Peak stuff: the 'growth' party is over. So what next?

It was fun while it lasted, at least for some. But now the 'growth party' is over. And it's time for us to adjust the new reality. Photo: James Vaughan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
It was fun while it lasted, at least for some. But now the 'growth party' is over. And it's time for us to adjust the new reality. Photo: James Vaughan via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Over in Davos world leaders are desperately trying to find a 'fourth industrial revolution' to keep the 'growth' juggernaut rolling, write Bennet Francis & Rupert Read. But their efforts are doomed: the real challenge we face is to build a healthy, more equal society and a green, sustainable future for us all.
Endless growth is a fantasy; it doesn't make us happy; it demands rampant and frankly obscene levels of inequality; and it is destroying our common future, including the very air we breathe.

This week, the front pages have been plastered with the news that trillions of dollars have been wiped off global markets, a dramatic shock which has been felt by all the main share indices worldwide.

The significance of these events depends on who you ask: some urge 'optimism', while others predict we may be on the cusp of a new Great Depression, at least as dangerous as the Great Recession of 2008, although different in kind. One thing is certain - we are entering a period of enormous uncertainty.

A perfect storm of factors have combined to precipitate this. First is the kickback from the end of QE in the US, the monetary policy pursued by the US Federal Reserve which gave markets an artificial lift.

There's the unprecedentedly low oil price, caused by ongoing geopolitical struggles between the oil-producing nations. Given the crisis in Syria, these are unlikely to be resolved any time soon (though some instability can be banked on...).

And then there is China, a country whose phenomenal growth has been a fixed point in the global economic constellation for the last 25, which is finally showing signs that the 'fairy-tale' is coming to an end.

Is consumerism running out of steam?

Against this backdrop it would be easy to have missed another piece of news, an economic 'and finally ... ' item giving us a welcome break from worrisome world affairs. At a panel discussion organised by the Guardian newspaper in London, the sustainability manager of furniture giant Ikea let slip that he believed the West had reached "peak stuff".

People were increasingly starting to consume less, instead being content to reuse, repair and recycle what they already had. Young people especially, it seems, are moving beyond the need constantly to chase the best, newest and flashiest - be it home interiors, cars or even clothing.

Coming from a man whose salary would seem to depend on whether Ikea can persuade us to to keep buying its 'stuff', this was a striking admission. It seemed a far cry from the tremors that were rocking the entire global economy.

Yet viewed with clear eyes, these two stories are one story: a tale of a global economy at a vital turning point. China's ability to 'weather the storm', the economists tell us, depends on whether it can 'transition' from reliance on foreign investment to a 'consumption-based economy'.

So far, China's growth has been dependent on the West's hunger for consumption. Where previously Western companies would have ploughed their money into China, the 2008 crash has forced firms to sit on large cash piles in order to insure themselves against further market turmoil.

Meanwhile, 'consumers' have woken up to the reality of the global market system. When the recession left them jobless and indebted, the richest in society only increased their wealth. Unflustered, the world's biggest companies continued to push us further towards an environmental catastrophe that may rob us of our shared heritage: the stable global ecosystems (including of course climatic systems) upon which we depend for our survival.

Endless growth is a fantasy; it doesn't make us happy; it demands rampant and frankly obscene levels of inequality; and it is destroying our common future, including the very air we breathe.

The question, therefore, is not whether the emergent Chinese middle class can take up the reins of consumption left for them by the West. That model has already failed. We do not need to wait for China to repeat our mistakes to discover that the continual seeking after growth must eventually hit a wall.

And have bankers run out of ideas?

QE is arguably another chapter in the same tale. To the layperson, QE sounds almost unbelievable: central banks give away free money to institutions that don't really need it, in the hope that greater liquidity will allow them to take more risks, which ultimately boost growth.

So dependent are our lives on growth that it apparently makes more sense to bankroll stock market gambling than it does to help people make investments that could support their livelihood for years to come, and benefit their communities. Instead of financing small businesses, locally-owned renewable energy, and transport, monetary policy-makers chose to boost asset prices.

This helped bankers, who did not pass the gains on to their consumer arms, and fund managers, who did not use gains to boost pensions. The end of the Federal Reserve's programme of QE in October plunged us again into instability, having prioritised quick growth over building a stable base. In Europe, Mario Draghi's announcement on Thursday indicated the ECB was set for another round of QE, which reveals scale of the China problem.

The commodities market is also part of the story. It is true that the current problem is an over-supply of oil: the Pyrrhic attempt by the states of the Arabian peninsula to drown out their rivals the USA and Russia. The lifting of sanctions on Iran has fanned the flames still further.

Yet the situation lays bare our world's dependence on what are, when we take a slightly longer view, desperately scarce natural resources - and with it, dependence on a shady cadre of unaccountable oil producers capable of keeping the us in a choke hold.

Our economies depend for survival on the growth-generating potential of fossil fuel markets. Perturbations in those markets lead to crisis, whether they are the result of global politics, scarce supplies or decreasing consumption. Thus perversely, policy-makers are incentivised to support fossil fuels, while their science advisers tell them this is the one thing we cannot afford to do.

The 'fourth industrial revolution' - what's that?

It's ironic that as economic leaders woke up to the news that the Chinese industrial downturn was starting to wreak havoc across the world, they were gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, whose theme this year is "the fourth industrial revolution".

It's an article of faith that as we run out of markets to develop and resources to exploit, technological advancement will keep the wheels of growth turning. While leaders were worrying about how to manage a futuristic economy based around robotics and artificial intelligence, conventional industrial growth stalling presented a much more contemporary crisis.

At some point in their careers, the finance executives assembled in Davos will probably have heard the canard, beloved by motivational speakers, that "the Chinese word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity." We shouldn't let truth stand in the way of a good line.

Yet the present market shock does indeed present us with an opportunity. Either we continue to rely on uncertain - and frankly dangerous - growth to support the very fabric of our society, both our vital needs - pensions, social security, healthcare - and those things which enrich our lives - education, culture and leisure.

Or we can put society first, and construct our economy in a way that promotes our flourishing. This means a post-growth future. Because we in the UK are living as if we have four planets at present, post-growth is unlikely even to be enough.

Attaining one-planet living will probably involve in due course achieving degrowth in countries such as ours: building down our economy to a safe level. Then we will have a society that is not reliant on expanding GDP, and that can remain in a steady state without putting society itself at risk.

Growth or happiness? Isn't it obvious?

Thus our argument is that the Chinese 'fairy-tale' was only ever make-believe. Endless growth is a fantasy; it doesn't make us happy; it demands rampant and frankly obscene levels of inequality; and it is destroying our common future, including the very air we breathe.

The Chinese crisis is thus indeed an opportunity. The time is ripe for turning from the failed narrow-minded outdated pursuit of 'growth' to a future that will prioritise survival and well-being.

How can this be done? It will require radical changes to global governance structures, so that democratic imperatives come to replace market imperatives. We simply cannot afford to leave global supplies of energy, not to mention things like food, to the discretion of a few clandestine entities.

It will require a revolution in domestic governance: the decentralisation of power and wealth, the creation of strong local economies and a re-evaluation of the relationship between politicians and the corporate world. And it will require each of us to look closely at our own values.

If happiness, rather than growth, is to be the measure of a healthy society, it is up to us to decide what kind of happiness we want to achieve.



Bennet Francis is an MPhil Research Student in Philosophy at University College London.

Rupert Read is a philosopher of ecology, of economics and of 'the social sciences'. He is Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy and Languages at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House.


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