If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you’ve heard me rattling on about the problems with economic growth on a finite planet, and waxing lyrical about the steady state solution. If you’ve always thought it sounded like a great idea but wasn’t quite sure what to do about it, then this post’s for you. Continue reading
A steady state is an economy or society where the goal is sustainable and equitable human well-being rather than economic growth. In order to stay within biophysical limits the goal is for the economy to reach an optimal size and then remain steady or mildly fluctuating – thus ensuring economic stability (no boom and bust cycles) ecological sustainability and a high quality of life for all. Continue reading
Evening, lovely readers.
Sorry I haven’t had time to post very often lately, I’m in my second year of university now and it’s hotting up on the workload front. Anyway, here’s my next post in my ‘Transitioning to a Steady State’ mini series. In my last post I wrote about how individuals can help us to transition to a steady state. Now I’m going to write about the role of business. Continue reading
So, as promised, this post is the second part in my little mini series about transitioning to a steady state economy. Getting Past the Dilemma of Growth was my policy action plan that governments could feasibly use to get round the catch-22 that economic growth is leading us to ecological collapse and yet the fear of recession chains us to it. How do we get governments to take this seriously? In democracies such as my country, having a policy action plan is only half the battle. You need public support. It’s easy to overlook this when you consider how many things our governments do that we’re not happy with. But something like economic growth is so ingrained in the public consciousness that we’ve all spent our whole lives seeing it as the magic solution to our woes. Above all, we’re used to governments treating it like the number one priority. So in terms of transitioning to a steady state, there’s two things to do before governments will even take notice. Two things that normal people like you and me need to do.
First, we need to raise awareness of the problems with growth and more importantly, the steady state solution. We need to maximise media coverage. Talk about it to everyone. We need it to become common knowledge. We need to persuade everyone this is our best hope.
Second, we need to show politicians we want it. If they tried to do this without public support they’d be out of office come the next election surer than oranges are orange. So we need to assure them we won’t vote them out for their risky behaviour, and in fact, will vote them out if they refuse to act. We need to demand it.
Get Informed & Raise Awareness
If you don’t already know what I mean by a steady state, I mean an economic model where the economy doesn’t grow but stays at a steady size, within ecological limits. It is not in recession because it is designed to be in this state. The focus is on equitable human well-being. Although the economy doesn’t carry on growing, culture and science still drive humanitarian progress. Check out the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) for more information, and sign their position. Read their books, Supply Shock and especially Enough is Enough which is possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Once informed, and if you want to help make this a reality, then shout about it. Talk to your friends about it. Write facebook statuses about it. Recommend people to read those books, and others, or just google the term. If you are a blogger yourself, then write about it. Mention the steady state concept in responses to news articles and in online forums. Just go on about it to anyone that will listen. But make sure you know what you’re talking about first, as the last thing we need is confusion over what it does and doesn’t mean.
Demand a Steady State
If you really want a steady state economy, then don’t stop by telling your friends you think it’s a good idea. Demand it. Write an email to your MP about it, and if they don’t respond within a month, send another one. Suggest to a like-minded people you know that they do the same. Write letters to newspapers about it. Maybe we could organise a petition asking for the dilemma of growth to be discussed in parliament. If it did get discussed, I’m sure they wouldn’t agree to do anything about it, not the first time anyway. But that would be just be the start, and politicians would at least be forced to learn what the concept means. Then we could organise protest marches, which would also generate media coverage of the issue. (More on media later). Come on guys, get your citizen muscles pumping. We are the 99% and all that.
Start Living It
It’s true that we desperately need systemic change. It’s true that our economy and even physical infrastructure is not set up for sustainable living. But there are plenty of ways we can start living the revolution before it’s actually happened. The main things to think about are reducing our consumption and increasing our resilience… Reducing consumption is quite a challenge in a society crazed by materialism, but it can be done. If you’re a bit poor then you’ll have a head start with this because saving money might be enough of an incentive to force yourself away from the glitter of Topshop and the Iphone 5. I’m not pointing any fingers here, because I know first hand how hard it can be to resist the pull of adverts, shopping malls and the endless treadmill of fashion. But if you’re serious about this, then you need to get a handle on your consumption. I’m not saying don’t buy stuff (obviously impossible) but I am saying think before you buy. Try to buy more second hand things. Or at least good quality things so you can keep them for years and repair them. Don’t buy cheap disposable crap. Borrow stuff, share stuff. You get the idea. The resilience thing is about making yourself more secure and less dependent on the fragile global economy and intricate logistics system. If you have a garden or even a balcony, start growing some of your own food. It’s so fun it’s verging on addictive, once you get started. If you have enough money then invest in solar panels and start generating your own power. If you can’t afford this or are renting like me, then at least try to reduce your energy use.
So in conclusion, if you want a steady state future, there’s three (or four really) main things you can do. Learn about it, tell others about it, show the politicians you want it, and just start living like it’s already here.
Next time I get a chance I’ll write about what the media can do for the transition. Then I’ll be on to NGOs and the business world.
Indefinite economic growth is not physically possible, and there’s mounting evidence and opinion that it’s not even desirable.
I’m convinced that our best hope of sustainable progress is to transition to a steady-state economy, where consumption and population are kept at steady, ecologically safe levels, and equitable human well-being is the overarching focus. In Enough is Enough, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill outline a practical blueprint for such an economy. Their engaging and accessible book suggests seven key policy goals, each with examples of specific policies:
- Limit throughput of natural resources
- Stabilize population
- Distribute income and wealth
- Reform financial institutions
- Change our progress indicators
- Secure meaningful jobs
- Rethink commerce
Although these are all brilliant suggestions, I think the book misses a crucial point. After reading Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson, I’ve realised that I was being quite naïve in my assumption that the only things blocking my vision of a steady-state were political will and corporate influence. Of course those are huge obstacles, but the real underlying obstacle is what Jackson calls ‘’the dilemma of growth’’.
This dilemma, or paradox, is that although continued economic growth risks ecological collapse, we’re locked in to chasing it simply because our economy doesn’t work if it stops growing. When growth stops, or even slows down too much, it causes recession. People lose their jobs, and sometimes their homes. Businesses go bankrupt. The government interferes by borrowing money from banks and hands out stimulus packages, desperate to get the economy growing again. But this creates public debt.
This is why economic growth is always the top priority, why the media’s always cheerleading it and why the political will for a steady-state is non-existent. But it’s vital that we get past this catch-22, and fast. While we’re forced to pursue economic growth, action on climate change, poverty, social justice and biodiversity loss will be marginal. We desperately need to find a way past this systemic problem, because limiting throughput (and Dietz and O’Neill’s other ideas) won’t be possible in a growth-based economy.
If you thought this post was going to just be me moaning about the problem, then think again. I’ve been racking my brains and I’ve come up with an idea, which I think is feasible.
This is a top-down, policy based approach. Later I’ll be writing about what role individuals, businesses, the media and NGOs will play in the transition.
Introduce substantial taxes on all forms of pollution (atmospheric, water, soil etc). This would have four beneficial effects. Firstly, it would obviously discourage pollution. Secondly, it would help to internalize externalities, forcing companies to pay the full price of their production processes – which would force them to put their prices up, meaning retailers would also have to, meaning people wouldn’t be able to afford as many consumer goods. Thirdly, it would massively reduce economic growth (which is only possible by externalizing costs and not counting things like pollution). Fourthly, it would raise funds for stage two.
Before the harmful effects of recession kick in, implement an ecological investment package. This would be similar to a stimulus package in that it would aim to prevent unemployment, but of course it wouldn’t be trying to stimulate growth. Instead, the investments would be laying the foundation for our steady-state economy, while creating millions of jobs and opportunities for enterprise and innovation. The package would provide investments and grants for:
- Public transport
- A new smart electric grid
- Renewable energy
- Retrofitting buildings
- Recycling plants
- Parks, urban farms and green spaces
- Pedestrianized city centres and plazas
- Organic agriculture
- Habitat conservation
- Scholarships for environmental degrees
- Green skills evening classes
- Research into clean technologies, e.g. hydrogen power
Many of these investment areas would improve health and well-being, all of them would reduce our ecological impact and all of them would create jobs. Note that employees with a huge range of skill levels and types will be required: from scientists to construction labourers and from teachers to engineers. This should address the risk of unemployment. It would also harbour the growth of many new green businesses. But crucially, many of the investments will not be productive in conventional terms, or will only be productive in the long term. This should mean that although employment will be high, growth should be slow.
However, there’s no telling how people will spend their wages. If people still spend all their disposable income on consumer goods then our sustainability gains will be negligible. There’s two ways of reducing consumption, and I recommend we use both simultaneously:
The pollution taxes will already be reducing consumption to an extent, as super-cheap disposable products will be increasingly unavailable. A few more policies could help speed up this trend:
- A tax on the use of virgin raw materials which can be recycled, such as paper, plastic and aluminium. This would boost recycling, reduce resource-intensity of products and gather funds for future investment.
- Stricter controls on advertising could help to reduce demand for consumer goods. As a start, advertising to children should be banned.
- Some kind of limit could be placed on the import of consumer goods, to prevent the risk of being green at home but outsourcing all our dirty industry, pollution and resource use. Maybe a ceiling could be set and then companies could buy import rights in a kind of auction.
- Tighter product standards, where goods are expected to be durable and repairable. Better quality products without built-in obsolescence would reduce demand, as they would last longer and could be repaired.
- Encourage labour intensive but low-carbon services to fill needs rather than products. E.g. massages over cosmetics, gigs over video games… Could be done by offering tax breaks to service companies, or start-up grants, possibly.
The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett show that more equal societies perform better across a range of health and social factors: they have better literacy and life expectancy, and they have less crime, less teenage pregnancy and less obesity. In addition, more equal societies are less consumerist. This is because in unequal societies, envy and competition lead to the increased consumption of status goods (such as flashy cars and designer clothes). Poverty and wealth are always relative; people compare themselves to others in their society. If some are excessively rich, everyone aspires to that materialistic bench mark. For these twin reasons, a steady state aims to be more equal. Note: I am not suggesting a totally equal society. All jobs having the same salaries just wouldn’t make sense. What I am suggesting, is that the gap between rich and poor should be narrowed. This could be done by several policies:
- Phase out fractional reserve banking and the interest function of money. Is it really fair that people be paid just for being rich? The interest function deepens inequality by distributing wealth to those who already have it. Fractional reserve banking allows banks to create money out of thin air and locks us into cycles of debt that can’t be repaid even with economic growth, let alone without it. Dietz and O’Neill suggest we phase out fractional reserve banking until eventually banks can’t loan money unless they literally have the funds to do so.
- Progressive income taxes, used to fund extensive public services such as healthcare, education, libraries and museums, incapacity benefits, child and elder care. These would help to ‘’level the playing field’’. I think eventually we should have free university education for those who have the right A Levels and pass an interview.
- As outlined in Enough is Enough, pay ratios could be used to reduce inequality. If a company had a pay ratio of 1:80 this would mean the CEO couldn’t be paid more than 80 times the salary of the lowest-paid employee, probably a cleaner. More transparency in business would pressure companies to publish their pay ratios, as well as their bonuses.
With these three stages, I think it would be possible to get past the dilemma of growth.
There’s undoubtedly going to be a large element of creative destruction with this transition. Some companies won’t adjust quickly enough and will go bankrupt. But that’s okay, as long as there are other innovative companies rising from the ashes. The steady-state economy is people centred. It’s not the companies that are important, but the people behind them – what we’re trying to avoid is unemployment. If people lose their jobs because their employer has gone under, that’s okay as long as there are other new job opportunities open to them. It’s only a problem if there aren’t enough jobs to go round or if companies can’t afford to employ the workers they need.
Persuading politicians to undertake this strategy is the subject of future posts, because that’s where the role of individuals, the media, NGOS and businesses come in.
Until next time!
The standard work week in Britain is 38/40 hours long. In America, China and many other countries it’s even longer. We spend so much of our time in paid work because a) we need/want the money, b) our employer might not offer part-time or flexi-time roles and c) our economy is set up to maximise production. Production in the widest sense of the term, of course. We’re not just talking about factory work here – ‘production’ can mean production of the service you’re paid to deliver. Programming, counselling, cold-calling, whatever. You could also add d) because you love your job so much you don’t want to do anything else except sleep and commute. However, although it’s usual to feel at least some level of job satisfaction or even passion for your work, most fully employed people do find themselves rushing around, not having time for a social life or hobbies and being stressed and tired.
There are so many reasons why a shorter work week would be beneficial to our economy, our society and the environment.
- It would reduce unemployment. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, reduced working hours would create more jobs as the available work would effectively be shared among more employees. As we know, unemployment causes a multitude of problems so reducing it would go a long way towards reducing public costs and allowing people to lead wealthier and more fulfilled lives.
- If accompanied by appropriate policies, it could slow down economic growth. If you’ve never heard of post-growth economics then I appreciate this point won’t make much sense – if you’re interested please see the Post-Growth section of this blog or this summary of the concept. For those of you familiar with steady-state or post-growth economics, you’ll understand that optimization rather than maximisation of productivity would keep profits at a healthy, steady level. On the larger scale, this would encourage economic balance and stability rather than the boom-and-bust scenario which is inevitable when chasing the impossible dream of indefinite growth.
- It would make people happier. Quite simply, most people would like some time off! While still holding down a steady job, people would be able to spend more quality time with their kids, get their social life back on track, even engage in a fun hobby or two. Particularly driven individuals might choose to spend the extra time learning more about their field of expertise or even volunteering.
- It would reduce costs to the NHS. Overworking is one of the top causes of stress, and the vast majority of illnesses are caused or exacerbated by stress. Working an 8 hour day plus another hour or two travelling to and from work leaves precious little time for making and eating a healthy home cooked meal, exercising, and getting enough sleep. These three things are vital for good health so making the time for them is logically going to lead to healthier people and take the strain off doctors, psychiatrists and hospitals.
- It would be good for the environment. Apart from the effect on economic growth, a shorter work week would also allow people the time to engage in greener activities that overworked people can’t seem to find the time for. For example: walking or cycling to work, cooking from scratch, gardening, repairing things instead or buying replacements, playing with your kids instead of fobbing them off with extra toys, making handmade gifts… All these activities are common sense in a decarbonising world, but they require that definitely renewable and yet scarce resource: time.
- It’s politically viable. So many people would love this policy; it could be a real vote winner. This is particularly advantageous because many things that’d be great for sustainability just aren’t that popular. Like getting people to stop driving cars and buying tonnes of consumer goods, for example. We don’t need a paradigm shift or an attitude adjustment or a revolution to agree to a 4 day week – this could be implemented now, and it would help lay the groundwork for the transition to a steady-state society. My second point on this list about slowing down economic growth could be left out if need be, as the other benefits are reason enough to consider this policy.
I think it’s important to note that nef concedes that a work-time reduction should be accompanied with other policies, namely raising the minimum wage and progressive taxation. It would be nonsensical to introduce a 4 day week without any other changes because although high earners would likely benefit hugely from the time off, workers on minimum or low wages would be pushed into poverty. The work-life balance is all about people engaging in enough paid work to earn a decent living, while leaving enough time for the most important things in life: family, friends and personal development. It is definitely not about stopping people meeting their needs through work. If we’re seriously considering a shorter, healthier, more sustainable work week, then we need to make sure the minimum wage is high enough for 30 (or however many) hours to equate to a decent living wage.
In that case, we could be taking a huge step towards sustainability and boosting wellbeing, public health and social cohesion all in one fell swoop.
The thing people love most about economic growth is that it creates jobs, and prevents existing jobs from being cut. Similarly, the worst thing about recession is that people lose their jobs. This is totally reasonable, seeing as in this world we need a paying job to get by, not to mention the fact that many people work because they want to – regardless of the pay.
Because we’re used to growth providing jobs, there seems to be a lot of fear and doubt surrounding post-growth economics because people are scared that a non-growing economy will mean widespread unemployment. Happily, this is a total myth.
In the must-read book Enough is Enough, Dietz and O’Neill outline two great policies that would go a long way towards securing full employment with meaningful and constructive jobs. They credit ecological economists Martin Pullinger and Blake Alcott with coming up with these ideas.
1. Work-Time Reduction
The idea here is that worker productivity per hour has been gradually increasing for several decades now, due to technological progress, refining techniques and better organization. This leaves two options: either produce the same amount of goods or services in less time, or spend the same time producing more. Living in a growth-focused economy as we do, it’s been a no-brainer to choose the second. However, in a steady state economy, it’d make perfect sense to choose the first. This would mean employees would get the same salary, but would gradually reduce their working hours. This would eventually leave us with a 4 day work week.
Sharing the available work would mean everyone works a little less and fewer people are out of a job.
2. Guaranteed Jobs
Governments go crazy trying to squeeze more and more growth out of our economies, in the effort to avoid unemployment. As this isn’t 100% effective, they also have to fork out cash for unemployment benefits. The indirect costs of unemployment are also significant, as some people turn to crime if they can’t earn a living within the law. The Guaranteed Jobs policy ”appoints the state as the employer of last resort” (Enough is Enough, p.134). This means that the state would employ people to complete useful public works such as gardening, cleaning, caring and building for minimum wage. This would reduce unemployment directly. The cost of wages would be offset by the gains from the reduced unemployment.
A combination of these policies would be very progressive and would achieve almost full employment . Within a steady state economy, the goal would be that everyone within the working age with good health (apart from those caring for young children) would have a secure and meaningful job.
I’ve always found it gobsmacking that there is an unemployment issue at all in a world with so much work to be done! But part of the issue is that lots of important work – such as habitat restoration and local food production – simply doesn’t offer many paying jobs. So many jobs that are so important and offer such great job satisfaction are only voluntary based, because there isn’t enough money to pay workers! This has got to change! We need to re-arrange the business world, so that doing good is profitable – or at least financially viable in a not-for-profit model. In a steady state economy, useful work will be paid with a decent living wage.
Along the same vein, many people today have very dull and essentially pointless jobs that do not offer a feeling of being truly useful to society. Everyone knows someone who loathes their job and dreads Mondays. In an economy where maximising production and consumption is turned on its head, and throughput of resources is limited, these soulless jobs will not exist. But full employment – or very close – is still possible through implementation of the two policies above, within a holistic framework of other steady state policies.
I’ve just finished reading Supply Shock by Brian Czech and I’m going to give you a summary of what I’ve learned.
Basically after reading Enough is Enough by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill (see this post) I was desperate to get my hands on another book that would flesh out the steady state concept even more. Supply Shock wasn’t that book, unfortunately. Only the last chapter dealt with actual policies for a steady state, and they were taken straight out of Enough is Enough (with credit, I might add). But the book did have a merit of its own.
The basic point that Czech kept coming back to was that:
There is a fundamental conflict between environmental protection and economic growth.
It seems simple enough, but not when you delve a little deeper. Politicians are very fond of the win-win rhetoric that we can have our cake and eat it too: that we can stop climate change, save endangered species and all while increasing the rate of economic growth. In fact lately there’s even been talk of ‘green growth’ and ‘smart growth’. Czech warns us not to be sucked in, because both are empty words, i.e. bullshit. Green growth is still growth, and at the moment growth is bad because the global economy is too large for the planet to sustain. See ‘‘We’ve Had Enough Growth’‘ for more on this.
Czech is very keen to debunk the techno-optimist’s myth that technological progress will resolve the fundamental conflict between environmental protection and economic growth. This I thought was one of the strength’s of the book, and where I learned the most. There are 3 main reasons why technological progress isn’t the magic bullet of our dreams.
1. Billions are spent on research and development every year, by governments, industry, educational institutions and NGOs. In America it is categorized as either basic research, applied research or end-use innovation. The first two are mostly focused around extracting more natural resources more efficiently (which means more can be extracted, not less energy being used to extract the same amount), designing new products and generally making more money. Only end-use innovation is likely to be used to reduce pollution and other environmentally sensitive aims, and that will still just be a small proportion of all end-use innovations. This means that most technological research and development – at least now – is focused on economic growth, which is counter productive to environmental protection.
2. The field of physics called thermodynamics offers two limits to how much efficiency gains from technological innovation can be reached. The first is that in nature (remember that includes us!) you can never have absolute efficiency – some energy is always lost from the system as heat. The second is that you cannot get something from nothing – energy and matter are never destroyed or created, just moved around and transformed. At the moment, in the UK, 1/3 of the energy produced is lost as heat before it reaches it’s destination. That’s shockingly poor efficiency, and we can get a lot better than that, but there are limits to how efficient we can be.
3. The trophic theory of money, as Czech calls it, puts an end to the cries that we’re living in an information economy now so we don’t need as many resources. The internet is a fantastic invention, and it’s very easy to get carried away thinking we can still have economic growth if all that’s growing is pixels on a screen. But web businesses rely on a very sophisticated pyramid of other services. Accounting, marketing, graphic design, programming, animation… And then there’s the manufacturing of the actual equipment, which again relies on the manufacture of much more basic components, not to mention electricity. And the fact is, none of this would be possible without a huge amount of agricultural surplus. If there wasn’t a surplus, my hands would be on the plow, not the keyboard. The economy lies on a foundation of agriculture, then extraction, then manufacture, then services and very sophisticated services like finance and web design are right at the top – supported by everything else. We absolutely cannot have these things without the natural capital feeding the base of the pyramid.
So that’s why technology won’t be able to save us.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t help, along side other things.
I’m working on a list of policies for a steady state economy, partly from Enough is Enough and partly from other reading and my own imagination. I’ll start posting them in sections, such as Population, Progress Indicators, Food, Money, Business, Jobs, Cities, Energy and Transport.
This is another post along the post-growth vein, please read We’ve had Enough Growth for some background on this.
Subject for this evening: business models.
We’re used to two major business models in the West today: corporations and private companies.
Corporations are legally obliged to maximise profit margins for shareholders above all other concerns. Shareholders being people who have invested money into the corporation and understandably want a good return on their cash, while in most cases, not working for the company and rather swanning around building up an impressive investments portfolio.
Private companies are owned by one or more partners and the profit goes straight to them. Their main motive is also to turn a profit, but they’re not legally bound to maximise it at any cost, so they might decide to pay their cleaners slightly more and make slightly less, for example.
Those are the two major ones, but several others feasible models (notably co-operatives, not-for-profits and social enterprises) are here and there in the economic landscape.
In terms of the post-growth concept, profit automatically leads to economic growth. That’s why every business person is chasing it like the end of a rainbow. But, in a situation where we – shock – don’t actually want to grow the economy – bear with me – then it follows that we don’t want profit. Not as such, any way.
But if that means we cannot have business, then that’s quite a stumbling block. The truth is, business is an extraordinarily effective way of organising human effort. Even though (at 20) I’ve never had a paid job more stimulating than waitressing, I still enjoy the aspect of working with other people towards a common goal. As much as I love the concept of volunteering, business just gets things done on a scale that wouldn’t happen if people were just doing something as a leisurely project.
So, can we have business without profit?
I think so, actually. The reason being, profit is only really needed to grow the economy – of course vital in our current situation, but counterproductive in a post-growth situation. Think about it. A business definitely needs to make money, because it needs to cover its costs, including paying all staff a decent wage, and it will probably need to reinvest money back into itself from time to time for one-off improvements. As long as the partners pay themselves a good wage, I don’t see that extra profit is actually necessary to keep the business going.
I’m probably missing something, so if you know about this stuff then please feel free to comment. But this is how it looks from a common-sense standpoint.
Diversity in an ecosystem makes the whole system more resilient. Similarly, I think diversity in the economy makes a more resilient economy. If we had loads and loads of small not-for-profit companies, community-interest companies, social enterprises and co-operatives, rather than a few corporate giants, I think this would deliver much more social value. We’d have a rich web of economic enterprises working to meet real social needs, while providing secure employment.
I’ll be posting again soon with more post-growth ideas!
Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way our society will be able to become both sustainable and equitable, providing a good quality of life for ourselves while allowing other species to flourish, is if we abandon economic growth and consciously transition to a postgrowth society.
I realise that’s a tall order, but I have to stay optimistic that it’ll happen in my lifetime. Otherwise, I’m just not sure what hope we have. We can use increasingly expensive technofix solutions to mitigate environmental problems, and we can continue to throw money at social charities, but it’ll be like popping painkillers. It won’t heal the core problem.
There are many contenders for the true identity of the ‘core problem’.
Some say it’s the separation of humanity from the rest of nature. Others get even deeper and say it’s the ideological separation of matter from spirit. Many say it’s human greed, but I’d suggest that greed is just a symptom of perceived scarcity. Some say it’s money, or at least the love of it. But money’s not the problem, although I used to think it was.
No, the core problem is economic growth.
Economic growth has been pretty good for all of human history up until now – so its easy to understand why so few people have cottoned onto the fact that it no longer benefits us, and is in fact is fiercely detrimental.
Economic growth is the increase in the production and consumption of goods and services.
For all of human history, there’s always been lots of space, lots of natural resources, and lots of hungry and deprived people who could do with more goods and services. The latter is still true today, but that’s another issue that we’ll come back to later.
But now the world is full. Full of us, all 7 billion of us, and full of our stuff. Our cities, our roads, our rubbish, our factories, our cars, our Barbies, our Ipads, our disposable razors, and all the rest. We’ve ‘gone forth and multiplied’ so successfully, and created so many goods and services, that we’re using up too much of the planet, and it’s struggling to cope, whilst other species die out every day. The life-support systems of our planet are under strain and the rivers, oceans and skies are being clogged up with toxins.
And while we’re doing all this – all in the name of economic growth – the economists’ holy grail is failing to deliver real social value. Since the 1950s, surveys on life satisfaction and wellbeing in the Western world have flatlined, while public trust in governments has nose dived. Crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy, addictions, anorexia and obesity are still high in America and Western Europe. Obscene poverty in Africa, South America and Asia continues, and the magical trickle-down effect that justifies Wall Street does pretty much nothing, because the interest function of money means wealth is given to the people who already have the most of it.
Economic growth, on the global scale, isn’t helping us anymore, in fact, it’s causing a lot of serious problems.
Who was it that said, ”growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of a cancer cell”?
Whoever it was, I like the phrase. It sums up the common sense wisdom that more is only better if you don’t have enough. Once you have enough, more will quickly become worse. I truly believe that’s the situation we’re in at the moment.
Luckily, there could be a solution, and that solution is the concept of postgrowth. That basically means an economic model where enough of everything is the goal, and the market and society at large works to keep things in balance, in a dynamic equilibrium. I’ve touched on this when I waxed lyrical about the book Enough is Enough and I’ve mentioned it lots in recent posts, but I want to delve deeper into this new and exciting concept. I’m currently reading a book called Supply Shock which could shed some more light on it.
For now, please look at the website of the Postgrowth Institute, a really cool think tank that commits itself to educating people about the concept and promoting it as a solution to the more-more-more-obsessed madness we call free market capitalism.