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The notion that growth cannot continue indefinitely is still a young idea. Yes, it’s been around since the 70s, with the book The Limits to Growth. But it’s had little resources to really develop answers to the challenge of how to achieve a successful economy that does not depend on growth. Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam GB, has written a blog criticising a recent event on Rethinking economic growth (also see my blog on it) which nef supported last month. He obviously agrees with the alarm call (that growth is not sustainable) – you can see that in his presentation of his to the Quakers Zero Growth Economy conference last year. But Duncan seems to expect solutions to these problems already and was disappointed at the scarcity of them at this event.
I shan’t attempt to stand up for all the speakers, but I would suggest that two of their publications at least (Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth and nef’s Great Transition) do start to touch on some of the solutions to what is very admittedly a difficult problem. André Reichel’s suggestions for companies that do not require constant throughput of material production were also real practical solutions. Here are three parts of the solution. Just three:
- Steadily reducing working hours. Increases in labour productivity have typically meant that economic growth is required to keep steady employment. If productivity gains were taken as more free time, this would resolve this challenge. Take a look at our new report, 21 hours.
- Re-structured ownership. An economy dominated by shareholders who only take a stake in firms so as to make a quick profit is driven relentlessly to growth (see the work of Mathias Binswanger on this). It doesn’t have to be like this. Many forms of ownership, including small family businesses, co-operatives, communities, and the state, are not predicated on ever increasing returns on investment.
- Re-focussing measurement. Of course I mention that partly because at the centre for well-being we’ve been working on alternative measures of progress such as the Happy Planet Index and how they might help shift us away from the folly of the constant pursuit of growth. But also, Duncan himself has highlighted this as a key part of the shift away from a growth focussed economy.
Of course, these three solutions alone won’t solve all the world’s problems, and of course there are many interests who would oppose such changes, but they’re a start. More research is needed to better understand how a no-growth economy would work. And more advocacy is needed to promote the ideas around a stable economy. But until recently, this is not been something that big money was likely to get behind. However, things are beginning to change and there are signs of some forward thinking governments starting to invest in exploring alternatives to growth. Maybe then we’ll be able to have a few more answers for the man from Oxfam.
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…