What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Impediments 9: Growth

We are getting towards the end of this series of posts on impediments that our society suffers which makes it unable to recognise and respond to the upcoming ecological crisis (of which global warming is only one part).

Our next topic is growth, which we always seem to need. The notion of ‘growth’ seems to include two concepts, economic growth (people getting wealthier) and population growth (there being more people around). It’s possible to have one without the other, of course, although population growth without economic growth can probably only be a short-term phenomenon. On the other hand it would be possible to have economic growth without population growth or even with a declining population.

However, in general the two seem to go hand in hand, and as we always seem to need there to be economic growth going on then population growth is going also to be seen as something that should be greatly desired. This is something I have already argued against extensively in these blogs, and have argued that we should be limiting ourselves, because, beyond survival in the short-term, the only valid goal for human societies to set themselves is long-term human survival, and unlimited growth in a finite ecosystem is not a possible strategy to achieve this. By contrast, making sure our population is not too large at any time is the surest way to achieve long term human survival.

The problem with growth is that it does not have a concept of limits. Right at the beginning of modernity Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations got into a enormous difficulties in his arguments about wealth because he was clever enough to see that beyond the necessities of life, there is no real purpose in the desire for economic growth, but that that desire will be unbounded:

The desire of food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary. Those, therefore, who have the command of more food than they themselves can consume, are always willing to exchange the surplus ... for gratifications of this other kind. What is over and above satisfying the limited desire, is given for the amusement of those desires which cannot be satisfied and which seem altogether endless. (I ix ii)

So what we need to do, in my view, since the desire for economic growth seems so strong with humans, is to decouple economic growth and population growth—the growth that then occurs will be much more modest, and probably invisible to conventional scrutiny, but it would allow a sense of progress from generation to generation without imperilling the ecological foundations that humanity depends on. A preferable term for it would be ‘betterment’.

Growth is a convenient illusion for people, because it makes them feel better off, and provides the illusion of social mobility even when inequalities remain. People can say ‘at least I’m better off than my parents, I have a larger house which is worth more, I earn more’, when in reality the house is proportionally more expensive and requires a greater share of the household’s income than in previous generations, and requires the household to have two income flowing into it, rather than one, as in previous generations.

Indeed it never ceases to amaze me that people can consider themselves better off than their ancestors. To me it seems obvious that people nowadays are mostly unhappy mortgage-slaves in the same way that their ancestors were unhappy wage-slaves who rented. Widespread home-ownership in a society based on rapid growth merely inflates house prices and does nothing to lessen inequalities of income.

Growth is also seems good for businesses: when there are more people and they have more money it’s easier to sell them more things each year. When there is a contraction in demand, of course, we see many businesses going bankrupt. On the other hand you could argue that if we entered a period of economic stability you could expect that businesses would have greater certainly of long term survival, once they had learned to satisfy local customer expectations, as in periods of economic growth there is more business instability (I’ve often noticed that long-established businesses seem to go out of business more frequently in periods of economic ‘good times’ than in periods of recession).

There is a whole science of ‘Zero-Growth economics’ (see this page and the pages linked to it). However I am not qualified to speak about the details of this, and instead in the last part of this blog I want to discuss what the advantages (beyond ecological sustainability) there would be in a society with a declining population, and a stable, very-slowly-expanding economic basis.

A world with a much lower population would be:
  • A world with less ecological degradation, where increasingly everyone could live near to trees and natural vegetation. Land prices would be lower and people could combine work with working small-holdings, as in many parts more relaxed parts of the world.
  • A world that was less crowded, where cities were smaller, where there was less crime and less poverty and more wisdom.
  • A world where people felt less under pressure, and had more time on their hands.
  • A world where superfluous occupations and sectors of the economy could be neglected and wither away, everyone’s work would be more meaningful and people could see the results of their work and other activities directly.
  • A world where worship of growth hadn’t blinded people to inequality, where in place of growth for the sake of growth you had more equalisation of resources and income.
  • A world where progress in the sense of technological advance was still happening, but very slowed down. One of the problems with modernity is that technological progress has happened too quickly for society to be able to adapt it, instead societies have been transforming themselves in an unstable way, and again growth for the sake of growth then occurs.
  • A world where societies were based on talents not reputation. In large-scale societies we get the problem that only very pushy and self-advertising people achieve recognition, in smaller-scale societies people achieve recognition based on actual achievements.

Because of all these it would be a world where people were more at home, less lonely and frightened and more connected to nature and to their own natures. Because we have already achieved global communications and these, along with other technologies, are unlikely to die out in a world that has transformed gently into a steady-state, declining population mode, then isolation and ignorance would not be problems, as they were in the past.

Next week: Status

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