The ‘sustainable development’ con

Yesterday’s report from the UK Sustainable Development Commission shows what the S-word really means: no growth.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

‘The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.’ (Sustainable Development Commission, 30 March 2009.)

For some time now there has been considerable scepticism in Western societies about the benefits of growth, perhaps inspired by the inability of developed economies to grow much at all. The latest figures for the change in gross domestic product (GDP) still attract considerable interest – especially when those values go into rapid reverse as they have recently. But the notion that material wealth should increase year-on-year, generation-by-generation is being called into question. Once it was only extreme ecologists who suggested that economic growth was a bad thing per se; now that view is held in the corridors of power.

This sceptical mood is reflected in a spate of books with titles like Enough and Affluenza; the consumer society is decried, it seems, by everyone. These notions are not particularly new. Material wealth has been regarded as corrupting for a long time, and now that distaste has been magnified by an overarching sense of ecological limits. The message is: money can’t buy you love or happiness, and it will screw up the planet.

The latest and perhaps the most explicit addition to the canon on growth scepticism is the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report, Prosperity Without Growth, quoted above. In the report, published yesterday, Professor Tim Jackson argues that the pursuit of economic growth is disastrous. On the surface, the report sounds like a moral re- thinking of where society should be going, which is almost refreshing in the light of the technocratic, principle-free politics that dominates on both sides of the Atlantic. But if followed through, its conclusions would represent a backward step for humanity.

The foreword states: ‘Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilised society. Economic recovery is vital. Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential. But we also stand in urgent need of a renewed sense of shared prosperity.’ For Jackson, the obsession with material wealth has obscured the fact that ‘prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community.’

If Jackson’s aim was merely to advise us to stop and smell the roses once in a while, it would be merely trite. But in his worldview, human wealth is ultimately subordinate to the state of the environment. ‘Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet.’ He claims that if the whole world were to reach the living standards of the developed world, ‘such an economy would need to be 15 times the size of this one by 2050 and 40 times bigger by the end of the century’. Since he cannot conceive of how this economy could be resourced, he dismisses the notion and looks at how it might be prevented.

Jackson believes that a number of different drivers force us to consume. For example, he argues that society would collapse if there weren’t new jobs to soak up the workers made redundant by technological development. This in turn requires the creation of new wants. These new desires also feed into some other, more inherent needs, like a desire for novelty; the demands of social status mean we are beholden to getting new stuff to sustain our place in society. These are all aspects of what Jackson calls the ‘iron cage of consumerism’.

He concludes that we need to move towards a ‘steady state’ society as suggested in the Seventies by the ecological economist Herman Daly. But there is no obvious means of getting there, he concedes: ‘There is no clear model for achieving economic stability without consumption growth.’ So Jackson turns to the state to effect change. ‘At the end of the day, the state is society’s commitment device, par excellence, and the principal agent in protecting our shared prosperity.’ Forget the revolution, this is social change by government diktat.

Yet there is plenty of reason to believe that we can manage to grow without consuming all of the world’s resources. Society becomes increasingly efficient at using resources even as it uses more of them. My flatscreen TV uses far less power than the cathode-ray tube model it replaced, for example. The computer I’m writing this on is far more powerful than a personal computer from 10 years ago, but is a fraction of the size and can run on a battery alone for hours.

Sometimes we ditch technologies altogether, leading to abrupt reductions in the use of a particular resource. If we continued to light our homes with candles, we might be facing a world wax shortage by now; thankfully, we use light bulbs instead. My humble Renault Clio can carry me 10 miles at high speed on one litre of petrol. Imagine how much hay would have been required to manage the same feat on a horse – and just imagine the resultant emissions. Were it not for the motor car, our streets would be swimming in shit and piss. In turn, the petrol car will be replaced by something better and more efficient.

The notion that we can do without economic growth is a dangerous one. It’s an insult to those two billion people that Jackson points to, living in abject poverty. But it also suggests that we cannot manage to create a better world than the one we live in today. For all that no-growth economics sounds like a radical alternative, it is no alternative at all. At best, it is a rationalisation of a social system that can only feebly meet our aspirations. At worst, it denies that those aspirations are even valid. We should – we must – fiercely debate how economic growth is achieved and who should benefit from it, but we should never give up on the goal of being better off.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume did not appreciate the Stern lifestyle lecture. James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky looked at how claims of scientific truth are being used to quash debate and limit our horizons. Elsewhere, they nominated Sir Nicholas Stern to spiked‘s hunt for the King of the Killjoys. Daniel Ben-Ami warned that Oliver James’s book Affluenza could f*** you up. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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