June 1, 2023, by Dr. Hannes Swoboda (President of the Club of Rome – Austrian Chapter).

The motto of this year’s European Tolerance Talks in Fresach was “Growth at the end – what now?”. As President of the Board of Trustees of these talks, Hannes Swoboda gave an opening speech.

We live in the Western/Northern world – for the most part and to varying degrees – in an affluent society. We also speak of a meritocracy. Economic growth has led to this prosperity for centuries.


But who has provided this service and how has it been provided? In a seminal work entitled “Africa and the Making of the Modern World,” Howard E. French has explored this question with scholarly meticulousness and concludes the following:

“This increase in wealth and power is not due to any innate or enduring European traits that led to superiority. To a degree still unrecognized, it was built on the foundation of Europe’s economic and political relations with Africa, which, of course, centered on the massive, centuries-long transatlantic trade in slaves, millions of whom were used to grow sugar, cotton, and other cash crops on New World plantations.”

The income from these activities made the industrialization of the Western world possible. And this involved, and still involves, not only the immediate beneficiaries such as Portugal, Spain, England, the Netherlands, the United States, etc., but all who benefited from the economic boom of the colonial countries.

We have to keep all this in mind when we want to reshape the relationship between the Northern/Western states and the states of the Global South. Colonial history continues to reverberate to this day, or can be “brought out” by Global South politicians at any time when the West/North makes demands on Global South states. Nevertheless, an effective climate policy will only come about through a new constructive relationship between the two global regions or through close cooperation at eye level.


But it was not only people who were exploited, but also nature. And so we gradually entered the Anthropocene, an age in which our interventions in nature massively altered it ourselves, endangering our own livelihoods. Many scientists are therefore calling for a rethink, not least in relation to the other living creatures on this earth. Humans should not rely too much on their unique selling point as thinking beings. Perhaps he thinks too little anyway – especially about the consequences of his actions. In particular, man must let the environment become a co-environment, i.e. understand himself as an integral part of nature.


The age of the Anthropocene is characterized above all by the massive use of fossil raw materials for energy production. This form of energy production, which takes place mainly in the northern hemisphere, is indeed responsible for global warming or climate change with its increasingly uncontrollable consequences. 

Energy transformation is therefore an essential element of the necessary countermeasure to avoid climate catastrophe or at least to minimize the harmful consequences of global warming. This is not a decarbonization we need to achieve, but a defossilization. We need hydrocarbons as energy sources but we need to massively reduce the burning of fossil fuels, i.e. oil, gas and coal.


We still think too much of the Western world when we talk about the necessary energy transition. So too when we steer development toward “sustainable” electrification and, in particular, electromobility, and take it for granted that we will source the raw materials needed for this from the Global South – often with catastrophic neglect of environmental and social conditions. 

We continue to “externalize” the costs for the development of our – now “sustainable” – increase in prosperity by leaving – and this now also applies to the Chinese and other countries – various countries of the Global South alone with the consequences of the exploitation of raw materials that are important for our well-being. 

In addition, we cannot extract enough rare earths, etc. for electrification from the earth to achieve electrification by solar and wind in this way. What is needed is the development of a strategy by means of which hydrocarbons in the form of methane, methanol, etc. are produced in those countries where the sun makes this production possible in sufficient quantities. 

The energy transformation must therefore take place in close cooperation with the countries of the Global South. However, this can only succeed if it is not done in a colonial or neocolonial way, but is clearly organized for the benefit of both sides. Decoupling, as is often demanded in general for the Western/Northern economy, is impossible or would be extremely expensive. Energy supply must continue to take place via a global network, but via a widely distributed supply that minimizes the risks of supply bottlenecks or interruptions. The energy transition in the North – away from fossil fuels – must take place in close and equal cooperation with the Global South. 


This brings us to the question of who should actually set this comprehensive transformation in motion? Certainly we need the state and, in our case, the European Union. And despite all the justified criticism, the Union has made a special effort in recent years to pass a comprehensive package of legislation, especially within the framework of the “Green Deal”. Already, however, calls are coming from various member states for a halt to progressive legislation. They say that industry needs time to adapt to the new regulations, as if climate change will give us that time. If adjustments to the Green Deal are needed, it should be in the direction of closer cooperation with countries of the Global South, from which benefits for both sides would develop. 

But it’s not just about European or government regulations. It is about developing an economic system that meets ecological and social requirements at the same time. Capitalism in its present form (!) is a contributor to this dangerous development. And therefore fundamental changes are needed. 

In doing so, we must take note of the fact that we are all part of this capitalism. As the writer Anne Weber said recently on the occasion of the awarding of the German Book Prize: “Capitalism is not an evil machination of millionaires and billionaires who line their pockets on our backs. For it is we ourselves who fill our bellies and our accounts on other people’s backs.” And she added: “…even if you’ve done badly, you’re still better off than the poor elsewhere, with whom, because conditions are global and humanity even more so, you’ll have to compare yourself willy-nilly.”

Regardless of the fact that we are all part of the wrong development, however, it is equally clear that the richer classes have a disproportionately higher ecological footprint than the poorer. 


And that brings us back to the issue of glaring inequality – here in the West but even more so globally. We have always believed, or wanted to believe, that economic growth automatically reduces inequality. To some extent, economic growth has actually contributed to reducing inequality.

At the national level, economic growth has “empowered” the various social groups, especially the unions, to push for an increase in wages and pensions. But this downward redistribution has never been sustainable.

And worldwide, participation in the global labor market has raised the incomes of poorer strata from the Global South and lifted a not inconsiderable number of the population out of the poverty trap. However, this has been partly at the expense of lower income groups in richer countries.

In this context, we should not get so lost in the debate whether we need growth or not! I think the “degrowth” debate is often misleading! It is always a question of what should grow or for whom income should increase.

We cannot fight poverty by redistribution alone. Rather, it is about targeted growth. Entrepreneurs need incentives to invest in this direction. It is the task of the public sector – at the national and European level – to set such framework conditions that encourage companies and consumers to change their investment and consumption behavior in the direction of sustainability.

Now, however, in view of the comprehensive and necessary changes in our investment and consumption behavior, it is important not to burden the poorer even more. Because that can only lead to resistance and climate denial. In any case, special efforts are needed to overcome this resistance, which is in part heavily charged with resentment and manifests itself in angry citizens’ parties, etc.

We now know what is not working well – especially with regard to the unfair distribution of income and wealth and also with regard to climate change. But we need to set out to find an economic system that guides investment and work in a sustainable direction. Above all, we need a global economic system that helps the poorest of the poor countries but does not harm the poor of the rich countries. Only then will we overcome the resistance of socially disadvantaged people in the North.


In this sense, it is not coincidental that of the five essential “U-turns” called for by the recent report to the Club of Rome, “Earth for All,” the first two relate to reducing inequality and poverty! Climate policy and the fight against inequality and poverty must go hand in hand.

The third turnaround relates to the empowerment of women! There we are with the gender issue and with a reorientation in social coexistence! A new relation between the sexes on the basis of the equality is only one – although crucial – element of the new cultural relations of the people among themselves! So a “new enlightenment” is needed, which must be much more comprehensive than the last one.

This also frightens many people – especially men – and creates resistance! So politics has to care about the transformation to equal and sustainable ways of living in the same measure as about overcoming resistances against this transformation! This is also the big mistake of some climate activists who think they have to address only politicians. The task is much broader and more complicated.


The new enlightenment must start from clear principles, but in doing so it must initiate a difficult process of dialogue. Tolerance and acceptance must not be confused with indifference to the violation of fundamental rights of present and future generations. In this context, it is also of no help to pronounce past generations guilty.

Tolerance means, above all, learning from the consequences of past actions and building a new future. The most difficult thing to do is to bring along those who already feel disadvantaged, or who objectively do, and who fear that they will suffer even more disadvantages from the coming changes. A lot of persuasion is needed.

This can only succeed if we do not conduct the necessary discussions only in the “bubble” of the convinced. Instead, we must develop images and models of order that convince people to venture out of the current order or disorder into a new, uncertain one. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the point where we can offer such images with conviction. To do this, we have to move forward step by step and take as many people with us as possible.