An economy of care, craft and culture. Who could be against that? At an explicit level, nobody, but all the emphasis on ‘jobs’, ‘growth’ and ‘productivity’ risks undermining all of these things in the name of labour productivity- growth fuelled by increasing the the economic outputs from human inputs.
I just came upon a further restatement of the argument against the relentless and arguably slightly mad pursuit of economic growth that we have considered here before. Tim Jackson gives a typically lucid account of why the pursuit of labour productivity, which is widely assumed to be a sound economic objective, should perhaps be entered into the new edition of the DSM (the reading of which should also perhaps be categorised as a further thing to be entered into the DSM… ad infinitum…but that’s another story.)
The thrust of Jackson’s argument is that we should actually strive to be less productive, because the pursuit of productivity has not been sufficiently thought through. The point is not just about the mathematics of climate change and the need for absolute rather than relative decoupling of economic growth from ecological impact. He also argues that three of the things that suffer most directly from the pursuit of labour productivity are things that are not based on the creation of economic output but still matter hugely to our quality of life and shared prosperity:
1) Care: the time taken to look after each other
2) Craft: the time taken to make or fix things ourselves and/or make them really good rather than merely functional.
3) Culture: the time taken to produce artistic works of enduring value.
These things all suffer from the logic of increasing output per hour. There has to be an answer to the ‘what’s the value of that?’ that is not reducible to economic terms, and yet, at the same time, we need to pay the people working in those areas in a way that reflects that value. Many have given up on what they love to do, do well, and is of value to others, because they can’t pay their bills by doing so.
The full article is here and I like the way the hard-headed way that it ends, because such a claim is serious enough to be worth fighting for in practical language.
“Of course, a transition to a low-productivity economy won’t happen by wishful thinking. It demands careful attention to incentive structures — lower taxes on labor and higher taxes on resource consumption and pollution, for example. It calls for more than just lip service to concepts of patient-centred care and student-centred learning. It requires the dismantling of perverse productivity targets and a serious investment in skills and training. In short, avoiding the scourge of unemployment may have less to do with chasing after growth and more to do with building an economy of care, craft and culture. And in doing so, restoring the value of decent work to its rightful place at the heart of society.”
What is all this stuff? Books, chairs, clothes, cutlery, bags, shoes, shelves, kitchens, computers, bracelets, shoes…what’s it all for?
Julian Baggini whose RSA event I chaired a few months back… recently penned a thoughtful and amusing piece in The Independent: Is Osborne’s Dad worth a £19,000 desk? The article explores how we use our ‘stuff’ to make sense of ourselves:
“A good desk is a kind of proof that you take your writing seriously, and hence, by implication, are a serious writer. A decent computer monitor might be just as important, of course, but such technology is not the preserve of the person of letters, and so cannot provide the same kind of psychological support.”
Lest you think this is a politically motivated attack disguised as a casual philosophical insight, the point goes to the heart of many of our most pressing challenges. In a previous post on the madness of economic growth in the context of climate change I made a passing reference to Tim Jackson’s phrase ‘the social logic of consumption’. The basic idea is that, increasingly, we are what we buy. Through our consumption patterns we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, and try to convey those stories to the people around us. It is not so much that we need status symbols to fuel our egos, but rather we need to surround ourselves with material objects to give our egos function and form. It is not that our objects are inherently meaningful, but rather through the process of identifying with them we make them so.
As with anything psychologically insightful, the Buddhist’s are way ahead of the game. In Buddhist epistemology, ‘rupas’ are those objects we use to reinforce our sense of self: “We commonly impose distortion on to the object world. We take it as implying ourselves, and in the process create self-material in relation to it. . . . We see in the object signs that lead us to construe a self, and from this create a sense of self. We can say that the object is an indicator of that self. The object is called a rupa” (Caroline Brazier 2003, 62).
Of course in Buddhism this construction of a self is, at the very least, something to be aware of, and usually considered somewhat problematic because it can lead to various forms of maladaptive attachment, and this viewpoint is largely shared by many aspects of modern cognitive science. In addition to Baggini’s reappraisal of Hume’s bundle theory of the self in the talk above, I would strongly encourage readers to take a look at the work of Francisco Varela who combines cognitive science, buddhism and continental philosophy to give a deliciously rich theory of self and consciousness.
Changes in our fundamental processes of consumption, self-creation, and social comparison are not going to happen overnight. However, the link between the social logic of consumption that is the engine of capitalism – driving economic growth, and the Buddhist insight that our selves are in some ways nothing but these things that we identify with and attach to, are closely linked. One thing that might follow, as was suggested by my colleague Egidijus Gecius in a previous post and in many other sources (and as is the mission underpinning the Garrison Institute in New York State) is that sooner or later you realise that the problems can be understood and, with practice, even experienced, as manifestations of our wayward minds.
And the more that insight sinks in, the more you feel the most productive place to work for social change is at the level of the mind. I was reminded of this while chairing the Matthew Johnstone event on meditation here last week. At the end, I felt moved to say to the audience that the Social Brain Centre is keen to develop work in this area. There are lots of people out there teaching meditation in various forms, and we are keen to start thinking about how to make meditation more mainstream, and socially supported. I would like it to become normal, in the literal sense of being a conventional social norm. What that might look like I am not yet sure, but examples include: meditation on the primary and secondary curricula, a meditation room in every major office building, doctors regularly subscribing meditation on the NHS. All of these things already exist in nascent form, but we haven’t reached a tipping point, and meditation is still viewed by many, wrongly, as a somewhat fringe activity.
Coming back to the breath, as it were, it seems I started with material objects and ended with meditation.
Or should that be Om?
Addendum: At lunchtime Matthew Taylor mentioned an RSA event on sustainable consumption featuring two people who had given away virtually all their stuff, and an anthropologist who studied how people related to their stuff. The anthropologist shared his finding that, based on his years of research, the main conclusion was that those who liked their stuff were happier than those who didn’t. Somebody in the audience apparently then asked, in the context of an event on sustainability, a question that Matthew considered to be one of the best ever in an RSA event:
“So are you saying we should we should care more about our stuff or less?”
The case for caring less is that we would therefore buy less of it, which is better for the environment. The case for caring more, which Matthew had more sympathy for, was that if you really care about your stuff you look after it, and are more likely to reuse and repair it…which might be even more important.
In response to my last blog on the understandable madness of economic growth I received the following comment, which I think gets to the heart of the sustainability challenge:
“The issue of a no-growth economy has been rolling around for a while with little progress for the reason that it can’t be achieved at least under present economic arrangements. Capitalism is inherently about investment which requires a return and return comes from growth. Until we invent a system based on an entirely different principle, I’m afraid we have to work towards the decoupling that Tim Jackson derides. If that really is impossible then we have to live with runaway climate change.” – Adam Lent
In his defence, Tim Jackson doesn’t deride decoupling, which he sees as essential. He just doesn’t think it’s enough(although he is open to the possibility that if we made an absolutely unoprecedented and incomprehensibly MASSIVE systemic push, it might be.) and makes a strong case for why he believes that. And if Jackson is right it’s a radically different economy or runaway climate change, a stark choice between the virtually impossible and the completely disastrous.
Before we acquiese to the latter or scramble to make sense of the former, let’s just be clear about decoupling, because Jackons’s point is quite subtle.
if Jackson is right it’s a radically different economy or runaway climate change, a stark choice between the virtually impossible and the completely disastrous.
Most people agree that we need to lower the ecological impact of economic output. Jackson’s point seems to be that it is a mistake to view this relationship as being independent of economic growth and population growth. When these factors are taken into account, most decoupling is merely relative decoupling- ie each unit of economic output is less harmful than previously, but as long as there is economic growth and population growth, those ecological gains are relative to previous impact per output, not absolute in terms of overall impact, and you are not solving the problem. As George Monbiot put it in his book HEAT: “The only cuts that count are absolute cuts.”
This point is crucial because so much of sustainability does not adequately recognise the distinction between absolute and relative decoupling. Companies say they want to grow and want to become more sustainable, but if you accept that we need absolute decoupling(as I think any sane person must), then your bar for sustainability has to be high enough that it can compete and win against the growth imperative.
If we don’t change the fundamental principle of growth on which modern capitalism depends, what is the alternative? Reducing carbon emissions at the necessary rate means massive technological advances, huge efficiency gains and a fundamental change in the nature of growth(e.g. investment in green technologies, service rather than goods based economies). If we achieve all of that, so the argument goes, it may be possible for capitalism to carry on functioning…for a while at least.
But what if that’s just not true? In other words, what if that kind of ‘sustainable growth’ doesn’t add up in the way it it has to, and we find we are fast running out of resources in a volatile climate with a rapidly rising population? There is a question about whether that is indeed the case, but I think we must face up to the brutality of the question, rather than assume that it has to be possible to carry on with Capitalism more or less as it is, as if that were the sine qua non of life as we know it.
Capitalism may be a political axiom of the modern world, but a livable climate is an existential axiom and surely has to take precedence. As I have mentioned before, climate change is a pre-competitive issue. No livable planet, no competition. Likewise with capitalism in general. As Adam suggested above, “until we invent a system based on an entirely different principle” we are stuck with attempts to decouple…Given that most decoupling is relative rather than absolute, this suggests, to me at least, that we need to invent and develop that entirely different system sooner rather than later.
I fear for myself in this regard because it sounds like an anti-capitalist argument, and I am not a rebel by nature. Moreover, I imagine most hard-headed people would say: “that fundamental change to the structure and function of the economy is just not going to happen, and certainly not in time to prevent a global temperature rise of well above 2 degrees.”
Such people might well be right, but given what is at stake, if there is any meaningful life that doesn’t involve trying to prove them wrong?
Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must. - Tim Jackson
Speaking at the RSA President’s Lecture last year, David Attenborough made a profoundly subversive comment disguised as an innocent joke: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”
The trouble is that political and policy arguments are largely driven by the methods and metrics of economists. So while the means to the end of achieving economic growth are constantly debated, the legitimacy of the end itself is barely questioned. In this sense most of our political class are indeed ‘mad’. The problem with Attenborough’s joke is that after the laughter has subsided here we all are, believing in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet.
The problem with Attenborough’s joke is that after the laughter has subsided here we all are, believing in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet.
I write as a relatively privileged thirty-something with a full-time job, so perhaps it is too easy for me to make this case. Perhaps if I was a recent unemployed graduate with a young family, desperate for work in a depressed region, who just received his thirtieth rejection letter I would feel differently. Perhaps if I wanted to start a new business but couldn’t get a bank loan, or if I had to lay-off good staff in a small company because my main customers were withdrawing their business…perhaps.
But for what it’s worth I think the prevailing focus on ‘jobs and growth‘ is painfully shallow. The debate about ‘jobs’ obscures a much more productive discussion about employment, particularly finding ways to support flexible, temporary, and part-time work. NEF lead the way on this issue, with their examination of the feasibility of a 21 hour working week. It appears obvious to me that if most people who have full-time jobs feel overworked and stressed while others are not working at all the solution is not necessarily to create more ‘jobs’ through economic growth, but rather to redistribute the available work more evenly.
It just looks obvious to me that if most people who have full-time jobs feel overworked and stressed while others are not working at all the solution is not necessarily to create more ‘jobs’ through economic growth, but rather to redistribute the available work more evenly.
The reason this idea is viewed as subversive rather than obvious is due to the assumption that we need economic growth at all costs, what Clive Hamilton calls ‘growth fetishism’.
Prosperity without Growth?
Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson is an indispensable guide for anybody hoping to challenge this idea. It is a remarkably sane, balanced and human book by an economist who has the capacity to authoritatively present conventional economic arguments at their strongest, and the insight to show their limitations, sometimes even on their own terms. There are many reviews online, so what follows are the traces of the argument left in my mind a week or so after I finished reading it:
Prosperity is a legitimate goal, but it is best viewed as a social and psychological concept rather than an economic one. Linking prosperity exclusively to income is unhelpful, because even if they are related(and some dispute that) prosperity is a much bigger concept, relying only on minimal conditions from income.
Moreover, a fuller analysis suggests we are suffering not just from an economic recession, but also a social recession(poorer relationships, less trust, more lonliness) and, more urgently, we are rapidly approaching our planetary limits. These are clearly related concerns, and it is completely wrong-headed to think that growth will solve the other problems, when it often causes them. As Jackson puts it:
“The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.”
Our Dependence on Growth
Alas, the need for growth is deep. We have constructed our economies in such a way that they have a structural dependence on growth and are therefore inherently unstable. Economies are full of positive and negative feedback cycles(e.g. low/high growth, high/low unemployment, less/more spending power to support growth). If the economy stops growing, it starts shrinking towards collapse…there is no steady state. Accepting this means we have a stark choice: to make growth sustainable or ‘de-growth’ stable.
The challenge with the latter is that economic growth is driven by what Jackson calls the ‘social logic of consumption’ underpinned by a deep human need to convey identity and signal status. This is the engine of capitalism, fuelling aspiration, innovation, higher living standards i.e. it’s not all bad and we are used to it. It appears so much easier to find ways to make growth sustainable, but what Jackson’s analysis makes clear is that these approaches don’t add up, quite literally.
We have constructed our economies in such a way that they have a structural dependence on growth and are therefore inherently unstable.
The Myth of ‘Decoupling’
The Ehrlich equation outlines the arithmetics of growth with respect to sustainability, and it doesn’t look good. The impact (I) of human activity is the product of three main factors: 1) P: the size of the population(going up to 9-11 billion by 2050), 2) A: its level of affluence (income per person) and a technology/efficiency factor which measures impact per unit of economic output. I=PxAxT.
Here is the issue: If P goes up, and A goes up, T has to go down to stay within planetary limits. This is why so many economists and politicians need to believe that we can continue to grow, and the only way to believe that is to argue that technological and behavioural change can make us much more efficient such that our impact remains within sustainable limits. This solution is often called ‘decoupling’- in other words separating economic activity from environmental impact.
However, when you look at the numbers more closely that appears at best wildly optimistic and at worst completely delusional. We have no reason, other than recklessly blind faith, to believe that technology can deliver in that way. One reason many remain caught in this delusion is that they don’t distinguish between relative decoupling(less environmental impact per unit of economic output) and absolute decoupling (less environmental impact overall) which is what we desperately need to achieve. It is possible to appear ‘green’ with relative decoupling, but you are only really sustainable if you achieve absolute decoupling.
It is possible to appear ‘green’ with relative decoupling, but you are only really sustainable if you achieve absolute decoupling.
There is a very strong argument that while we can improve relative decoupling and should continue to do so, absolute decoupling is incompatible with the continued pursuit of economic growth, at least in the developed world. (It remains coherent to argue for growth in the developing world where the marginal utility of growth is much greater, and environmental impact can be lessened through appropriate investment).
So I found Jackson’s argument (much more sophisticated than I can present here) persuasive. I am not sure if that makes me a lunatic an idealist or a revolutionary, but I think we have to think about changing the structure of the economy through giving serious thought to what a model of a stable economy without economic growth looks like. Some models have been proposed, but they remain nascent. We urgently need to develop them.
On reflection, such a bold approach does not appear ideological to me, but rather waking up from a prevailing ideology that is manifestly self-destructive. We are running out of planet. A no-growth economy is a curious creature to think about, but as Sherlock Holmes once put it: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.