Sunday, 4 December 2011

Its time to begin to embrace the post-growth economy

Capitalism has brought about a double crunch; a crunch which is both environmental and economic. The cause is capitalism's drive for endless growth which has depleted the key natural resources, oil and gas, that it needs to continue its relentless material accumulation. One of the waste products of growth, carbon dioxide, is threatening to make our planet uninhabitable through climate change, natural resources are becoming exhausted and the biodiversity upon which we ultimately depend is threatened with destruction. Now that economic growth has stalled due to the economic crisis brought about by financial capitalism, politicians and economists are struggling to overcome the problem of massive debt from the banking crisis and get economies back 'on course' by re-starting growth. But what if they can't? And even if they could, would that option be desirable?

Growth, in conventional neoliberal terms, is not the answer. Continued privatisation and deregulation will not bring about growth, nor will it increase prosperity for the many. It will simply increase poverty and inequality. Neoliberalism is an ideology that has failed the people. Its time is over. The problem is that politicians and the ruling capitalist class are unable and unwilling to see an alternative to what has been rightly described as 'business as usual'. It will take political change to bring about economic change and to implement the solutions we need to deal with the unemployment, falling pensions, poverty, homelessness and inequality brought about by 30 years of neoliberalism.

The Green Party and others have proposed means to get us out of the current economic crisis by means of a national investment bank and a Green New Deal which will stimulate the economy and create much needed employment whilst helping to combat climate change. Amory Lovins and others in Natural Capitalism have proposed ways in which we can stave off the problems of growth and resource depletion by means of a vastly increased resource efficiency. All these measures will help us to overcome our present economic and environmental difficulties, but in themselves, are not long term solutions because they still create growth.

In the longer term we will need to adjust to an economy which can create prosperity without growth, because growth will no longer be possible. We simply won't have the energy resources to grow our economies in the way we have in the past 200 years. The Transition movement offers us a compelling model of how we can adjust to a low energy society, and there is no doubt that we can have prosperity without growth just as our forbears did before the advent of capitalism. What we will need to do is adjust our ideas about what prosperity means, and this means weaning ourselves off consumerism. This isn't going to be easy but, in the end, it is going to give us healthier and happier lifestyles. We have much to learn from indigenous communities who have lived in harmony with the land as to how we can develop a more successful management of the commons.

There will be those who argue that all this talk is a kind of madness and by ending growth that we are taking ourselves back to the stone age. They believe that we can continue business as usual by building hundreds of nuclear power stations and finding technological fixes for climate change as Daniel Ben-Ami does here. This is really akin to a science fiction fantasy. It is an example of the denial which affects many people, the sort of stuff that is reflected in Comment is Free when environmentalists who post on prosperity without growth are denounced by commenters as eco-fascists. The reality is that if the arguments of the fantasists prevail we are likely to end up living in caves rather than if we have an orderly and planned transition to a new kind of economy.

Prosperity without growth can be achieved and it does not mean poverty. It means a slower pace of life. It may mean less gadgets, but not no gadgets. It means things that last longer. It means more localism and more community. It means more labour and more labour intensive industries and it means more jobs, more community, more time with family, and much more social justice. But best of all it means the end of divisive, destructive capitalism.

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