A friend recently expressed to me one of the essential conundrums of contemporary capitalist society: “I can see growth can’t continue, [because of the environmental impacts] but I can’t see how we can stop it without the whole system falling over like a stack of cards.”
One good answer can be found in the recent report of the U.K Sustainability Commission, titled Prosperity Without Growth. But I thought I might also give a much shorter answer that comes at it from a slightly different angle, in the hope my friend and others might find it helpful.
Let’s look at why economies grow, and why capitalism (as we know it) depends on growth, because then we will quickly discover our answer as to how – in principle – we might create a no/low growth economy that doesn’t collapse and doesn’t produce social disaster.
Many people in the environmental movement believe that the economy can be successfully ‘greened’. Assuming this ‘greening’ expresses a real desire for substantive change (ie, it’s not just a marketing exercise), some important questions must be asked. For example, just how are greens’ key objectives of sustainability and participatory democracy to be achieved in the context of a market economy? What would a market economy that can achieve these objectives actually look like?
In an article published in the journal Environmental Politics in 2007, Dan Greenwood has provided a very useful examination of the problem, by comparing the analysis of free market advocates (eg, Friedrich Hayek) with the tradition of ecological economics (which began with Herman Daly) that allows a role for markets but demands a “thick layer of democratic, non-market institutions” (p.74) to overcome the failures of the market.
Garrett Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first published forty years ago, in the magazine Science. The tragedy, for Hardin, is summed up thus: “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” Many people will be aware of any number of dreadful eco-catastrophes that have occurred in the past 40 years and, seemingly, vindicated Hardin’s analysis: Exxon Valdez, the Aral Sea, the Grand Banks cod fishery, Chernobyl … Hardin seems to have been spot on.