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A German Slow-Growth Recipe For Greater 'Prosperity'

Charged with redefining the way well-being is measured in Europe's biggest economy, German social scientist Meinhard Miegel sees the national debt crises as a sign that people will need to find new ways of being satisfied with less.

Trader Dirk Mueller at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange
Trader Dirk Mueller at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange
Dorothea Siems

BONN - Many Germans are beginning to doubt traditional economic and growth models. But you still wouldn't know it looking at their consumption habits. Individual contribution to a sustainable economy is generally limited to buying energy-saving light bulbs and diligently sorting their recyclables and trash.

Bonn-based social scientist Meinhard Miegel's goal is to change this. And a paper he has written, Von der Konsum- zur Wohlstandskultur ("From a Consumer Culture to a Prosperity Culture"), lays out how, working together, politicians and everyday citizens can create a viable economy.

Miegel is one of the experts for the German parliamentary commission that seeks to establish new definitions of growth, well-being and quality of life. He represents the "Unionsfraktion" -- Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) parties -- on the committee.

Founder of Denkwerk Zukunft – The Foundation for Social Renewal -- Professor Miegel believes that major social changes are necessary not only to safeguard society but to keep people satisfied with their lives despite diminishing material wealth.

According to Miegel, the state should pull back from involvement in many areas, leaving more space open to citizen initiatives, and the wealthy should not only take on more responsibility, but shoulder greater financial burdens as well.

Miegel says economic growth is being bought with the destruction of the very things we need to live. Damage to the environment, dwindling resources, shattered societies, and mounting national debts, demonstrate that not only Germany but all industrialized countries are living above their means, he says.

Miegel predicts that "after decades of material growth we are now facing a long period of time over which we will see continually decreasing material wealth."

He points out that in the last few years, 80% of Germans saw losses to their real income, thus raising the question "of how to maintain a functioning democratic society in the face of decreasing material prosperity."

Professor Miegel sees some progress being made as people come around to a different way of thinking, including Chancellor Angela Merkel's admission that it was a fatal mistake to think exclusively in terms of an economic growth model.

Expanding definition of prosperity

Of course, society, and not least entitlements, risk falling apart if there is no economic growth, and the stability of the financial system would face acute danger. "Big questions remain," says Miegel.

A prerequisite for change is an "expanded definition of prosperity," the study states. Instead of passively consuming more and more, people pursue interests like art or the outdoors, practice more sports, get active in political life or social causes.

According to Stefanie Wahl, the managing director of the Denkwerk Zukunft foundation, what's needed are more "pioneers of change." Such things as car-sharing systems, multi-generation housing, and greening initiatives are catching on.

To bring all this about, individual projects should be linked so as to form a network, prominent members of society should be encouraged to set a good example, and institutions and businesses should play an active role, the paper goes on to say. Any measure that relies on non-replenishable resources should be phased out. Another imperative: prices of products should have the cost of the toll they take on the environment factored in, while their labels should state clearly exactly how they are produced so consumers can see for themselves how environmentally sustainable products are.

Miegel and Wahl believe that their recommendations for change offer an ideal opportunity to re-think the role of the state, which since the mid-20th century has been involved in many areas that could be handled by society -- in many cases today, citizen involvement is shunted off to the sidelines.

And one of the results of overextended governments is massive national debt. "Many states behaved like drug addicts," says Miegel. "They need ever-increasing doses to feel good, until one day they take one dose too many."

Now, given the sheer amount of debt, credit is no longer a valid instrument to spur growth, he says. The state is going to have to both shrink and find a way to offer subsidies that encourage environmental sustainability. Subsidies paid to commuters that encourage people to live greater distances from their place of work should be stopped, Miegel says, as should lower energy tax for businesses.

Read the original article in German

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