Economic growth - the elephant in the room?

| 1st December 2005
‘Religion is the opium of the people’ is one of Marx’s best-known aphorisms. It is memorable because it tells us so much about the manipulation of faith in the industrial era

Before he became fixated on the class struggle, Marx showed an ecological consciousness remarkable for his time. He spoke of the need for ‘the genuine resolution of the antagonism between man and nature’, which is as good a definition of eco-philosophy as any. If the young Karl Marx were writing today, in the era of globalisation, it is likely that he would recognise the new opium as economic growth. For growth has become the Alpha and Omega of political discourse, the place where ‘right’ and ‘left’ converge, the goal for which activists of both camps become cheerleaders.

Economic growth has effectively become an official religion. Its theology is uncomplicated, calling to mind the ‘cargo cults’ that enjoyed brief popularity on South Sea islands during the mid-twentieth century. These cults did not offer salvation in the form of ‘pie in the sky’, but as consumer luxuries on earth delivered by miraculous ships. The ideology of growth is based on similar superstitions. It is revealing to hear economists who pride themselves on their secular rationalism speak of a ‘hidden hand’ directing our lives, as if economic policies and structures were not of really of human origin. Likewise, the ‘trickle down effect’ beloved of growth economists is as elusive as the luxurybearing ships of the cargo cults.

Wealth does not mysteriously cascade from the rich to the poor, or from richer to poorer nations. If anything, the pursuit of economic growth makes global and regional inequalities more obvious and extreme. And yet policymakers and campaigners remain in thrall to the idea that trickle down might one day take place, and that an invisible hand might somehow fashion order out of economic chaos.

Growth is the altar before which it is legitimate to sacrifice any number of individual livelihoods, along with local communities, cultural diversity and all manner of skills, craftsmanship and accumulated wisdom. The planet itself has become the ultimate sacrificial victim, for the principles of conservation and growth are diametrically opposed and the gulf between them is growing. Economic growth has become a secular fundamentalism, placed above critical comment because to criticise it would be to question an entire worldview.

To be opposed to growth is to be politically eccentric at best. However, it is also to be a heretic or (worse still in these pseudoegalitarian times) an elitist, willing to deprive others of the ‘benefits’ of all the consumer goods we take for granted. Critics of growth are accused of denying their fellow humans the inalienable right to ever-increasing living standards, regardless of the planetary or social costs.

Where issues of development are concerned, the charge of elitism has the sharpest sting, and acts as the most effective silencer. The critic of growth is portrayed as standing between the world’s poor and material liberation. Growth is identified with opportunity and choice for all, with ‘the future’ and historical inevitability. Opposition to growth is seen as restricting choice in favour of ‘romantic’ notions about the past. It is depicted as the preserve of privileged Canutes, trying to turn back the tide of progress. Many economists and more thoughtful politicians from all parties are profoundly worried by the environmental and social impact of continuous growth. But few dare to challenge the orthodoxies of development and progress head-on. Few bring themselves to think the apparently unthinkable – that growth itself is the root of the problem.

As well as a substitute for religion, growth has become an addiction, affecting millions of people individually and shaping mass behaviour. This was brought home to me recently by a neighbour in Yorkshire, who has lived on incapacity benefit for some years and has had difficulties with rent and household bills. On seeing my sitting room and kitchen, his response was to reel off a list of fashionable consumer goods and gadgets, expressing dismay that I did not have them and had no wish to acquire them. He claimed to be unable to ‘live’ without a plasma television screen.

Some readers might wish to turn this story into an argument against the benefit system, If Karl Marx were writing in today’s era of globalisation, it is likely he would recognise the new opium as economic growth but this would be to miss the point entirely, for the dependency was not on welfare, but on the products of economic growth. My friend’s inability to ‘live’ without the latest consumer goods can be likened to a heroin user’s craving for the next fix. Like the addict, his satisfaction is only ever fleeting, but to feed his habit he will risk financial meltdown. This process crosses the divisions of class and income, and is replicated on a global scale as poorer regions struggle to catch up with the West.

The drug addict thinks in the short term, forgetting about the harm to his or her body or the destruction of friendship, love and trust that the habit inevitably entails. In the same way, the growth addict ignores the damage to the planet and the erosion of any sense of civilised community that arises from the relentless drive for economic expansion. The products of growth never satisfy the individual, and the pursuit of growth makes societies increasingly dysfunctional and destroys the possibility of global co-operation. Growth creates the illusion of potential abundance, but makes inevitable a dog-eat-dog competition for ever-more scarce resources. The principal casualty is the planet and the only true beneficiaries are economic elites.

Growth’s hold over the modern sensibility is such that the pursuit of material abundance is assumed to be identical to the pursuit of happiness. This is despite survey after survey showing that the more ‘affluent’ we collectively become, the more susceptible we are to stress, insecurity and gnawing discontent. It is tempting to ascribe uncritical worship of growth to the dominant neo-liberal ideology, with its overt adulation of market forces and its indifference to environmental concerns. Yet the movements that style themselves as progressive buy in equally to the growth illusion. For, in effect, today’s left subscribes to the trickle down theory just as much as the right. It clings to the belief that growth is essential, so that all should have ‘access’ to wealth. This approach ignores the finite nature of the earth’s resources, as well as the observable truth that accelerating growth gives rise to inequalities that spiral out of control.

Most environmentalists identify with the ‘progressive’ wing of politics. Although the effects of growth disturb them, they still associate it with opportunity, choice and redistribution of wealth, rather than the realities of impoverishment and despoliation. Therefore, they sidestep the question of growth itself and focus on single-issue campaigns. Such an approach prolongs the delusion that we can tackle climate change, protect fragile ecosystems and the rights of indigenous peoples, or preserve local economies from the homogenising forces of globalisation – and still have a growth-based economy. Some environmental campaigners speak of ‘sustainable growth’, which is as much a contradiction in terms as ‘democratic centralism’ in the old Soviet Union. For the green movement, as much as mainstream politics, economic growth remains the elephant in the room.

It is scarcely surprising that the political class, including environmentalists, are in a state of denial. The move away from growth would be as radical as the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. But despite the prevalence of growth addiction, there is a politically untapped sense that something is deeply wrong with the assumptions that underpin our economy. The effects of growth mania on the environment, the climate and relations between human beings have become obvious enough to be alarming, even to those who have previously been sceptical about the ecological crisis. Here, paradoxically, there are grounds for hope. Politicians who challenge consensus and face up uncomfortable truths are respected and often successful, albeit after years in the wilderness. The most uncomfortable truth of all is that the time to address the effects of growth addiction is running out. To put it simply, we need to learn to consume less. This is something that the electorate knows in its collective bones, but we await the politician who will dare to say it.

Aidan Rankin is writing a book on Jainism’s relevance to the West.


This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2005

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