Why I didn’t be attending the launch-Conference for Compass’s ‘Plan B’ event, this weekend.

By Rupert Read

I got an invite from Gavin Hayes and Neal Lawson to attend the launch-Conference this Saturday for Compass’s ‘Plan B’. Now, I’m a big fan of Compass. It has been for some time the only real sign of life in Labour. Its full opening up to members of other Parties earlier this year was a genuinely exciting moment in British politics, a key moment in the possible realignment of the Left. I am one of the co-ordinators of the effort to get together Greens who are in Compass, to ensure that there are lots of us and that we think together within the Green Party. I have been since its beginning a member of Compass’s ‘Sustainability Panel’, which seeks to green-validate Compass’s publications. In this capacity, I have seen successive drafts of Plan B.

These drafts have greatly improved as time has gone on. Plan B is a document which makes an effort to take account of the sustainability revolution.

But nevertheless, I cannot sign up to Plan B and I wouldn’t have felt at home at a conference launching and celebrating it.

This is because, despite the improvements to it, Plan B is still seeking a “model for growth”. That is yesterday’s language, yesterday’s aim. ‘Plan B’ won’t be worth having unless it seeks prosperity without growth.

This isn’t just about playing with words. Plan B is, to put it plainly, a strategy to restart economic growth. That just isn’t compatible with ecologism.
‘Green [economic] growth’ is an oxymoron. Growthism – a commitment to growth without end — is the ideology of the cancer cell. (And we know how that ends…).
If there is to be a Green New Deal, and a rebalancing of the economy, then there is a need for a commensurate REDUCTION in other economic activities. And attention needs to be paid to determining a long-term sustainable level of economic activity, which will probably require (considerable) further reductions. These things are not in Plan B.
Some may respond by saying that in theory there could be green economic growth. What is laid out very nicely in Jonathon Porritt’s book, CAPITALISM AS IF THE WORLD MATTERS, is how there is no historical precedent for absolute decoupling between growth in economic activity and environmental impacts. Porritt is hardly a radical g/Green. If even Porritt, who wants to be business-friendly, shows that there is no ‘evidence-based’ reason to believe that green growth is feasible, then we should all take note.

This point is so important that it is worth restating and elaborating on a little. Porritt would prefer to break the correlation between emissions and growth; he wants, as Plan B does, a kinder gentler greener capitalism. But what he states clearly and supports extensively with stats is this: that, while the relative carbon and ecological-footprint intensity of economic activity can be reduced, there is simply no evidence that the absolute intensity thereof can be reduced, without a reduction (or at the very least a stabilisation) of overall economic activity.

A further question: what is ‘green growth’ growth of? Presumably not GDP, which none of us really believes in. So: what? Maybe growth in ISEW (The ‘Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare’, a leading proposed replacement for GDP) etc.?; but that, of course, doesn’t require growth in economic activity. So it is entirely misleading to call growth in ISEW ‘green [economic] growth’.

No-one has ever satisfactorily explained what ‘green growth’ is growth in, or of.

Yes indeed, we need to insulate buildings; we need renewables; we need targeted public transport investment; we need new homes; we need more teachers and care workers. We need targeted increases in economic activity, in certain areas. But we need serious decreases in economic activity, in other areas. The message of ‘green growth’ provides governments and polluters with a tacit excuse to carry on economic/extractive/destructive business-as-usual, with a green veneer overlaid on top of it.

Yes indeed, we need to move beyond GDP as a measure. But it is playing into the hands of those who are completely unserious about transforming our economy and society in the direction of sustainability, to simply turn the latter point into an excuse for saying that there are no limits to growth, provided such growth is ‘green’. There are very real limits to growth, and we have breached them already in many cases. Unless you believe that growth can be ‘angelized’, then you must accept the logic of zero-growth or of decroissance.

Incidentally, BG readers may be interested to see that Saral Sarkar has made a particularly topical case in this direction, recently. His new book is highly recommended.

To briefly summarise it: Saral Sarkar’s case is basically that the limits to growth have caused the world’s economy to grind to a slow halt, and thus indirectly caused the financial mayhem we are living through.

Sarkar argues that this is a crisis of the limits to growth because environmental limits have reduced profitability. Profitability in real-world investments has fallen, because of increasing costs of extraction, increasing pollution-effects, etc., and this has systematically biased or turned the economy to become a bubble economy based around parasitism (financialism).

Why may this lead to collapse? For various reasons, including because of the unprecedented nature and scale of the deleveraging now in progress.

If we are going to have more of what we need, then we don’t need the chimera of growth. We need to REDISTRIBUTE. ‘Growth’, of green or whatever hue, is basically an excuse for not making more serious efforts to have a more egalitarian and sane society.

So: Plan B is clearly better than Plan A; but I don’t see how it is good enough to pass a sustainability test, a test of green economics.

And actually, even the remark that ‘Plan B is clearly better than Plan A’ needs qualification. If Plan A results in stalled economic growth, that might end up being better, sustainability-wise, than if Plan B succeeded in resuming economic growth (which it almost certainly won’t, btw – see below). The counter-intuitive logic here is that same as that which applies clearly to the historical case of the U.S. over the last 20 plus years: the Clinton administration’s environmental regulations etc. were slightly better than either Bush’s, but the totality of the evidence suggests that the Clinton administration was on balance even worse for ‘the environment’ than the Bush administration. Why? Because Clinton managed the economy ‘better’. I.e. There was more economic growth under Clinton. And there is a direct correlation between economic growth and environmental destruction. [That explains why most environmental indicators, ‘surprisingly’, deteriorated MORE under Clinton than under Bush.]

As I’ve already allowed, above, there is clearly a need for more rather than less economic activity in some areas of the economy. But: An increase in (e.g.) renewable energy systems requires a compensatory reduction in (e.g.) oil or nuclear. You can’t just add ‘green growth’ to our existing economy — without making it if anything even less sustainable (Because, and this is crucial to Sarkar’s case, we need to acknowledge clearly that even free energy (‘renewable’ energy) has very significant resource and pollution inputs/implications. There are no free lunches in a genuinely green economy.

As Herman Daly (and Aubrey Meyer) have shown, the only alternative to such zero-growthism is to believe that economic growth can be ‘angelized’: that it can carry on indefinitely while throughput of materials (which, clearly, in fact, needs to fall) does not rise. This is about as plausible as a perpetual motion machine.

The Green New Deal is mentioned positively in Plan B. But there are two readings of the Green New Deal, as laid out in my piece on this in the Compass ‘red-green’ dialogue ebook.

Plan B’s reading seems close to the ‘green stimulus’ reading of the Green New Deal. Such Green Keynesianism by itself is not something that genuine g/Greens can or should endorse.

I am all in favour of a Green New Deal as part of a transition to a genuinely sustainable economy, and as a Depression-prevention device. What I disagree with is only the chimera of ‘green growth’. Obama, Cameron, Clegg — and Compass — all love the idea of ‘green growth’; it makes for great political rhetoric. It’s like apple pie and motherhood, given the current hegemonic forces and discourses in our society. But, following Herman Daly and the other leading ecological economists, I would simply point out that there is zero reason for believing that in the real world it is possible – and zero extant examples of it (and here once more I am in Porritt’s debt). (N.b. Once again, to be clear: I am talking about growth across the whole of society, not just about individual cherry-picked sectors.)

Now let’s tie these thoughts to the latest stage of the unprecedented economic crisis that we are living through. Last month’s actions and predictions by the Federal Reserve, ‘Operation Twist’, mark an important change in the world financial and economic crisis. Basically, the Fed is finally accepting that we are quite likely to be entering a prolonged recession, more likely perhaps a Depression. Even perhaps, I would add, a permanent Depression. And ‘the markets’ have realised this. That is, I believe, the huge significance of the massive drop in silver and copper prices that followed the Fed’s intervention:

“Morgan Stanley attributed silver’s drop to growing concerns about industrial usage and the “high retail component of the investor base”…

Three-month delivery copper fell 4 percent to $7,067 a ton, taking this year’s loss to 26 percent, after earlier today touching $6,800, the lowest level in more than a year. The contract lost 15 percent last week.

“Copper is clearly in a downward trend as investors see no improvement in the macro environment, only deterioration,” Zhang Zhenghua, an analyst at Minmetals Futures Co., said today by phone from Shanghai.”

In other words: silver and copper, which (unlike gold) are still bought primarily as genuine commodities for their actual use (speculative and ‘savings’ use of silver is still well under 50% of its use), have plummeted in price because manufacturers think that they are not going to need much silver or copper in the next several years. Because they finally have woken up to realise that we are not going to have net economic growth.

The mania for economic growth, combined with the elite’s determination not to take proper control over banking and not to make the banksters pay for this crisis, and combined of course with financialisation itself, has unleashed a disaster. A disaster that could probably have been prevented by a genuine Green New Deal. Now, we are in the midst of a growing sovereign debt crisis, because the banks’ losses have been socialised. That crisis shows no sign of ending. And on the verge of a massive corporate debt crisis: balance sheets are going to unravel, as plans that were made on the basis of predictions of expansion are reined in. The de-leveraging will continue to unwind and probably escalate, as expectations fall.

The actions taken to try to deal with these escalating crises without taking power from the bunch of bankers who have ruined the world economy are putting fiat currencies themselves at risk. ‘Quantitative easing’ has further enriched elites without putting more money into the hands of the populace at large: A Citizen’s Income should have been used instead, with the newly printed money. Money itself is finally starting to come into question. As yet more QE happens in Britain, we stand finely balanced between runaway deflation and runaway inflation.

Why is QE being tried? In a desperate bid for growth, through a zero-sum-game of export-led ‘strategies’, in the context of an unwillingness to take banking into social/public control. Most roads now lead back to growth-mania as increasingly the cause of our troubles.

This huge ongoing disaster was caused in part by the limits to growth (see Sarkar’s work) and the unwillingness of governments and peoples to face up to them. The level of denial about this is astonishing; governments seem prepared to trash everything on the unrealisable altar of their desperate bid to restart economic growth. Thus we are getting the environmentally-trashing economics of 3rd world ‘development’ – and of the destruction of the countryside envisaged under the new planning laws that the Coalition government are bringing in in Britain.

If growth seems like the only game in town, then it isn’t surprising that good folk such as Compass look for a greener version of it. We need to acknowledge why Compass et al plump for a green stimulus / green growth etc. package. They do so because, in our current system, they feel that that is the only way to deliver employment.

In the ecologically-limited post-growth world that we are entering/in, we have no option but to look at different models for employment, and for sustaining ourselves. There are models showing that zero growth needn’t mean unemployment (Peter Victor, Managing without Growth), and to some extent Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without growth.) More work remains to be done in this area. (www.GreenHousethinktank.org is seeking / will seek to do some of it.)

So: What is to be done?

What is needed is a strategy to deal with all of this that does not fantasise a way out via a return to growth.

We need to put finance back on the leash, swiftly: Vickers, for instance, represents too little, too late, and too slow: (See also this this proposal, that I initiated, has since become Green Party policy. It stands diametrically opposed to the obscenity of allowing the banks to return to the private sector, at this delicately-balanced moment in human history).

We need a Green New Deal not as a ‘stimulus’ but as a transition to a dynamic equilibrium economy: See again my piece on this.

We need to go beyond Jackson’s (excellent) challenge to growth, and redefine prosperity through the idea of a REconomy: cradle-to-cradle processes incentivised, rationing not just of carbon but also of other virgin resource use (so an overall supply side resilience is secured), and, alongside this, rethinking how we incentivise appropriate technologies that match positive human-scale behaviour-change.

We need simultaneously to put in place a broader series of measures that will build resilience in the event, now probably likely, of the kind of vast crash and Depression indicated above. For instance, local currencies.

We need to warn people in plain terms that growthism, banksterism, and enormous gambles with our collective future have put the world on the edge of an unknown precipice. We need to talk about the risk of a Depression such as the world has never seen before; of an end to money as we know. There is far more than the Euro now at stake.

We don’t need Plan B. We need Plan C. The creation of a constant (no-growth, dynamic-equilibrium) economy.

[Thanks to Alexis Rowell, Jules Peck, Peter Lipman, and my colleagues at Green House (www.GreenHousethinktank.org ) for input into this article.]