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‘Why a Green Economy is a Post-Growth Economy’
Speaking notes (28th July, Sheffield)
Theme of the conference - designing sustainable economies and this session
what is a green economy
Let me begin by thanking Hayley for the invitation to participate and to
congratulate her for organising this. As someone who has been writing about
limits to growth, green political economy, post-growth politics and economic
policy since the late 1980s, it is gratifying for me to see such a gathering like
this of made up of (I suspect and hope!) equally intellectually promiscuous,
interdisciplinary and heterodox thinkers. And in relation to Hayley's
discussion of red and Green teaming I'm happy to reply I'm a re-green
Watermelon, Marxist-Lentilist....
I am also a part-time politician, currently a Green Party councillor, but longtime political activist who has rarely ever expressed my views about the
economy in a heterodox, post-growth frame...I have yet to find the language
to do so (beyond one which as a confirmed atheist and not just lapsed but
completely collapsed Catholic is a quasi-religious or religiously-inspired one
based around stewardship and an associated the 'good life' and 'good society'
beyond carbon-based consumer capitalism). Here it's interesting to note that
I've found the Pope's Encyclical Laudato 'Si - Care for Our Common Home
extremely inspiring - perhaps the most inspiring publication from a politicalethical world leader on the dynamics underpinning what I call 'actually
existing Unsustainability'. Indeed, just to mention here but without
elaborating, and perhaps something we will touch upon in our two days
together, I find Laudato 'Si a more inspiring document politically, ethically
and conceptually than dominant discourses and publications on 'the
To sketch out and anticipate some of the parameters of our discussion I
outline to my mind some of the salient points to be considered in designing a
green economy.
The first is to address conceptual/epistemological/ontological matters - in
short, a green economy requires a green political economy understanding of
economics and the relationships between society, nature and the human
economy. Neoclassical or capitalist economics will not do, whether it's
environmental economics for example, mentions externalities or rhetorically
accepts that GDP is not an accurate or meaningful measure of societal
wellbeing and human flourishing.
A second key issues for me, and I suspect for most if not all of us here at this
workshop, is that to design a sustainable or green economy one must address
the issue of economic growth. In short, my own firm contention is that a green
economy is a post-growth economy (even if that term is not used - an issue I
will touch upon later), one in which we move beyond technological and supply
side solutions to 'green business as usual'. While of course not rejecting on
Luddite grounds or other the need and desirability of technological
innovations, a green economy in my view requires tackling issues of demand
side and consumption.
By 'economic growth' here I mean the growth of monetary, undifferentiated
GDP as a permanent feature of the human economy, where economic or
productive activity is solely viewed in monetary/market terms i.e. excluding
non-monetary economic activities in the home and community. And I take as
given here the profound and multiple and dynamic effects of economic growth
policies on individual societies and the planet. As Schmelzer states
"The social and economic policies that were the result of the overarching
priority of economic growth, or were justified by it, have fundamentally
and irreversibly reshaped human life and the planet itself" (2016: 1-2).
While perhaps exaggerating slightly, we need to view economic growth as in
the same category as human evolutionary achievements such as agriculture,
the discovery of fire, the Reformation and the emergence of capitalism itself
that is, as a 'world changing' and 'world creating' phenomenon.
The energy basis of this capitalist economic growth logic is another problem
that needs to be addressed. I will mention just two dimensions of this. The
first is the ecological, climate change and socially negative consequences of a
carbon based economy system and society. And here, following Thomas
Princen, we should reframe 'fossil fuels' as fossil resources', to enable the full
negative ecological and social consequences of coal, oil and gas from
extraction, refining, distribution to final burning and use to be accounted for
and made transparent. The added benefit of this reframing is also that we can
articulate a post-carbon, post-growth economic vision whereby fossil resource
are simply too valuable - given their multiple other and more positive uses to burn as energy.
The second is the idea that modern economic growth in conceptual, ideologies
and policy as well as common-sense' terms should be seen as a form of 'petroknowledge' as Timothy Mitchell claims, that is a historically specific and
materially specific set of ideas, world views, norms and claims, which are
contingent not permanent or universal. That is, the economic imaginary of
endless economic growth, and those forms of economic thinking based around
this notion, is dependent upon abundant cheap sources of carbon energy.
While how we think about ‘the economy’, or the ‘economic imaginary’ have, to
state the obvious somewhat, ideological, cultural and normative dimensions,
but there are also real material ones too. As Bridge puts it, “the social
significance of an ‘economic imaginary’ like continuous growth (a particularly
pervasive imaginary rooted in the experience of energy abundance and falling
energy costs associated with transition from coal to oil in the United States in
the early 20th century)” cannot be understood without knowledge of the oil
energy assumed to underpin and inform the economic imaginary of endless
GDP growth, capital accumulation and consumerism (Bridge, 2010: 5).
Mitchell develops this insight further stating that, “The conception of the
economy depended upon abundant and low- cost energy supplies, making
post-war Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’” (Mitchell, 2009:
Another issue however is the need to face the ideational or ideological potency
of the discourse and practice of economic growth, which to me has now in socalled advanced capitalist, consumer societies achieved 'full spectrum
ideological domination'. Economic growth is a social imaginary, accepted as
the commonsense and natural view of the economy, viewed universally as
positive, desirable, sensual, aspirational, progress, modern and future
orientated, dynamic. Just as a commonsense view of growth associates it with
positive attributes such as maturation, development, forward momentum
equally it forms the basis of the social contract within modern capitalist,
including welfare capitalist societies.
As Matthews and Matthews perceptively note, using frame analysis,
"The predominant frame is simply that growth is good. Most news
stories take this for granted and reinforce it with the language they use.
Growth attracts positive words like strong, buoyant and good; in its
absence look for weak, stagnant and bad. When a frame becomes
universally accepted and constantly reinforced, it can be hard to see it.
Growth framing is now so inbuilt that, for many people, questioning it
has become unthinkable and doing so seems misguided, unrealistic or
even deranged". (Matthews and Matthews, 2015; emphasis added)
Growth is fervently supported/accepted from the board room to the bar room,
creating the basis of the social contract within capitalist societies and indeed
most societies around the world. As Foucault put it 'Economic growth is the
one true social policy of neoliberalism' and has in my view achieved almost
full spectrum ideological and ideational hegemony over what economics is,
the goals of the economy and how it should be organised to achieve those
goals. Capitalist /neoclassical economics has rendered growth as the natural
state of the economy such that the 'health', 'vitality', 'resilience' etc. Of the
economy is gauged by whether the economy is growing or not. Economic
growth is presented and accepted by the majority in society, especially policy
makers, business and political elites, as THE solution to the problems we face
- to solve unemployment - the answer is growth, the deal with our housing
crisis - growth, environmental damage - growth ...even issues of peace,
national security and geopolitical dilemmas can be expressed and solved by
growth, Here is an example from a 2010 article entitled ‘Economic Growth is
Key to Our National Security’ (Schramm, Litan and Stangler, 2010), in which
the authors’ state:
"How will we know that America's huge sacrifice in lives and wealth in
Iraq and Afghanistan will have some positive payoff? The conventional
answer to that question hinges on the level of violence and the
prevalence of American-style democracy. But, if history is any guide,
neither country will enjoy a stable future free of terrorists that threaten
global security unless the Iraqi and Afghan economies experience
sustained economic growth." (2010: emphasis added)
And the reason given for this is that “When economic pies are growing, people
have less reason to fight each other, or to fight us. It is that simple”. So along
with growth reducing poverty, orthodox GDP economic growth can bring and
sustain peace.
An important issue to consider is that a movement beyond growth should not
be presented, in public as a blanket rejection of growth - here a crucial
consideration is the question of thresholds and the reframing and replacing
growth as the dominant objective of the economy. In terms of thresholds
critiques of economic growth ought to be articulated in terms of pointing out
the thresholds beyond which economic growth becomes, as Herman Daly put
it 'uneconomic growth', that is we can and must recognise the positive aspects
of economic growth, that there can be pro-poor, even pro-egalitarian
orthodoxy economic growth - not least in the global south (though here I mean
this not simply in terms of them following 'our' development model). But we
need to develop a critique of growth in terms of cancerous growth, to begin to
introduce an intuitive idea that growth for growth sake is not only the ideology
of the cancer cell' as Edwards Abbey put it, but that growth after a threshold
is net negative rather than positive.
As Wilkinson and Picket 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).
Here we should honour growth, celebrate its achievements but also be clear
headed in presenting the evidence and arguments of the urgent need to move
beyond orthodox, undifferentiated growth as a permanent feature of the
But we should point out the dangerous mythic and wish fulfilment
dimensions of economic growth. This is no more evident that the technological
optimism and determinism that is a key foundation of economic growth and
its associated view of economics, the human individual, the good life and the
good society. How different is the dominant belief in future technological
innovation as so or sufficiently assured that we can continue with small steps
to green business as usual, to continue to have our growing carbon produced
consumer capitalist cake as it were and eat it? Are not firm and confident
predictions of solar radiation management as a way to 'climate hack the
planet' towards a low carbon, sustainable 'good anthropocene' nothing short
of mythic thinking on a global scale? Why do we assume our societies with all
our knowledge, civilisation, science and technological achievements are
somehow beyond dangerous forms of mythic thinking and dreaming?
To conclude: I am convinced we have sufficient research to substantiate the
claim that a green economy is a post-growth one (remembering that what I'm
talking about is undifferentiated GDP growth as a permanent feature of the
economy - i.e. It allows for growth for aspects of an expanded viewed of the
economy (that is to included non-monetised productive and reproductive work
and activity). We have the scientific evidence of the ecological unsustainability
of our current carbon-based, consumerist, capitalist economic growth
systems and the social scientific evidence of it no longer adding to human
flourishing and creating and managing rather than addressing socioeconomic inequalities.
However, what we lack is a compelling counter narrative to growth beyond
critique and rejection, a compelling storyline to make the creation of a postgrowth sustainable economy not simply necessary but also desirable,
something to be democratically embraced rather than technocratically
imposed. Here much more work is needed on presenting and marking a postgrowth economy both realistic (in terms of specific polices, practices and
everyday experience - what does welfare look like in a post-growth context?
Food production? Transportation? International trade? Tourism and leisure?
Work and employment? ) but also desirable and attractive - to make the
growth paradigm redundant, related to another time. In short economic
growth needs to be viewed and presented and understood as something that
our societies, governments, businesses, trades unions, faith communities etc.
all need to grow out of if you will.
While I do think there is more research to be done no these issues it seems to
me we need more work on the ideological power of economic growth and work
on what goals and objectives can replace it that can command popular
support (and support amongst decision-makers in government in particular).
Here some suggested ideas of future research - is 'economic growth; an I=elite
As Buckminster Fuller perceptively put it: “You never change things by
fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that
makes the existing model obsolete”. So the challenge is how to frame economic
growth as obsolete, as having passed the threshold where it solves problems,
helps achieve central socially agreed goals such as prosperity, security,
freedom, equality, justice, community.
Here suggestions vary from my own around economic security and a focus on
well-being and quality of life, and a greater emphasis on non-monetary
economic activity, the social economy as well as ecological infrastructural
investment and restoration. Here the work of people at this conference such
as Peter Ferguson, Dan O'Neill, John O'Neill,, Carl Death, and Rupert Read
are illustrative of this reframing and reimagining and redesigning our
common sense and policy relevant view of 'the economy' and what aims and
objectives it should have. After all the economy is there to serve society.
But to create and design a new green sustainable economy I suggest that
analytically we need a new green political economy and a politically and
socially new economic imaginary, a new economic commonsense. But we also
need new post-growth policy proposals (basic income, shorted working week,
replacing or supplementing GDP measures, relocalising economies, slow food,
wellbeing beyond state welfare, the circular economy, products of service, the
sharing economy and collaboration consumption are some suggestions).
So while we need new stories, inspiring narratives, ones co-created with our
communities as opposed to imposed upon them or developed for them - no
matter how well meaning - since after all where there is no vision, there the
people perish, we also need work that answers our contemporary version of
Lenin's question 'what is to be done?' It's raining reports - scientific,
psychological, social science - telling us that our current growth based
economic system is ecologically unsustainable, increasing inequality within
and between countries and has, in capitalist consumer societies passed the
point where it is contributing to wellbeing in comparison with more directly
redistributive measures rather than more growth. But evidence is necessary
but insufficient...we need new frames, new discourses and new stories about
the transition from actually existing unsustainability towards building
sustainable economies and societies.
Thank you and I look forward to the conversations to come here at this
conference and beyond.