Challenging 'growthism'

| 21st March 2014
Eradicating giant hogweed, an invasive plant whose sap inflicts painful blisters on skin contact. It grows vigorously - but that does not make it good. Photo: NYS DEC via

Eradicating giant hogweed, an invasive plant whose sap inflicts painful blisters on skin contact. It grows vigorously - but that does not make it good. Photo: NYS DEC via

The basic premise of this week's budget is that 'growth is good' and must be sought at all costs. But as Rupert Read writes, this is transparent nonsense. Growthism is an outdated ideology that must be thrown out - and replaced with 'ecologism'.
Neo-liberalism has tried to convince us that we are simply individuals and that there is no such thing as society. Neo-liberalism has got it wrong.

As any Green - or even 'green' - listening to the budget and to the ensuing media coverage will know only too well: growthism is 'hegemonic'.

A word of explanation from Wikipedia: "In the praxis of hegemony, imperial dominance is established by means of cultural imperialism, whereby the leader state (hegemon) dictates the internal politics and the societal character of the subordinate states ...

"The imposition of the hegemon's way of life ... transforms the concrete imperialism of direct military domination into the abstract power of the status quo, indirect imperial domination."

A hidden imperial power

And that's the way it is with growth - it's as if a hidden imperial power is telling us that we have to have it at all costs. And that message is assumed and incessantly repeated across the full spectrum of mainstream media, establishing an unshakeable thought-dominance.

To see how very big it is - and how yet there is real hope - one might start with the recent 'manifesto' from a bunch of 'green-leaning' Tories, as reported in The Guardian

The modernisers, the paper said, call for a rethink away from "the 'British Leyland' mentality, which says that the strength of an economy is measured solely by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - the size of an economy."

Laura Sandys MP expanded: "We are going to have to look at what we are really achieving and not what I call British Leyland metrics. British Leyland produced a lot of cars. It had a lot of GDP. Nobody wanted the cars but nobody seemed to care."

They are talking sense - but are they really green?

No. Because they are also pro-nuclear, pro-fracking - and of course pro-growth. Along with colleagues at Green House, I responded to them in the Guardian by setting out the pro-ecology post-growth genuinely green route forward.

There is clear Green water between us and these Tories. Ours is an ecologistic position, undermining the industrial-growth technofix mainstream - and seeking actually to conserve our country / our planet, rather than developing it to death.

Yet the consensus around GDP, it would seem, is crumbling. The idea that producing more and more stuff is necessarily and inherently good is bankrupt, and even the Right are now recognising this.

In fact the Office for National Statistics has been busily looking at ways to draw up a 'happiness index' on orders from David Cameron himself when he first came to office - before he fatefully decided (doubtless in the middle of a UKIP-inspired blue funk) that "green = crap".

GDP is long past its sell-by date

The reason that even Tories are now not necessarily sold on GDP is that it is way past its sell-by date. In the academic world, it has lost respectability - as Joe Stiglitz recently noted.

An example: a single car crash causes a small increase in GDP. An icy winter with lots of car crashes means a measureable GDP increase, all the more so with the funeral costs of all the people killed. But do we really think that would be a good thing?

GDP as the measure of growth no longer means anything that one can intelligently regard as desirable. This removes a central linch-pin from growthism.

Now, of course, to be clear, we're not against everything that could be called growth. We're for growth in actual happiness, for instance: that is the kind of thing that some of the alternative 'beyond GDP' indicators are seeking to actually index.

Green growth, grey recession

Furthermore, we're of course for a growth in genuinely green sectors of the economy. The expansion of green business / investment is the Green New Deal.

But the corollary, if the Green New Deal is actually to be Green, is that this must be accompanied by substantial reductions in activity elsewhere. We need to close down a very substantial chunk of the 'grey' economy.

Over time, this will require a slowing down - carefully executed, to avoid an uncontrolled depression - of the levels of economic activity, much of which is just making people miserable and ill in any case.

What we're against, in other words, is increases in 'material throughput', in pollution and resource consumption, which are strongly correlated with economic growth - as documented by Jonathon Porritt in his book Capitalism as if the World mattered.

What do we want? No more growth!

Overall economic growth in this country is no longer needed, and no longer viable. One-planet-living must be the aim. Britain is currently in a 3-planet living condition!

Is calling for this deep shift to one-planet-living going to prove unpopular? I think not, once we can get a fair hearing in the media. The public want to hear the truth. They want to hear honest politicians.

We can't just go around pretending that everyone can have everything and that everything will be fine in the best of all possible worlds. If our children are to have a future, they need to inherit an economy which is not munching the ecology up at anything like the present rate.

It's the ecology, stupid

What's the alternative to growthism? It can be summed up in the phrase 'contraction and convergence'.

The overall consumption of a wealthy country such as Britain needs to contract while each household's individual rate of consumption needs to converge towards equality. The same applies between countries, too.

The richer few will have to cut their consumption much more than the rest. The powerful will resist this. But the outcome, as Wilkinson and Pickett explain in The Spirit Level, will tend to make people happier and better off in almost every way: as more equal societies are better in almost every way.

There is a job of framing and communication to be done: but, given a good new yardstick for measuring progress instead of GDP, this is surely achievable. One can live a better life, one can enjoy real progress, while consuming less, and impacting on the world much less.

Ecologic growth

In part because, again as Wilkinson and Pickett stress, we are inherently social animals. Neo-liberalism has tried to convince us that we are simply individuals and that there is no such thing as society. Neo-liberalism has got it wrong.

We have a common good. And GDP tells one nothing useful about how good, or bad, things are for us, in common.

The hegemony of GDP needs to end once and for all. Growthism is dead. Long live ecologism.



Rupert Read is Green Party Transport Spokesperson, and lead MEP-candidate for the East of England at this year's European Elections. Website: Twitter: @GreenRupertRead (political) or @RupertRead (personal).


Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here