The Case For Degrowth?

Mark Burton responds to Chi Onwurah's article for New Ground, which set out why sustainable growth was at the heart of Labour's economic plans


'As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems. The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent.'   John McDonnell

Every day the evidence mounts that industrial civilisation has reached a state of ecological overshoot and is heading for collapse. Climate change is the most obvious aspect, as scientists from Stockholm’s Resilience Centre have made clear with the concept of Planetary Boundaries.  In 2015 they found that four of these planetary boundaries had already been crossed. Biodiversity loss, damage to phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, climate change and land use have all reached dangerous levels.

This scenario was presented by the “Limits to Growth” scientists in 1972. It was confirmed in their update report of 2004 and by University of Melbourne studies in 2008 and 2014.  Which other economic forecasting model has been so accurate over such a long time-scale?

Chi distances the Labour Party from the Green Party on economic growth.  Eight Labour MPs, including Daniel Zeichner and Barry Gardiner, are on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth, chaired by Caroline Lucas. The possibility of economic growth on a finite planet is not a question of party affiliation but of scientific evidence: there is some evidence, probably temporary, of decoupling of CO2 emissions from GDP growth, in a few economies, at far less than the annual rate needed to mitigate climate change.  There is not, however, any similar evidence on other material use.

Solar energy is great, but materials can't be synthesised from sunlight and there are increasing carbon emissions from concrete and steel production, deforestation and soil destruction.

Technology can facilitate economic and social change but the economy is material, embedded in the ecosystem.  ICT relies on vast expenditures of energy, copper, rare earth metals, water, and so on, which all impose limits on scale.

The present economic model depends on treadmill growth, but degrowth to a steady state economy could be a planned, managed process. Ecological economists Peter Victor and Tim Jackson have demonstrated that ceasing GDP growth needn't increase poverty and unemployment.  It does mean rejecting some shibboleths like the desirability of increasing productivity. But planetary limits do mean a radical reduction of consumption which can only be achieved fairly with planning and redistribution.

Does it mean turning our backs on the global South? No, our wealth has been acquired through the exploitation of those regions in concert with the exploitation of workers here, and our prosperity still depends on exploitation those in the Global South.  Our growth economy, with its insatiable consumption, continues, to ravage the South through resource theft, hyper-exploitation, dispossession, rigged trading mechanisms and more.  Degrowth could be a win-win, strengthening both our economies and those of the global South, freeing them from the malign environmental, social and economic impacts of extractivism.

Some sectors will have to grow, the “replacement economy” of socially and environmentally benign production.  Whilst much of Labour's economic and industrial approach is appropriate, it is only ecologically realistic if the aggregate level of resource throughput decreases and then stays stable. You can't have that and overall growth.

Repeating the mantra of “growth” avoids devising and securing support for unprecedented and innovative policies. Like these:

1. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving liberated public funds towards clean production.

2. Sharing work-and resources, reducing the working week to some 32 hours, supporting employers to facilitate job-sharing, with income loss for the top 10% only.

3. Minimum and maximum income. High incomes mean disproportionate resource use: cap them but also set a floor.

4. Tax reform for a progressive system that taxes the use of energy and resources, wealth, property and land value.

5. Control money creation, regulating bank lending for tight but cheap credit.

6. Citizen debt audit: "pardon" unpayable household debts.

7. Support the alternative, solidarity society through subsidies and tax exemptions for co-operatives, social enterprises, community land trusts, opening up resources to community groups.

8. Optimise buildings.  Retrofit, refurbish, downsize and share, saving fuel costs and emissions.  Expropriate vacant housing. Respond to any remaining need by building low energy social housing, within already urbanised areas.

9. Curb advertising, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption.

10. Establish environmental limits, via absolute and diminishing caps on the CO2 that can be produced and the material resources the country uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

10. Abolish the misleading GDP indicator.  Focus on real things- jobs, incomes, activity, investment, care, health, wellbeing and environmental restoration.

This isn't a full programme for a steady state economy but it demonstrates how, far from suggesting something impractical and unpopular, SERA could and should promote a genuinely ecological literate and socialist approach: degrowth.

Mark Burton is a SERA Member and a member of Steady State Manchester

The SERA blog regularly hosts content from SERA members - the views represented are the personal views of the author

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