I was present this week at the launch of a new All Party Parliamentary Group that I’ve been involved in helping set up. This A.P.P.G. is the first ever on the limits to growth: http://www.cusp.ac.uk/event/appg-l2g-launch/ . The APPG is chaired by Caroline Lucas, and co-chaired by George Kerevan (of the SNP) and Daniel Zeichner (of Labour). These MPs were there, along with several others, and, as I’ll say more about shortly, they made some remarkable interventions, during the proceedings.
The meeting was successful and encouraging. The room was packed out (with a substantial waiting list): well over 100 people were there, with standing room only.
Here are five thoughts from the meeting, on why the idea of ecological limits to growth is one whose time has surely come, making the launch of this group so timely:
1) The critics of the original ‘‘ book — and they were savage, and many — tend(ed) to focus exclusively on its allegedly excessive pessimism regarding the availability of raw materials. This claim is debatable. However, even if one were to accept it, they — the critics — would have to accept something else, in return, something that world-renowned ecological economist Tim Jackson, who chaired the launch meeting, made very clear during his presentation: that the original report/book was if anything too optimistic in relation to pollution crises! When one looks back at the graphs in the original book, one is struck by the way that, in most of the scenarios, pollution doesn’t feature as a fatal limit to growth. But, since 1972, we have seen that it could be and in a way already is: as the hole in our ozone layer, and anthropogenic climate change, have shown. Other cases could be added: the plastic in the oceans, the health risks caused by growing air pollution, the growth of heavy metals in our food supplies; the list goes on. Hopefully this APPG can monitor such cases, and help make this point as widely known as it deserves to be.
2) Thinking about raw material shortages is a good way to bring out and show the utter short-termism of the dominant narrative. It is appalling that, in arguing against those of who willing to speak out about the limits to growth, our opponents say things like, “We have enough gas now to last a hundred years!”; as if that were the kind of timescale that humans ought to be happy thinking on. For of course that translates into saying: in 6 generations’ time, there’ll be virtually no more natural gas left. How irresponsible.
This APPG will be a place that will seek to broaden the horizons of policy-makers beyond that of ordinary politics (where the ‘long term’ is typically figured as everything more than 20 years away…). The issue of the limits to growth sheds light on our responsibility toward the deeper future. Caroline Lucas stressed the importance of this point, during her comments at the launch: she argued that we desperately need a new way of politically including the future (Here’s my own proposal in this direction: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2012/jan/04/climate-politics-future-generation-justice ), and she added that “It’s not a question of just thinking outside the box; we need to throw away the old box and replace it with something else!”
3) Most of what typically gets celebrated, vis-a-vis the nowadays much celebrated ‘decoupling’ of carbon emissions from other impacts from economic growth, is actually only relative decoupling. If growth were to continue indefinitely, we would need robust, permanent and absolute decoupling. Which is vanishingly rare.
This point should be connected too to the rebound effect which we have reason to believe is a massively powerful effect that (we have reason to believe) makes decoupling (e.g.) of economic growth from carbon emissions into what is in any case a mixed blessing: for the benefits of such greater efficiency get fed back in to the economy in terms, most usually, of increased consumptive behaviour. (Consider: if someone saves money by putting in good green roof insulation, what do they then do with that money? If they use it to buy a new sports car or a holiday in the Caribbean, then the net effect of putting that insulation in has been to worsen man-made climate change.)… See on this Jonathan Essex’s ‘Green House’ report, which makes uncomfortable reading, in terms of setting out the scale of the challenge we face in this respect: ; see also the work of Samuel Alexander, e.g. . The rebound effect and allied phenomena bring home the point about how very difficult it is to meaningfully and consistently reduce material throughput. It requires serious thinking and co-ordinated action from Government(s), etc. This is part of what the APPG will shed light on and contribute to. The Co-Chair of the Club of Rome, Anders Wijkman, was present at the meeting, and he stressed the importance of this and the difficulty of the point. He remarked that “the human ability to dohas vastly outstripped the human ability to understand”…
4) These first three issues, suggest another perspective that is critically important; the need for government to take a view that is not confined to cost-benefit analyses, nor even to what the ‘evidence-base’ tells us. Namely, as Caroline explicitly remarked at the beginning of the meeting: the need for governments to act according to the Precautionary Principle. This Principle is (supposed to be) part of UK (and EU) law; meanwhile, it has been under sustained attack from some Parliamentary Committees in recent years (see e.g. ). When we consider the risk of potential future pollution crises (of which we may as yet have no evidence); when we consider the truly long-term; and when we consider the possibility of rebound effects etc., then arguably there is an in-principle Precautionary argument against further economic growth. Such growth fragilises us, it puts us more at risk. One can see this just by looking for instance at the things (especially on the pollution side) that the 1972 limits to growth report didn’t see coming, especially pollution-risks (1, above). (See on all this my recent piece with Nassim Taleb et al: . See also ) The limits to growth issue suggests the need for a precautionary approach to actually be applied (arguably to growth itself, and certainly to ‘material throughput’): this will be a significant change that needs scoping, and that the APPG could lead on.
5) Finally, we ought to bear in mind the question not just of whether further economic growth is possible or necessary or dangerous, but to the issue of whether it is desirable in the first place. Does growth make us happy? Insofar as it fosters inequality, as seems pretty clear (in recent years, virtually all the proceeds of growth have gone to the rich), doesn’t it rather (following the argument made by Wilkinson and Pickett, familiar to readers of this blog) make us unhappy? Moreover, much social and economic activity no longer gets counted as GDP, because it is free activity mediated by the internet; does this make it any less valuable?…Of course not. This 5th point is one that those on the Left ought to be much more aware of. It relates to one of the high points of the evening: George Kerevan MP’s agreeing with Caroline Lucas that the Treasury is a massive block to progress in this area and in many others, and his saying, therefore, that consideration ought to be given to the idea of abolishing it altogether! And Mr. Kerevan sits on the Treasury Select Committee…
[Thanks to David Burnham for research that contributed to this article. This is an expanded version of an article first published on Left Foot Forward.]