If we agree on the goal for a more equal world, then we must stop pursuing endless economic growth and start sharing what we actually have, which will make all our lives better. A presentation by Dr Rupert Read.
A recent conference held in London by the organisation One People, One World brought together a variety of thinkers to discuss the need for a new global system based on ‘cooperation and shared interest’ rather than ‘economic competition and self-interest’. The conference was convened with a powerful message: “Let's unite the world and work together for our common good. Through unity and global cooperation we can solve the problems of the world.”
One of the talks of note was by Dr Rupert Read, who gave a short overview of what it means to live in a society that prioritises real wealth over the endless pursuit of more ‘stuff’. He introduces the question: what would it mean for a country like the UK to live a ‘one planet’ lifestyle, and how can we discover a deep green economics that recognises how our economy is nested within our society, not the other way around? A transcript of the talk is presented below.
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1. A deep green economy and a paradigm shift in economics: We’re talking about a deep green economy and a paradigm shift in economics. What does it mean? Well what it doesn’t mean is business as usual. What it doesn’t mean is more obsession, for example – as we currently have all around the world, completely mainstream and hegemonic still – with economic growth. (Recently published book cited: 'The Post-Growth Project: How the End of Economic Growth Could Bring a Fairer and Happier Society'). What this book is about is trying to explain why we have to end our obsession with economic growth; why we can end that obsession; and how the world will be a better place when we do. How our lives will be better when we are no longer obsessed with chasing after our tails in an endless quest for more economic growth. When we actually stop to ask ourselves: why do we need to grow the economy more anyway? What is it we need to grow? Isn’t there enough to go around?
That’s the real point about economic growth: the more you talk about economic growth, the less you need to talk about sharing. And that’s what we actually need to do. We just agreed on the goal for a more equal world; our world, our country, is catastrophically, insanely unequal – if we stop saying ‘oh we need more economic growth’, and start sharing what we actually have, then our lives will be better, the world will be more equal, and we will stop rupturing the limits of growth as we are currently doing. We are living in this country as if we have four planets. Now when I last looked, we just have one. And that’s what we need to build and look towards; acting as if we actually have the one planet, which is all that we have. That’s what I mean when I say ‘taking the future seriously and embracing post-growth’.
2. Ending the practice of discounting the future: Some of you may not be aware that in mainstream economics they practise what they call discounting. This means that money tomorrow, or goods tomorrow, anything tomorrow is worth less than the same thing today. And over time that effect goes on and on and on, and becomes more and more extreme, such as that according to mainstream economics the amount of stuff that you would need to have 100 years from now, in order for it to be worth the same amount as the stuff today, is several times – several orders of magnitude greater. How is that possible? Well it’s possible that if you’re going to have endless economic growth, but if you’re not then it isn’t possible anymore. We are reaching, we are breaching the limits to economic growth. We have to end the insane idea that stuff tomorrow is not as good as stuff today. That stuff in 100 years’ time isn’t as important as stuff today. Of course if one thinks of this for even half a second, it’s obvious how thinking that way – thinking that the future is worth less than the present – is a completely appalling and unacceptable thing to do if we care about our children. And isn’t that what we all assume – and I believe rightly so – is the most important thing of all?
You ask any ordinary person ‘What do you care most about in life?’, everyone says ‘well it’s about my kids, it’s about making a good future for my kids’. If you discount the future, you are ensuring a bad future for your kids, and for their kids and so on. This is what I mean by this heading, and this is a really exciting idea which I hope you will take away from my talk if nothing else; if you care for your kids, you already care for the deep future. How so? The thing that is most important to you, let’s say, is your children. So you need to ask yourself the question, if that’s what’s most important to you then what’s most important to them? Maybe you’re not sure what they’re going to care about when they grow up, but isn’t it a pretty good bet that it’s going to be the same thing – their kids. And what about your grandchildren, what’s going to be the most important thing to them? Their kids, and so on, ad infinitum.
Do you get the picture? If you care about your children, for everyone who cares about their children, they must care not just for their own children, but for their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, endlessly. This is a hugely exciting idea. What it means is everybody who cares most of all about their children – which is what most ordinary people will say – they actually already care about the deep future. They just haven’t necessarily realised it yet. Because if you care about your children, then you care just as much about the nth generation to come. What it means is that you must act to safeguard the human race thousands of years, and millions of years from now. This could generate, I believe, a revolution in the way that we think. How would we come out thinking if we really really valued the future, and each other. How would we think, how would we act if we took seriously [the idea] that we are all equal – all of us in the world today, and all of us in the future, everyone to come.
3. A provisioning economy: My third point - I put it to you that we would end the obsession with economic growth, and we would substitute it with a provisioning economy. What is a provisioning economy? This is an economy where what one tries to do is provide what people actually need. Again, it’s an alarmingly common sense idea; providing what people actually need, as opposed to false wants that are generated for them by advertisers. What a radical idea. If you haven’t quite got it yet what a provisioning economy is, let me give you a visual prop – this is a squash grown in my garden, harvested by me this morning, carried by foot, by bike, by train, all the way from Norwich here to London to show and to share with you. There are about 15 of these squash plants in my garden, which is just an ordinary little garden of a terrace house, and I also have a couple of allotments. And I provide for myself and my family quite a significant percentage of the food that we need, the vegetables at least, to subsist, during about two thirds of the year. We provide that directly for ourselves with virtually no involvement in the monetary system in the standard, conventional economic system. The whole economy ought to be oriented towards providing what we need, rather than generating rubbish that we don’t need that we then throw away and destroy the future by means of doing so. I’m hopeful that you will take me quite literally when I say that I’ve come here to share this squash, so someone who lives nearby I’d like to give this to you as a little token of what the provisioning economy means as also a sharing economy.
4. A relocalised economy or society: What goes along with the provisioning economy is a relocalised economy or society; a society where local communities have viable economies and are not completely subject to the whims of the global market, of large corporations etcetera. Again an incredibly radical, incredibly obvious, commonsensical idea. The post-growth world, the post-growth society or economy will be one in which we are more self-reliant, in which we trust each other more, in which we know each other better, in which we provide for more of our own needs, in which we have more power over our local ways of living, the traditions of our local life. A post-growth economy, a deep green economy, will be a relocalised economy, and more importantly a relocalised society. I’ve been asked to talk here today about the economy and about economics; one of the most important things we need to do when we think about the economy is, paradoxically, to stop people too obsessed about the economy.
Most people in countries like Britain today vote in general elections on the basis of the state of the economy, so-called, whether it’s growing or not; they’re supposed to think that’s a good thing if it is. This is all completely crazy, completely topsy turvy. We need to put the economy back in the service of society again. What is an economy for? An economy is to satisfy our needs, and to enable us to survive and to flourish. An economy should be at the service of society, and society is fundamentally based in ecology. So a relocalised economy is a society that has control over its economy, rather than vice versa. For us to run our economy rather than for the economy to run society. And what this requires us to do is to think and communicate globally, but to act and protect locally. In very concrete terms, a couple of examples of this. We must pull together colleagues, comrades, friends, and stop this incredibly dreadful TTIP treaty, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – which some of you will be aware of, and if you’re not please look into it - which is threatening to strip out national democracy and to abolish any kind of powers that local communities have over their own future, and to basically put everything at the whim of large transnational corporations.
And another example, a more positive one; the Scottish referendum recently which would have given Scotland independence failed of course, but what the powers that be at Westminster were forced to grant in the course of that campaign was a promise to maximise the amount of devolution they give to Scotland. And this is now leading to calls for more power in England too. There is a huge opportunity here, and the opportunity is right now. And we need to get together, lobby our politicians… and ensure that the powers that be – and that means, ultimately, us – take back some of the power which is invested in large corporations, invested in Westminster, and relocalise it. And that opportunity is there now because of the constitutional debate that is happening right now about how we can devolve more powers down from Westminster. So that’s an exciting possibility.
5. Living within the doughnut: What does that mean for the old economics? What is a deep green economics, and what is it displacing? The old economics says human desires, which are constructed by advertising companies and large corporations, are at the centre of everything; you just need to satisfy those, and we’ll worry about the earth and pollution and where the raw materials are going to come from later. That picture is completely bankrupt. A deep green economy, and a deep green economics, is going to be one which recognises that our economy is nested within our society, and our society is nested within our ecology, and we must take that seriously as the conditions of possibility for what we are trying to do, and for us to be able to live and flourish together.
This is summed up in this wonderful diagram here, which represents the future of economics, and the future of our world if it is to have one. To briefly talk you through it; what’s shown on the outside of the diagram is the limits to growth that we are currently breaching – the limits to the amounts (of CO2) we can emit without producing dangerous climate change, and many of the other limits that are less talked about. So we must stay within those limits to growth if we are not to destroy ourselves, collapse. But also – and this is what the so-called development movement rightly draws attention to – you can’t just focus on the limits to growth, you have to also look at human beings and other creatures and what they need in order to survive and flourish. That’s what's represented by the inner circle – food, health, water, income etcetera – the social foundations for life. There needs to be enough of those for people to be happy, living well, not rebelling against their rulers, and generally enjoying themselves upon the earth.
So what that gives you is this doughnut shape, this wonderful green doughnut; on the outside of it, the ecological limits to growth. On the inside of it, the social foundations of a good life. And within those two things, that doughnut shape, that is the safe space and the just space for human beings to live. In the future, if there is going to be a future, that’s where we’re going to reside and that is where economics is going to have to focus. So this is the nature of the paradigm shift that we need, to jump the old picture of ‘more and more growth to satisfy infinite wants’, and to substitute for it inhabitation of this safe, just and good space for humanity to live, within the ecological limits to growth.
So friends, colleagues, the odds are in my view stacked against us in order to achieve this. But we can achieve it, and we must achieve it, for the sake of the future. And I believe that we will achieve, because we will it. So please, join with me, let’s join together, let’s make this happen, let’s will it. Thank you.