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Lund University Sustainability Award for Agenda 2030 goes to degrowth economist

Timothée Parrique (Johan Persson)
Timothée Parrique (Johan Persson)

Does green growth exist? Can we achieve a sustainable society with a GDP that grows year after year? Not if you ask Timothée Parrique. He is the economist who defied all the good advice and chose to research degrowth. Now his thesis has been downloaded 27,000 times, and he is a sought-after lecturer worldwide.

At the end of February this year, renowned economist Paul Krugman wrote a column in the New York Times arguing for green growth. Timothée Parrique read the text, immediately cleared his calendar of all assignments and sat down at his desk. A few days later, he published a lengthy blog post and a flurry of social media updates detailing his research findings in response to Krugman's arguments.

"I felt I had to react and show that what Paul Krugman writes about green growth is dangerous because it is not true. I really wish it were true, but unfortunately, the research shows the opposite", says Timothée Parrique.

There is no mistaking Timothée Parrique's passion for his subject of degrowth. This driving force led him to trust his gut feeling a few years ago and pursue the research topic, despite all the warnings around him. He was told that it was bad for his career, that he was about to shoot himself in the foot, that it was pointless and that it was also difficult for him to get funding.

"As a macroeconomist, you are supposed to deal with growth, not degrowth. In the European Commission, where I presented my plan for the thesis, I was told it was far too provocative. But I was stubborn, and it's essential that we in research can push the boundaries." 

Three years ago, he presented his 871-page doctoral thesis, 'The political economy of degrowth'. It highlights the consequences of traditional economic growth and why green growth, which decouples growth from negative climate and environmental impacts, lacks strong evidence in the research literature. In the final part of the thesis, he examines different recipes for how degrowth could be implemented in society. 

So, what is degrowth, and how can it increase the sustainability of the world? In simple terms, Timothée Parrique explains that nexus means scaling down both production and consumption. The reason is that there are strong links between growth and the use of resources on Earth. For example, in a nerve-axis economy, fewer products are produced, less transportation, more forest preservation, less meat production, mineral extraction and less energy use.

"In high-income countries, we have an ecological debt, use too many natural resources and have high climate-impacting emissions. Our research examines what would happen if we put our high-income countries on a macroeconomic diet. In a planned way, we can then reduce our environmental footprint, mitigate climate change and hopefully allow biodiversity to flourish," says Timothée Parrique.

A shrinking economy, less shopping and travelling, lower material standards - this may bring to mind a bleak future scenario reminiscent of recession and higher unemployment. But that's not the way it's supposed to be, emphasizes Timothée Parrique. Quite the contrary. A key point is to replace growth measures such as GDP with indicators that instead measure our well-being. The idea is that we can work less and have more time for relationships and a higher quality of life than today.

Research shows that after a certain standard of living, there is no correlation between higher growth and higher well-being. Therefore, it is better to focus on the real needs of people and nature," says Parrique. 

"The question is why the world continues to focus on profit maximization and GDP, which are old economic metrics. We can measure wealth in a new way that considers things like our health, social relations, clean air in cities and biodiversity. We must build not-for-profit cooperatives and increase local trade, currency and democracy. "

In spring 2023, the idea of green growth is still very much alive in the political debates in many countries. If high-income countries don't switch to degrowth, what will happen? 

"Natural resources will not be enough, that's very clear. So, either we can do this in a structured, intelligently organized and deliberate way today, or there will be some kind of collapse tomorrow. It's like choosing a method for an obese patient. Either you choose a healthy diet that gets the patient in good shape, or you amputate a leg to achieve the goal."

Timothée Parrique is now a postdoctoral researcher within Lund University's Agenda 2030 excellence initiative and continues his research on degrowth. If there was little interest a few years ago, there was even more interest when his thesis was completed. It was published at the same time as the pandemic paralyzed large parts of the world, and Timothée's phone started ringing off the hook. Many journalists were interested in the implications of declining economies, and the thesis was downloaded in the tens of thousands and became a popular science book in his native France last winter. 

But it was a coincidence that he became interested in the issue of sustainability. He grew up in Versailles and studied ecological economics at Uppsala University through an Erasmus program. Sustainability courses there and a summer school on political ecology in Barcelona were crucial.

"I had no interest in the environment, but I suddenly realized that we couldn't solve climate change with classical economic models. It felt like trying to build a whole house with just a screwdriver. When I heard about degrowth, it was an eye-opener."

Now Timothée Parrique has been awarded this year's Agenda 2030 Sustainability Prize at Lund University. In addition to the honour, he will receive SEK 25 000 in prize money. Minimalist Timothée Parrique is thinking about how he wants to use the prize money.

"It won't be a private jet to Costa Rica. I probably want to help small, exciting climate projects that need funding. That would be great fun."

Lund University Prize for the 2030 Agenda

The prize aims to promote innovative, interdisciplinary research on sustainable development by early career researchers. The prize, worth SEK 25 000, is awarded annually by the graduate school Agenda 2030 in collaboration with the company Elis Textil Service AB.

"It is a great pleasure to announce that Timothée Parrique is the winner of the Agenda 2030 Award 2023 for his pioneering work starting with his PhD thesis, The Political economy of degrowth. The thesis breaks new ground in a fast-expanding literature, which was only marginal when he started his thesis work. He manages to draw on an impressive blend of intellectual traditions in his comprehensive thesis. Since his thesis defense, he has spent considerable efforts to make his work accessible to a wider audience through social media and by turning the thesis into a widely cited report and a book that is currently translated into several languages. A truly impressive achievement", says Kristina Jönsson, the Agenda 2030 Graduate School coordinator.