Last summer #Compass, the centre-left pressure group, held a competition for essays that identified the “elephants left in the room”. “We all know there are issues the left find it hard to talk about – immigration, crime and punishment, why people seem to be more sceptical of the state than the market, limits to economic growth, patriotism, faith and population have all fell into this category at one time or another.” SSM sent in an entry on, … you guessed it, economic growth. Now the winning essays have been published – see the whole collection of essays here.
So the SSM piece wasn’t included (OK, OK, we were over the word limit) – here it is for the record: Elephant – Economic growth and progress to a Steady State Economy. Our more assiduous readers will recognise some of the material that we used in In Place of Growth. What was selected by Compass? This piece by “Compass member” Nicholas Robin. Now it is a well written piece that starts well by identifying the environmental limits to growth.
“In the clamour to fix the economy and get people back into work we are now in danger of ignoring an even bigger problem – economic growth itself. … if ‘growth’ is all we focus on, we run the risk of resurrecting an economic system that literally has no future. The crisis has presented us with an opportunity to remodel our economy along more sustainable lines. … Meanwhile, climate change and the destruction of forests and other vital eco-systems threaten the very life-support systems that we and all the other creatures on the planet rely on. … If we continue to outpace nature’s ability to renew our resources and process our wastes we will end up exhausting the Earth’s ability to sustain life or at least its ability to sustain human populations as large as they are now. That is the biggest elephant in the room for both left and right.”
But then Nicholas seems to lose his nerve, or maybe his consistency, because he goes on:
“Economic growth can only continue in the long term if it is decoupled from the use of natural resources and the emission of greenhouse gases, and we move to what has been described as ‘steady state’ economy.”
Well just a minute, a Steady State Economy is one where there isn’t net, or aggregate economic growth. Economic growth can’t continue in either the short or the long term. Nicholas goes on to suggest that
“The left will have to frame the debate very carefully. We must rebrand the ‘steady state economy’ and sell a compelling vision of a genuinely ‘green growth’ that does not rely on high consumption levels and fossil energy.”
It would indeed be good if we could find a better slogan than ‘steady state economy’ – as the discussion at the Ragged University the other week noted, it doesn’t sound that inspiring. But that doesn’t mean we can fudge the matter and pretend that this means growth after all. Green growth still means an increase in the size of the economy, and the evidence, as reviewed in In Place of Growth is that nobody yet can show that this can be decoupled from increasing resource throughput (and hence emissions). As we’ve said before, you can’t have your cake and eat it.
In our submission we made the following point:
“Socialists should not be afraid of a steady state society and steady state economy. What we have to be afraid of is the impending global ecological collapse. We have almost certainly missed the 2 degree target, above which runaway effects are likely. …. A society in which we care for one another, for future generations and for the planet that makes our life possible is socialism … Socialism has to be about a different kind of society, not just managing capitalism better, and that means prioritising equality, via pre- and re- distribution, valuing sharing as an alternative to the often mindless consumption of trinkets and passive entertainment for the radical reduction of consumption, and the politics of place, of community of neighbourhood. It is compatible with the principles of diversity and stewardship but it is not compatible with a system whose sole purpose is the facilitation of endless capital accumulation, a.k.a economic growth.”
Compass has made a valuable contribution to helping the centre left reject the neo-liberal, market is god, approach. It has done this through a series of thoughtful and well researched publications and polemics as well as through effective networking. But it seems torn between the idea of a better yesterday – back to neo-Keynesian management of an otherwise malign system, or the difficult task of constructing something for the future, a better, green and caring socialism resting on a one planet economy and a radical re-evaluation of what prosperity really means.