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Is more growth always the answer? adheds

The right kind of growth? Only if you stand to benefit from it

The Confederation of British Industries (CBI) has claimed the UK is seeing not just any economic growth, but “the right kind of growth”. But if there a right kind of growth, then there must be the wrong kind. So how would we tell the difference?

All the indications seem to be that nothing much has changed. We have the superheating of a south-east property bubble, a government and opposition that worry about upsetting the City, no substantial changes in banking regulation or reward, and routine tax avoidance by wealthy people and large corporations.

The “business as usual” economic recovery being celebrated here seems no different in its complexion to the boom which preceded the crash, so why would any intelligent person assume that another crash won’t follow in time?

The answer, of course, is that those boosters who confidently predict sustained recovery are those who stand to benefit from it, either by their position in the country (the independent republic of London) or in hierarchies of pay, status and voice. The CBI? Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Growing down

So what might the right kind of growth actually look like? We could begin with some small things, such as the Transition Towns movement which began in Kinsale, Ireland and Totnes in Devon and started with the idea of an “energy descent plan” towards a zero carbon economy.

Or take the idea of “permaculture” which suggests exploring sustainable production methods for food and raw materials which mimic natural systems. It also implies forms of human organisation which are based on co-operation and inter-dependence, such as ecovillages, slow foods or bioregionalism. Thinking like this presses us towards small state, city state or garden city forms of political organisation, and away from the idea that “growth” is a good in itself.

Decroissance is a term coined by French radical economists to refer to and call for economic downscaling, or “degrowth” as it has been translated into English. The term has been prominent in debates about alternative economic systems in France, for example in a monthly magazine entitled La Decroissance. Freeing economic thinking from the “tyranny of growth” is to point out that growth and ever-increasing consumption are unsustainable socially and ecologically.

Gross national problem

Measures of growth such as the Gross National Product only take into account the production and sale of commodified goods and services, ignoring the damaging effects on other things that we might value: justice, equality, democracy, human health and the health of ecosystems, quality of life and social relations.

Logically, the solution to social and ecological problems is not to make growth greener or more socially equitable, but rather to challenge the very principle of growth: to produce and consume less, especially in the Global North. Proponents of degrowth want to encourage political debates on the collective choices facing societies, and on alternative models of social and economic organisation; for example by questioning our relationship to work and calling for much reduced working hours.

We might indeed have a look at a different measure entirely, Gross National Happiness. Used as the official measure of progress in Bhutan since the 1970s, it is intended to be a measure of environmental, physical, mental, social and political elements, as well as economic ones. It’s a very disputed measure of course, because it’s difficult to agree on the data or its interpretation, but its complexity reminds us what a narrow measure “growth” really is.

So, when the CBI and the Chancellor claim that growth is happening, and the news shows us a graph that looks like a smile, we ought to be more sceptical. Measuring the quality of life through the circulation of money has never been a good idea, particularly when the people doing the measuring have a lot of it.

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