Listen up! Pay attention! This affects us all! There can hardly be a politician anywhere in the world who does not yearn for economic growth. It was the mantra that won Liz Truss the key to number 10, and now economic growth is central to Kier Starmer’s vision for the future: he wants to achieve the highest growth in the G7 group of countries. So why is there such a strong consensus from both left and right of politics? It’s because growth delivers higher incomes, larger profits for business, and higher taxes for government to spend on education, health services and vital infrastructure. So what’s not to like?
The problem is that growth is exponential – a 3 per cent growth rate means a doubling of production every 25 years, and if the world economy were to grow at this rate, we would ravage the environment beyond the point of no return. As the economist Fritz Schumacher said: he would expect his son to grow into his late teens, but if he continued with a similar growth rate into his twenties and beyond, he would be become very alarmed. David Attenborough has said that anyone who thinks we can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet must either be a madman or an economist! Could it be that the climate and ecological crisis we are currently facing are not the problem, but symptoms of the problem? Maybe the real issues are the relentless pursuit of economic growth, over production, over consumption, and the way we measure the success of our economy.
Most of us will be familiar with the initials GDP – gross domestic product, the sum total of all our economic activity. If it’s up, we’re doing well; if it’s stagnant, perhaps we need a change of government. The trouble is that GDP as a measure of success is fraught with anomalies. For example, if you come home from a holiday to find your house has been burgled, that’s good for the economy! You will be making insurance claims and replacing your television, computer, jewellery or whatever else has been stolen. You might spend money on security locks, burglar alarms and security lighting – it all adds to growing the economy. Yet more wealth creation happens when your stolen items are sold on the black market.
Crucially, measuring GDP does not account for the services that nature provides free of charge. Clean water, pure air, and fertile soil are vital to our existence. Bacteria and insects clean up the detritus, and there are the inordinately complex webs of life which maintain the continued existence of life on this planet. We interfere with these fragile systems at our peril. No-one can be sure where the planetary boundaries are, it’s uncharted territory and is disregarded in the GDP figures. For example, the Amazon rainforest is ‘worthless’ until it is cut down. Then it’s bonanza time for the loggers, the gold miners, cattle ranchers, the timber exporters, garden furniture makers and the foreign exchange dealers. They all contribute to GDP, whereas the rights of indigenous rainforest people, the wildlife, the extinction of species and the detrimental effects of climate change are all ignored. We need a new way of looking at our economic system before it’s too late. Many economists are working out ways for us to live sustainably on this planet – Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is one such example.
She suggests a new model of economic prosperity which is shaped like a doughnut, and everyone should live within its ring of security. No-one should fall down the hole in the centre, and the economy should not be allowed to expand beyond the outer ring of planetary boundaries. Growth should be limited to creating green jobs which enhance the natural world and create a genuinely sustainable future for us all. Undoubtedly this will be a gigantic challenge and it’s easy for most citizens to feel totally overwhelmed. However, there is a lot that the individual can contribute.
Ask yourself if you really need that new item of clothing? Is it OK to go to New York for your hen night? How about taking a holiday in the UK instead of flying to Thailand? Are those fresh strawberries in midwinter absolutely necessary? These are the sort of questions we should be asking about our over-consumptive lifestyles.
Most of us have lived through a time of the greatest prosperity known to humankind, but with world population expanding, possibly to ten billion, there will be some hard choices ahead. However, there’s one easy thing we can all do – change our bank account. I joined the Co-op bank when I found out that my High Street bank was funding huge dam projects in Brazil which would displace thousands of indigenous people. Check to see how your bank invests its money. Does it fund fossil fuel extraction, overfishing of the oceans, harmful chemicals or land grabs in Africa or India?
Take a look at Triodos Bank’s website – it’s a revelation. Does your bank tell you how they are funding renewable energy? Does its website cover items from Chris Packham on wildlife, or funding for organic smallholders? It’s just so refreshing to see that there are alternative ways of creating a prosperous economy – and you can be part of it.
Malcolm Baldwin – Sustainable Staverton
Most of all, in any economic transaction, we should all be aware of John Ruskin’s’ dictum: “There is no wealth but life”.