Greens and growth
Greens don’t like growth. It’s the mantra. We like to talk about a ‘stable’ economy; one that neither grows nor shrinks.
The trouble with maintaining a zero growth economy is that you have to maintain zero population growth alongside it. Have zero economic growth and twenty percent population growth and it means you have the sort of contraction in living standards that we’re desperately trying to fight off at the moment.
I am not opposed to economic growth. What I am opposed to is growth, and stability for that matter, in certain important areas.
I am not just against growth of greenhouse gas emissions; I am for a sharp reduction. A combination of investment in renewables (whilst holding out faint hope that fusion might be both possible, safe and democratic), technological innovation and legislation with regard to energy efficiency, better public transport, a reduction in livestock farming, reforestation and a handful of other measures could easily cut our emissions in half in twenty years.
I am against the unsustainable use of natural resources. With forests that means 100%+ replanting so forest cover expands rather than shrinks. With minerals it means manufacturing with both durability and reuse in minds, with hydrocarbons it means reduction in production to levels a fraction of what they are now. With fisheries reductions to levels that allow marine populations to bounce back.
I’m against the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people and the natural world.
I am against consumerism. Consumerism is powered by an industry devoted to the promotion of unhappiness; advertising. Having made people miserable, advertising holds out the promise that the void within can be filled with consumer crap. It can’t. That void is a place which can be filled with faith, friendship and family, not with stuff, not even high grade stuff from Steve Jobs.
I am concerned by population growth. Population is a multiplier on all the other problems we face. However the only real weapons we have to combat the unsustainable growth in the world’s population are education and persuasion. No green in his or her right mind ought to be talking about anything that smacks of coercion let alone worse.
I am against all sorts of things, but not growth per se. Economic growth can mean growth in human activity as much as it needs mean growth in production of raw materials and consumption.
We’re moving rapidly towards a knowledge economy. The creative industries constitute a greater share of the UK’s economy than they do of any other country on earth. In the age of downloads billions can happily enjoy a movie or a song or a game with precious little demand made on the planets resources. Pardon the pun but the creative industries are a growth area.
We may not like the financial sector right now. I certainly don’t. However it’s another major contributor to the economy that, in terms of its immediate environmental footprint, is quite small. (NB Yes, I’m quite aware that banking funds all sorts of stuff that causes massive damage to the planet – however that raises questions about a host of other reforms, but doesn’t change the specific point I’m making that knowledge economies can be low on pollution and light on physical resources).
Then let’s look at the impact of increased human activity on manufacturing and production.
Think about antiques a minute. (I can hear the noises off – and I know what you’re saying but stop it). The things people typically preserve, the things that are thus most long lived, are those into which the greatest human resources have been put. A table is a table is a table – except when that table has been made by master craftsmen. It’s the same amount of wood as a bad table but more care and more effort has been put into maximising the aesthetics of that table. That human endeavour has taken a given quantity of resources and maximised its value, not its utility necessarily, but its desirability and the pleasure it gives. They create something that outlives them and is cherished by future generations.
That’s the model Greens should be considering. Let’s call it quality over quantity. It’s the antithesis of an economy that produces piles of stuff that is used, trashed and thrown into a hole in the ground. We buy less stuff but we buy better stuff.
Of course that model doesn’t accommodate fashion very well. Georgian furniture might be in one week and out the next. The less well off might have to live with beautifully made but unfashionable things. It doesn’t strike me as a much worse alternative than having to live with fashionable rubbish – though Anna Wintour might beg to disagree. However as anyone who has watched the documentary ‘Zoolander’ will know, fashion people aren’t necessarily the ones by whom we should be dictated to; and last time I was at a Green get together I think I can safely say (by and large) we’re not.
That said if you were to say that decoupling growth in human activity from all the stuff that we all want to see less of is damned difficult, then I’d agree.
It’s likely to be one of the major challenges of our lifetimes.
However one resource that seems to be in little danger of dwindling is the supply of human beings and there’s no sign that human beings’ capacity to innovate and create is shrinking either. Let’s hope it doesn’t. The desire to work, to create and to make something of lasting worth is a deeply human one. Some Greens may not like human economic activity. My guess is that they’d dislike human inactivity more.
So let’s be clear about what sort of growth we oppose and what we don’t, and no, let’s not be naïve about how hard it’ll be to decouple the good from the bad.
This post first appeared at The Headstrong Club.