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Climate Change, ‘The Cancer Stage of Capitalism’ and the return of limits to growth: Towards a Political Economy of Sustainability
“There are no...limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs” Lawrence H. Summers, Chief Economist World Bank, 1991.1 “Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shorelines, is in imminent peril….The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself—and the timetable is shorter than we thought.” James Hansen (2009: ix).
The critique of conventional economic growth has been a long-standing position of green thinking and radical conceptions of sustainability. Questioning economic growth is one of the most radical challenges to lay before capitalism, given it is a political economic system structurally ‘locked into’ continuous economic growth and accumulation. Indeed, one could suggest that any plausibly ‘green’ and radical conception of political economy begins from and articulates a ‘limits to growth’ perspective (Barry, 1999). Now while there are many debates as to understandings and measurements of ‘economic growth’ a ‘post-growth’ economy is one that has featured prominently within green political and economic discourse, most usually associated with the environmental and political benefits of a less growth orientated socio-economic system. This ‘post-growth’ insight establishes the first framing issue of this chapter which is to reject conventional technologically optimistic ideas of ‘decoupling’ resource, energy and pollution from economic growth, most commonly encapsulated in the dominant reading of sustainable development as ‘ecological modernisation’ (Barry, 2005).2 That such technologically based wishful thinking informs most government policies in relation to climate change and the ecological crisis not only demonstrates the structural imperative to maintain ‘business as usual’ in terms of orthodox economic growth and globalised capitalism, but also the ideological power of this form of economic thinking, even in the face of mounting scientific evidence that the growth imperative itself is the major cause of climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation and so on. Secondly, as this volume seeks to explore, the discourse of ‘resilience’ – unlike that of conventional ‘sustainable development’ – moves us away from ‘win-win’ scenarios in relation to economic growth and social and ecological sustainability. Conventional and dominant accounts of sustainable development can be largely described as forms of ‘ecological modernisation’ (Barry, 2005), namely attempts to ensure the continuation of economic growth and business as usual while technologically reducing resource, energy and pollution associated with that continued economic
Cited in George and Sabelli (1994: 109). Further critiques of the ‘de-coupling’ argument can be found in Jackson (2009).
Page |2 growth. Here, perhaps rather heretically (or at least not unproblematically) one could include recent strategies for versions of a ‘Green New Deal’, which seek though the greening of Keynesian stimulus packages to respond to the current global economic recession though government investment in large-scale low carbon infrastructural projects, boosting employment and providing a ‘step change’ transition to a low carbon economy (Green New Deal group, 2008, Barry, 2010, Luke, 2009). Such proposals for a Green New Deal (which promise the compatibility of kick-starting economic growth/recovery, international competitiveness and the decarbonisation/greening of the economy) are particularly associated with economic and public policy proposals for addressing climate change. In particular Nicholas Stern, coordinator of the influential UK Treasury report into the economics of climate change in 2006 (Stern, 2006) is a prominent proponent of government investments in green energy and economic infrastructure to address both the economic and climate crises (Bowen et al, 2009). Thirdly and finally, in relation to climate change (and its flip side – peak oil and the decline in cheap and secure sources of carbon energy) the issue of economic growth under capitalism is at the heart of how we should understand the underlying causes of climate change as opposed to simply focusing on its effects. In terms of the dominant mitigation and adaptation approaches to climate change, while economic growth does have significant impacts on adaptation policies, this chapter, in outlining a green political economy perspective, will focus on how effective and meaningful approaches to reducing the causes of climate change need to focus on questioning orthodox economic growth. For example, and in direct contradiction of the orthodox ‘green new deal’ approach, at the recent Cancún climate talks in December 2010, Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change proposed that avoiding dangerous climate change was not compatible with continued economic growth in the developed world. As he notes in a co-authored article “only the global economic slump has had any significant impact in reversing the trend of rising emissions” (Anderson and Bows, 2011: 38). This paper goes on to state that “reductions in emissions of 3-4% per year are not compatible with economic growth…avoiding dangerous (and even extremely dangerous) climate change is no longer compatible with economic prosperity” (ibid.: 40). The paper concludes that “the logic of such studies suggest (extremely) dangerous climate change can only be avoided if economic growth is exchanged, at least temporarily, for a period of planned austerity within [rich] nations and a rapid transition away from fossil-fuelled development within [poorer] nations” (ibid.: 41 ). In keeping with long-standing green ‘limits to growth’ concerns (as well as more contemporary developments such as the ‘degrowth’ or ‘decroissance’ movement (Degrowth Declaration, 2010), Anderson’s scientifically informed position, suggests that planned economic contraction in the developed or minority world is inevitable if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. However, while there is a weight of evidence we can cite to question economic growth and outline reasons for adopting a ‘limits to growth’ position as the starting point for any informed political analysis of climate change, there is less research and debate around the alternative to economic growth under capitalism. But what replaces conventional economic growth? Stagnation? Collapse? Regress? Is a nongrowth orientated capitalism possible or desirable? On first gloss the prospect of a non- or post-growth economy not only sounds odd and unfamiliar but also negative
Page |3 and perhaps even dangerous and harmful. In a commonsense context ‘growth’ is normally something we perceive as ‘good’, something positive to be promoted, since it indicates maturity, development, positive movement. Children grow, plants grow etc. and growth therefore is normally and uncontroversially viewed as something to be promoted and encouraged. But also in technical terms growth is not simply ‘good’ for the capitalist economy but indeed a functional i.e. system requirement. As Jackson points out, “modern economies are driven towards economic growth…in a growth-based economy, growth is functional for stability. The capitalist model has no easy route to a steady state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse” (2009: 64; emphasis added). In other words, within a capitalist growth-orientated economy, a shift away from growth leads to recession, socio-economic instability, job losses, investment uncertainty and a decline in living standards etc. This chapter will seek to both criticise the dominant model of political economy (namely neo-classical economics) under capitalism and which informs public policy, and its commitment (addiction would also not be inappropriate) to ‘economic growth’. It will also outline an green political economic alternative to economic growth based around the notion of ‘economic security’ which will be argued represents an attractive and radical way of addressing climate change, social and global inequality and delivering well-being to people. In so questioning economic growth, we are also questioning capitalism and therefore in analysing climate change (and resilience) this chapter suggests we need a clearer ‘post-capitalist’ political economy perspective, one that could (potentially) bring the ecological and labour/socialist movements together (though the latter’s embracing of a ‘post-growth’ analysis is far from certain). In this way, what this chapter suggests might have practical, strategic as well as analytical merit.
Economic Growth and the ‘Cancer stage’ of Capitalism
John McMurtry criticises economic growth in a provocative and indeed troubling manner. For him, economic growth under capitalism is understood as ‘growth for growth’s sake’ and is therefore for him a form of ‘cancerous growth’, the logic of which constitutes a clear and present threat to ‘life’ (i.e. both human and nonhuman) on the planet (McMurtry, 1996). Cancer, understood as denoting the threshold beyond which cell growth becomes unhealthy and threatening the body, can be understood as ‘growth for growth’s sake’. In the same way, economic growth as ‘growth for its own sake’ is cancerous in that it is not growth orientated towards some of the end, such as improving human well-being or the habitats of the non-human world. Rather economic growth under capitalism, as Marx, and those who draw inspiration from his political economic analysis, demonstrated, is orientated towards capital accumulation, not improving the life of humans or the nonhuman world. As McMurtry puts it: there is no limit to the planetary life damage that can be done by such a closed system [capitalism] without accountability beyond itself. In such a predicament, we must connect the programme to the unseen harms which follow from its diagnosis resembling that of the physician understanding a systemic disease invading and attacking a life-host (1996: 34; emphasis added).
McMurtry’s main point is that capitalist economic growth is destroying life and the life supporting mechanisms of both people and planet.3 Echoing early critical theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and the early work of Jurgen Habermas, McMurtry foreground how the ‘normal’ and ‘mundane’ operation of the capitalist economy undermines ‘life’ itself (human and nonhuman) as well as ‘the lifeworld’. For Marcuse, drawing on Freud’s insights, capitalism’s relentless drive for ‘more’, ‘exponential growth’, speed, mobility etc are all expressions of a ‘death instinct’ (Thanatos) preying on or being parasitic upon the ‘life instinct’ (Eros).4 The important point here is the notion that beyond a threshold, economic growth becomes unhealthy, unsustainable and therefore something to be viewed as potentially harmful rather than something to be actively sought after and uncritically promoted as a selfevident ‘good’. In the words of the ecological economist Herman Daly, there is such a thing as ‘uneconomic growth’ and ‘illith’ (Daly, 2003). It is not that economic growth is to be abandoned but rather to be viewed as a process to be consciously and politically monitored and regulated, and which has a threshold, an end point,, rather than unreflectively viewed as something that can be simply ‘left on automatic’ to a self-regulating economic system. In other words, a green critique of economic growth sees an unthinking commitment to its infinite continuation as a permanent objective of public policy as both socially and ecologically irrational. This is important in terms of the common misunderstanding of those critical of economic growth as proposing that countries (mostly in the global South) that can benefit from economic growth (and trade) should be denied that opportunity. Following one of the first modern thinkers to propose a ‘post-growth’ economy, namely, John Stuart Mill (Barry, 2007) and his advocacy of a ‘stationary state’ for the economy, green political economists are of the view that economic growth should be ‘redistributed’ from the ‘over-developed’ minority world in the North/West to the majority world in the global South. It is for this reason that debates about a ‘postgrowth’ economy are squarely orientated towards the (over)developed world. They should be viewed within the context of global (as well as national) arguments for less unequal distribution of opportunities, income, work (not to be confused with formally paid ‘employment’), and the meeting of human needs. And ultimately as this chapter will argue, a post-growth political economy perspective is concerned about the more equal distribution of economic security and well-being, in opposition to the unequal distribution of conventional economic growth under capitalism.
The Grammar of Public Policy: The impact of economics on life, lives and livelihoods
The reasons why the stakes are so high in regards to the dangers posed by one paradigm dominating our thinking about the economy should be obvious. If economics were simply on a par with cultural studies or history, debates about it
Teresa Brennan makes a similar point in her argument that commodities, profit and money – viewed psychoanalytically and from a broadly Marxist perspective – represent parasitic forms of ‘non-life’. “money appropriates nature’s creativity, and does destroy...Marx’s value-theory shows that profit depends on the fixed points of commodities proliferating at nature’s expense” (Brennan, 2000: 75). 4 While beyond our current discussion, there is a connection between the ‘mythic’ character and status of ‘economic growth’ within modern societies and the psycho-cultural insights of the dynamic between ‘Eros’ and ‘Thanatos’ within those societies and individuals themselves.
Page |5 would not have the same political character, since these debates and controversies would be seen as ‘internal’ to the academy and the discipline with little real-world implications. However, given that how we conceptualise economics frames decisionmaking about the distribution of resources, tax policy, reform of health, education, trade, aid and informs our approach to such pressing issues as climate change means that the battle over how economics is understood and what the economic objectives of a society is at the heart of the politics of climate change policy. Economics is not a ‘master discipline’ simply because of its false claims to methodological superiority, value neutrality and objectivity in relation to other social sciences (Barry, 2007). As a form of knowledge/power it is the most powerful form of knowledge in modern societies when it comes to public policy making. And given that the human economy is the most significant (in material terms) dimension of the human exchange with and relationship to the non-human world, how the economy is conceptualised and organised is of the utmost importance to determining (or not) whether our material/metabolic relationship with the non-human world is sustainable (or not). It is for this reason, the seriousness of the issues at stake in how we think about the economy and economics, that a critical analysis of economics is of vital political and ethical import. Perhaps the greatest success of the neo-classical orthodoxy lies in it being the grammar of policy making of capitalism orientated towards producing infinite economic growth as a structural necessity of the political economic system. That is, neo-classical economics has embedded itself so successfully within decision-making that it not only acts as ‘gate-keeper’ and agenda setter but also determines the language and way in which those wishing to influence or have input into public policy making must express their argument. What is meant by this is that economic theory functions as the dominant way in which environmental policy-making is debated, thought about and ultimately decided. From a Foucauldian perspective, neo-classical economics is a knowledge/power discourse which shapes the way we think, act and decide public policy. In Foucault’s thinking neo-classical economics becomes a ‘truth regime’ and constitutes the very ‘rules of the game’ in the same way as grammar is the rules for the correct use of language. Thus those who either do not know or refuse to accept this particular grammar (such as non-economic arguments for environmental preservation or those economic perspectives critical of the neo-classical framework) are at a severe disadvantage in trying to influence environmental policy-making within the current institutional and power/knowledge framework. A key feature of the power of neo-classical economics is its ‘success’ in terms of ‘delivering the goods’ for a period of time, creating a ‘perpetual growth machine’ supported by almost all politicians and most political parties (with the notable exception of Green Parties), state officials and civil servants and citizens of those societies (mostly in the developed minority world of capitalist states) who have benefitted from orthodox economic growth under neoliberal globalisation. The reality is that however much one can and ought to criticise this mode of thinking and policymaking about the economy, it did lower prices for food and basic commodities (of course passing the full cost to workers in other parts of the world on low wages, or to local environments and ecosystems, other forms of non-human life, or the global climate system) which allowed more people in the developed world to enjoy lifestyles once the preserve of the wealthy. However, when the full ‘on’ as opposed to ‘off-
Page |6 balance’ sheet is reviewed, it is clear this perpetual growth machine was and is maintained at tremendous environmental and human costs and was literally fuelled by (now declining) carbon energy. With ecological chickens coming home to roost and the beginning of the end of carbon energy age, we need modes of thinking about the economy which are ‘fit for purpose’ for the challenges and opportunities our current predicament. One such alternative to neo-classical economics, namely green political economy is outlined below.
The Battle of Ideas over the Economy
The success of a body of knowledge is not only to be found in whether it ‘trumps’ other potential forms of knowledge in the pages of an academic journal or conference panel, or indeed in replacing one ‘paradigm’ with another, but also in whether it exists, persists and has support in the ‘real world’. Of course one need not be related to the other. As we can see in relation to neo-classical economics, even though this body of knowledge not only failed to predict the current global economic crisis but also was the main cause of the policies which precipitated it, it is still neo-classical economists who continue to advise governments, business models have not by and large been transformed, and ordinary citizens have been offered no alternative to the neo-classical orthodoxy, as can be seen in the media coverage of the crisis. Much like the ‘Achilles lance’ view of economic growth – namely it can heal the wounds (environmental and social) it inflicts – so likewise with the neo-classical orthodoxy. Thus we find that the solution to the problems caused by neo-classical economics and growth orientated capitalism is…more neo-classical economics prescriptions and a continuation of growth orientated capitalism (perhaps with a ‘Green New Deal’ twist).5 The intellectual debate between green political economy and neo-classical economics is one that lies partly within the framework of the academic production of knowledge, but is also a debate that goes beyond and outside the academy. Neoclassical economics supports a particular view of the economy and society, one which, with a few exceptions, supports a capitalist organisation of the economy, private ownership of the means of production, production for profit, justifies an unequal distribution of income and wealth, promotes free trade, deregulation, economic globalisation, and above all is committed to promoting orthodox economic growth as a necessary and permanent feature of the economy. Thus, politically neoclassical economics supports the status quo and the current institutional distribution of power within society and between societies globally. As Scott-Cato perceptively notes, part of the reason for the absence of green economics from the academy has to do with the sense that “academic debate around economics and, some would argue, the role of the university itself, has been captured by the globalized economic system, whose dominance is a threat to the environment” (2008: 6). Conversely, viewed as an ideological battle, debates about economics cannot be confined to the academic sphere but must also be analysed and located in everyday life and individual life histories (as Manuel-Navarrete suggests in his chapter in this volume), the public sphere, popular culture, the media, elections, party manifestos, protests, campaigns, commonsense perceptions about the economy, to public policy making and legislation.
It is for this reason that the term ‘autistic’ was used be some dissident political economists to describe the neo-classical orthodoxy, that is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.
This is of course an old Marxist insight – namely that debates and conceptions about the economy and economics are, in part, about bolstering or unsettling power relations within society, a battle for ideological and intellectual hegemony. In the case of neoclassical economics, its ideological hegemony translates not simply into political power in determining state policies for example, but is equally a form of cultural hegemony informing how we ‘commonsensically’ think about, assess and evaluate the economy and economic issues. Perhaps the most vivid expression of the an ideological position that has achieved this preeminent position is that it neither presents itself as an ideological position nor is perceived as such by others, but rather viewed as ‘commonsense’ or ‘normal’.6 Once a particular way of conceptualising and thinking about the economy is widely shared and commonsensical, alternative modes of thinking about the economy are by default ‘nonsensical’ and indeed this has and continues to be the most common reaction to non-neo-classical economic perspective – green or other. A good example of how this commonsense is created is given by Stanford who notes that, Curiously, even though capitalism dominates the world economy, the term “capitalism” is not commonly used. Even more curiously, this word is almost never used by economists. Neoclassical economics is dedicated to the study of capitalism; in fact, other kinds of economies (that existed in the past, or that may exist in the future) are not even contemplated. Yet the term “capitalism” does not appear in neoclassical economics textbooks. Instead, economists refer simply to “the economy” – as if there is only one kind of economy, and hence no need to name or define it. This is wrong. … “the economy” is simply where people work to produce the things we need and want. There are different ways to organize that work. Capitalism is just one of them. (Stanford, 2008: 33; emphasis added) In other words, a mark of the ideological success of neo-classical economics is that it has, by and large, managed to perform the sleight of hand of replacing ‘capitalism’ with ‘the economy’, such that, as indicated in the previous chapter concerning neoclassical economics as the ‘grammar of power’, whenever we ‘commonsensically’ talk about ‘the economy’ we are in fact, usually, talking about a particular mode of economic organisation, namely capitalism. A category mistake has been made (the confusion of ‘capitalism’ with the ‘economy’) which despite the normatively charged debates within the academy through books, articles, conferences and lectures, continues to persist in the real world. Think of the way in which when an ‘economist’
Another example of the ideological character of orthodox economic growth, although one that can only be stated here rather than developed in any detail, is that economic growth even though it is viewed as ‘commonsense’ and therefore widely supported (passively) as a social and political goal, can be seen as supported by and promoted by political and economic elites and classes. Economic growth is not simply about consumption and consumerism but also about sustaining capital accumulation, the political economy of capitalism and production for profit. At the same time, growth for its own sake, as a permanent feature of human life and the economy is something that has to be artificially and constantly promoted and justified, since the ‘default’ position of most people and societies historically (Sahlins, 1972) is to aim to ‘plateau out’ once a threshold of desired or sufficient income, wealth or comfort and well-being has been achieved.
Page |8 is called to comment in the media it is without exception a neo-classical economist. Much the same of course occurs with other central terms in modern societies such as ‘democracy’ being reduced to ‘liberal’ or representative democracy, other conceptions of democracy are marginalised and neglected or simply deemed ‘abnormal’ or otherwise suspect. In many respects, we live in an economically illiterate age both in the sense that people, as with science and technology do not understand these processes, and there is a deliberate and organised process to keep people ignorant of possible alternatives to the dominant model. Thus, in the context of economic power/knowledge, there is only one model. Other examples of the popular battle of ideas over economics and the economy that form part of the ‘project’ of green political economy, include the Center for Popular Economics in America and its book Field Guide to the US Economy (Teller-Elsberg et al, 2006) or the ‘Toxic textbooks’ campaign (Fullbrook, 2009) both of which seek to educate citizens, communities, civil society groups etc., about the basic principles and values that underpin how we think about the economy. Above all else, what these practical, pedagogical initiatives seek is to promote greater pluralism in thinking about the economy in the face of the hegemony of the dominant neo-classical model. Such grass-roots, ‘barefoot’, ‘dissident economics’ initiatives also question the received wisdom and popular views about the economy but equally important, seek to question the notion that the economy and economics is so complex a topic that only ‘experts’ can talk and discuss it. Part of the ideological project of green political economy I would suggest lies in its aim to publicise, politicise and democratise thinking about economics as much as it is about democratising the economy through strategies of localisation or the promotion of social enterprises or cooperatives for example. This is the real meaning of Scott-Cato’s view of green economics growing “from the bottom up and from those building a sustainable economy in practice” (2008: 5). This democratic impulse does not mean that a green political economy perspective does not recognise that complex aspects of the economy do require expertise and forms of knowledge only a few will possess, but this democratic impulse is compatible with requiring democratic oversight and transparency in respect of these complex aspects of managing the economy. If we look at the ways in which the very complexity of certain types of economic activity, primarily but not limited to the financial sector, is partly to blame for creating the current economic crisis, then simplifying the economy and making it more transparent makes a lot of sense. This democratic impulse also helps to understand why one of the objectives of green political economy is to simplify economic relations – relocalise, enhance community self-reliance, reduce the distance between production and consumption, and reduce the material throughput of the economy – all of which does mean economic life is a lot less complex and complicated that it is currently. And in being less complex, such economies and communities are also more resilient (Hopkins, 2008).
From Economic Growth to Economic Security
So what can replace ‘economic growth’? While there are many potential contenders for this that have been canvassed over the last 150 years – from John Stuart Mill’s ‘stationary state’ (Mill, 1848) to more recent work on ‘quality of life’, ‘well-being’ and ‘prosperity without growth’ (Jackson, 2009), all share key components and have a
Page |9 large degree of overlap – the one I wish to explore here is the notion of ‘economic security’. I begin from a major report by the International Labour Office Economic Security for a Better World published in 2004, which found that ‘economic security’ coupled with democracy and equality were key determinants of well-being and social stability. This study developed an Economic Security Index. According to the report Economic security is composed of basic social security, defined by access to basic needs infrastructure pertaining to health, education, dwelling, information, and social protection, as well as work-related security. The report delineates seven component of work-related security. While all seven dimensions are important, two are essential for basic security: income security and voice representation security. Basic security means limiting the impact of uncertainties and risks people face daily while providing a social environment in which people can belong to a range of communities, have a fair opportunity to pursue a chosen occupation and develop their capacities via what the ILO calls decent work. (ILO, 2004: 1) The report also found that: People in countries that provide citizens with a high level of economic security have a higher level of happiness on average, as measured by surveys of national levels of life-satisfaction and happiness…The most important determinant of national happiness if not income level – there is a positive association, but rising income seems to have little effect as wealthy countries grow more wealthier. Rather the key factor is the extent of income security, measured in terms of income protection and a low degree of income inequality. (International Labor Organization, 2004: 1; emphasis added) Such findings give empirical support to long-standing green arguments stressing the need for policies to lower socio-economic inequality, enhance individual and collective socio-economic security and increase well-being and quality of life, rather than conventionally measured economic growth, rising personal income levels or orthodox measures of wealth and prosperity. The link between economic security, well-being and equality will be explored in more detail below. Thus the ILO report finds that ‘welfare state’ provision of social security for citizens is an important determinant of high economic security. The ILO report also points out that insecurity is generated by patterns of economic globalisation which produce endemic or structural insecurity in terms of employment, social welfare and income due to countries ‘racing to the bottom’ in terms of lowering worker protection and welfare provision, or how ‘footloose’ multinational capital and the demands of international economic competitiveness by their very nature undermine economic security as companies can always move place in search of higher profits, lower wages etc.. It is also important to note other observed links between in/security, economic growth and well-being. One of the principal psychological and cultural determinants of excessive consumption has been found to be feelings of personal insecurity and vulnerability – whether about one’s body shape, sensitivity to peer judgements, or externally generated and reinforced views of self-other relations that undermine personal or other forms of security and self-esteem (Chaplin and John, 2007; de Graff et al, 2005). Giddens, in a slightly different vein has written persuasively about the
P a g e | 10 way modernity can undermine what the calls ‘ontological security’ (Giddens, 1994: 79), but does not connect this with patterns of ‘defensive consumption’ – those forms of consumption which do not add to quality of life, but are forced upon the individual as a necessary means for them to simply protect their existing material standard of living i.e. to run to stand still as it were. Ego insecurity can therefore be viewed as a main cause of consumerism and materialism, which lead to diminished well-being. According to psychologist Tim Kasser’s work, “Materialistic people, from children to pensioners, are less satisfied with life, lack vitality, and suffer more anxiety, depression and addiction problems. Materialistic values make people more anti-social, less empathic, more competitive and less cooperative.” (Kasser, 2008: ). He points out that that individuals when faced with insecurity or pain (psychological or physical) in America increasingly turn to money and possessions as a way of coping with distress rather than seeking comfort and support in social interaction and community or family relationships (Kasser, 2008). It turns out that the conditions for human flourishing are intimately connected to the conditions for resilient communities. While there are clear material/resource inputs needed for creating resilient communities and meeting human needs, much of what is required for human flourishing and resilience is non-material and largely relational, social, communicative and ultimately political in character and central to which is less unequal power relations within communities (Cutter, 2006). The upshot of which is that human flourishing and providing and equitably distributing economic security, can be achieved at much lower ecological and resource throughput. That is, economic contraction/degrowth/post-growth (particularly if we remember that we in the minority world are starting this ‘descent’ from a high level of material wealth, though inequitably distributed) does not, necessarily mean lower levels of human well-being. However, a key issue, and one which space does not permit a fuller exploration here, is that such a economic contraction, and the associated ‘retreat from fossil fuels’, must be planned.7 Thus, it does seem that what a ‘macro-economics of sustainability’ in a post-growth context calls for economic planning and not just more economic regulation. This does seem to open up a fruitful area of cooperation and debate between the green and labour movements. Of course there are those for whom economic insecurity is viewed in a positive manner and indeed held as a necessary feature of modern capitalism. Joseph Schumpeter for example famously noted capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’ by which he meant that, “This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in” (Schumpeter, 1975: 82). For him, and indeed other mainstream economists a key feature of capitalism’s productive dynamism is its inherent instability and its capacity to generate insecurity is a way of spurring innovation and entrepreneurialism, all with the aim of course of increasing productively, profitability and therefore economic growth and capital accumulation. Thus, arguments for economic security thus run counter to this vision, both in questioning the means (creative destruction and insecurity) and the ends (orthodox economic growth as measured by GDP). However, this does not necessarily mean (as critics are wont to point out) that a focus on economic security as a main objective of macro-economic policy an end to entrepreneurialism or innovation. It is a fair comment to make and one any
In some ways the current (and past) economic crisis could be viewed as a form of ‘unplanned economic contraction’ i.e. a result of the free market.
P a g e | 11 alternative to our current economic growth focused model need to take seriously is how to ensure that stagnation and regress is not the outcome of a post-growth economy. However, there are solid reasons for thinking that economic development “comes from innovation, from consuming different things, rather than more of the same things” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 221) The ILO report confirms the long-standing green critique of economic growth as necessarily contributing to well-being. It states that, “there is only a weak impact of economic growth on security measured over the longer-term. In other words, rapid growth does not necessarily create better economic security, although it sometimes can do if it is accompanied by appropriate social policies” (ILO, 2004: 30). The ILO report provides other evidence of the dangers of economic growth policies that undermine economic (and communal) security. The report finds that, “the global distribution of economic security does not correspond to the global distribution of income, and that countries in South and South-East Asia have a greater share of global economic security than their share of the world’s income” (ILO, 2004)
Economic Security, Equality and Well-Being
One of the most significant impacts of a shift away from economic growth as a central goal would be the undermining of the justification (defence or necessity) of socioeconomic inequalities (both globally and nationally) on the grounds that they are necessary/functional ‘incentives’ to motivate people (via the promise of differential i.e. unequal rewards) towards entrepreneurial activity, ‘hard work’ etc. and thus stimulate economic growth, productivity and international competiveness and so on. As early proponents of the ‘steady-state economy’ pointed out, the shift from a society geared towards economic growth would necessarily lead to more extensive redistributive measures (Daly, 1973). One of the reasons for focusing on lowering inequality is that socio-economic inequality is both a driver of and a product of orthodox economic growth under capitalism. In this way economic growth under capitalism is a way to manage and mobilise rather than tackle or reduces inequality. There are four main problems with inequality in relation to human well-being that I want to highlight. The first is that the more unequal a society the greater there is status competition, As Jackson puts it “Unproductive status competition increases material throughput and creates distress” (Jackson, 2009: 154), that is causes both ecological and resource problems as the economic system uses up more resources and creates more pollution not to meet human needs but as a result of competition between individuals for social status. As Wilkinson and Pickett note “The problems in rich countries are not caused by society not being rich enough (or even by being too rich) but by the scale of material differences between people with each society being too big. What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society” (2009: 25; emphasis added). And in modern consumer- capitalist societies the main way in which social comparison is performed is through material goods and the practices of consumerism and consumption. Wilkinson and Pickett go on to state that: “at the core of our interactions with strangers is our concern at the social judgements an evaluations they might make: how do they rate us, did we give a good account of ourselves? This vulnerability is part of the modern psychological condition and feeds directly into consumerism” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 42-3). Again we are led back to the
P a g e | 12 foundational issue of providing policies and an institutional structure (with incentive system to match) which minimises if not eradicates forms of unjustified evaluative vulnerability based on comparing social position and possessions i.e. which does not undermine security and self-esteem. This is the centrality of ensuring a sustainable society is a more equal society which in being less unequal reduces the dangers of someone feeling shame in public in the sense of not having the basic wherewithal to present and feel oneself as an equal in society. The second is that, as Wilkinson and Pickett’s exhaustive research demonstrates, unequal societies almost always do worse on a range of policy issues ranging from obesity, childhood mortality, drug use, literacy, social mobility, trust, teenage pregnancy and incidence of mental illness (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). As they put it: Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. The populations of rich countries have got to the end of a long historical journey. (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 5-6; emphasis added Thus degrowth/post-growth and economic contraction is a policy for (over)developed not underdeveloped nations. The third striking implication of inequality is its negative effect on trust and social solidarity and sense of community. This has significant implications for democracy (which of course is based on the principles of both equality between citizens and fellow feeling as members of the same community). Inequality undermines a sense of a ‘community of equals’ leading to the danger of hierarchical, paternalistic and classbased relations between supposedly equal citizens and carries with it the possibility of relations of domination (including one’s based on internalised senses of inequality such as those centred around shame at one’s status and those where one believes oneself to be a second or third class citizen). As Wilkinson and Pickett note “The problem is that second-class goods make us look like second-class people” (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009: 222), thus further strengthening class divisions. A fourth and related problem with inequality is one particular to democratic politics, namely how inequality undermines and compromises democracy. Wherever economic power is both concentrated in the hands of a few and easily convertible into unconstrained political power, it makes no sense to speak of political life as democratic. The power of the rich is unconstrained because too few people are bothering to constrain it. Power is always accumulating in novel ways, posing new threats to liberty and justice. (Stout, 2007: 6; emphasis added). There are two dimensions to this – one is the violation of the democratic principle of ‘each to count for one, none for more than one’, and the other is how inequality in leading to the concentration of wealth and political power means relations of inequality become relations of arbitrary power and dependence, which also has a
P a g e | 13 consequence the erosion of solidarity and mutual connection between the wealthy and powerful and the less wealthy and powerless.
Beyond Maximisation and Efficiency: Sufficiency and Frugality and the Macro-economics of Sustainability
Some notion of sufficiency would have to be harnessed to our understanding of economic security, if the concept is to adequately service our needs for both social well being and socio-ecological resilience. Unlike the concepts of efficiency and cooperation, Thomas Princen contends that sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration risks important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion; “when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized” (Princen, 2005, 18: emphasis added). Sufficiency and economic security unlike maximisation, efficiency and economic growth denote superior organising principles attentive to risks, especially those risks that are displaced in time and place. Herman Daly while welcoming the idea of integrating the principle of sufficiency also signals the difficulty of doing so. As he puts it, “It will be very difficult to define sufficiency and build the concept [of sufficiency] into economic theory and practice. But I think it will prove far more difficult to continue to operate [as if] there is no such thing as enough” (Daly, 1993: 360-1; emphasis added). Sufficiency principles (as opposed to mere efficiency) such as those of restraint, respite, precaution, have the virtue of partially resurrecting well-established notions like moderation and thrift, ideas that have never completely disappeared and will be in need as guides to action in a sustainable, resilient economy. An important point here is raised by Astyk in correcting the common misperception of thrift and frugality being negatively viewed. As she rightly puts it, “Thrift is not the opposite of generosity, the closed fist that holds one to what you have, but the enabler of generosity. A frugal life that does not waste and cares for what you have is what enables you to give away, to share, to open your hands and pour forth what you have preserved” (Astyk, 2008: 208). Frugality as a principle of economic thinking and acting has perhaps been regarded as a form of private ‘accumulation strategy’ due to the unfortunate association between thrift, saving and frugality with Scrooge-like, capitalistic motivations i.e. accumulation. In fact, as outlined below investment and saving, based on principles such as frugality and thrift, mean that the latter principles represent the antidote to debt-based private consumption and, as Astyk and others note, can move us in the direction of a more solidaristic, sharing economy. A central feature of a sustainability economics (the ‘macro-economics of sustainability’) is to move away from efficiency and maximisation towards principles such as sufficiency and optimality, in designing an economic system which is ecologically literate in terms of accepting the ‘limits to growth’ analysis. Sufficiency and optimality are compatible with qualities of ‘resilient adaptive systems’ such as ‘built in redundancy’ and ‘slack’ (Walker et al, 2004). Since such resilient systems and qualities are ‘inefficient’ and non-conducive to the constant achievement of maximisation and productivity increases as conventionally viewed, the principles underpinning resilience can therefore be viewed as antethical to economic growth.
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Key to this is to view the sustainable economy (and its related theory of economics) as a form of ‘adaptive management’ in relation to the metabolism between the human economy and the flow and stock of materials and energy in nature’s economy. In much the same way the permaculture principle of ‘slack’ is viewed as essential in creating resilient socio-ecological relations and systems, here one can view these alternative economic principles of sufficiency and optimality as indicating the necessary slack and ‘unproductiveness’ that a sustainable economy needs to have ‘built-in’. A good example of what this in-build ‘slack’ might entail in practice is Jackson’s discussion of the macro-economics of investment within a sustainable economy. He points out that “Investments in ecosystem maintenance contribute to aggregate demand, but make no direct contribution to aggregate supply – at least under the assumptions of a conventional production function. They may be vital in protecting ecosystem integrity. And this, is in its turn, is vital for sustaining production at all over the long term. But in the short-term, they appear to ’soak up’ income without increasing economic output” (Jackson, 2009: 140). As he puts it later in the book, “In conventional terms they are likely to be ‘less productive’” (ibid.: 176), It is this ‘soaking up’ that we might also term the necessary in-built redundancy required for any sustainable economy to fulfil the demands of adaptive management and thus also be resilient. But notice how this concept of ‘unproductivity’ also translates to the relationship between production and reproduction, ‘employment’ and ‘work’. Once we begin to see that the point of public policy or how we should judge the success or not of the economy is how it provides meaningful work which contributes directly to social well-being, has forms of provisioning which meet peoples’ needs, and balances this with formally paid employment and the needs of the formal economy, we are entering a very different economic worldview. While of course bound to attract criticism, and not for one moment denying or minimising the devastating effects of losing one’s job, in our current economy, I do think the time has come to seriously revisit Ivan Illich’s wonderfully provocative notion of The Right to Useful Unemployment (Illich, 1978). In short, we need to ask ourselves what does ‘unemployment’ look like within the context of a different economy, one in which ‘work’, reproductive labour, forms of domestic and community care, and the social economy were objects of public policy, recognised and valued? As Simms and Boyle point out there are considerable social and well-being costs to a policy of ‘full employment’. As they point out, “Full employment...is likely to be corrosive of social capital, if it leaves nobody available in communities” (Boyle and Simms, 2009: 87) and full employment would also likely severely compromise the ‘core’ or ‘social’ economy. Full employment, like maximisation and efficiency, are core elements of the project to realise orthodox economic growth. These elements are not oriented towards the achievement of sustainability, resilient communities or enhance human well-being and indeed as this chapter has pointed out, their collective contribution to orthodox economic growth means that under current conditions i.e. capitalism, they are incompatible with the achievement of these non-economic growth objectives. That is, they are not compatible with a macro-economics of sustainability. Therefore it seems to me that the real issue here is not the division between ‘work’ and ‘employment’ so much as the balance one strikes between them, the pattern of the flow from one to the other, which does require placing both on a more equal footing,
P a g e | 15 rather than seeing ‘work’ as signifying a lack, or as a less valuable human activity than ‘employment’, or to be valued only insofar as it supports or leads to formally paid employment. But of course all this leads to the need for a very different conception of the economy than the one that is currently dominant – namely as presented by neo-classical economics. It calls for a much larger, more expansive conceptualisation of the economy in which ALL work, ALL economic activity, ALL resource and energy use is included – not simply those activities which have a monetary valuation or are captured in conventional national economic accounting models. The starkness and ambition of this new green political economy has been captured by Boyle and Simms when they note: “The question is not; as it used to be, how do we make the most profit? It is the broader question of how we create the most human well-being from the least resources whilst living within the thresholds of tolerance of the ecosystems we depend on” (Boyle and Simms, 2009: 99; emphasis added), and I would add, without exploiting or treating other humans unjustly, compromising democratic freedoms, increasing inequalities, or treating non-humans and the natural world disrespectfully.
Conclusion: beyond growth and beyond carbon-fuelled capitalism
The climate crisis (and associated energy crisis in terms of peak oil) is the defining issue of the current time and is and will continue to shape the politics of the 21 st century. Taken together with the global economic crisis, the climate and energy crises represent a ‘perfect storm’ which, if analysed from a crucial political economy point of view in an integrated manner, offer opportunities for radical transformation and transition in thinking and practice in relation to the economy. In terms of thinking about the ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ this chapter has sought to argue there is a need for critiques of neo-classical economics and its economic ‘commonsense’ which both depoliticises and naturalises ‘capitalism’ as the social form under which global humanity and human-nature relations are mediated and constructed. It is for this reason that in thinking about climate change, peak oil, peak water, biodiversity loss and all the other elements of our sustainability crisis, we need to attend to the political economy of capitalism both in theory and practice. Addressing and analysing climate change calls for greater pluralism (and imagination) in our economic thinking and identifying neo-classical economic thinking as a primary cause of that sustainability crisis, in its justification of capitalism and the imperative for continual economic growth qua capital accumulation. While I have offered some brief fragments of elements of a green ‘macro-economics of sustainability’, such a green political economy perspective needs more development there are other non/post-capitalist, post-growth political economy perspectives which ought to be explored within a context of greater pluralism, debate and crossfertilisation within our economic thinking that is so badly needed now. In terms of the practical politics of a ‘macro-economics of sustainability’ in relation to climate change, it is clear there is also some hope in progressive movements and perspectives from the broad left and green movements being able to work together around the promise of a low carbon transition being a low or no growth one but with high levels of well-being and above all a shared realisation that an egalitarian agenda is not compatible with orthodox economic growth under capitalism (Woodward and Simms, 2006). For example, for the trades’ union movement this commitment to a
P a g e | 16 ‘post-growth’ perspective is likely to be too radical and too far removed from its structural commitment to boosting the share of a growing economic pie for workers and their families. However, at the moment where there is common ground and a shared understanding between left and green perspectives it is around the reformist ‘Green New Deal’ agenda and its ecological modernisation promise of combining orthodox economic growth, employment and decarbonising our energy and other infrastructure to deliver a ‘step-change’ to a low carbon, green economy. In short, the common green critique of orthodox economics must become a clearer critique of capitalism itself, and relatedly its long-standing and evidence-based critique of economic growth must become a critique of capital accumulation. Any planned economic contraction (in the developed world) as a response to climate change and the transition to a low carbon energy economy must therefore be viewed for what this is and means: a transition away from capitalism since a nongrowth/degrowth capitalism is impossible as well as undesirable. Carbon fuelled capitalism is destroying the planet’s life support systems and is systematically liquidating them and calling it ‘economic growth’. Therefore any plausible macroeconomics of sustainability must, at the very least, move us towards a serious examination of radical proposals such as those articulated by eco-socialist (and ecofeminist) movements.
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