One of the beliefs holding modern economic and political life together is the idea that growth is good. It is through economic growth that we will create benefits and improve quality of life. It sounds plausible. However, it is worth asking what the process of eternal growth means in practice.
To have economic growth, people this year have to buy more than they did last year and next year they will need to buy even more. Where what is bought is largely experiential, this can be feasible. Mostly, growth is not about experience though. It is about the use and consumption of consumable goods. To have economic growth, we have to use ever more resources. We have finite resources in terms of land, minerals, clean water and food supplies. Time is also a finite resource and when you need to earn ever more money to buy ever more things, your time should be factored in as a consideration.
A few weeks ago I listened to MEP Molly Scott Cato explaining how the desire for profit above all else affects chickens in Europe. Chickens and chicken meat travel all over the EU, to wherever someone can make a bit of a profit from them. Never mind that fuel is a finite substance, and that chickens eaten close to where they are reared are much more sustainable, profit comes first. Never mind the road traffic from the lorries moving the chickens about, either. Molly also pointed out that eternal growth depends on obsolescence. If possessions were made to last, they would make less profit for producers. So by building in a cause of death, creating fractionally different ‘new and improved’ versions, or changing the ‘fashion’, that which could have lasted for years is thrown away.
Growth economy is all about waste. It’s about getting you to chuck out last year’s tired, old-fashioned things to by the new shiny things. Again. It’s about not being able to get replacement parts when things wear out. It’s about time wasted making things that will shortly wind up in landfill or driving chickens across Europe. How many jobs exist to create things people really don’t need, in order to make a profit so that the growth of the economy continues? How many valuable and needed things don’t happen, because we are only interested in making a profit?
You get to a zero growth economy by a number of means, and it’s about changing our ideas first and letting work and business choices flow from that change. First, imagine that quality of life is not solely about bank balance. How we spend our hours could be considered important. If we start to value life, the idea of using up someone’s precious time needlessly taxing unfortunate chickens over hundreds of miles starts to look like insanity. We change our attitude to work and stop assuming that productivity is a virtue. That moves us towards ditching jobs that only exist to move round things of no use and value. Instead we’d want to spend less time in the first place on effectively making things that last and have value, so that we can get on with using and enjoying them and living, rather than producing and consuming. Imagine if we were all working modest hours doing what was needed for everyone to be happy.
It may well be a fallacy that growth drives progress and delivers innovation. If we were more interested in improving the quality of our lives than in increasing the bank balances of shareholders, why wouldn’t we spend time innovating? We’d have more time and energy to spend on true progress if less time and energy went into creating rubbish.
Let’s face it, if hard work was really a blessing and a moral virtue, those with power would want as much of it as they could get, and there would be no desire to share that lovely thing with those who couldn’t force a claim on it. It’s money that we hold as a good and a thing not to share with others. If you start treating your time, and your life as more precious than money, everything changes.