Sunday, January 1, 2017

Growth and change: the debate continues

The environmental case for balanced, low or zero economic growth and a stable state economy is strong, in terms of reducing impacts from ever-expanding resource use. However, there are problems. Competitive pressures, one of the main drivers for growth, are not all bad.  The need to compete with rivals in the market place leads to technical innovation- so as to cut costs. In itself, cutting costs by reducing resource use and waste, and increasing efficiency and productivity, are good things, as long as that is achieved by technology improvement, not by increasing the level of exploitation of labour or the ecosystem.  But if its done just to expand sales and sustain profits in the face of others trying to do the same, regardless of real needs and planetary limits, then we are headed for social and eco-disaster. 
In a stable state economy, it would still make sense to improve the efficiency of resource use so that needs could be met while using less resources and minimizing impacts. In a Science as Culture journal paper looking back at the history of Alternative Technology (AT), Peter Harper talked of using efficiency increases ‘to reduce environmental and other impacts’ and sees this as ‘one working definition of AT, shared with steady-state or de-growth proposals for modern economies as a whole’. He contrasts this with the present situation in which he says ‘extra efficiency is invariably used to expand functionality in congenial but ultimately unnecessary directions.  
This may only be partly true- the main driver at present is surely to sustain and expand profits and market shares with improved ‘functionality’ only being a means to that end, and with real needs often not being considered.  Under a no-growth ecologically limited needs-based system, technological improvement could allow some increase in what is available for sustainable use, qualitatively and also possibly quantitatively, within the eco-defined limits. That would be a social and ecological decision, not an economic one, although, unless we want to impose some form of totally planned and constrained consumer society, with quota’s and rationing for everything consumed, there may well still be markets and price differentials to enable people to chose amongst qualitatively different products and services, within regulatory eco-limits and subject to fair trading labour protection rules. However, the main driver for innovation would not be commercial success, it would be environmental success and social needs and costs, broadly defined. If consumption is not to be micro-managed, that implies some overall limits, assessment processes and planning frameworks, operating locally, nationally and globally, on the supply side. We can see something like this happening in the emerging global agreements on carbon emissions, although they are fought at every step by those wishing to retain free global markets and unrestricted growth. Assuming this opposition could be overcome, could regulation be expanded effectively and equitably to cover everything? With the best will in the world, regulation can be very bureaucrats and potentially open to corruption…Can that be avoided? Is there an appetite for change?
 Optimists look to the rise of new or revived grass-roots political movements in the West and elsewhere, but the scale of the problem is daunting- going well beyond just eco-issues and with populist movements as likely to go to the right as to the progressive left, given how easy it is to promote simpleminded explanations of what the problems are. We live in troubled times. But that does mean that change is likely. Let’s hope we can make it for the good, with the Green movement playing a key role. That’s one thing that does need to grow. It helps to create a new climate, in all senses. And while there is so much more to do, we should remember just how far we’ve come e.g. in the energy policy area. Even if its still mainly about replacing old tech with new tech, it has cut emissions and the shift in what’s now seen as possible is dramatic: As is the shift by the bastions of the old economy, with the Economist saying ‘Britain should cancel its nuclear white elephant and spend the billions on making renewables work’. Next- can they, and the rest of us, look to a change in attitudes to growth and a move to a stable state economy? That debate is a live one: and
A key element in the debate is the question of how much lifestyles will have to change Interestingly, in his Science as Culture paper, Peter Harper says that, for entirely pragmatic reasons’ in its Zero Carbon Britain, the Centre of Alternative Technology emphasise technical solutions, and try to avoid the need for lifestyle changes’. He goes on ‘There is no doubt that changes of customary practice will be essential, and that the recent historic period of rapid growth is over. Nevertheless the reports’ abandonment of lifestyle change as the key component is a considerable shift. This distances CAT from the ‘deep green’ parts of the environment movement, who usually cleave to the doctrine that Small is (always) Beautiful’. He adds ‘For some it is a betrayal of hard-fought ideals. For others it signifies a welcome return to the real world. Many at CAT would say it is imply a recognition that we are running out of time. Had the long slow cultural changes called for in the 1970s taken hold and become widespread, all could have been achieved with ‘alternative’ systems. But of course these changes have not spread, and as various global thresholds loom, the responses have to be more rapid, drastic, infrastructural and ‘one-size-fits-all’, and now ‘there is much more concern for whether new systems can be generalised and applied on a wider national scale’.
Harper may have overstated the scale of CAT’s shift: for example, Zero Carbon Britain did talk about the need for dietary change and a shift from land-intensive meat production to create more space more biomass, for energy use: But it’s certainly true that many ‘deep greens’ see social change as much more important and appropriate than what some portray as just technology fixes. Whereas in his Science as Culture paper, Harper concluded that although small scale projects and social change were important, ‘it seems unavoidable that ‘high-tech’ must do the heavy lifting, at least in the short term. Thus two different forms of socio-technical transition need to run in parallel’. So it's not all low tech and small scale.  That also seemed to be the conclusion that emerged from the Radical Technology Revisited (RT 2.0) conference in Bristol in Sept- which looked at CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain scenario as one way forward. That certainly included a mix of technology scales. So, although just how much large scale high technology is needed remains unclear, we have moved away from ‘small is (automatically) beautiful’.  But then as was pointed out at RT 2.0, Schumacher didn’t ever say that only small was beautiful: it was a question of context.