DISCUSSION To grow or not to grow? That is the question

by Yolanda Villafuerte _______28th August 2009
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by Tony Manwaring

Is growth a good or bad thing?  Growth has lifted millions out of poverty but our economy and politics are framed by the mantra that growth is good.  In years to come, will we chortle knowingly in talking about growth in the same way as we now think back to the 1980s mantra ‘greed is good’   Or will we have reframed what we mean by growth to the extent that we will be saying, once again, growth is good’?

I know I am not the only one who has struggled to come to terms with politicians whose only response to the credit crunch and recession has been to use what ever levers of economic management they have to restart the cycle of growth.  As we face the challenge of reducing global warming, we default to stimulating more and more consumption and production.  The logic of how we work and earn in apparent conflict with the logic of how we protect nature and the preconditions for life on this planet.
And you know what?   It’s all too easy to condemn politicians with a knowing snigger who are responding to being part of a system that we have not yet worked out how to change.  For within the system we currently live in, whether you are living in deep poverty in rural India or urban Britain, being excluded, without a job and facing deep uncertainty for those you live is something to be avoided.  Most of us have lived without the scars of war and depression, but the frightening impact on young people – the lost generation – of not being able to get a job is one we are only now coming to terms with again.
Over recent months I have the great pleasure of thinking about these issues with fascinating and deep thinkers, culminating in the wonderful Stewart Wallis at the New Economics Foundation (in his impressive warehouse of an office on a Vauxhall housing estate in ‘Souf’ London) this week.
Talking with Ray Anderson of Interface at Tallberg has not surprisingly left a lasting impression – the brilliant team behind the Globe conference in Vancouver lamented that if you have Ray on a platform it is virtually impossible to bill him with anyone else.  Like Blake, he has the audience in the palm of his hand, to paraphrase.
Anyway the point of mentioning Ray is twofold: the first is his commitment to systems thinking, about which I have already written – if you want to change a system, then shift the paradigm and create a new mindset: and I am increasingly coming to the view that arguing about ‘growth vs no growth’ is to be trapped within the paradigm of the current system, whilst failing to challenge and create the pre-conditions capable of building a new system.  (I know many who will disagree vehemently with this and think that this is to sell out, but hey, we all need to break out of current patterns of thinking and behaviour)
The second is his passionate commitment to biomimicry – to learning from nature in challenging the waste and damage of our current model of industial production whilst still creating successful business capable of producing things of beauty.
The thing about nature, it seems to me, is it is all about growth – and decay, and for brief glorious moments, nature resplendent.  There are more than echoes of the Trimurti in Hindu philosophy – with Brahma as the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.  The point being that the concept of growth lies deep within human consciousness, and experience – and is deeply rooted in our relationship with the natural world.
The steady state view of the economy seems to think, like Cher, that you can turn back time – a reference which may leave you groaning, which is kinda the point, as for most people, those who we need to convince to create common cause in building a post-carbon future, it is just about as appealing!
Which brings me to ‘green van man’ or person – because thinking about new systems without creating a new generation of ‘white van man’, around whom elections have been won or lost, to recognise that change is in their interest and that this is a future they want to build, is surely a recepie for failure.  It might be nice to know that we are right, but if the planet is sitll going to ****, what’s the point?!
Because it seems to me that you our chances of bringing things to a grinding halt and stopping innovation is neither credible or indeed desirable.  I both want my i-pod and digitising music and the other stuff I love avoids forests being cut down in vinyl, cardboard and their distribution.  Creation and innovation is so deep within our nature, that to legislate or by some other means suppress is not only impossible, but will result in dysfunctional results.  Which however does not mean that we cannot guide the form that growth takes: ‘green tram person’ certainly might appeal to some but it does not – yet – make it ‘mine’ in a way which will appeal to even green van person now.
The argument about de-materialising growth – de-coupling, to use the jargon, growth and consumption of ‘things’ – points us in the right direction, arguably, but I am still not sure how far it takes us.  Sure, more of our time bringing to life Illich’s vision of a future of ‘convivality’   would be cool, but does it add up to to a complete view of a future economy and society?
Actually, it gets us some way there.  I was really impressed by the arguments of those working on future transport systems as part of the Regional Planning Association of America – businesses and local communities have been banding together, raising the funds for bringing back trams, or streetcars, in much the same way as they used to raise funds for railways.  They are doing this for hard-edged reasons, analysing local value chains created by higher density  and more convivial living made possible with new transport, demonstrating that greater value is locked within the community, and more money is spent on eating, being together, having fun together: not on buying things.
But not all the way there – it is another important piece in the jigsaw in a mental space where we each seem to hold onto the piece that we can hold in our hands, and claim that, yes, ‘it’ is the answer and provides the complete picture.
So I certainly don’t claim to have the full picture, but I guess I think it is worth sharing the pieces I think I can see – as well as challenging some of the shibolleths and false dichotomies that for me at least are getting in the way of creating that picture, of which much of the rhetoric around growth = bad is one.
Piece one: current rates of growth which means ever growing demands on natural resources because growth means the consumption of things clearly is unsustainable.  ‘One planet living’ is a preconditon for the survival of the human species.  The issue of course is how to achieve it in practice.
Piece two: billions live in poverty, and their ability to continue in even those ways of living are being threatened by sustainaining the current growth model.  Witness the awesome analysis of TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) coining the concept of ‘the GDP of the Poor’.  Think about the threat to millions relying on fish for their main source of animal protein, which they get for free, which is under threat because half of fishing stocks are exhausted and another quarter are over exhausted.  A threat which vividly comes to life with stories of trawlers from the ‘developed countries’ moving ever further south, taking those fish, literally out of their mouths.
Piece three: more things don’t make us better off, necessarily.  There’s a lot of evidence which points to the need to recognise that as consumption has piled material goods ever higher, society has become more dysfunctional and we have become more miserable.  The concept of  Gross National Happiness is one of a number of approaches that have sought to recognise this and advance the idea of ‘wellbeing’.  The problem with this, it seems to me, are twofold: firstly, it may be true that more things don’t make us happier but the reverse usually does not follow: less things tend to make us more miserable.   And secondly, the difficulty with such multi-factor ways of summarising how well the economy is doing is that our fundamental currency is money, so the extra factors may end up better describing the ‘state of things’ but it is the financial drivers that drive that state.

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