Moving past the Growth Doctrine

To state the obvious, economic growth or the lack of, goes a long way to determining the fortunes of governments the world over. For evidence of this, look no further than the swagger and confidence that has befallen Britain’s beloved Chancellor in recent months as growth has returned to the UK, provoking a considerable boost in the polls for the Conservatives.

This article however, is not about George Osborne (fun though that may be), nor even Britain; my thoughts concern growth itself, and the continued assumption that all growth is good. The recent UN Climate Change report set out the significant action that needs to be taken in order to preserve our planet’s future. In this context, questions have to be asked on whether governments’ seemingly unconditional pursuit of growth – defined as increased GDP – is compatible with the considerable reforms needed to protect the environment. A new approach, which prioritises human needs and environmental concerns in equal measure, is needed if we are to move forward.

The positive impact of growth is impossible to question. In theory and in practice, growth can bring jobs, rises in income, improvements in living standards and increased tax revenues to name just a few benefits. Governments are therefore seemingly compelled to shape their entire strategies around the pursuit of higher productivity; particularly in the developing world where there is desperation for growth as a means for the eradication of poverty. In our ultra-competitive globalised economy, standing still is not an option for businesses or governments; growth is the only way to survive.

But now we know that this basic notion of growth as the be-all and end-all – the growth doctrine – is at odds with what is needed to preserve our planet. Despite the huge amount of corporate money spent on undermining the scientific consensus on climate change, we are in no doubt. The increasing frequency of extreme weather events, as well as the recent report from the IPCC confirms our fears; “climate change isn’t some kind of future hypothetical“, to quote Chris Field, one of the report’s authors.

Governments and businesses offer tokens of progress; a nice new recycling scheme, some trees being planted, at best some genuine investment into green energy production. But such approaches merely pick at the edges of the problem whilst our relentless consumption and pollution pushes people ever closer to the brink. As Desmond Tutu says, “we have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth“. The corporations that cause the most harm to our environment have shown themselves to be morally indifferent towards humanity’s future, so governments and people have to act. Tutu’s suggestion for investors to dump the stocks of fossil fuel companies and for a wider boycott would represent a realistic starting point.

Fundamentally though we need to reframe and narrow what we consider as desirable growth if lasting progress is to be made. Profits and growth secured through dirty industries need to be sanctioned not celebrated by governments obsessed with the short term goal of attracting votes for the next election. This current approach is perhaps best illustrated by David Cameron calling on his government to “cut the green crap” from energy prices when Labour and the electorate expressed their dismay at rising bills. Undermining this mentality is also down to voters themselves, particularly in the developed world; we shouldn’t be so responsive to some nice GDP growth statistics in the lead up to an election. After all, Britain’s current growth has failed to improve the incomes of most workers, and continues to damage the environment.

To be clear, economic growth must and will continue to be at the forefront of governments’ minds. However, in the modern era, media, people and governments need to move past the growth doctrine and develop a wider model of what true economic progress looks like. Until we stop simply equating consuming more with success, implementing effective reforms to properly combat climate change is doomed to fail. Embedding such a change in mentality is clearly no easy task, yet it is fast becoming essential.

Our dogmatic ‘growth is good’ mentality currently results in the consumption of more of the Earth’s dwindling resources, it’s the cutting down of our rainforests and pollution of our seas and atmosphere in the name of profit, it’s unsustainable, its rampant destruction. Only with an international approach that removes environmentally damaging growth from our idea of economic progress can we truly expect to adapt to preserve our planet.