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Best Thesis Award 2020

Kristy Louise Rhades (photo).
Kristy Louise Rhades (photo).

This year, the Centre for European Studies has awarded the 2020 Best Thesis Award to Kristy Louise Rhades for her thesis in the Master of Arts of European Studies.

Note: this article was originally published on December 18, 2020. 

Kristy Louise Rhades’ thesis is called “How European welfare states perpetuate the growth imperative and why alternatives are needed” and this is how the jury motivated their choice: “In a mature and creative way, Rhades connects a highly topical empirical field – the European Green Deal – with several schools of thought related to “the growth imperative” and its embeddedness in the idea of the welfare state. The resulting analysis demonstrates how this economic narrative still shapes political responses to environmental challenges and explains why European welfare states are unable to adequately react to contemporary struggles such as climate change.”

We sat down to talk to Kristy about her thesis and asked her if she had any tips for current and prospective thesis writers. 

First things first, congratulations on your big win. What has the experience of writing this thesis been like and what have you taken with you from the experience?

Thanks a million! I am incredibly grateful for this outstanding award and will do my best to make people understand past and contemporary Europe a little better. 

The experience of writing the thesis was an intense one. You start by thinking about the topic as a research outline and swiftly find yourself questioning the entire universe that encompasses the research question. You end up questioning yourself, and at some point, you identify with the topic so much that you can no longer think about anything but the questions that made you curious about the subject in the first place. But I am not saying these strong emotions during the thesis writing process were negative - quite the opposite. They made me approach the research process with creativity and an open mind so that when submitting the thesis, I ensured the discussion included both balanced and bold propositions. 

What you take with you from a long and intense writing process is a tremendous amount of resilience. Especially with the pandemic, I think the mental strength that I built up from writing the thesis during the first half of 2020 helped me accept that my plans for a PhD position will need to wait a while. 

What made you interested in studying Europe and the Commission proposal for a European Green Deal?

The reason why I chose to study Europe is that everyone has an opinion on it. I originate from a multicultural background; comparing European countries comes naturally to me. Still, barely anyone has enough knowledge to know what exactly we are talking about when we are talking about Europe. The same is true of the European Green Deal. New Deals, of which the European Green Deal is an offspring, are game-changing initiatives. With my thesis, I wanted to explore the hypothesis that the European Green Deal has the potential to change the whole economic environment of the European Union. 

The idea of a Green New Deal was introduced by environmental movements and progressive politicians from Australia to the United States already some years ago. In Europe however, it only became a media phenomenon when, two months prior to the start of my research, the European Commission launched their motion about a European Green Deal. The idea is fresher than a classic investment plan and has a new objective: a carbon-neutral economy. Nevertheless, the potential of the European Green Deal is either being downplayed or seen as too distant. I think it is a great idea and environmental protection needs to be part of the centre of economic thinking from now on. Especially since the corona pandemic caused a major economic crisis in Europe, I hope that it will bring about an environmentally conscious recovery plan that improves the economy and brings it into balance with the people and the planet.  

In your thesis, you emphasise the need to “establish a new pattern of thought beyond the growth paradigm that is anchored in welfare states”. Was this drive present before you started your research, or did you discover it along the way?

I am passionately devoted to thinking meta. I enjoy debates that involve economic, social, environmental and political aspects all at once. To me, these factors all interplay. When talking about economic turmoil, for example, we cannot exclude the social effects it brings with it. Similarly, the consequences of an ecological disaster can be seen in the stock markets the next day. 

The idea of combining the economic growth paradigm with European welfare states came during my studies at Lund University and its partner organisation, the University of Edinburgh. It was the data analysis that affirmed my hunch that Western, and in this case European, welfare states are constituted in perpetual economic growth: Modern economies need to be bigger, better, faster and stronger to endure. 

The problem arises when social and economic welfare depends on constant extension whilst also dependent on finite resources. The issue of the will to eternal growth vis-à-vis finite resources does not only show in welfare. The idea that more is always better is deeply rooted in the Western thought paradigm. However, people of my age are both environmentally conscious and the first generation to live with the consequences of environmental degradation. We can therefore no longer allow ourselves to think in terms of perpetual growth. 

You find that the focus of the European Green Deal is demonstrably economic. Why do you think a move away from this framing is so important, and what do you think the role of the EU could or should be in this?

I do not mind the European Green Deal being demonstrably economic, given that the origins of the EU lay in creating post-war economic prosperity for its member states. After all, a Green New Deal is first and foremost an investment plan. What I cannot entirely agree with is when net profit becomes more important than social or environmental wellbeing. Each part of the triple bottom line - people, planet and profit - have to carry equal value. Otherwise, an investment that calls itself green but remains purely growth-focused is nothing but an asset, if not greenwashing. My qualitative analysis verifies that this is the case with the Commission proposal for a European Green Deal. The aim of the investment plan is firstly economic growth and only secondly environmental protection and social security. The European Commission has to try harder if it wants to get rid of its greenwashing image. 

The main long-term developments to the European Union are advancements in the social and the environmental sphere. The EU has enormous capacities to coordinate both things effectively; doing nothing would foster neither social cohesion between the European countries or strong common ecological standards. 

The European Commission’s catchphrase is to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. The year might be debatable, but the necessity to put a flourishing natural environment on par with economic strength is unmistakable. 

For the prospective thesis writers out there, what tip would you give on how to find a topic? 

Think about what motivates you. What questions about the topic remain unanswered? Those questions are the red thread that leads you to an innovative topic on which nobody has focused. I was driven by a sense of ownership over my thesis topic. Knowing that this idea is new and nobody has written it down before you feels like a white canvas that wants to be coloured in. As long as the topic sticks to the ethical research requirements, there is nothing you can do wrong. 

And what do you think is the number one thing to keep in mind when approaching a project as big as a master’s thesis?

Coffee, clarity, and resilience. 

Interested in reading the thesis that won the 2020 Best Thesis Award?

Click here to go to “How European welfare states perpetuate the growth imperative – and why alternatives are needed” by Kristy Louise Rhades