Why a Green Economy Is a Post-Growth Economy
‘Why a Green Economy is a Post-Growth Economy’
Speaking notes (28th July, Sheffield)
Theme of the conference - designing sustainable economies and this session what is a green economy
Let me begin by thanking Hayley for the invitation to participate and to congratulate her for organising this. As someone who has been writing about limits to growth, green political economy, post-growth politics and economic policy since the late 1980s, it is gratifying for me to see such a gathering like this of made up of (I suspect and hope!) equally intellectually promiscuous, interdisciplinary and heterodox thinkers. And in relation to Hayley's discussion of red and Green teaming I'm happy to reply I'm a re-green Watermelon, Marxist-Lentilist....
I am also a part-time politician, currently a Green Party councillor, but long-time political activist who has rarely ever expressed my views about the economy in a heterodox, post-growth frame...I have yet to find the language to do so (beyond one which as a confirmed atheist and not just lapsed but completely collapsed Catholic is a quasi-religious or religiously-inspired one based around stewardship and an associated the 'good life' and 'good society' beyond carbon-based consumer capitalism). Here it's interesting to note that I've found the Pope's Encyclical Laudato 'Si - Care for Our Common Home extremely inspiring - perhaps the most inspiring publication from a political-ethical world leader on the dynamics underpinning what I call 'actually existing Unsustainability'. Indeed, just to mention here but without elaborating, and perhaps something we will touch upon in our two days together, I find Laudato 'Si a more inspiring document politically, ethically and conceptually than dominant discourses and publications on 'the Anthropocene'.
To sketch out and anticipate some of the parameters of our discussion I outline to my mind some of the salient points to be considered in designing a green economy.
The first is to address conceptual/epistemological/ontological matters - in short, a green economy requires a green political economy understanding of economics and the relationships between society, nature and the human economy. Neoclassical or capitalist economics will not do, whether it's environmental economics for example, mentions externalities or rhetorically accepts that GDP is not an accurate or meaningful measure of societal wellbeing and human flourishing.
A second key issues for me, and I suspect for most if not all of us here at this workshop, is that to design a sustainable or green economy one must address the issue of economic growth. In short, my own firm contention is that a green economy is a post-growth economy (even if that term is not used - an issue I will touch upon later), one in which we move beyond technological and supply side solutions to 'green business as usual'. While of course not rejecting on Luddite grounds or other the need and desirability of technological innovations, a green economy in my view requires tackling issues of demand side and consumption.
By 'economic growth' here I mean the growth of monetary, undifferentiated GDP as a permanent feature of the human economy, where economic or productive activity is solely viewed in monetary/market terms i.e. excluding non-monetary economic activities in the home and community. And I take as given here the profound and multiple and dynamic effects of economic growth policies on individual societies and the planet. As Schmelzer states
"The social and economic policies that were the result of the overarching priority of economic growth, or were justified by it, have fundamentally and irreversibly reshaped human life and the planet itself" (2016: 1-2).
While perhaps exaggerating slightly, we need to view economic growth as in the same category as human evolutionary achievements such as agriculture, the discovery of fire, the Reformation and the emergence of capitalism itself that is, as a 'world changing' and 'world creating' phenomenon.
The energy basis of this capitalist economic growth logic is another problem that needs to be addressed. I will mention just two dimensions of this. The first is the ecological, climate change and socially negative consequences of a carbon based economy system and society. And here, following Thomas Princen, we should reframe 'fossil fuels' as fossil resources', to enable the full negative ecological and social consequences of coal, oil and gas from extraction, refining, distribution to final burning and use to be accounted for and made transparent. The added benefit of this reframing is also that we can articulate a post-carbon, post-growth economic vision whereby fossil resource are simply too valuable - given their multiple other and more positive uses - to burn as energy.
The second is the idea that modern economic growth in conceptual, ideologies and policy as well as common-sense' terms should be seen as a form of 'petro-knowledge' as Timothy Mitchell claims, that is a historically specific and materially specific set of ideas, world views, norms and claims, which are contingent not permanent or universal. That is, the economic imaginary of endless economic growth, and those forms of economic thinking based around this notion, is dependent upon abundant cheap sources of carbon energy.
While how we think about ‘the economy’, or the ‘economic imaginary’ have, to state the obvious somewhat, ideological, cultural and normative dimensions, but there are also real material ones too. As Bridge puts it, “the social significance of an ‘economic imaginary’ like continuous growth (a particularly pervasive imaginary rooted in the experience of energy abundance and falling energy costs associated with transition from coal to oil in the United States in the early 20th century)” cannot be understood without knowledge of the oil energy assumed to underpin and inform the economic imaginary of endless GDP growth, capital accumulation and consumerism (Bridge, 2010: 5). Mitchell develops this insight further stating that, “The conception of the economy depended upon abundant and low- cost energy supplies, making post-war Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’” (Mitchell, 2009: 417).
Another issue however is the need to face the ideational or ideological potency of the discourse and practice of economic growth, which to me has now in so-called advanced capitalist, consumer societies achieved 'full spectrum ideological domination'. Economic growth is a social imaginary, accepted as the commonsense and natural view of the economy, viewed universally as positive, desirable, sensual, aspirational, progress, modern and future orientated, dynamic. Just as a commonsense view of growth associates it with positive attributes such as maturation, development, forward momentum equally it forms the basis of the social contract within modern capitalist, including welfare capitalist societies.
As Matthews and Matthews perceptively note, using frame analysis,
"The predominant frame is simply that growth is good. Most news stories take this for granted and reinforce it with the language they use. Growth attracts positive words like strong, buoyant and good; in its absence look for weak, stagnant and bad. When a frame becomes universally accepted and constantly reinforced, it can be hard to see it. Growth framing is now so inbuilt that, for many people, questioning it has become unthinkable and doing so seems misguided, unrealistic or even deranged". (Matthews and Matthews, 2015; emphasis added)
Growth is fervently supported/accepted from the board room to the bar room, creating the basis of the social contract within capitalist societies and indeed most societies around the world. As Foucault put it 'Economic growth is the one true social policy of neoliberalism' and has in my view achieved almost full spectrum ideological and ideational hegemony over what economics is, the goals of the economy and how it should be organised to achieve those goals. Capitalist /neoclassical economics has rendered growth as the natural state of the economy such that the 'health', 'vitality', 'resilience' etc. Of the economy is gauged by whether the economy is growing or not. Economic growth is presented and accepted by the majority in society, especially policy makers, business and political elites, as THE solution to the problems we face - to solve unemployment - the answer is growth, the deal with our housing crisis - growth, environmental damage - growth ...even issues of peace, national security and geopolitical dilemmas can be expressed and solved by growth, Here is an example from a 2010 article entitled ‘Economic Growth is Key to Our National Security’ (Schramm, Litan and Stangler, 2010), in which the authors’ state:
"How will we know that America's huge sacrifice in lives and wealth in Iraq and Afghanistan will have some positive payoff? The conventional answer to that question hinges on the level of violence and the prevalence of American-style democracy. But, if history is any guide, neither country will enjoy a stable future free of terrorists that threaten global security unless the Iraqi and Afghan economies experience sustained economic growth." (2010: emphasis added)
And the reason given for this is that “When economic pies are growing, people have less reason to fight each other, or to fight us. It is that simple”. So along with growth reducing poverty, orthodox GDP economic growth can bring and sustain peace.
An important issue to consider is that a movement beyond growth should not be presented, in public as a blanket rejection of growth - here a crucial consideration is the question of thresholds and the reframing and replacing growth as the dominant objective of the economy. In terms of thresholds critiques of economic growth ought to be articulated in terms of pointing out the thresholds beyond which economic growth becomes, as Herman Daly put it 'uneconomic growth', that is we can and must recognise the positive aspects of economic growth, that there can be pro-poor, even pro-egalitarian orthodoxy economic growth - not least in the global south (though here I mean this not simply in terms of them following 'our' development model). But we need to develop a critique of growth in terms of cancerous growth, to begin to introduce an intuitive idea that growth for growth sake is not only the ideology of the cancer cell' as Edwards Abbey put it, but that growth after a threshold is net negative rather than positive.
As Wilkinson and Picket put it
"Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey’ (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 5-6; emphasis added).
Here we should honour growth, celebrate its achievements but also be clear headed in presenting the evidence and arguments of the urgent need to move beyond orthodox, undifferentiated growth as a permanent feature of the economy.
But we should point out the dangerous mythic and wish fulfilment dimensions of economic growth. This is no more evident that the technological optimism and determinism that is a key foundation of economic growth and its associated view of economics, the human individual, the good life and the good society. How different is the dominant belief in future technological innovation as so or sufficiently assured that we can continue with small steps to green business as usual, to continue to have our growing carbon produced consumer capitalist cake as it were and eat it? Are not firm and confident predictions of solar radiation management as a way to 'climate hack the planet' towards a low carbon, sustainable 'good anthropocene' nothing short of mythic thinking on a global scale? Why do we assume our societies with all our knowledge, civilisation, science and technological achievements are somehow beyond dangerous forms of mythic thinking and dreaming?
To conclude: I am convinced we have sufficient research to substantiate the claim that a green economy is a post-growth one (remembering that what I'm talking about is undifferentiated GDP growth as a permanent feature of the economy - i.e. It allows for growth for aspects of an expanded viewed of the economy (that is to included non-monetised productive and reproductive work and activity). We have the scientific evidence of the ecological unsustainability of our current carbon-based, consumerist, capitalist economic growth systems and the social scientific evidence of it no longer adding to human flourishing and creating and managing rather than addressing socio-economic inequalities.
However, what we lack is a compelling counter narrative to growth beyond critique and rejection, a compelling storyline to make the creation of a post-growth sustainable economy not simply necessary but also desirable, something to be democratically embraced rather than technocratically imposed. Here much more work is needed on presenting and marking a post-growth economy both realistic (in terms of specific polices, practices and everyday experience - what does welfare look like in a post-growth context? Food production? Transportation? International trade? Tourism and leisure? Work and employment? ) but also desirable and attractive - to make the growth paradigm redundant, related to another time. In short economic growth needs to be viewed and presented and understood as something that our societies, governments, businesses, trades unions, faith communities etc. all need to grow out of if you will.
While I do think there is more research to be done no these issues it seems to me we need more work on the ideological power of economic growth and work on what goals and objectives can replace it that can command popular support (and support amongst decision-makers in government in particular). Here some suggested ideas of future research - is 'economic growth; an I=elite ideology?
As Buckminster Fuller perceptively put it: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. So the challenge is how to frame economic growth as obsolete, as having passed the threshold where it solves problems, helps achieve central socially agreed goals such as prosperity, security, freedom, equality, justice, community.
Here suggestions vary from my own around economic security and a focus on well-being and quality of life, and a greater emphasis on non-monetary economic activity, the social economy as well as ecological infrastructural investment and restoration. Here the work of people at this conference such as Peter Ferguson, Dan O'Neill, John O'Neill,, Carl Death, and Rupert Read are illustrative of this reframing and reimagining and redesigning our common sense and policy relevant view of 'the economy' and what aims and objectives it should have. After all the economy is there to serve society.
But to create and design a new green sustainable economy I suggest that analytically we need a new green political economy and a politically and socially new economic imaginary, a new economic commonsense. But we also need new post-growth policy proposals (basic income, shorted working week, replacing or supplementing GDP measures, relocalising economies, slow food, wellbeing beyond state welfare, the circular economy, products of service, the sharing economy and collaboration consumption are some suggestions).
So while we need new stories, inspiring narratives, ones co-created with our communities as opposed to imposed upon them or developed for them - no matter how well meaning - since after all where there is no vision, there the people perish, we also need work that answers our contemporary version of Lenin's question 'what is to be done?' It's raining reports - scientific, psychological, social science - telling us that our current growth based economic system is ecologically unsustainable, increasing inequality within and between countries and has, in capitalist consumer societies passed the point where it is contributing to wellbeing in comparison with more directly redistributive measures rather than more growth. But evidence is necessary but insufficient...we need new frames, new discourses and new stories about the transition from actually existing unsustainability towards building sustainable economies and societies.
Thank you and I look forward to the conversations to come here at this conference and beyond.