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.
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in case it’s not sufficiently clear I am absolutely against ‘growth at all costs’ as the costs so often outweigh the benefits.
I’m arguing for a more labour intensive use of resources to maximise their value (and that doesn’t necessarily equate with price – I’m talking about worth not cost) so we focus on the growing human capacity and less on physical resources.
Non-Green parties like big infrastructure projects because they like tangiable results for their spending, so we get new schools rather than better paid and more skilled teachers and we get more roads rather than moves to bring work and homes closer together.
I’m trying to get across the idea that we need to offer a positive vision of the future and if we use crude ‘no growth’ language without being far clearer about what we don’t want and what we do then other parties will simply paint that as a recipe for unemployment, poverty and dissatisfaction – when greens have a far richer alternative in mind.
So if you mean by growthism ‘crazy stuff-production, materialistic, short-termist destructive rush for more economic activity’ my nuanced position is broadly ‘screw that’… OK?
Scotland is the latest victim of growthist mania. SNP puts money into (mostly destructive) ‘infrastructure’ projects – while benefits etc are cut.
I dont think you are hard enough on growthism, J. It is killing us.
Interesting article. I’m definitely inclined towards the qualitative growth not quantitative growth and decoupling qualitative from quantitative, but I remain highly sceptical. Usually we can dig around in some history books to back up our arguments, but are there any good examples in history of this decoupling ever happening? I can’t think of any….
I can, however, think of a number of historical examples of quantitative growth and an excess of energy allowing people more free time for the qualitative growth we’re after. So whilst knowledge or education can in theory keep growing for many thousands of years, if it isn’t underpinned by an excess of energy and possibly quantitative growth, will it actually in practice keep growing?
For example, when unsustainable societies hit the buffer zones, not only does consumption decline, but also knowledge. I’m a tad worried this may well happen to our own.
I don’t think we disagree. I think it’s vital that we de-couple value from wealth if we’re to have a healthy society. It’s a big topic and I’ll be looking at that issue in depth in another piece soon – but in brief I think we’d be coming from the same place in saying that any society that values people purely in financial terms inevitably fails to value those it can get away with underpaying.
As for the financial markets – I’m not a fan – it’s simply an example of an area where the immediate environmental footprint is small comapared to the size of the sector – perhaps it would be less contentious to say law, software development, accountancy etc etc.
Mushy – “The ‘Creative Industries’ is essentially advertising, in its broadest sense.”… Erm – I’d recast that – the creatiive industries, especially mass market creative industries, can be hijacked and used for advertising via product placement, or through the whole celebrity system. However I’d disagree that applies to whole swathes of the creative industries – much of publishing, film, documentary, music, fine art etc etc. Surely you’re pramarily thinking of Hollywood blockbusters – that’s a small part of the creative sector as a whole – and product placement forms a small part of their revenue. Most still comes from ticket sales and DVD sales. The idea that a big name director like Spielberg somehow twists Schindler’s List to promote, what…? or that Lady Gaga is sponsored by the parma ham producers association (a missed opportunity I think) is rather wide of the mark.
Do we have a self consuming consumer culture which tries to leverage every aspect of modern life to support its efforts to flog crap – yup, we do. I suspect a lot of creatives would hapily sign the divorce papers.
Hey ho – but lots to argue about though… 🙂
I broadly agree.. just a point though. The ‘Creative Industries’ is essentially advertising, in its broadest sense. Most of those involved in design, art, animation, illustration, film and music are being paid to ultimately sell and image or a product.
Now, there is nothing wrong with creating beauty, even in a mundane product, and that the good part of what these industries try to do, but there is no point in imagining that this can be easily divorced from peddling consumerism and insecurity, which is the dark side.
My only point of difference here, Jonathan, is that I believe an economic system which promotes competition and measures success in wealth selects for ruthless, cruel sociopaths whose actions cause destruction, ultimately of the system itself. On a lighter note, they are in a minority; most of us are moral beings who yearn for justice and fairness, and would thrive in a much more democratic and equal way – and also a far less destructive way – in an economic system which promotes co-operation.
That being the case, I’m unconvinced by your case for the financial market.