When you measure things by GDP, you can get perverse results.
For the next year, maybe several more, many engineers and tradies and people in fluoro vests and hard hats will be hard at work getting all this storm damage repaired. Insurance companies will be making many payments. So will the government. This will count as GDP, for this is the tool we use to measure economic growth.
But what growth is it, really, to get ourselves back to where we were before this storm arrived, this brutal demonstration of what global warming has in store for us?
Welcome! We have reached the third instalment of my embrace of the movement known as Degrowth. And Degrowth looks askance at GDP. It sees a blunt instrument that can be dangerously misleading; a tool of growthism.
We are told, argues Jason Hickel, that no matter how rich a country becomes, its economy must keep growing, indefinitely, regardless of the costs.
We are told that growth is responsible for the extraordinary improvements in welfare and life expectancy that we’ve witnessed over the past few centuries.
We are told that obviously if we want to keep improving people’s lives, we need to keep having economic growth.
And yet, he says, the underlying empirical basis for this claim is weak.
Spain beats the US on life expectancy (by a staggering 5 years) with 50% less GDP per capita.
Estonia beats the US in education with 66% less GDP per capita.
Costa Rica beats the US in well-being with 80% less GDP per capita.
Trying to run a household on $30,000 in the United States would be a struggle. You can forget sending your kids to a decent university. But the exact same income in Finland, where people enjoy universal healthcare and education and rent controls, would feel luxurious. By expanding people’s access to public services and other commons, we can improve the welfare purchasing power of people’s incomes, enabling flourishing lives for all without needing any additional growth.
In other words, it’s not growth itself that matters – what matters is what we are producing, whether people have access to essential goods and services, and how income is distributed.
There’s plenty of data in Less is More to bear out this contention that sounds too good to be true: we could end global poverty and ensure flourishing lives for everyone on the planet — including universal healthcare and education —with vastly less energy and resources than we presently use.
We cannot reverse ecological breakdown while at the same time pursuing growth, he says, but we can reverse ecological breakdown while at the same time ensuring flourishing lives for all.
And we can bring to an end a capitalist system that is very efficient at making a certain number of people very rich but extremely inefficient at making the most of what we have, for the greatest good, for the greatest number.
You reduce inequality,
you invest in universal public goods,
you distribute income and opportunity more fairly.
As societies become more egalitarian, people feel less pressure to pursue ever-higher incomes and more glamorous status goods.
Okay, then: and how, specifically?
Through better, more equitable, stewardship.
Rather than just keeping the throttle open for all and any growth, you work out:
what sectors still need to grow to give us what we need, (like renewable energy, public services, trains, etc);
what sectors are big enough already;
and what sectors are too big and harmful and destructive and need to significantly degrow such as fossil fuels, SUVs, advertising, planned obsolescence, McMansions, arms, industrial beef, private jets and so on.
This would be a different kind of economy altogether: one organised around the interests of human well-being and ecology, rather than the interests of capital.
Let’s look at a few specific proposals:
End planned obsolescence. In a genuinely rational and efficient economy, companies like Apple would innovate to produce long-lasting modular devices. You would regulate to make it so.
Cut advertising. The consumer society manipulates people to consume far beyond their needs. You would reel that shit in.
Shift from ownership to usership. A lot of the stuff we consume is necessary but rarely used. Manufacturers want everyone to own a garage full of things that could quite easily be shared - power tools, lawnmowers. As for that biggest item of all in the garage: vastly more public transport and bikes could reduce our vast consumption of resources and of course emissions of carbon.
End food waste. Up to 50% of all the food that's produced in the world ends up wasted each year. In rich countries that’s attributable to producers discarding vegetables that aren't cosmetically perfect, and supermarkets using unnecessarily strict sell-by dates and aggressive buy-one-get-one-free offer. In poor countries it's a consequence of poor transportation and storage infrastructure rendering food rotten before it reaches the market. All of that could be changed.
Reduce inequality. We could ensure a fairer distribution of income through such things as a shorter working week and a job guarantee; a living wage policy; a maximum wage policy; a shift of income from capital back to labour; and a 10% annual marginal tax on wealth holdings over 1 billion, to redress the gross imbalances of a rentier economy.
Modify public goods and expand the commons. We could drive rents down with permanent rent controls, we could be providing free, or for little cost, services essential to people's well-being like healthcare and education, likewise services such as Internet and public transport, and basic quotas of energy and water. The taxation required to make it so proves to be surprisingly affordable.
Scale down ecologically destructive industries. All kinds of targets here: fossil fuels, inefficient agricultural land use; single use plastics; SUVs, McMansions; first class and business class cabins.
I’m grabbing at just a few aspects, for illustration. Degrowth envisions many ways in which the excesses and greed of capitalism can be supplanted, through regulation, through tax, by saner more equitable arrangements. The more you read, the better it looks.
When we talk about abolishing capitalism, it can leave us with a real sense of unease about what will come afterwards, writes Hickel somewhat mildly.
But he offers the reassurance that this would be no Soviet-Style economy or hair-shirt ‘60s commune life. Rather, he envisions the economy we already instinctively wish we had:
An economy where people produce and sell useful goods and services,
an economy where people make rational informed decisions about what to buy,
an economy where people get compensated fairly for their labour,
an economy that satisfies human needs while minimising waste,
an economy that circulates money to those who need it,
an economy where innovation makes better long-lasting products,
reduces ecological pressures,
frees up leisure time
and improves human welfare,
an economy that responds to — rather than ignores — the health of the ecology on which it depends.
Come on, who wouldn’t like that?
Well, actually: plenty, I have to sadly conclude, having this week heard so much shortsighted self-interested dimwitted wrongheaded braying about what the storm means and what must now be done.
It leaves me wondering if you could even get this kind of thing onto an agenda for discussion.
But man I’d like to see it.
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“Degrowth” has a very compelling logic. Maybe it’s because I’m an oldie on my Universal Basic Income (National Super) and I’m actually living a “degrowth” lifestyle.
Keep up the advocacy David. It’s an idea whose time is coming, accelerated, I’m hoping, by your persuasive columns.
I think this is also the only way we get to gender equality. Imagine the impact a universal basic income, plus communally funded basic needs, would have on the safety and security of women and all vulnerable people. “Can’t afford to leave” would be taken off the table. Being a primary or sole caregiver wouldn’t mean poverty, or alienation, or silence. Think of all the people who would get to flourish.