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What does progress look like on a planet at its limit?

What does progress look like on a planet at its limit?

In the 20th century, the definition of progress seemed clear. It was growth, measured in terms of national income, or gross domestic product (GDP). And that growth was to be endless, an ever-rising curve. No matter how rich a nation already was, its politicians and economists would consistently claim that the solutions to its problems – from poverty to pollution – depended on yet more growth.

But this promise has not been delivered on. It is clearly time to reimagine the shape of progress and, with it, the policies that could bring about prosperity for a fractured humanity on a destabilised planet.

First, it’s useful to recognise the appeal of growth. It is, after all, a wonderful, healthy phase of life, which is why people the world over love to see children, gardens and trees grow. No wonder the western mind so readily accepted it as the shape of economic progress, too, and simultaneously adopted the very 20th-century mantra that “more is better”, both personally and nationally.

Yet if we look to nature, it’s clear that nothing succeeds by growing for ever: anything that seeks to do so will, in the process, destroy itself or the system on which it depends. Things that succeed grow until they are grown up, at which point they mature, enabling them to thrive, sometimes for hundreds of years. As the biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus reminds us, a tree keeps growing only up to the point that it is still capable of sending nutrients to the leaves at the outermost tips of its branches, at which point it stops. Its pursuit of growth is bounded by a greater goal of distributing and circulating the resources that nurture and sustain the health of its whole being.

Although we can easily appreciate the limits of growth in the living world, when it comes to our economies, we have a harder time. Thanks to the availability of cheap fossil fuel-based energy in the 20th century, rapid economic growth came to be seen as normal and natural, indeed as essential. Its continuation over many decades led to the creation of institutional designs and policies – from credit creation to shareholder dividends to pension funds – that are structurally dependent on growth without end. In other words, we have inherited economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive.

This requirement has become so locked into economic theories, political narratives and public expectations that, over recent decades, we’ve witnessed desperate and often destructive measures designed to reboot growth when it becomes elusive. Governments deregulate finance in the hope of unleashing new investment, but often end up unleashing speculative bubbles, house price hikes and debt crises instead. They promise corporations that they will “cut red tape” but end up dismantling legislation that was put in place to protect workers’ rights, communities and the natural world. They privatise services – from water to hospitals – turning public wealth into private revenue streams that often undermine the very services they claim to provide. They add the environment into the national accounts as “ecosystem services” and “natural capital”, assigning it a value that looks dangerously like a price. And, despite committing to keep global heating “well below 2C”, they open up new avenues for fossil fuel exploration, while failing to make the scale of transformational public investment needed for a renewable energy revolution.

Instead of pursuing endless growth, it is time to pursue wellbeing for all people as part of a thriving world, with policymaking that is designed in the service of this goal. This results in a very different conception of progress: in the place of endless growth we seek a dynamic balance, one that aims to meet the essential needs of every person while protecting the life-supporting systems of our planetary home. And since we are the inheritors of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, a critical challenge in high-income countries is to create economies that enable us to thrive, whether or not they grow.

Tackling and reversing inequality needs to be at the heart of a new eco-social contract. Not only does this bring benefits in terms of improving life satisfaction; it helps us reduce the size of our national ecological footprints, via the well-documented links between greater fairness and more moderate consumption. It’s also important politically: one of the most damaging consequences of growth-driven inequality is the concentration of wealth and economic power in the hands of a few. This power can all too easily be converted into influence over elections and the policymaking process, ensuring the preservation of a system that advantages the already wealthy.

When we turn away from growth as the goal, we can focus directly on asking what it would take to deliver social and ecological wellbeing, through an economy that is regenerative and distributive by design. There are many possibilities – such as driving a low-carbon, zero-waste industrial transformation, with a green jobs guarantee, alongside free public transport, personal carbon allowances, and progressive wealth taxes. Policies like these were, only a decade ago, considered too radical to be realistic. Today they look nothing less than essential.

This is an edited extract from a foreword to The Poverty of Growth by Olivier De Schutter (Pluto). Kate Raworth is the author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (Random House Business).

Further reading

Less Is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World by Jason Hickel (Windmill Books, £10.99)

Edible Economics: The World in 17 Dishes by Ha-Joon Chang (Penguin, £10.99)

Prosperity Without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow by Tim Jackson (Routledge, £19.99)

Source: theguardian.com