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.
It is not possible to have vision when your head is in the sand. Exhibit 1: climate change negotiations minister Tim Groser, speaking about this year’s climate change conference in Copenhagen
“The idea that Copenhagen could, in the language used at the  Poznan conference, result in a ‘full and certifiable international agreement …’ is Noddyland stuff.”
One can almost hear the heavy sigh before he speaks. And in his words (reported here) we hear the voice of the veteran trade negotiator, the foreign affairs insider, the former WTO ambassador thoroughly versed in the realpolitik of international conferences. We hear the tired and cynical voice of global diplomacy.
Yet, behind Groser’s evident desire to minimise our expectations lies something far more pernicious: a massive failure of vision and of leadership on climate change. Indeed, I sympathise with Groser for having to be so frankly disappointing. The fact is that the failures he speaks of are failures of vision and of leadership on a global scale.
In its issue of 18 October 2008, the New Scientist published a collection of nine short commentaries on the folly of growth. They are now on open access and make for essential reading for anyone concerned about the future of planet Earth.
For greens in particular, the articles provide welcome backing for a founding principle of the movement which has been eroded and undermined by relentless optimists (inside and outside the green movement) who would have us believe that ecological sustainability and economic growth are mutually reinforcing. The opening editorial piece makes it quite clear that ecological sustainability and economic growth are not at all compatible, observing:
personal carbon virtue and collective environmentalism are futile as long as our economic system is built on the assumption of growth. … if we are serious about saving Earth, we must reshape our economy.
What appears to be a revolutionary call for a global economic transformation has been published by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. In the Washington Post he urges world leaders meeting in Bali for the Climate Change Conference “to open the door to the age of green economics and green development.”
He also writes: “First came the Industrial Revolution, then the technology revolution, then our modern era of globalization. We stand at the threshold of another great change: the age of green economics.”
David’s post from yesterday: (Economic-security-a-green-alternative-to-the-growth-obsession) reminded me of something we wrote some time ago, for a different audience.
With a new title and a couple of minor amendments, here it is: Continue reading