The one sentence summary: Building a post-growth economy is a precise, definable and meaningful task.
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
At the heart of the book lies an apparently simple question: what can prosperity possibly look like in a finite world, with limited resources and a population expected to exceed ten billion people within a few decades?
The concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is too crude a measure. Economists say that if GDP is rising, then so does prosperity and quality of life. But it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s perverse because prosperity isn’t obviously synonymous with income or wealth.
GDP measure total spending by households, governments and business investment but the equation is deeply flawed because it counts air pollution and destructive practices as well. Robert Kennedy went so far as to say that it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.
The myth of growth has failed us. The idea of a non-growing economy needs investigation. It is anathema to economists, but it has been shown not to work. Growth can help those in lower income countries, but much less so in developed countries.
We need a different kind of vision for prosperity; one in which it is possible for humans to flourish, to achieve greater social cohesion, to find higher levels of wellbeing and yet still reduce their material impact on the environment.
What matters to people has been summarised by philosopher Martha Nussbaum as ‘central human capabilities’, and they include a normal life span, bodily health, bodily integrity (not being subject to violence etc.), practical reason (a broad concept of the good life), affiliation with others, play, and reasonable control over one’s environment.
The dilemma boils down to the tension between two concepts:
Growth is unsustainable in its current form but to reject it is to risk economic and social collapse
Degrowth is unstable under present conditions but we are relentlessly endangering the ecosystems on which we depend for our survival.
The conventional response to this is to appeal to the concept of decoupling – more efficient production processes, more sustainable goods and services, more profit with less stuff. The trouble is: it’s a myth. Relative decoupling refers to the decline in material intensity of economic output. Absolute decoupling means an absolute decline in resource, even as economic output continues to rise.
A small amount of progress has been made on this and global energy intensity is now 25% lower than it was in 1980. But it’s not enough and there is a lot of fudging of the figures. For example, the UK registered a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 18% between 1990 and 2007 using a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, this was in fact a 9% rise in emissions when analysed using a footprint methodology. The way developed countries achieve this conjuring trick is not to include the footprint of all the economic activity outside their country. In other words, if goods were made in another country, usually a developing one, their emissions are not included in the declared figures. This is essentially just playing with numbers whilst taking little corrective action.
There are four distinct foundations for the economy of tomorrow: enterprise needs to be viewed as service, the quality of work as participation, the structure of investment as commitment, and the role of money as doing social good.
Policies for a post-growth society must include establishing limits, which no one has done properly, countering consumerism, tackling inequality, and redefining or ‘fixing’ economics.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
In 1970, a group of scientists called the Club of Rome created an analysis of the relationships between population, technology, industrial capital, agriculture and environmental quality. They called it Limits to Growth and it sold over 30 million copies. But we haven’t paid much attention to its warnings.
Our current direction of travel is entirely wrong. Emissions and resource use are rising not falling. The pace of decoupling is painfully slow in comparison to what is really needed. And it’s becoming slower not faster in recent decades.
Cathexis is a term coined by consumer researcher Russ Belk to describe a process of attachment that leads us to think (and even feel) material possessions as part of the ‘extended self’. It could be this that goads us into buying too much stuff.
This is sometimes described as ordinary people spending money they don’t have on things they don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people they don’t care about.
Escaping the iron cage of consumerism demands that we answer this question: Is the system in which our desire for novelty and status keeps the economic engine going still serving us, or are we now serving the system?
One study actually shows a negative association between personal well-being and prioritization of materialistic pursuits.
Frugality seems harsh to us, but its linguistic roots don’t lie in hardship but in the Latin word for fruit. Being ‘for the good fruit’ means being honest and temperate, dedicated to long-term flourishing – as vital for humans as for the earth itself.
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
There is a lot of deep economic theory here to wade through, but it’s worth it.
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