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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Ending the Growth Obsession


"What becomes a man if the process of production takes away from work any hint of humanity, making of it merely mechanical activity. The worker himself is turned into a perversion of a free being." E. F. Schumacher "Small is Beautiful".

The current left-wing/right-wing consensus in politics is that the more 'things' we make and the more 'things' we sell, the more people are employed and the better off everyone will be. So expand the production of goods and services, get people to buy them and all will be well because of the resulting economic growth. This growth is measured in terms of the Gross National Product, meaning a measure of the amount of money that has changed hands for goods and services in the economy. Not who spends it or what on; not how the money was made; not on the environmental and human costs of making and spending that money and not on the loss of finite resources involved.

So now for the reality.....

1) The Bluntness of the Measure

The GNP measure boils everything down to cold statistics with no ethical dimension. For example, if an oil tanker went aground off the UK coast and its cargo spilled out it would devastate bird and marine life. Yet at the same time, if you apply the GNP measure, it could cause economic growth. The money paid to the tanker company for the original journey, the money paid in insurance for the loss of the ship, the money paid to the salvage company and the money paid to the helicopter company to fly the injured to hospital... it would all add up. The system turns an environmental disaster into a national growth success. Every time we take finite resources from the earth, it adds to economic growth.
Of course this goes beyond environmental concerns. The GNP measure does not care what the money is spent on. Online gambling addiction for example can blight lives and destroy families. However access to all forms of gambling temptation has hugely increased over the last 25 years, a result of successive governments seeing it as contributing to growth. Some readers of this blog may be thinking that its not the job of governments to tell people not to spend their money on gambling or indeed on anything as it is a matter of personal choice. However this viewpoint is misleading as very few people would be free-market zealots enough to say that we should liberalise the selling of cigarettes to children and sell guns in supermarkets. The debate is not whether to interfere with what people spend their money on but where to draw the line. Growth for growth's sake as an absolute does not take into account the human cost at all and so the figure that the grey parties worship is meaningless.

2) Quantity or Quality?

We are not just talking about growth but growth on top of growth. If you start with one and have 3% growth rate in the first year then in the second year, if you have 3% growth again, that is not 3% on top of the starting figure of one. It is 3% on top of last year's 3%. In two years you are producing and consuming 6% more than when you started. By this measure, to maintain a 3% growth rate every year we have to double what we produce and consume in 25 years. A 3% growth rate over 200 years means that in 200 years time we will need to produce and consume more in a day than we currently do in a year. Also the pressure is on to expand the western standard of consumption all over the world to reach 8 billion people.
The system takes no account of the quality of what is consumed as it is fixated on the quantity. Indeed it is better for growth if your laptop becomes outdated in a year, your fridge goes wrong in six months, your tv conks out after a month and so on as you have to keep consuming. The pressure is on to either sell shoddy rubbish or keep upgrading. The pressure is also on to pander to the lowest common denominator in terms of taste. We are trapped in a system where advertising manipulates us into buying mountains of poor quality stuff which we mostly don't need.

3) The Poverty of Growth

Left-wing commentators tend to see growth as a means to end poverty just as much as free-market zealots. Yet the journey ends at the same station. As the saying goes, 'When you have cut down the last tree or polluted the last river, you will know that you cannot eat money'. As far as the right-wing, free-market model goes, it positively needs poverty to survive and certainly does not aim to end it, despite the guff you read from CBI spokespeople and so on. Firstly it needs poverty to justify further expansion. Ending poverty is used to justify everything from GM crops to building warehouses over ancient woodland. Of course if you were to actually end poverty then this argument would be rendered obsolete. So the supporters of the system make sure that the problem persists while at the same time using the problem as an excuse for more growth. In addition it needs poverty to provide cheap labour for employers. This is achieved by either keeping some of your own population so poor (by cutting benefits) that they will work for low wages or outsourcing production/services to parts of the world that are even poorer. Alternatively you import a new labour force from a poorer country than the UK in order to keep wages down. Whatever approach is used, it still boils down to the system positively needing poverty.
It is why any attempt to genuinely solve poverty, for example via a guaranteed citizens' income, is blasted as 'uneconomic' by the grey parties and business interests. Those with vested interests have predicted economic disaster with every attempt to put some humanity into the system, be it the abolition of slavery or the ban on children going down the mines.

4) The Blind Faith in Technology

The Green movement is not anti-technology. Technology has been a force for good in many respects. It is the ability to network and spread ideas on the internet. It is also kidney machines, premature baby units and umpteen labour saving devices which give us more free time to enjoy our lives. However the problem is that technology is also nuclear weapons, pesticides and soulless production lines. Technology can be either a force for good or a force for bad. It is how we use it that counts. The growth system takes no account of this and sees technology as good if it leads to growth, end of. Moreover it has blind faith in technological progress being able to solve the environmental problems which growth produces. Hence GM crops will allow us to build over the countryside and still grow enough food, so we are told. Nuclear energy will allow us to keep producing electricity while dispensing with fossil fuels, so we are told. The list goes on. It amounts to gambling with our future as an alternative to challenging the growth obsession.
The key word with technology should be appropriate. Appropriate technology should be decided by the effect on people in the widest sense rather than just increasing economic growth and profits. Polluting crops with carcinogenic pesticides would clearly fail this test but medical technology which helps the disabled to walk again would clearly pass.

5) The Great God 'Work'.

The grey parties like to justify everything and anything via the argument that it is 'creating jobs'. Build an industrial estate over an ancient woodland and you are creating jobs so its ok. More and more fast food restaurants selling saturated fat riddled burgers to children is fine as it is creating jobs. So our lives are about spending most of our waking hours looking at the clock praying for the hands to move a bit quicker because we hate what we do or we see the damage that it is causing? Or we are here in order to spend 40 hours a week turning out fizzy drinks to damage children's' health, chemicals which damage the ozone layer or umpteen mind-numbing plastic nick-nacks which some ambitious up-their-own-backside character, like you see on the BBC show 'The Apprentice', can persuade the public it is trendy to possess?
We need to establish the difference between work which develops human talents and does not threaten the planet and that which is merely a job which we are forced to do by the system to serve the system.
We also need to get away from a work ethic which sees work as a good thing regardless of its nature and as an end in itself. We need to create jobs but to create them in beneficial areas such as recycling, renewable energy and conservation. If the hours are not as long and there is more leisure time then we need to get out of the strange way of thinking that this is somehow a bad thing.

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