REDWeb Conversations Series – Ending the Growth Addiction

Pallav Das: Thanks a lot Alnoor and Jason for being willing to share your insights into the critical idea of “post growth”. As we at REDWeb continue to explore alternatives to the current orthodoxy of neoliberalism and the resultant ecological and economic mayhem all over the world, we do want to put the notion of “endless growth” under scrutiny. So, to begin with, what do you think are the historical reasons we ended up with an economic model that is predicated upon incessant and continual growth?

Jason Hickel: Most people aren’t aware of this, but GDP is a relatively recent measure. It was invented in the 1930s by the American economist Simon Kuznets. GDP counts the monetary value of all of the stuff that is produced and consumed each year.  Kuznets warned the US Congress to avoid using GDP as a normal measure of progress, because it does not discriminate between useful activity and harmful activity. But, GDP became entrenched during WWII. The leaders of the US and UK needed to know how much money they had at their disposal to fight the war. We can think of GDP as a war time measure, which is why it is so single minded, and even violent.  

GDP as an economic measure was used by the war economies to figure out how much money they had at their disposal to fight the war.

During the 1950s, politicians and economists switched from measuring GDP to measuring GDP growth. During the Cold War, the West competed with the Eastern Bloc for the highest rates of growth, and during the 1980s this objective was pushed around the rest of the world by the World Bank and the IMF. Today, GDP growth is the single most important policy objective of virtually every government on the planet.

PD: Who benefits from this obsession with growth and why does it continue to survive, in fact, thrive, despite the obvious contradiction that a finite planet cannot ensure or afford endless growth? Also, what do you think are the psychological impediments in moving the contemporary socio-political consciousness away from endless growth?

JH: For capital holders — rich countries and the rich within countries — the ‘growth-at-all-costs’ model makes complete sense. They disproportionately benefit from growth. In fact, growth is the source of their power. It is what keeps them not just rich, but ever richer — which means ever more powerful. They are where they are in this system because their interests align with the “Prime Directive” of the system: more capital for its own sake. The reason the people currently in power are in power is because they believe in growth, and because they are good at delivering it. That is the sole qualification for their jobs. Of course, they are not going to be able to see the problems growth causes; they are, by job-definition and personal identity, growth-fanatics. As for the rest of us, we are tied into this system because growth is the basis for our livelihood, it is the source of our jobs, and our jobs are what allow us to survive in the debt regime.

Alnoor Ladha: That’s right! It’s a tightly woven system that requires our collective complicity. Although we may know that every dollar of wealth created heats up the planet and creates more inequality, we are tied into the system through necessity and a set of values that tells us that greed is rational, and indeed, the innately and rightly dominant human behavior we must orient around. We’re coerced into a form of distributed fascism where we as individuals extract more, consume more, accumulate more and destroy more without ever being able to step back to see the totality of a more holistic worldview.

PD: In recent years, the idea of “green growth” has gained ground among a set of development practitioners. What was the motivation behind it? And, how do you respond to the assertion that many of the current environmental stresses can be addressed by simply making growth “green”?

JH: In 2009, a team of scientistspublished groundbreaking new research on “planetary boundaries” – the thresholds that we have to observe if we want to keep from triggering tipping points in ecological collapse, like climate change and biodiversity loss. They pointed out that we have already shot past a number of the planetary boundaries, and are well into the danger zone. A few years later, in 2012, the United Nations held a major conference on environmental sustainability in Rio, Brazil. A number of delegates pointed out that growth was the major driver of ecological breakdown, and that in order to reduce our impact on the Earth’s ecosystems we would have to get rid of our addiction to growth. In response, the World Bank and the OECD published major new reports arguing that we don’t need to abandon growth – rather, all we need to do is make growth “green”. The claim was that we could continue to grow the global economy indefinitely as long as we can figure out a way to “decouple” GDP from resource use and greenhouse gas emissions.

At the time there was no evidence on whether this would actually be possible. It was pure speculation. Since then there have been a number of major scientific studies that have set out to examine precisely this question. All have come to the same conclusion: green growth is not possible. It is not possible for us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to stay within the carbon budget for 2C, and it is not possible to reduce our resource use back down to safe levels, while at the same time growing the global economy.  

Green growth creates an illusion of eco-sensibility without any meaningful change in the economic system.

AL: Green growth is appealing to the liberal mind — it provides an apparent middle ground and removes the need to question the logic of the global economy. We can continue on our current trajectory if we make the “right” reforms and get the “right” kind of technology. The hope of green growth is embedded everywhere, from the majority of domestic economic plans to major international policy schemes like the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By uncritically supporting these policies, we are unwittingly perpetuating the neoliberal fantasy of infinite growth on a finite planet.

PD: How should the general public try to understand the dubious rationale of false solutions like “green growth”? And, in simple terms, how is the elite emphasis on growth just sending us into a loop from which green growth can never help us extricate?

JH: Essentially, any idea or policy that doesn’t challenge the core logic of the global economic operating system is a reform, and therefore a band-aid solution that is not commensurate with the poly-crisis that we face as a civilization.

Every dollar of wealth created heats up the planet as we have an extractive, fossil fuel based system. Every dollar of wealth created contributes to inequality as the majority of that wealth creation ends up in the hands of a wealthy elite. Therefore, any activity that increases wealth – whether it’s GDP, foreign-direct investment, revenue from a social enterprise, etc. – actively contributes to climate change and creates impoverishment. Our global economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme. We have a debt-based economic system that requires growth to exceed interest rates in order for money to be valuable. The World Bank and others tell us that we have to grow the global economy at a minimum of 3 percent per year in order to avoid recession. That means we will double the size of the global economy every 20 years. We have to start thinking in post-growth terms, and probably only have around 20 years to make that transition.

PD: That is quite alarming! What do you think are the possible effective ways of getting out of the growth-addicted economy? How important could the evolving concept of “localization” be in that pursuit?

JH: One of the reasons that our economy has to grow is because of the “productivity trap”. Capitalism has an in-built tendency to improve labor productivity. As labor productivity improves, you need fewer workers, and people end up unemployed. Governments then have to generate new economic growth in order to create more jobs just so that people can have an income and stay alive.  

There are lots of ways we can escape the productivity trap. We can introduce a shorter working week and share jobs, so that everyone has access to employment without the need for additional growth. Or we could bypass the labor requirement altogether and roll out a universal basic income (UBI). UBI is a very powerful mechanism if it’s done with the right logic and values at its core. We have to wrestle the idea of UBI back from the techno-utopians, libertarians and free-market fundamentalists. UBI is not an excuse to cut social spending, but rather, it has the potential to help us rethink our relationship to work and bullshit jobs.

At the same time, we can also find ways to ensure that people have stable livelihoods in their own communities, without having to wait to be absorbed into the global capitalist workforce. In some places this might mean land reform for small farmers. In other places it might mean shifting from imported or commercial products to goods that we can create for ourselves. Or it might mean shifting to a commons model so that everyone has access to the basic resources they need to flourish without having to have high incomes from wages.

AL: The antigen to monoculture is polyculture — many ways of being and living. This requires a transition to localism, which is another way of saying ways of life in which we are connected to our environment, so we see and understand the impacts of our consumption. Localism creates contexts in which we can look into the eyes of the people who make our clothes and grow our food, so that our choices can be informed by their impact on human relationships and well being, not just convenience and a price tag.

Localism reconnects people to each other and to their genuine needs.

There is no single blueprint for localist, post-growth economic models. This may seem daunting. But our current trajectory is even more daunting. Unless a politically significant mass of people actively rejects the false god of growth and chooses a different path, our current economic system will crash under its own weight and take most life as we know it with it. As the late British economist David Fleming reminds us, “Localization stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favor that there will be no alternative.”

So, localization can be a key part of shifting away from a growth-based economy.  But this doesn’t mean that communities have to close in on themselves.  John Maynard Keynes wrote: “Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel – these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible.”

PD: Well, that raises the whole issue of the economic system’s relationship with the world’s resources. Would it be possible to reduce the global throughput of energy and materials by putting a cap on resource utilization at the local level and thus aspire to adjust ultimately to the carrying capacity of the biosphere? Is there any indication that some societies are gearing up to comprehend the enormity of organizing for that task and, in fact, taking the first steps?

JH: The resource caps need to start at a global level.  Just as we think about the allocation of the carbon budget, according to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” whereby rich nations bear a greater responsibility than poor nations, we should think about resource caps in the same way.  That can only ultimately be done on a global scale, with allocations to countries.  This would require a global treaty, not unlike the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The problem is that while climate change is global, other ecological impacts are not.  So yes, it makes sense to think about caps at a regional level, so that they can be in line with the needs of the regional ecologies.  

AL: Are any societies thinking this way?  Yes – it is a focus in the Kurdish controlled Rojava region in Syria, for instance, and among the Zapatistas, other indigenous communities, and transition towns in the UK.  It is a focus of social movements like La Via Campesina and of philosophies like Buen Vivir and Ecological Swaraj.  And it is a focus of many political parties, like the Green Party UK.  At the level of national policy, however, there is much to be done.  Some countries, like New Zealand, Costa Rica, and Sweden are moving in this direction, thinking about post-growth approaches to human flourishing, but there is still a long way to go.

PD: What would be the push back from corporations and other beneficiaries of the current neoliberal dispensation to any attempt at putting a cap on resources?

JH: It’s interesting – proponents of green growth insist that it is possible to achieve absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP, so that GDP rises while resource use falls lower and lower.  If they are so convinced, then they shouldn’t be afraid of a resource cap.  After all, according to their own theory, such a cap would only help spur innovation so as to achieve decoupling faster.

But if you press them on this, they hesitate.  They realize that their position is weak, in reality, and they worry about committing.  You can’t have it both ways: if you believe in the possibility of absolute decoupling, you should embrace resource caps.  If you reject resource caps, it undermines your commitment to green growth.  So we can play them at their own game: as long as they insist on the possibility of green growth, let us challenge them to adopt the caps.  If they refuse, then green growth falls apart in public, and we can have a real conversation.

PD: Lastly, Alnoor, The Rules is running a new meme campaign on post-growth. Can you tell us the purpose of the intervention?

The idea of Post Growth aims at the creation of resilient local economies with a strong connection with the natural world.

AL: The seduction of economic growth is all pervasive. Even within progressive circles that claim to understand that growth is causing ecological destruction, there is hope that we can somehow reform the existing system. The Rules collective has always been about questioning and disrupting the core assumptions that are at the root of neoliberal capitalism. Starting with the fundamentals of the growth imperative, the campaign moves to a real and feasible alternative; namely, post-growth economics. Post-growth believes that equity is the antidote to growth. We can simultaneously create strong, resilient local economies and communities that are symbiotic with the natural world while addressing the necessary redistribution to create fairer economic starting conditions.

Jason Hickel is an anthropologist, author, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.  He has taught at the London School of Economics, the University of Virginia, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA in Anthropology and Cultural Politics.  He serves on the Labour Party task force on international development, works as Policy Director for /The Rulescollective, sits on the Executive Board of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) and recently joined the International Editorial Advisory Board of Third World Quarterly.

Alnoor Ladha is a founding member and the Executive Director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others dedicated to changing the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world. He is a Board Member of Greenpeace International USA and a visiting lecturer at New York University (NYU), Columbia University and the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). Alnoor holds an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. 

 Pallav Das is a cofounder of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

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