Kenneth Boulding puts it as succinctly as possible: “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman, or an economist”. And yet our governments continue to desperately pursue growth at any cost. The call for an alternative approach is not new. In the 70s, a ‘limits to growth’ movement built up, and as far back as the 19th century, John Stuart Mill expounded the idea of a ‘steady-state economy’ – one which remained stable without growth.
But with the current crisis cocktail – economic, environmental and social – it is perhaps not surprising that calls for rethinking growth are becoming more frequent than ever. In France, Spain and Italy, a strong ‘degrowth’ movement has developed and one can even hear some elected politicians, such as the député of the 11th district of Paris, Yves Cochet, advocating a degrowth economy.
The event at the Hub in King’s Cross last week, organised by CEECEC (Civil Society Engagement with Ecological Economics) and supported by nef, was intended to bring a flavour of décroissance to the UK. The word ‘degrowth’ perhaps doesn’t sound as good in English as in French, but the UK has seen a couple of key steps in the search for a new economic model – included the Sustainable Development Commission’s Prosperity without Growth and nef’s Great Transition – authors of both publications spoke at the event. And there is clearly appetite – with little advertising, the event had booked up a week in advance, and people came through snow and ice to attend.
One audience member blogged that there was an element of preaching to the converted at the event and that we need to ‘move the debate from the margins’. Whilst this is true, as with any new movement, there is still a need to bring people together. The discovery that one is not alone in one’s heresy gives the heretic strength to work harder. Furthermore, as Leida Rijnhout, one of the speakers, noted, large NGOs have to some extent co-opted governments’ commitment to growth – until people like this rethink growth, there is little hope for convincing the mainstream of business and the private sector.
Having said that, a recent business trip reminded me that perhaps the heresy of questioning growth isn’t that unpalatable for most people once they give it a moment’s thought. At a workshop for local government types in Cornwall on measuring progress and well-being, over half disagreed with the statement that growth is necessary for a successful society. And in conceptualising progress, everyone saw the economy as, at most, a contributing factor to success – no more. There’s hope…