Science
Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn Photo by Reyer Boxem

Economist unites growth
and degrowth

Malcolm in the middle

Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn Photo by Reyer Boxem
Our planet can’t handle the economy continuing to grow unchecked, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for growth at all, says Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn. He advocates a middle ground. ‘We need to reuse existing infrastructure.’
8 January om 10:47 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 8 January 2024
om 10:47 uur.
January 8 at 10:47 AM.
Last modified on January 8, 2024
at 10:47 AM.
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Door Rob van der Wal

8 January om 10:47 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 8 January 2024
om 10:47 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

January 8 at 10:47 AM.
Last modified on January 8, 2024
at 10:47 AM.

‘The idea of eternal economic growth is almost a religion to classical economists. We humans grow, plants grow and so to be against growth is kind of being against natural evolution.’ 

Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn, assistant professor of international political economics, doesn’t subscribe to that point of view. But he can’t quite get behind the degrowth group on the other side of the spectrum either. They want to reduce growth in ‘bad’ sectors such as finance and fossil fuels, and some of them block highways and pipelines in protest.

He’s somewhere in the middle. ‘I am cautious about these actions, as they do not facilitate debate. But I also think we should look sharply at growth in more debatable categories.’

Measurement science

Modern economists try to stay away from explicit ethical choices, he says. ‘Economy is considered a measurement science. You see this in the way economic growth is measured, for example with the gross domestic product. That also includes morally debatable categories like the weapons industry, fossil fuels, the fee that bankers get, et cetera.’ 

In economics, it is assumed humans are egotistical beings

But there is a downside to this, Campbell-Verduyn says. ‘It seems all growth that gets measured is good.’

Meanwhile, degrowth supporters – who want a society that’s in balance with the earth’s ecological system – strive for more compassion, love, and kindness. ‘Those are really broad concepts’, says the economist. ‘They are hard to measure in quantitative ways. In economics, it is assumed humans are egotistical, rational beings that only look after themselves. So there are really some challenges going on here.’

Limits

Politicians currently have little interest in this issue, he’s noticed. ‘The Netherlands had elections in the middle of a recession, and there was no real discussion about the economic growth here, or the fact that we are a corporate tax haven. We keep making choices to have endless growth, even as we are encountering planetary limits.’

It’s something economists implicitly already know, he adds. ‘But I really like to put that more on the table and say explicitly: your models are planning for endless growth, which is unfeasible. Because unless you have another planet we can inhabit, we have no real other options, right?’

Campbell-Verduyn even feels inspired by the principle of degrowth. ‘The people try to do something different. But at the same time, I think they are doing something wrong by not bringing their points of view to policy makers in a way that gets people on board. It’s kind of alienating to block highways, for example.’

He wants to have a dialogue between the two groups. ‘What you see now, is that these people are not on speaking terms. And it’s so easy to write off the people in the banks, technocrats and policy makers if you’re in the Extinction Rebellion camp.’

Middle ground

The conversation should be about reaching a middle ground, he feels. Not about cutting all growth, but about making choices. ‘You could say: we don’t want growth in categories like the weapons industry and fossil fuels, but we’re not necessarily against growth in other categories.’

We don’t blow up pipelines, but we use them for hydrogen

It comes in handy that his name is Malcolm, he says. ‘I don’t know if you remember this television show Malcolm in the Middle? It’s a comedy series about a kid with a younger and an older brother, who is having to deal with his family constantly. I really feel like I’m the Malcolm in the middle in this debate.’

His alternative for both the classical economists and the degrowth community? Growth infrastructures. ‘It’s about having a different perspective on the existing infrastructure, to see ways you can use it for other activities’, he says. 

Take roads, for example. In Amsterdam, they did a test where they turned roads for cars into bike paths. ‘Then you use the same roads, but for a different, greener purpose. You have a different relationship with the object. We don’t blow up pipelines, but we use them differently. Maybe you can get hydrogen flowing through it, for example.’

Team

It’s an idea Campbell-Verduyn has been thinking about for a year now, together with Matthias Kranke, a political scientist from the University of Freiburg. They put together a team with colleagues from anthropology, geography, international relations, and sociology, as well as science and technology studies. 

By the end of next year, he hopes to have published a special journal issue about developing growth infrastructures to spur some re-modelling of economic growth that better takes into account nature and planetary limits.

There are no economists on the team yet. ‘We really need to think our whole idea through before we can start with that’, he says. ‘It’s still an issue how to engage with them without it leading to the idea getting dismissed out of hand.’ 

Besides, there are a few other things that should be looked at properly, because a different approach does not automatically lead to different economic growth, he says.

Bitcoin

One example in digital infrastructure perfectly shows this: bitcoin. ‘It’s a coin that actually started out as a degrowth initiative’, Campbell-Verduyn says. ‘People wanted to get rid of the power of central banks, and their endless printing of money. So they planned to start a community initiative with just 21 million bitcoin tokens, no more.’

Bitcoin started out as a degrowth initiative

But that didn’t last long. Instead of sticking with the limited amount of bitcoin, people just started their own cryptocurrencies. ‘And now you have tons of them, like bitcoin cash, dogecoin. And everybody is trying to maximise their profits.’ 

In addition, with every bitcoin transaction, people can check via a computer process if the bitcoin is valid. The person who checks it first gets a reward, for example in the form of a percentage of the transaction. ‘And so there is an incentive to build processing farms and have super cheap electricity running those farms in order to process the transactions faster’, says Campbell-Verduyn. ‘It’s the exact opposite of the degrowth idea.’

Carbon credits

Or take another infrastructure problem that deals with the method to trade rights on carbon emission. ‘There used to be different local markets. We have a carbon market here in the EU, one in California, and one in Canada, for example. But people say it’s way more efficient to have one global market.’

Here, bitcoin comes in again. ‘You can buy carbon credits somewhere in your local currency and then exchange them into crypto and sell them somewhere else. It enables a faster way of trading, but it’s also kind of ignoring that the bitcoin infrastructure is polluting.’

He still has a long way to go, Campbell-Verduyn knows. But he hopes to tackle the practicalities that the transition to this not-endless growth entails. ‘Our ultimate goal is to have economics where the planet matters.’

Dutch