The big metaphors that might save the planet. But should it be "post-growth", "green new deal", or "the economics of arrival"?


We’re informed by our friends at The Rules of a letter that has been printed in scores of major European papers this week, backed up scores of stellar academics, conciding with a major conference on “postgrowth”. The excerpt below is worth reading:

For the past seven decades, GDP growth has stood as the primary economic objective of European nations. But as our economies have grown, so has our negative impact on the environment. We are now exceeding the safe operating space for humanity on this planet, and there is no sign that economic activity is being decoupled from resource use or pollution at anything like the scale required.

Today, solving social problems within European nations does not require more growth. It requires a fairer distribution of the income and wealth that we already have.

Growth is also becoming harder to achieve due to declining productivity gains, market saturation, and ecological degradation. If current trends continue, there may be no growth at all in Europe within a decade.

Right now the response is to try to fuel growth by issuing more debt, shredding environmental regulations, extending working hours, and cutting social protections. This aggressive pursuit of growth at all costs divides society, creates economic instability, and undermines democracy.

Those in power have not been willing to engage with these issues, at least not until now. The European commission’s Beyond GDP project became GDP and Beyond. The official mantra remains growth — redressed as “sustainable”, “green”, or “inclusive” – but first and foremost, growth.

Even the new UN sustainable development goals include the pursuit of economic growth as a policy goal for all countries, despite the fundamental contradiction between growth and sustainability.

The good news is that within civil society and academia, a post-growth movement has been emerging. It goes by different names in different places: décroissance, Postwachstumsteady-state or doughnut economicsprosperity without growth, to name a few. Since 2008, regular degrowth conferenceshave gathered thousands of participants.

A new global initiative, the Wellbeing Economies Alliance (or WE-All), is making connections between these movements, while a European research network has been developing new “ecological macroeconomic models”.

Such work suggests that it’s possible to improve quality of life, restore the living world, reduce inequality, and provide meaningful jobs – all without the need for economic growth, provided we enact policies to overcome our current growth dependence.

Some of the changes that have been proposed include limits on resource use, progressive taxation to stem the tide of rising inequality, and a gradual reduction in working time. Resource use could be curbed by introducing a carbon tax, and the revenue could be returned as a dividend for everyone or used to finance social programmes.

Introducing both a basic and a maximum income would reduce inequality further, while helping to redistribute care work and reducing the power imbalances that undermine democracy. New technologies could be used to reduce working time and improve quality of life, instead of being used to lay off masses of workers and increase the profits of the privileged few.

Given the risks at stake, it would be irresponsible for politicians and policymakers not to explore possibilities for a post-growth future. The conference happening in Brussels is a promising start, but much stronger commitments are needed.

As a group of concerned social and natural scientists representing all Europe, we call on the European Union, its institutions, and member states to:

1. Constitute a special commission on post-growth futures in the EU parliament. This commission should actively debate the future of growth, devise policy alternatives for post-growth futures, and reconsider the pursuit of growth as an overarching policy goal.

2. Incorporate alternative indicators into the macroeconomic framework of the EU and its member states. Economic policies should be evaluated in terms of their impact on human wellbeing, resource use, inequality, and the provision of decent work. These indicators should be given higher priority than GDP in decision-making.

3. Turn the stability and growth pact (SGP) into a stability and wellbeing pact. The SGP is a set of rules aimed at limiting government deficits and national debt. It should be revised to ensure member states meet the basic needs of their citizens, while reducing resource use and waste emissions to a sustainable level.

4. Establish a ministry for economic transition in each member state. A new economy that focuses directly on human and ecological wellbeing could offer a much better future than one that is structurally dependent on economic growth.

Impressive stuff. Yet even on the green side, it’s not without its pushback. Who doesn’t want things to grow, burgeon, enrich, increase, develop? “Post-growth” is preferred to “degrowth” in the passage above (although the French rendering of décroissance, usefully untranslated, is mentioned).

Robert Pollin in this month’s NLR really objects to “degrowth” as a concept, and prefers the prospect of a Green New Deal. What this commits to is a form of “growth” that actually does the necessary work of reducing carbon and material throughput. Pollin puts numbers on it:

It will require an investment level in clean renewables and energy efficiency at about 1.5–2 per cent of global GDP annually. This amounts to about $1 trillion at today’s global economy level and $1.5 trillion average over the next twenty years. These are large but realistic investment goals which could be embraced by economies at all levels of development, in every region of the globe.

One reason why this is a realistic project is that it would support rising average living standards and expanding job opportunities, in low-income countries in particular. For nearly forty years now, the gains from economic growth have persistently favoured the rich. Nevertheless, the prospects for reversing inequality in all countries will be far greater when the overall economy is growing than when the rich are fighting everyone else for shares of a shrinking pie.

How sanguine, for example, would we expect affluent Canadians to be over the prospect of their incomes being cut by half or more in absolute dollars over the next thirty years? [One of the regular degrowth claims]. In political terms, the attempt to implement a degrowth agenda would render the global clean-energy project utterly unrealistic.

Hmm. It’s a strong point. And it’s clear that there’s as much of an emotional as a statistical battle around the idea of growth. We note that another metaphor is going to be added to the list of way to describe the movement in the Guardian letter - and that’s "the economics of arrival”. This is the title of a new book by one of the signatories above, Katherine Trebeck (co-written with Jeremy Williams). Here’s their explanation:

“Arrival” points to the reality that in the world’s most developed countries, decades of economic growth have already achieved what previous generations hoped for. We have arrived, and it’s time for a new challenge – how to make ourselves at home with this prosperity, and make sure that everyone is included.

It’s a vital question, because in pursuing ‘more’ past the point of a generous ‘enough’, we risk losing everything we’ve already gained. Inequality, climate change and fractured politics are already undermining the prosperity that we worked so hard to achieve.

Embracing a postgrowth economy isn’t about limits or self-restriction. It’s a success story: the work of growth is done. It’s time to talk about improving rather than endlessly enlarging, to shift from quantity to quality.

That might work, for some. It probably operates on the nudge psychology of “loss aversion” - where you prefer to hold onto what you aready have, instead of gaining extra but taking a risk in doing so. Conservatism, and conservation, at one.

We just wonder whether there needs to be an appeal to ambition and creativity in the face of a burning planet, as much as consolidation and restriction. Something that answers the appetites of humans as the radical animal.