Economic Growth vs. A Liveable Planet: Which Side Are You On?
by Ian Sinclair
29 October 2022
“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle to be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”
My main takeaway from Tony Benn’s wise words is that each new generation of activists and progressives need to fight and win the important arguments again and again and again.
Take, for example, former Prime Minister Liz Truss telling the recent Tory Party conference that those who oppose her government were the “anti-growth coalition.”
Writing in the Financial Times weekend magazine under the heading ‘Intellect’, Tim Harford, the presenter on the fact-checking BBC radio programme More Or Less, told readers “The UK’s new prime minister is absolutely right to believe that economic growth should be her top priority.”
Over at The Guardian there was a roundtable collecting responses to Truss’s speech. The contribution from Mick Lynch from the RMT union was titled ‘It’s pure nonsense that unions are “anti-growth”’. On the same page, Fatima Ibrahim, Co-Director of activist group Green New Deal Rising, noted “Green groups have been labelled as part of an ‘anti-growth coalition’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Activists such as myself are committed to clean, equitable growth for all.”
Responding to Truss resigning as Prime Minister, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party tweeted “For our economy. For growth. For working people. General Election, now.” Meanwhile the Labour Party’s popular 2017 manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership included fifteen mentions of “growth”, such as “Labour will invest in our future, to ensure faster growth” and “our industrial strategy is one for growth across all sectors.”
Analysing 1,133 news items – from the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and BBC – about the Financial Crisis for her 2018 book Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, Laura Basu found only one that challenged the growth paradigm.
There is, then, with a few rare exceptions, a broad consensus across the political and media spectrum today that economic growth – as measured by a nation’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP per person – is good.
However, we have not always been so sure about economic growth, or blind to the climate and ecological ramifications of making it a central aim of society and government.
50 years ago this year a report was published by researchers at the Massachusetts of Technology, which had been commissioned by The Club of Rome, a group of business leaders and intellectuals. Titled The Limits To Growth, the study warned “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years.”
The report continued: “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”
“If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.”
The Limits To Growth’s legacy in terms of sales and generating debate has been huge, including influencing Tim Jackson’s report Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet, published in 2009 by the Sustainable Development Commission.
Noting “GDP growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world for most of the last century”, he argued the climate crisis now requires reconciling our aspirations for the good life with the constraints of a finite planet. This means “we have no alternative but to question growth” and transition to a sustainable economy.
Also published in 2009, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better took time out from analysing inequality to highlight the problem. “We have to recognize the problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth,” co-authors Professor Richard Wilkinson and Professor Kate Pickett noted.
Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton was more forthright in his 2010 book Requiem For Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change. Building on his 2003 treatise Growth Fetish, he explained “From the outset, the fetish with economic growth has provided the principal obstacle to coming to grips with the threat of global warming.”
Naomi Klein took up the baton in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Published in 2014, she noted “the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming…. are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die.” She quotes climate scientists Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows from 2010: to meet our emissions targets “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations are needed.”
Our rulers cannot say they haven’t been warned. Since 1972 The Limits To Growth has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into over 30 languages. Prosperity Without Growth was endorsed by King Charles and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and appeared on then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s summer reading list. This Changes Everything was on the New York Times bestseller list, and reviewed across the mainstream media. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, one of the most famous people on the planet, has repeatedly denounced the “fairy tale” of ceaseless economic growth. And speaking in 2013, national treasure Sir David Attenborough explained “We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”
But what about the ‘green growth’ championed by Fatima Ibrahim from Green New Deal Rising? Reviewing the academic literature on the subject in a 2019 peer reviewed journal article, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis conclude the “empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory” and therefore “green growth is likely to be a misguided objective, and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies.” Hickel explained why in a 2020 blog: “The question is not whether GDP can be decoupled from emissions (we know that it can be), the question is whether this can be done fast enough to stay within safe carbon budgets while growing GDP at the same time. And the answer to this is no.” Only a degrowth strategy will succeed in reducing emissions fast enough to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5oC or 2oC, he argues.
Indeed Hickel sees a deliberate policy of degrowth as an opportunity to improve people’s lives. “We can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life… without feeding the never-ending growth machine.” He calls this Radical Abundance, where private riches would likely shrink, but public wealth would significantly increase.
All of which makes the current consensus incredibly depressing – and deeply worrying. If we are to have any chance, as a nation or humanity, in averting catastrophic climate change then the mainstream debate and government policies on economic growth need to be in a radically different place than it is today.
As the academic and activist Rupert Read noted in his 2019 co-authored primer This Civilisation Is Finished, “unless you ‘angelise’ economic activity, eliminating its environmental impact altogether… then increasing economic activity is prima facie now a dangerous thing to encourage.”
In short, growth fetishists who ignore the reality of the climate crisis need to be treated accordingly – as a danger to young people and future generations.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair