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Degrowth awarded an ERC Grant: An interview with Giorgos Kallis

By: Giorgos Kallis, Nathan Barlow


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In October of this year Giorgos Kallis, Julia Steinberger and Jason Hickel were awarded 9.9 million euros by the European Research Council (ERC) for a project titled Pathways towards post growth deals. This constitutes the largest ever sum of funding for a degrowth research project. The ERC website’s overview of Synergy Grants describes the aim of the project as focusing on possibilities, policies, politics and provisioning – and then implementation in practice. More specifically, they will develop equitable North-South convergence scenarios, model human well-being achievement and articulate post-growth policy packages. Among the research aims are developing democratic models of provisioning systems to ensure future populations have adequate access to necessities such as energy, food, shelter, health and social security, and identifying political and practical steps towards post-growth deals. Below is a short interview with Giorgos Kallis to discuss this exciting news, conducted by Nathan Barlow. The interview is divided into three sub-sections about the process, the meaning, and outcome.


Nathan: Congratulations to you and the rest of the people involved in this milestone achievement! What kind of learnings can you share about the application process for such grants that you think may be of interest to others in the degrowth community? From the writing process to coordinating a lengthy application process, and everything in-between.


Giorgos: Well, I like to joke that I am a better project manager than a scholar, so not so easy to share all the learning that is involved here, and all the accumulated knowledge that I have these last 20 years with EU projects and which are not easy to codify. If I find the time I would like to run a short course on how to prepare for an ERC grant, but let’s see…What I can say is that unlike many other project applications, this was one that it was a pleasure to work on (and that’s not easy to say given that the interview preparation took place in the midst of the Summer). We had a great team and accord with Julia and Jason. I felt that even if we were not to get the project, we wouldn't have wasted our time, as I always learned something during our conversations or during the mocks we had with other colleagues. So, one very generic advice is work on projects you really believe in and only with people you really like.


Nathan: And to what extent did you all attempt to make the application process itself a pre-figurative process in line with degrowth principles?


Giorgos: Well, as prefigurative as it can get working August on zoom (does jitsi count better for prefiguration?)…..Prefigurative in the sense of being convivial and collaborative, hell yes. Prefigurative in terms of being slow and low intensity, with clear limits in terms of our time dedication, not so much. But we will do our best to pre-figure in the project itself.





Nathan: Receiving a grant for 10 Million EUR is not only a big financial boost but it would seem to be an effective signaling of degrowth’s increasing legitimacy since the funding body is the European Research Council (ERC). What is the symbolic meaning of the grant going to a degrowth project? 

Giorgos: It’s a clear stamp of relevance and validation. Of course, when you see other ERC projects that get funding for research that is not very close to our taste or values, you would realize that it doesn’t mean anything per se. But what it definitely means is that our research is of the highest scientific quality, and is at long last deemed of broader societal relevance. The taboo has broken.


Nathan: In light of the IPCC AR6 Report that explicitly acknowledges degrowth as one of the key ‘green economy’ approaches, Hickel’s planned address to the Dutch Parliament, and now the ERC grant – what do these developments imply about the salience of degrowth in the public?

Giorgos: I see fast change. I’ve been working 12 years on degrowth and it is the first time that I see so much interest. It is not only our project. There are three more ERC projects on post/de-growth (by Giuseppe Feola, Mario Pansera, and Federico Savini), plus three Horizon 2020 projects funded on wellbeing and growth, where many teams from our community will be working in the next four years, plus a call under H2020 which for the first time ever calls explicitly for research on ‘degrowth, post-growth and doughnut economics’. That´s a huge change. How that knowledge will arrive to the public or to electoral politics, or to movement struggles,  remains to be seen. 




Nathan: Without giving away too much, what kind of problems will the project aim to address, and what key questions will it pursue?


Giorgos: I don’t mind giving up much, this is not top secret proprietary research, and whoever has ideas to share with us, is welcome. But basically the idea is to try to bring degrowth’s abstract ideas to the ground and think more concretely about the metabolisms, policies, economics and politics that can make degrowth REAL (this is a serial killer’s acronym out of a post-gRowth dEAL, which is the full title of the project).

Nathan: There haven’t been a huge amount of degrowth-specific pre-doc positions in Europe in the past, but in just the last three years that landscape has changed for the better. In my opinion, this is a promising development as it provides non-precarious work to those passionate about degrowth. Especially for those who can use these high(er) paid pre-doc positions to not just pursue academic activity but also engageme in activism and organizing.


Given that the ERC budget is so large, it will clearly be able to fund many pre-docs, which is an excellent way to solidify the knowledge and motivation of young academics finishing a Master’s without a friendly institute (or paid position) to go to. To what extent was this a (implicit) goal of yours in applying for such a large fund? Or just a nice secondary benefit?


Giorgos: We want to train and support the next generation of scholars who will get positions like ours in Universities and pursue this research further in the near future as well as act as agents of action research and social change. Having said that, we put priority to post docs instead of pre-docs, because we feel there are many talented PhD graduates out there, who need our support. I am speaking personally here, but I have a feeling that we are producing more PhDs currently than can be supported by academic posts in Universities, and this creates disillusion and frustration for many talented young people. In theory as a professor you were supposed to graduate only one PhD in your lifetime who would take one day your position (assuming a steady state of academic positions). I have already graduated 14 and that’s a low number compared to colleagues. I feel more urge to support the post-docs out there willing to devote their research to degrowth, rather than produce more PhDs. But as you say, this is a big grant, so there will be plenty of PhD positions in the three teams.



Nathan: Thanks for taking the time to do this short interview at a moment when degrowth scholars, activists, and organizers are increasingly being asked to do more and more as the idea gains resonance. So to end our interview in a slower way, what do you enjoy doing to slow down? Since it would seem you deserve some well-earned rest after the ERC process!


Giorgos: Just hanging out with friends or spending quality time with my partner and twin three year old daughters. And I want to keep loyally to my rule of no work in weekends and in July and August (well, not all of July). I broke this rule this Summer for this ERC grant, but this was the one and only exception and will not be repeated. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if I have to work August for the revolution, then that’s not my revolution.

About the authors

Giorgos Kallis

Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist and political ecologist working on environmental justice and limits to growth. He has a Bachelors degree in chemistry and a Masters in environmental engineering from Imperial College, a PhD in environmental policy from the University of the Aegean, and a second Masters in economics from the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. He is an ICREA professor since 2010. Before coming to Barcelona, Giorgos was a Marie Curie International Fellow at the Energy and Resources group at the University of California-Berkeley.

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Nathan Barlow

Nathan is currently a PhD candidate at the WU in Vienna. His research focuses on degrowth and strategies for social ecological transformation. He is an active member of Degrowth Vienna, and recently edited a collected volume titled "Degrowth & Strategy: how to bring about social ecological transformation". He enjoys working with well-organized groups to realize collective goals.

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