We need to talk about economic growth

Sensemaking / We need to talk about economic growth

Jonathon Porritt bemoans the success of campaigns to keep growth out of mainstream debate

By Jonathon Porritt / 05 Feb 2015

Here’s one trend we haven't picked out as dominant: the gradual downgrading of economic growth as the main measure of success in nation states the world over. And yet such a downgrading would probably be the single most important transformation in the world of Big Ideas that we need, to secure a more sustainable physical world.

Let me assure you that such a critical trend would have been included if we’d detected even the faintest indication that people think the time has come to revisit the economic growth debate. But we haven’t.

I say ‘revisit’ as one who served his sustainability apprenticeship in the UK in the early 1970s when the world of ideas was a-buzz with the debate about ‘the limits to growth’ of one kind or another – and not just because of the MIT report of the same name. Academics, politicians, business people, campaigners: this was a debate that really mattered to large numbers of those we now call key opinion formers.

Not so today. It’s nearly 10 years on since the UK's Sustainable Development Commission asked Professor Tim Jackson, its Economics Commissioner, to undertake a study into the compatibility between economic growth and sustainability. Senior Treasury officials were appalled, and were adamant that the title of the report, Prosperity Without Growth?, had to be qualified with a question mark! Since then, Tim Jackson’s book (same title, no question mark) has been a huge success around the world, but he’s one of just a handful of world-class economists keeping this debate alive. It’s still the original limits to growth team whose occasional updates get cited most often; it’s still one of the original anti-growth gurus, Herman Daly, whose robust polemic commands the greatest attention. So where the hell are the 21st-century equivalents of these towering figures? Thomas Piketty may be lauded for demonstrating that extreme inequality is the inevitable consequence of unfettered capitalism. But his critique sits firmly within the same old growth paradigm. 

A new book, Collision Course, by Kerryn Higgs, clinically charts 40 years of campaigning by right-wing think tanks, business associations and academics of the neo-liberal persuasion to consign the debate about economic growth to the trash can. It has been a very successful campaign. So successful, in fact, that not one single mainstream political party, not one significant business leader, and very few academics have shown any interest in reviving this all-important debate.

Since the financial crash of 2008, governments have been even more desperate to ‘score’ high levels of economic growth, both in the rich world (‘how else can we get back to something resembling normality?’) and in the poor world (‘how else can we possibly address continuing, chronic poverty?’). Growth is the all-encompassing panacea, both in terms of GDP and in terms of corporate competitiveness. Without growth, there is nothing: just a slow, painful descent into the 21st-century equivalent of the Dark Ages.

How does such idiocy go unchallenged? There is now a very robust case against conventional, business-as-usual economic growth. Such growth is literally consuming the planet. Nothing and nowhere is off-limits. Existing environmental standards and regulations are constantly diluted on the grounds that they’re a barrier to growth. Public services are first slashed and then outsourced, essentially to drive for-profit economic growth through the private sector. Ever more absolutist trade deals (such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) are forced through the system, overriding all democratic entitlements and accountabilities.

How many times does one have to say it? Exponential economic growth on a finite planet is impossible – I do not deny the need for growth where income levels are very low, but there comes a point where the benefits peter out – and many developed countries have far exceeded this point. As I've argued elsewhere, it's clear that many developing and emerging countries still need considerable economic growth to help address poverty, but in many developed countries there comes a point where the costs outweigh the benefits.

George Monbiot asks: “Why are we wrecking the natural world and public services to generate growth, when that growth is not delivering contentment, security, or even, for most of us, greater prosperity? Why have we enthroned growth, regardless of its utility, above all other outcomes? Why, despite failures so great and so frequent, have we not changed the model? When the next crash comes, these questions will be inescapable.”

All this is beyond reason. Indeed, some anthropologists have interpreted our current position as having more in common with ancient religious practices than with modern political democracy. The God of Growth, created and now served by an all-powerful priesthood (the 1% of the 1% of today’s super-rich), demands its sacrificial victims, systematically slaughters the innocent, brooks no dissent at any level, and co-opts any remaining doubters into a conspiracy of silence.  Tragically, those co-optees include almost all the good guys: environmentalists who recognised long ago that being ‘anti-growth’ fundamentally erodes their credibility – and, thus, their ability to get things done (and that includes Forum for the Future); business leaders whose entire career rests on their proven ability to go on generating growth for the shareholders; academic economists who face a choice between jobbing their way up the greasy pole and intellectual oblivion; politicians on the left whose sole remaining commitment to social justice and redistribution of wealth appears to depend on 'increasing the size of the pie available for redistribution'; and engineers only too happy to go on building yet more bridges and power stations just so long as they don’t have to reflect on the laws of thermodynamics and on the literal impossibility of permanent growth on a finite planet. Even the anti-poverty lobby has long been indoctrinated with the pathetic, deeply mendacious cliché that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. It doesn’t.

A rising tide drowns the poorest and the most vulnerable. As Kerryn Higgs points out in Collision Course, “It takes an enormous amount of global growth to yield tiny improvements for the very poor. For the period from 1990 to 2001, Woodward and Simms calculated that only 60 cents out of every $100 of per capita income growth actually flowed to the poor, making the cake-baking strategy a slow and inefficient means for addressing poverty – and one that is unlikely to be sustainable for long enough to alleviate poverty anyway.”

Much of today’s economic growth simply isn’t delivering for all but a tiny minority of people. But we’ll never free ourselves of dependency on a failed and still failing idea unless we start talking about it.

 

Jonathon Porritt is Founder-Director of Forum for the Future

Image credit: Dany13 - Rio de Janeiro / Flickr


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