Greens and Growth

Greens don’t like growth.  It’s the mantra.  We like to talk about a ‘stable’ economy; one that neither grows nor shrinks.

The trouble with maintaining a zero growth economy is that you have to maintain zero population growth alongside it.  Have zero economic growth and twenty percent population growth and it means you have the sort of contraction in living standards that we’re desperately trying to fight off at the moment.

I am not opposed to economic growth.  What I am opposed to is growth, and stability for that matter, in certain important areas.

I am not just against growth of greenhouse gas emissions; I am for a sharp reduction.  A combination of investment in renewables (whilst holding out faint hope that fusion might be both possible, safe and democratic), technological innovation and legislation with regard to energy efficiency, better public transport, a reduction in livestock farming, reforestation and a handful of other measures could easily cut our emissions in half in twenty years.

I am against the unsustainable use of natural resources.  With forests that means 100%+ replanting so forest cover expands rather than shrinks.  With minerals it means manufacturing with both durability and reuse in minds, with hydrocarbons it means reduction in production to levels a fraction of what they are now.  With fisheries reductions to levels that allow marine populations to bounce back.

I’m against the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people and the natural world.

I am against consumerism.  Consumerism is powered by an industry devoted to the promotion of unhappiness; advertising.  Having made people miserable, advertising holds out the promise that the void within can be filled with consumer crap.  It can’t.  That void is a place which can be filled with faith, friendship and family, not with stuff, not even high grade stuff from Steve Jobs.

I am concerned by population growth.  Population is a multiplier on all the other problems we face.  However the only real weapons we have to combat the unsustainable growth in the world’s population are education and persuasion.  No green in his or her right mind ought to be talking about anything that smacks of coercion let alone worse.

I am against all sorts of things, but not growth per se.  Economic growth can mean growth in human activity as much as it needs mean growth in production of raw materials and consumption.

We’re moving rapidly towards a knowledge economy.  The creative industries constitute a greater share of the UK’s economy than they do of any other country on earth.  In the age of downloads billions can happily enjoy a movie or a song or a game with precious little demand made on the planets resources.  Pardon the pun but the creative industries are a growth area.

We may not like the financial sector right now.  I certainly don’t.  However it’s another major contributor to the economy that, in terms of its immediate environmental footprint, is quite small.  (NB Yes, I’m quite aware that banking funds all sorts of stuff that causes massive damage to the planet – however that raises questions about a host of other reforms, but doesn’t change the specific point I’m making that knowledge economies can be low on pollution and light on physical resources).

Then let’s look at the impact of increased human activity on manufacturing and production.

Think about antiques a minute.  (I can hear the noises off – and I know what you’re saying but stop it).  The things people typically preserve, the things that are thus most long lived, are those into which the greatest human resources have been put.  A table is a table is a table – except when that table has been made by master craftsmen.  It’s the same amount of wood as a bad table but more care and more effort has been put into maximising the aesthetics of that table.  That human endeavour has taken a given quantity of resources and maximised its value, not its utility necessarily, but its desirability and the pleasure it gives.  They create something that outlives them and is cherished by future generations.

That’s the model Greens should be considering.  Let’s call it quality over quantity.  It’s the antithesis of an economy that produces piles of stuff that is used, trashed and thrown into a hole in the ground.  We buy less stuff but we buy better stuff.

Of course that model doesn’t accommodate fashion very well.  Georgian furniture might be in one week and out the next.  The less well off might have to live with beautifully made but unfashionable things.  It doesn’t strike me as a much worse alternative than having to live with fashionable rubbish – though Anna Wintour might beg to disagree.  However as anyone who has watched the documentary ‘Zoolander’ will know, fashion people aren’t necessarily the ones by whom we should be dictated to; and last time I was at a Green get together I think I can safely say (by and large) we’re not.

That said if you were to say that decoupling growth in human activity from all the stuff that we all want to see less of is damned difficult, then I’d agree.

It’s likely to be one of the major challenges of our lifetimes.

However one resource that seems to be in little danger of dwindling is the supply of human beings and there’s no sign that human beings’ capacity to innovate and create is shrinking either.  Let’s hope it doesn’t.  The desire to work, to create and to make something of lasting worth is a deeply human one.   Some Greens may not like human economic activity.  My guess is that they’d dislike human inactivity more.

So let’s be clear about what sort of growth we oppose and what we don’t, and no, let’s not be naïve about how hard it’ll be to decouple the good from the bad.

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5 Responses to “Greens and Growth”

  1. Steve Wilson Says:

    Well, the leader of the Greens has three kids so it can’t be all that important?

  2. Steve Wilson Says:

    Me too,

    Unfortunately being the leader of a party that rails against consumption yet has three children of her own surely can’t be ignored with a light-hearted comment?

    Many Greens I know are just as consumerist and those that aren’t are mildly annoying in an “oh we don’t have a television in the house” way. Either like Nathan Barley with a misplaced social conscience or some weird Amish type throwbacks to when life was an agrarian “paradise” and we were all covered in suppurating pustules and died at 27.

    But yeah, you make many very pertinent points and I largely agree

    • headstrongclub Says:

      You have a point Steve but at the same time I feel you’re being a little harsh.

      Neither of us knows why Caroline and her husband chose to have three children. I don’t really want to dwell on it but sometimes these things aren’t planned.

      Meanwhile you seem to damn Greens when they give into the pressures of consumerism and damn them when they don’t. That’s called being caught between a rock and a hard place. Most of the Greens I know lead pretty modest lives. Many would like not to have cars – but that’s a difficult choice when you live in a society set up for car use (especially outside metropolitan areas) – and the beard and buggy look is a tough one to pull off, especially for Green women…

      My position has long be to argue that people want being green to be easy. Where greens get a mandate I’d hope we’d make green options the easy choice – and try to hold off from restricting choice as much as possible. I almost never chose to drive in London simply because public transport was good – though if public transport had been cheaper that would have been an even more compelling choice.

      Moreover I think we need to have a debate on the role of advertising and similar pressures to consume in our society. Last year I found myself talking to an intern where I was working who had come from advertising and who said that the major cigarette company her old agency had worked for had a deliberate policy of focusing on outlets near schools. I was both shocked and somehow not surprised. Now we have Weetabix hiring 7 year olds as brand ambassadors. It’s only in the last 2 or 3 years that people have started to take retailers and the fashion industry to task for the shameless sexualisation of the under 16s. Somehow it’s been OK for a corporation to do what it isn’t OK for a nasty man on his computer in his bedroom to do.

      I think a key movve for Greens is to decouple value and money. We’ve become a society in which the only widely accepted measure of value is a financial one. It means that the low paid don’t feel valued even if they do what are intrinsically valuable jobs – so nurses and teaching assistants and a hoost of other people we rely on are relegated to the bottom of the social scale. Nor is voluntary work or plain neighbourliness valued in a society obsessed with bonuses and celebrity and plain old wealth.

      People seek to feel valued through displays of wealth – through accumulatring stuff and showing it off. The riots, and the looting of shopes was in some measure a reflection of this (though I’m not arguing the looting was in any way acceptable, just unsurprising).

      Take out some of the pressures to consume, rebuild some of the other ways to have social standing other than through wealth, and we’ll address a lot of the issues threatening to fracture our society.

      However I’d conceed that none of that is easy. It took Thatcher’s 80s revolution to get us here and it’ll take another of similar magnitude to get us out of that mess.

      Lastly – as regards the agrarian paradise we greens dream of – I like mine, I don’t begrudge anyone their suburban/urban/whatever paradise – but it”s worth pointing out that the industrial revolution came about partly through forcing people off the land and employing them under dismal conditions and the transition from an agrarian to industrial society saw life expectancy and other quality of life indicators plummet. Pustules and disease were more a 19th rather than an 18th Century phenomenon.

      Thanks for your thoughts though – keep them coming…

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