“Growth is the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.”
quoted by Australia’s Stable Population Party
Two pieces of news this week illustrate the contrasting worldviews of today.
The credit-raters have spoken. The UK is no longer AAA. While the Tory Chancellor bows deeply before the infinite wisdom of the Markets, Labour calls for more to be done to stimulate growth. Borrowing more money. Or printing more money. Which ends in hyper-inflation.
We have a financial system designed for infinite growth. Without growth, which must end as resources expire, that financial system must implode. Which is why transferring our personal and societal stores of value out of paper (or electronic) assets into real ones that can be of sustainable benefit to us is a sound long-term move.
In a real free market, politicians would shut up about growth. Their track record isn’t good. Labour claimed to have abolished boom and bust, when in reality their debt-fuelled ‘growth’ was all smoke and mirrors. Is it the Government’s job to promote growth? If folk don’t want to buy and sell as much as they did, is that anybody else’s business? If they actually prefer to work less, borrow less, waste less, where’s the problem?
Keynesians demand higher spending, on things that aren’t always agreed to be needed, just to get those wheels turning. (John Maynard Keynes himself used the analogy of burying banknotes, then leasing the right to dig them up again.) We live in an odd sort of world where macro-economic policy is detached from the idea that work should be directed towards meeting human needs and no further.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things that need to be done. Local folk can list them easily. They’re just not the priorities of big government, locked into a nefarious conversation with big money. Getting things done doesn’t need growth. It just needs less waste, less chasing after the wrong priorities. It seems we are now moving into a no-growth, steady-state economy, which is where, ecologically speaking, we should have been a long time ago. This is painful not because it shouldn’t be happening but because growth junkies and depletion deniers are making it painful by clinging to their old worldview. To remove the pain, we need to remove them from power and attack the instruments of that power – global capital, militarism and centralist diktat.
We need to do it soon. The second piece of news this week was the publication of the latest issue of Population Matters Magazine. In a hard-hitting lead article, Simon Ross writes:
“In March 2009, the UK Government’s Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, said that ‘a perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threatened to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration. He attributed the causes to population growth and success in alleviating poverty and concluded that ‘We head into a perfect storm in 2030 because all of these things are operating on the same time frame’.
Resource depletion is now clearly beginning to bite as rising demand hits limited supply. Successful financier Jeremy Grantham warned last November of soaring commodity prices and impending shortages… He noted that rising food prices and likely fertilizer shortages were particularly serious. A recent Chatham House report stated ‘The world is undergoing a period of intensified resource stress, driven in part by the scale and speed of demand growth from emerging economies and a decade of tight commodity markets’ while another report, this time from US intelligence agencies, concluded that ‘New technologies, dwindling resources and explosive population growth in the next 18 years will alter the global balance of power and trigger radical economic and political changes at a speed unprecedented in modern history’.”
We’re ready for this, aren’t we? Not according to Ross, who cites “the lack of political agreement on action on sustainability at the Rio and Doha conferences, with governments instead focussing on how to reinvigorate struggling economies and restore public finances.” Fiddling while Earth burns then.
If we cannot rely on London politicians to detach themselves from the grip of high finance and re-attach themselves to the real world, then we have to look to ourselves. Finding the right mood for that to happen has never been straightforward. Philip Larkin wrote ‘Going, Going’ in 1972, a poem lamenting over-development and environmental destruction in England and how, instead of challenging things about which they’re uneasy, folk reconcile themselves to the inevitability of it all. There’s a particularly fatal habit we have here of trusting the powers-that-be to ‘look after’ us and the things we hold dear, as if that’s any part of their plan. Another work that appeared in 1972 was the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth. One of its authors, Professor Jørgen Randers, recently advised ‘Don’t teach your children to love the wilderness.’ Because it won’t be there much longer.
The kind of politics worth having doesn’t worry about a lack of growth. It celebrates it as a respite from centuries of foul madness. But if the consequences of past growth – and continuing growth elsewhere on our planet – will hit us just the same, then we need to be prepared.
We need to plan for the best future we still can. It won’t be one we recognise today. Many of the most familiar aspects of our lives will need to adjust to the challenge – the use of our housing stock, the production and distribution of energy and food, our communications networks, our security arrangements and even the nature of our democracy. We need to look beyond the brief blip that is the five-year electoral horizon. We need to research and manage change regionally for a better Wessex in an increasingly volatile world that will seek to manipulate us for the benefit of others. And to do all of that we first need self-government.