Across the bloated economies of the West, economic growth as we knew it has come to an end. In the US and to a lesser extent the UK, by desperate and unprecedented contortions central banks are keeping the beast alive, like some sad goose being stuffed with corn it cannot swallow, while in the Eurozone, where the Germans have resisted such monetary extravagance, growth rates have plummeted and many economies have undergone significant degrowth.
So as ecologically-minded people who have been advocating drawing the economic consequences of limits to growth why are we not celebrating? The answer is that the social and psychological consequences of the growth addiction have reached into every corner of our lives, making an adjustment to the end of growth as politically impossible as it is ecologically desirable.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the post-growth world we have been living in since the financial crisis – shared with the period of boom that preceded it – is the highly and increasingly unequal way that economic rewards have been shared. During the years of rising wages and asset prices this was politically acceptable, but as the pie refused to grow larger the difference in size between the slice given to the banker or CEO and that earned by the nurse or cleaner becomes more striking.
This gives us our first important conclusion about the post-growth world: inequality will become harder to justify. Of course this does not mean that greater equality will arise automatically; it will have to be fought for strenuously. But the perpetual arguments for accepting small gains now because economic justice will arrive at some unspecified future date will ring increasingly hollow.
It was a concern with the gross inequality of the pre-WWII years that put growth at the centre of our political drama. As I outline in one of my contributions to the new Green House collection The Post-Growth Project: How the End of Economic Growth Could Bring a Fairer and Happier Society, I trace the origin of many of our ills to the Great Depression. Those who cared for the labouring class could see that a highly efficient, mechanised production system could easily supply all human needs using only a fraction of the workforce. To avoid mass unemployment, their logic ran, it was necessary both to shorten the lifespan of products through built-in obsolescence and to use advertising and fashion to manufacture unnecessary demand for material goods. At the time this seemed a wise and humane response to the social crisis of mass unemployment and poverty to those for whom a fundamental reorganisation of the principles of ownership and control driving the capitalist economy was unthinkable.
This is the personal and private engine of economic growth. At the societal level the engine is construction and infrastructure, a theme picked up by Jonathan Essex, a chartered engineer and associate at BioRegional. Here we see a similar pattern of waste and profligacy, with two-thirds of our construction industry working to make our built environment bigger. In this sense Essex makes the trenchant observation that we are very clearly still a developing country. He moves on to consider how a developed, mature, post-growth society might operate. The design principle is ‘make do and mend’, focusing on a jobs-rich economy of maintenance and repair.
An analysis of how public services might be redesigned for a post-growth world arrives at similar conclusions. Here, Brian Heatley and Andy Pearmain broaden the existing partisan debate about health and education, taking a more philosophical and enlightening approach. Public services are about our bodies and are deeply and inherently gendered. Public services are, in Polanyi’s phrase, fictitious commodities rather than consumer rights. Resolving the challenge of high-quality public services without growth and with an increasingly elderly population may be more about rethinking our human relationships than closing a budget gap.
Widening our perspective still further, Brian Heatley provides an ambitious macroeconomic analysis of the UK as if resource limits mattered. His analysis of data, in contrast to the standard habit amongst economists of relying instead on assumptions, yields three main conclusions. First, that growth has indeed stopped and is unlikely to return. Secondly, that this automatically leads to a greater salience for the question of distribution: inequality can no longer be disguised. The third conclusion is more challenging, although not surprising: there is indeed a conflict ‘between stimulating the economy now with green investment and preparing for a longer term reduction in the real size of the economy’.
So we have some key design principles of a post-growth economy – but how are we going to get there? The two final chapters of the collection address the politics and communication of post-growth. In his chapter on the politics of post-growth Andy Dobson again foregrounds the importance of equality, but places alongside it the need for a more engaged and vibrant public sphere. We must, he argues, also adjust to a world where the hyperconnectivity we have come to expect is no longer affordable in energy terms and we are likely to turn instead to the Green principle of localisation both for provisioning and for social relationships.
In the final chapter Rupert Read argues for a radical reframing of what an economy is for, so that rather than challenging growth we evolve beyond it. The ‘hegemony of economism’, the sense that citizens live and work to serve the economy rather than the other way round, has become more explicit as growth falters and fails. Our challenge is to make this realisation part of the political narrative and to create a ‘post-growth common sense’ which enshrines slower, quieter, happier, better connected and less risky lives.
As its authors all concede, this book is no more than an initial contribution to what is likely to be the most important debate of this decade: the response to the ending of growth. Can we use this as an opportunity to advance our policies, much as the neoliberals have used the financial crisis to advance their politics of shrinking the state and enhancing the power of capital? This book is far from the hair-shirt stereotype of Green asceticism. As the editors write in their introduction, ‘The world after growth offers new opportunities to realize a number of universals such as equality, justice, peace, prosperity, environmental sustainability, respect and hope’. If they are right then less might finally turn out to be more.
Green House is an independent think tank based in the United Kingdom. Further information about Green House and the book The Post Growth Project : how the end of economic growth could bring a fairer and happier society (London Pubishing Partnership/ Green House: 2014) edited by John Blewitt and Ray Cunningham can be found here.