Conway Hall recently hosted a public debate about the proposition “The pursuit of growth is a disaster for our country and our planet” sponsored by the ‘How To Academy‘. Supporting it were Ida Kubiszewski, Associate Professor at UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity and Danny Dorling, Professor in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.
It was opposed by Robert Colvile, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, and Sam Alvis, Head of Economy for the Green Alliance.
All our major political parties seem to agree that growth is a desirable objective, essential to achieving prosperity and the good life for all. The pursuit of growth is presented as an unarguable good; after all, the absence of growth is stagnation or contraction, and that sounds like bad news. Generally, the debate is about how to achieve more growth, or possibly about how green that growth should be.
And yet, growth has its detractors and the ‘anti-growth coalition’ is erm… growing. The Conway Hall audience on 21 November may not be representative of public opinion, but it was clearly persuaded that ‘the pursuit of growth is a disaster’ and voted overwhelmingly for the proposition.
So what were the key arguments in this debate?
Ida Kubiszewski went straight to the heart of the matter by questioning the usefulness of growth as an umbrella term. We need to ask: “growth of what, for what, for whom?”. She also explained why GDP is a very poor measure of progress because it includes all productive and consumer activity, even some highly destructive and anti-social ones such as war and crime. Danny Dorling showed that greater inequality and more luxury consumption can fuel growth and higher GDP without bringing any tangible improvements to people’s security, health, happiness or quality of life.
For Robert Colvile there was a demonstrable correlation over time between growth and virtually every indicator of a good life, and he felt that GDP was “the worst measure of progress apart from all the others”. He asked why we in the rich global North would deny people in the global South the benefits of high GDP – is this not a form of white privilege? Sam Alvis made the case for green growth, using market signals and market mechanisms to incentivise and scale up the new technologies and practices which are needed to decarbonise our economy. Addressing the climate emergency is a massive and urgent undertaking and he argued that this can only be addressed using the economic system we have. System change would be a distraction; simply too big and difficult a project and we can’t afford the time it would require.
But as Ida Kubiszewski made clear, ‘the economy’, whether growing or not, is not separate from ‘nature’, it is a subsystem of it and finite resources cannot be depleted without consequences. The ‘anti-growth’ proposition was not about denying anyone a good life but defining it more democratically for everyone and redirecting economic activity towards actually achieving it for everyone and aiming for a genuinely sustainable future for humans on planet Earth. This might mean more production and consumption of some things for some people, but in aggregate it will have to be sustainable at the planetary level.
All four speakers seemed to agree about the features of the kind of society they support: one which is able to meet everyone’s basic needs, provide good public services for all and help people to flourish. But ultimately, Robert Colvile’s uncritical account of the benefits of growth and Sam Alvis’s willingness to believe that the system which created our social and planetary crisis could also solve it, just didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
This was more than a debate about means. The system which has brought us to the brink of global catastrophe wasn’t actually named once all evening but what came across very clearly was the urgent need for system change. Capitalism requires continuous growth and exploitation, drives accumulation and growing inequalities and precipitates crises if it cannot grow. It is the cause of many of the problems we face, not the solution to them, and far from being a distraction, developing a new system based on new priorities is surely an essential prerequisite for human survival.
Code red for human survival (November 2022)
Nancy Fraser’s eco-socialist common sense (August 2022)
Climate Justice, Heath Justice and the politics of resilience (August 2022)
Education, social justice and survival in a time of crisis. (July 2022)
Owning our crises (March 2022)
Another fascinating debate ‘Degrowth v. Green Growth’ between Professor Jason Hickel and Professor Sam Fankhauser can be viewed here.
A new system based on new priorities is easy to say and sounds good, but I cannot think of what that might look like. Is there some idea that could be expressed to point me in the right direction. State owned economic with central planning is much worse than capitalism. Any other ideas?
You’re right that calling for “a new system” begs the question of what that should actually look like – and I haven’t got a comprehensive answer. I think we need to extend democratic control over economic and social priorities and trust that people could agree a sustainable global cap on extraction, production, energy use and consumption and agree what basic human needs need to be guaranteed for all. There’s a very broad spectrum between total central planning and no central planning at all. Personally, I would favour the setting of broadly sustainable global limits as well as essential human needs. This could then allow for considerable regional and local leeway in terms of what can be decided through more local democratic planning or even allocated via market mechanisms. For an excellent introduction to Degrowth, I would recommend Jason Hickel’s brilliant ‘Less is More’ which I plan to review soon on this site.
State owned economies . . .