Progress: beyond the growth fetish

The UK has just experienced its annual budget announcement from the Government. It contained an extraordinary attack on the eco-agenda, including cuts to energy costs for manufacturers. On the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this morning, Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, backed this policy to the hilt. The budget celebrated instead ‘economic growth’ that has been achieved in the last year or so: Balls’s only cavil was that there could have been even more of it.

This GDP growth that is being celebrated by the Chancellor, George Osborne, and seemingly by nearly everyone else, is another unsustainable boom in consumption that is leaving behind those dependent on food banks and the long-term jobless. We will never have a stable, resilient economy, and we will never cease wrecking the planet so long as we chase economic ‘growth’ rather than economic resilience and rely on ‘trickle-down’ economics to look after the poor. In a wealthy country like Britain, we don’t need GDP growth; we need shorter working hours, flexible working, a Living Wage, family life, leisure time and rewarding work.

This is the Green view. It is a radical challenge to the still hegemonic ‘mainstream’ view, the growthist consensus that entirely dominates the media, which uncritically celebrates any ‘growth’ and is thus institutionally biased against the Green Party. Britain’s most influential media outlet, the BBC is particularly at fault. Recent research by social scientist Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University noted:

The BBC … reflects a series of assumptions that inform the political mainstream … It upholds … a series of economic assumptions based on a global market economy (in which, for example, economic growth is seen as more important than the climate change it helps create).

London Green Party activist Matt Hawkins helpfully punctured one aspect of that media bias in his Huffington Post blog on the budget, It’s Time to Tackle the ‘Hard-Working Families’ Rhetoric. But I want to go further. Hawkins’ article needs supplementing by a direct attack on the growthist economics – shared by left and right – that underpins much of the over-work implicitly called for whenever someone praises ‘hard-working families’. We call for a fundamental redefinition of what constitutes ‘economic progress’. The lunatic ‘logic’ of many economists’ business-as-usual needs challenging.

Growthism is hegemonic. So such a challenge sounds like a big ask. To see how very big it is – and how there is yet real hope – one might start with the recent ‘manifesto’ from a bunch of ‘green-leaning’ Tories.

The Tory ‘green’ ‘modernisers’ are not really green. Because they are pro-nuclear, pro-fracking – and of course pro-growth. Along with colleagues in the thinktank I belong to, Green House, I responded to them in the Guardian by setting out the pro-ecology post-growth genuinely green route forward here. There is clear Green water between us and these Tories. Ours is an ecologistic position, undermining the industrial-growth technofix mainstream (and seeking actually to conserve our country / our planet, rather than ‘developing’ it to death).

But note this intriguing hopeful moment in the article on the ‘green Tories’: The modernisers … call for a rethink away from … the ‘British Leyland’ mentality, which says that the strength of an economy is measured solely by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – the size of an economy.

The consensus around GDP, it would seem, is crumbling. In fact the Office for National Statistics has been busily looking at ways to draw up a “happiness index” on orders from David Cameron himself when he first came to office (before he fatefully decided that ‘green’ = ‘crap’).

The reason that even Tories are now not necessarily sold on GDP is that it is an idea way past its sell-by date. The consensus, among scientists, philosophers, policy-studies experts, ecologists, and even (non-neoclassical) economists, has in fact fallen apart completely. Quietly, away from the awareness of the media, GDP is an idea whose time has come – and gone. It’s time came about 70 years ago. And it has now gone. GDP, the summing up of all ‘economic activity’, good and bad, into one big number, tells us nothing of what we need to know about whether our economy is delivering real prosperity or not.

For confirmation of the point that GDP’s time has already gone, one need only look at this article in Nature by a figure now highly-influential in ‘resource economics’ and in the mainstream field of valuing ‘ecosystem services’, Robert Costanza. Or look at this massive initiative, backed by the European Commission and many ‘mainstream’ NGOs.

Now, of course, we’re not against everything that could be called growth. We’re for growth in actual happiness, for instance: that is the kind of thing that some of the alternative ‘beyond GDP’ indicators are seeking to actually index. Furthermore, we’re of course for a growth in genuinely green sectors of the economy. The expansion of green business / investment is the Green New Deal. But the corollary, if the Green New Deal is actually to be Green, is that this must be accompanied by substantial reductions in the rest of the economy; i.e. we need to close down a very substantial chunk of the real (the ‘grey’) economy. Over time, this will require a slowing down (carefully executed, to avoid an uncontrolled depression) of the levels of economic activity (much of which is just making people miserable and ill in any case).

What we’re against, in other words, is increases in ‘material throughput’, in pollution and resource consumption: increases that are not found when one does green right, but that are strongly correlated with economic growth (as documented for instance by Jonathon Porritt, in Capitalism as if the World Matters).

Overall economic growth in this country is no longer needed, and no longer viable. One-planet living must be the aim. Britain is currently in a three-planet-living condition!

Is calling for this deep shift (to one-planet-living) going to prove unpopular? I think not, once we can get a fair hearing in the media. The public want to hear the truth. They want to hear honest politicians. We can’t just go around pretending that everyone can have everything and that everything will be fine in the best of all possible worlds. If our children are to have a future, they need to inherit an economy which is not munching the ecology up at anything like the present rate.

The public sense that they are not experiencing progress; they don’t like the levels of air pollution they are experiencing. They don’t like the levels of freight they see and hear around them. Especially since the February floods, the public know deep-down that climate change is real and that materialism and consumerism are not making them happy. They don’t like their long commutes, nor the diminution of green spaces. They don’t like over-development, and the gradual destruction of all the beautiful places of our world. In short; there is an opportunity here. There is clear political space emerging, beyond growthism.

What’s the alternative to growthism? It can be summed up in the phrase, contraction and convergence. This is the idea that the overall consumption of a wealthy country such as Britain needs to contract while each household’s individual rate of consumption needs to converge towards equality; and the same between countries, too.

The richer few will have to cut their consumption much more than the rest. The powerful will resist this. But the outcome, as Wilkinson and Pickett explain in The Spirit Level, will tend to make people happier and better off in almost every way; as more equal societies are better in almost every way. There is a job of framing and communication to be done: but, given a good new yardstick for measuring progress instead of GDP, this is surely achievable. One can live a better life, one can enjoy real progress, while consuming less, and impacting on the world much less.

In part because, again as Wilkinson and Pickett stress, we are inherently social animals. Neo-liberalism has tried to convince us that we are simply individuals and that there is no such thing as society. What the alternatives to GDP are telling us is that this is false. We have a common good. Conveniently, ‘For the common good’ just happens to be the Green Party’s new slogan…

The original commons were areas of pasture, meadow or arable field that were managed by all in the community who recognised that only by working together could they achieve a sustainable way of feeding their animals. They ensured that no one individual overgrazed the common, nor that it was under-grazed and turned to scrub. This was not just for themselves but for their children and future generations. It also ensured that a species-rich crop was produced – the healthiest for livestock and for the insect and bird life it attracted. It is no coincidence that Britain’s last few sustainably managed pastures and meadows are home to some of the richest ecosystems in the country.

That early medieval, or even Anglo Saxon, idea of the common good encapsulates a model for society that the Green Party would like to see revived. The concept of the common good extends to present and future generations and from humans to non human species.

For the common good, it’s time to junk the growth-fetish. Progress is nothing to do with what Balls and Osborne and the BBC and the press obsess about. The media have a helluva lot of catching up to do; for GDP is no longer intellectually respectable. For the reasons given here, it’s time now to make it no longer morally or politically respectable, either.