Small is beautiful: economy of resources, and the politics of enough

Economy, by definition, means prudently managing resources, yet in practice growth consumes them, unsustainably. We need a new narrative, say the Greens, that decouples progress from growth: this might be a myth and it is a gamble, but so is growth

Here is a spectre of some straw men. Huddled around a carbon-emitting camp-fire, they scorn even the primitive fun of chewing on a mammoth bone: it’s burlap and lentils for these guys, if they’re lucky.

Here’s the other quite different idea, suggested by the Greens at their ‘sustainable economy’ conference: how do we prosper and develop, within ecological limits? How do we live well, sustainably?

“Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must. The myth of growth has failed us,” says UK Sustainability Commissioner Tim Jackson. Growth has failed to enrich our poorest. Inequality, Jackson says, is worse now than it was 20 years ago. Exponential growth has been disastrous already ecologically. It can’t continue.

‘Sustainability’ is bandied around a lot more often than it’s defined. But we know what isn’t sustainable: unlimited growth.

In the last quarter century, Jackson says, the global economy has doubled, while an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded. In a world in which “nine billion people all aspire to the level of affluence achieved in the OECD nations … 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.”

It is also on the cards that one of these days, for one reason or another, the growth will simply stop, or become harder and harder to sustain. So whether or not you care about the environment bit, at the very least, non-growth based resilience would seem to be a good economic insurance policy.

And yet, growth is what we know and believe in. Even Jackson, who calls it a myth, acknowledges the alternative is untried:

The fundamental question is this: can you really make enough money from these activities to keep an economy growing? And the truth is we just don’t know. We have never at any point in history lived in such an economy … virtually no attempt has been made to develop an economic model that doesn’t rely on long-term growth … there is no macro-economics for sustainability and there is an urgent need for one.

But it isn’t feasible, he says, to just bolt some green technology and policy on to the existing growth and consumption model: “simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilise the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional. Those who promote decoupling [growth from resource use] as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence — and at the basic arithmetic of growth.” The sums, he says, don’t add up.

So, the call is for a new kind of macroeconomics. At the Greens’ conference, party spokesperson Kennedy Graham said:

There are challenges each party has to confront in economic policy. The Greens, for example, challenge National and Labour in their commitment to economic growth. We question whether they are indistinguishable in that respect. How will you preserve the planet if you insist on continuous growth? ... For their part, National and Labour challenge the Green Party to be economically realistic. How are we, they say, to ensure jobs are retained and tax revenue is maintained without growth? How are we to avoid capital flight and carbon leakage if we insist on strict financial regulation and emission trading schemes? …

We must, he said, collectively confront and work through those challenges. Also, “For us Greens, … We must meet the normal expectations of voters …” (my emphasis).

People who actually know stuff about economics need to analyse whether the Greens’ well-meant policies would be regressive. They need to do this by reference to more than received wisdom and right-wing truthys (as opposed to factys).

But the theory, anyway, is of a different kind of decoupling, untangling notions of progress from growth, for continued sustainable development:

Development can continue after growth has ceased. … technological change, economic distribution and the resulting quality of life remain dynamic … a continually increasing quality of human life through material sufficiency, knowledge accumulation and cultural advancement … A steady state economy does not entail economic contraction, which is the natural fear of governments … ecological economics distinguishes between a successfully-functioning steady-state economy and a failed growth economy which aspires to grow but may slip into recession. It is misdirected growth that has caused the problem …

Jeanette Fitzsimons calls it “the politics of enough”: “humans should stop when they have enough so that other living things can survive … affluent humans should stop when they have enough so that others may have enough too.” And it is, in the end, going to be as much about the politics, and the psychology, as the economics.

What does that mean for ordinary people’s lives in practice? How would living within the carrying capacity of the planet look? “I’ve never lived in a commune, there’s no nakedness, I’ve never cleaned my sheets in the river using stones,” Fitzsimons told Next magazine earlier in the year. David Suzuki, more alarmingly, called txting and iphones “unnecessary toys”.

But the bigger point is about defining and measuring prosperity, not just saying 'no' to stuff: if we continue to define it in terms of consumption, and require consumption to achieve it, we will lose, because the governing principles are bigger than our politics; so we might as well start thinking now about how to manage differently.

Individual bits of the policy framework laid out by Jackson and the Greens don’t stray so far after all from the familiar. There’s some Keynesian economics (public spending on public goods, as consumption slows, and the reported prediction of Keynes himself, that one day, growth would have to stop). We hear often enough already about the need to rebalance our books, and write a new type of policy, and tax some things other than income, like consumption, or pollution.

The big picture, though, is huge. This is a global challenge, not just a local one. However, it's not about being business-friendly or unfriendly’ (thus risking capital flight), but friendly to the right types of business and business activity: the Jeremy Moons, Rob Fyfes, and Phillip Millses of this world, who can see and believe in a new way of business being. You can call it picking winners, if you want. I call it writing policy.

Politics aside (and they won’t be put aside) this is “a policy challenge of the highest order”. Blandly, Jackson says it requires “tackling systemic inequality,” and “addressing the culture of consumerism”. Sort of like fat and sugar, we are hardwired for these. However, the bones of a proposal are scattered about the place. We just have to assemble and flesh them out.