Tuesday, November 1, 2016

An end to growth?

Growth is a dominant economic narrative. But it may be over in the UK and anyway isn’t good for us, says green activist Sandy Irving. He sees the 'shrinking' British economy as creating a real test for Greens. ‘In years of boom, it is easier to critique growth and call for another path. It is harder when actually faced with a 'recession'. The fact remains that we in the UK live, as a collectivity, in a three-planet economy, even if products are unevenly distributed, it is self-evidently unsustainable since there is only one planet.’
So he says the prime need is ‘shrinkage in total economic activity, the very thing that the Bank of England, all orthodox economists and accountants and most politicians, with the widespread support amongst the public, want to reverse. They cry out for action "to get the economy going" (i.e. growing). Yet such growth will doom any chance of combating the climate emergency and the many other symptoms of ecological ruination ahead. There is also solid evidence that, beyond a certain point physical growth creates more social negatives than pluses (sometimes called 'affluenza'). It is evident that across nature, from our very own bodies to ecosystem development, that growth must give way to a steady-state’.
He admits that ‘there is some scope for greater efficiency and better management in the economy. But they cannot get round the limits to growth. Indeed, via positive feedback and the 'rebound effect', efficiency gains are routinely cancelled out. Technological breakthroughs tend to bring all sorts of downsides’. So he claims ‘economic shrinkage is actually the name of the game if there is going to be any chance of building a sustainable society. The selling of that message, unpalatable in many quarters, is another matter, one separate from the logic and evidence behind the message itself. The challenge is to find ways of making such contraction palatable’.                                 
He goes on ‘One way is to focus on quality of life, on matters such as health, community vitality, basic security, and, yes, happiness. Japan has had, roughly speaking, a comparative steady-state economy for a number of years, albeit one at too high a level of economic throughput. In wartime, there have been strong limits on what people can consume. It does not necessarily bring social collapse if the trappings of consumerism shrink. In Britain many people were actually healthier during the Second World War, if the deaths and injuries of war are put on one side) Acceptance is easier if fairness in distribution of a more limited largesse is ensured. Our tragedy is that most people cannot/will not see that today we face threats on a scale even greater than those of wartime. Certainly, the impact of unchecked climate change will be greater than World War 2’
He adds that ‘a smaller economy is not only needed to meet that challenge. More positively, there could still be investment in certain activities that really do deliver social well-being and environmental security. Sustainable economy activity will also tend to be more labour-intensive compared to ones dependent on high inputs of fossil fuel energy and comparatively scarce raw materials (high grade metal ores, rare earths etc). To that extent it is the better option for job creation (alongside work-sharing). A smaller economy would leave more physical space for non-human species, so many of whom are now threatened by extinction’.
He concludes ‘the current threat of a recession will test whether those who in the past have talked about a 3-planet economy and its unsustainability really meant what they were saying or whether it was all just hot air. Instead of calling for the economy to be 'kickstarted', we should be pushing for radically different policies, for better not bigger, e.g. http://steadystate.org/discover/policies/                                                                                                               
There are some alternatives to, or at least modified versions of, this deep green view. For example, if the focus is set worldwide, then some say that, for many of the poor in the world, growth is the only realistic hope of being able to rise above (or even to) subsistence-level existence. That in part is due to the horrifically imbalanced global pattern of wealth, power and access. Change that and maybe the poor would not have to rely on pathetic ‘trickle down’ economics topped up by growth - the main aim of which is of course to maintain high levels of wealth for some by keeping the system expanding. In a global system based on ruthless competition, rival chunks of capital (the assets owned and controlled by companies and the investment capacity of speculators) fight it out for market shares. If the rival companies are all to survive and prosper then the overall global market has to expand. So demand has to be stimulated by any means possible. This process can be tamed a bit (by governments nationally and internationally, pressured by green NGOs) to limit the worst excesses of resource misuse, abuse of the environment and human exploitation, but the world’s affluent consumers continue to feed it, their greed for ‘more’ (ideally at less cost) being enlisted in its support. Attitudinal changes, voluntary simplicity, ethical trade and the like, can help undo some of that, but materialism and ever expanding consumption is so deeply entrenched in our view of what represents a good life, changes may remain marginal, until they are forced on us by adverse environmental or other pressures.

At present, although everyone is complicit, it’s the rich minority who consume most and generate most emissions. That has to change, so the poor can share in a degree of affluence. But its nature also has to change: we all need to change our materialist expectations - and also avoid runaway population growth, or some say even aim for a reduced global population over time, to stay within earth’s carrying capacity. 

In the deep green view, the process of change must happen soon, ideally voluntarily, and anything that offers alternatives that seem to avoid that are dangerous illusions and diversions. So renewables are sometimes portrayed as ‘technical fixes’ avoiding the need to reduce energy use, while possibly creating new eco-problems, especially if introduced in unchanged social and economic contexts. Even energy saving technologies are sometimes seen as illusory: we just need to use less.  That’s not to say that such things will not be valuable in the steady-state, balanced and decentralised society they look to, but on their own they are not sufficient- we need radical and global social and cultural change. To a small degree that has happened: green values are now quite widespread and some of that is due to the emergence and adoption of new eco-technologies. But in the main all they do is enable life to go on much as before, with the new technologies in the main being produced and sold in the same old way. Some market relations may have changed, challenging some parts of the supply/retail system (the big utilities), but PV solar domestic ‘prosumers’ are still consumers, buying in PV kit probably manufactured in sweat shops in China!  

Can we do better? What tools do we have? In the energy context, the basic technologies exist now, or are being developed, but we are only just starting to put them together in ways that challenge the old economic model, via grass roots initiatives, energy co-ops and community owned distribution grids. It’s patchy. Germany is a leader, and local Transition movements are spreading. But its huge task. Though they can challenge rapacious competition, these local initiatives don’t really tackle the key issues of production and consumption-led growth. To take this all on fully would require a wider movement for social, cultural and political change. A big project.

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