Smith Mordak – Growth, growth, growth – be careful what you wish for

Labour leader Keir Starmer has declared the UK Labour party’s priorities to be “growth, growth and growth”. But what if endless economic growth is not only impossible with our current technological armoury, what if it’s also a living nightmare?

Smith Mordak is Director of Sustainability and Physics at Buro Happold

Cross-posted from CUSP

We live in the grips of a growth dilemma. Endless exploitation of the earth’s ecosystems—including people—is impossible. If we take from, pollute, and alter systems faster than they’re able to regenerate then we degrade them, eventually to such an extent that they will collapse. These systems are set out in the nine planetary boundaries framework that describes the safe operating space within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive. Breaches of these boundaries generate large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Humans are not separate from the ecosystem and as such are both vulnerable to exploitation and vulnerable in the face of its breakdown.

Despite countless warnings over decades, humanity has continued to exploit natural and social ecosystems and we are now faced with disastrous collapse of the systems we are inextricably reliant on. This expansion of exploitation has been driven by an expanding economy. Since interest-bearing debt was conceived, our economic system has evolved structures upon structures to necessitate economic growth. These ‘growth dependencies’ include maintaining employment and living standards, reducing poverty (without reducing affluence), avoiding addressing other problems head-on (including inequality), improving government finances, and addressing high public and private debt. Choosing to get off this treadmill—let alone making reparations for and reversing the damage already done—is far from simple. If our collective detox from our collective dependency on growth is not suitably managed it would likely cause mass unemployment, shocking inequality, and further enormous suffering.

This is very bad news. However, if the above characterisation of the dilemma is correct, there are three possible interventions that could help. One is to find a way to enable increased capacity for exploitation. Two is to decouple expansion of exploitation from the expansion of the economy—to decouple economic growth from social and natural ecosystem harm. Three is to remove our economy’s dependence on growth so making it safe to stop expanding both the economy and thereby exploitation.

Enabling increased capacity for exploitation is the mission of proponents of geoengineering, huge-scale carbon capture, workforce automation, and the colonisation of Mars. The feasibility that these options can create sufficient headspace sufficiently quickly to avoid making other changes to the way our economy works is, at best, uncertain. Julian Allwood et al in ‘Absolute Zero’ explain that “although some exciting new technology options are being developed, it will take a long time to deploy them, and they won’t be operating at scale within thirty years.” That we should not build policies around the expectation of such technological fixes is increasingly accepted.

Decoupling–favoured for its hypothetical ability to enable green growth, sustainable development, ethical capitalism and other nomenclature that validate the status quo with a placating adjective–is currently the official strategy. Take the European Green Deal as just one example. Some decoupling is certainly welcome, however the feasibility of what essentially amounts to dematerialising the economy, is in question. Similar to Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth, Parrique et al in ‘Decoupling Debunked‘ argue that decoupling that would “allow economic growth to continue without a rise in environmental pressures appears highly compromised, if not clearly unrealistic” due to rising energy expenditures, rebound effects, problem shifting, the underestimated impact of services, the limited potential of recycling, insufficient and inappropriate technological change, and cost shifting.

The third way—escaping the growth imperative, recovering from our growth dependency, consciously letting go of our dead man’s switch on our expanding exploitation—is an unpopular and frightening prospect for many, but perhaps the only real option. Setting aside the argument as to whether technologically enabled increased capacity, or dematerialising the economy are possible, are they desirable?

A world in which technological innovation provides endlessly expanding capacity is a world where we can continue to exploit resources but where this becomes palatable because the resources aren’t alive—they’re asteroids and dead planets and robots, not animals and people and their habitats. Perhaps our morality can accept reconfiguring rare minerals into undead serfs, but there’s also the question of our human (and animal) wellbeing if we are so estranged from our life-giving systems as to be aliens at home? Jason Hickel in Less is More talks of how enclosure “enabled dualism’s rise to cultural dominance: only once commoners were alienated from the land and severed from forest ecosystems could they be convinced to imagine themselves as fundamentally separate from the rest of the living world, and to see other beings as objects.” Would a further separation from life-making activities even more profoundly unroot us, even prevent us from feeling at home at all?

A world in which the economy is decoupled from resource use is a world in which the resource-purchasing power of money is eroded. Your jeans are not just made with organic cotton, with less water, without bleach, with renewables-powered machinery. You subscribe to a wardrobe service that includes jeans you have access to. You pay extra for a stylist to choose the jeans. You buy the copyright of your favourite design so only an exclusive group can wear ‘your’ jeans. Your social media avatar that wears the jeans on your behalf transfers the material weight of physical denim to the not-actually-that-weightless internet. You pay the fashion police to make sure nobody is wearing ‘your’ jeans without a proper license and to guard the jeans at the subscription wardrobe service. Eventually the only service left to pay for (charge for) is the promise not to destroy the jeans. This denim protection racket might be a slightly facetious example but as set out by Fred Hirsch in Social Limits to Growth, the “positional economy”—wherein goods are valued based on their scarcity and distribution within the economy—may be theoretically resource light, but is nevertheless subject to limits to growth, albeit social limits, given that if everybody has something, it no longer commands a premium. Essentially, as the economy becomes less and less resource-intensive tending towards total dematerialisation, so too must access to material things become more and more expensive, careering via crippling inequality and tending towards impossible.

The advantage of the third option—escaping growth dependency—is that for the vast majority of people it is desirable. A world where dominion over nature and other people is no longer rewarded is a world of unconditional basic income, universal basic services, cooperatives, democratic money creation, care and solidarity. Erik Olin Wright in ‘How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century’ describes unconditional basic income, a cooperative market economy, social and solidarity economy, democratic firms, and public banking as the building blocks of a democratic socialist economy. This transition will defenestrate a few humans, but for most, lifting the burden of debt, lifting the drudgery of pointless labour, and enabling unconditional access to the means to live a flourishing life will be extremely welcome. And no matter your wealth or privilege, lifting the cloud of living at the end of times is probably welcome.

This moment is characterised by the growth dilemma. But you wouldn’t know it to listen to Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer or any in the leadership ranks of the dominant political parties in this country. While they’re fighting over who’s best to create this magical growth, and while others argue over whether it’s even possible (those will be the so-called sirens we might dare to hope Keir Starmer is struggling to ignore), I’d like to chuck in the question as to whether it’s even desirable. If we can shift from a characterisation of economic growth as ‘nice if you’ve got the natural capital in the coffers’ to ‘an archaic engine of misery’ then perhaps it’ll make it easier to sing a resounding chorus of no thank you to the whole concept.

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