-growth strategies” is the 94-page document drawn up by a group of experts appointed by the German Bishops’ Conference, presented at the Munich School of Philosophy on April 20.

Fields for action and criteria. In its opening paragraphs the study analyses the ethical principles underlying the sustainable development model (common good, human rights and justice) and the “growth paradigm” (how the economy grows, definition of objectives, and adjustments). Whilst departing from the present development model, whereby GDP and per-capita income represent undisputed assessment benchmarks,

the study defines the challenges, areas for action, and criteria, and examines the social implications of an “ecological modernisation” of the economy and of society”.

The starting point of all the reflections are, obviously, the invitations offered in Laudato si ‘to rethink the current economic model.

A perfected model. Within their coherently argued critique, the German scholars coordinated by Johannes Wallacher, President of the Munich School of Philosophy, propose “socio-ecological transformation” as a perfected sustainable development model. In this light they identify three fundamental ethical guidelines, the first being “common but differentiated responsibilities for sustainable development”, mentioned in the Rio Declaration which, however, “fails to provide details on the distribution of related obligations.”

New protagonists. While nation-States are commonly involved, solidarity is a principle “that demands everyone’s full commitment in the defence of justice and of the common good.” Individuals, stakeholders and States with higher economic, financial, technological and political possibilities, are called to give a proportionately higher contribution to sustainable development. One aspect of the contribution will be

to refrain from doing anything that could reduce the scope of action enabling poorest populations and countries to promote sustainable development processes.

The same rationale applies to enterprises (including multinational companies), civil society and individuals. When those in a condition of economic inferiority see that “the whole of society contributes to the requested transformations, they will be willing to cooperate too.”

Evaluating the goals. Implementing transformations requires the adoption of “indicators.” GDP “is a poor measure of the quality of life and of economic prosperity”; it thus needs to be complemented or replaced by other indicators of social and ecological goals. Indeed, there have been various attempts to create alternative indicators: the document takes as an example the French proposal launched by Sarkozy in 2008 with the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, or proposals by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or from the European Commission with the “Beyond the GDP” initiative, and finally the welfare index (NWI) developed in Germany by Hans Diefenbacher and Roland Zieschank. Notwithstanding the limits of these laudable attempts,

if political discourse “continues being univocally based on GDP, any alternative indicator”, however complete or imperfect, “will fail to perform its guidance function.”

Developing and improving indicators is important, but they need to become “binding benchmarks” , while GDP must stop being a “prevailing” parameter.


Innovation, formation. Finally, support to innovation is critical to factual changes in the development paradigm. Notably technical and technological innovation, in the light of global ecological problems, “to separate growth from environmental deterioration and use.” Thus support entails “a system of incentives” to enterprises, focused on innovation, along with financial support to independent academia and research centres, measures and systems that the political realm is tasked with planning and implementing. However, there is an equal need for “social and cultural transformations” (alternative forms of organization, consumption and production), that constitute “the grounds and the starting point of a profound reorganization of society as a whole.” This equally requires the States’ “forward-looking action” expressed with incentives and forms of protection. Finally,

there is need to support innovation in the education sector.

The experts pointed out: “Preparing for future work is important, but it is only an educational goal among others.” “Comprehensive learning” allows “people to find creative answers to global challenges also at local level, and to lead a life in the right measure, namely, one that does not meet individual needs to the expense of other people’s wellbeing.”

Spirituality and responsibility. The document of German bishops builds on the invitation by Pope Francis in his Encyclical “Laudato Si’” to “accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth”. The document thus defines the “challenges brought about by social and ecological changes”, the “areas of intervention” (climate, biodiversity protection, mobility, consumption), and the social implications of this “ecological modernisation”. The text also provides guidance on issues such as “common but differentiated responsibilities for sustainable development”, the “indicators” to measure it, and the need to ensure “social and technical innovation.” The last chapter addresses the “spirituality and responsibility of religious communities”, in the light of the need for

“motivations that are not confined to a rational and cognitive approach, but that involve all the affective, emotional and spiritual dimensions of human action.”

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