Calvin Jones says Wales can lead the way in replacing economic growth with the notion of useful work

April 28th, 2013

Last week I attended a conference on sustainable development for the Severn Estuary. The vision, assuming the Hafren proposal is dead in the, ahem, water is tidal lagoons. They are envisaged at Swansea, off the Vale of Glamorgan, and off Hinkley Point. Their aim is to capture the tidal stream close to the shore, and maybe wave technology further out. The huge offshore wind Atlantic Array is even further out. Most of the audience seemed cheered by the economic opportunity and the possibility of mitigating the effects of climate change. I was terrified.

Worthy attempts to develop replacement technologies – in energy generation and storage, in weight saving, in bio-engineering and so on, ad infinitum – are born from a belief that technology and increased resource efficiency can ‘solve’ our ecological and climate problems. This is Walter Mitty land. It is populated by well-meaning, intelligent people to be sure, but a fantasy none the less. On ‘current trends’ we can expect three billion more people in the global middle class by 2030, at the same time as the West gets richer, albeit perhaps more slowly. To enable this, we require a mere doubling of world electricity production.

Let me say this slowly. This. Will. Not. Happen. There is not enough stuff in the world for material consumption to effectively double on a global basis. There is not enough water for the dishwashers, or indeed to drink. There is not enough aluminium for the Audis, and not enough kerosene for the short-haul holidays to Hong Kong. There are certainly not enough prawns for the cocktails.

Any efforts at resource efficiency and technical transformation to enable this growth have to contend with the fact that firstly, companies like Tata (nee British Steel) have, over the last 60 years, already taken out the vast majority of possible energy costs. Secondly, as any economist knows, we use up the easy stuff first.

Just think of this in the context of oil. Saudi crude came out of the ground at $10 to $12 a barrel in the old days. In Texas, you threw a pickaxe in the air in 1940 and if it came down point first, you had a 30-year gusher. Contrast that with tar sands or tight and shale oil – maybe a minimum price of  $80 (at ‘wellhead’).

Faced with this predicament, we don’t need to take weight out of cars: we need to take out cars. We need to deal with economic growth, the elephant in the room. Insofar as it relates to the increased material throughput of an economy (and believe me, it really always does) growth is not only undesirable (for the West at least) but in the medium term impossible.

Yet this fact (and I use that word advisedly) is completely un-discussed in any mainstream policy context, particularly now in our repeat recessions. We assume that an increased level of economic activity is required to protect jobs and ‘prosperity’. Let’s be clear: increases in growth (achieved most recently by offshoring production to cheap Asian locations, and by flat-out-lying about the value of our financial wizardry) reward not labour but the owners of capital. Median middle class disposable incomes, adjusted for inflation, peaked in the 1970s. That is in contrast with the best-off, and for the owners of land and other capital.

Economic growth is actually necessary so there is enough wealth to distribute to those who are not (and excuse me for sounding somewhat Marxist) actually working for it. Land owners, and others in the rentier class. These are workers who are non-productive in any welfare adding sense. They include those living off a complex bureaucracy, the retired (retirement is wholly an invention of the fossil fuel age), the unemployed, and the sick and disabled.

As we age in the West this fact will become only too obvious. By 2050 there will be around only two workers per dependent in the UK, down from four now. Another decade or two of stock market growth like the last and these people (i.e. me) will have no pensions. Think about that.

Faced with these issues it is easy to withdraw into either a belief in an economic growth fairy, or into passive, nihilistic depression. But this is not necessary. Many societies historically have functioned perfectly well without ever-increasing levels of growth and complexity. Although arguably even more have chased complexity ever more desperately before crashing down the other side of a Seneca Curve. Especially empires.

But to follow any positive examples we have to first be honest with ourselves. The cognitive dissonance we feel, as GDP figures rise, and we feel ever more tired, stressed and scared, is real, and must be challenged.

Secondly we have to be brave. To identify, as Jared Diamond suggests, what ideals, structures and goods we really care about and will protect in a transformational period… hint: it’s not your iPad.

Thirdly, we have to re-define value and work in terms of what really adds to welfare and yes, in places we recognise. Then we should encourage this useful work, and spread it around all who want it, instead of maximising its commodified price and to hell with the rest.

It strikes me that Wales is a really, really good place to start all this.

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Calvin Jones is Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School.

29 Responses to:“Technology cannot tackle climate change”

  1. Ian says:

    This is a very challenging article to read, as it states a fact that we all in heart of hearts realise, but about which we are largely in denial. However, I would not slate tidal lagoons or offshore wind because of it. One of my chief concerns which underlies this article is all the talk of ‘efficiencies’, but precious little evidence of it. Demand for energy as the Professor has pointed out, is still climbing. This is a particularly scary scenario as we are currently in a depression, when energy demand normally drops away.

    The difficulty we face is that global economics is as we all know. driven by free Market (Thatcherite) economics. Any challenge to it attracts scorn from all sides. In a functioning parliamentary democracy, it is effectively political suicide to challenge the status quo. So, the solution? Well, I was lifted to an extent by the Professor’s suggestion that Wales has a good a chance as any of coming up with solutions. I certainly believe that we have the ideas and the natural resourses to have a go. However, I am not sure that Wales has either the political levers or methods of fund raising to tackle this task seriously. Maybe, that is a debate worth having prior to the next Assembly elections. It would certainly be more interesting and relevant than the usual ‘evil Tories v Stalinist Labour’ pre-election name calling nonsense.

    I look forward to more articles from the Professor.

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  2. Gordon James says:

    This is the most important article I’ve read on Click on Wales. It should stimulate a widespread debate amongst politicians (and environmentalists) in Wales. However, the economic growth problem will probably remain largely ‘un-discussed’. The fact that it appears on Click on Wales on Sunday, the quietest day of the week, might be a reflection of its current lowly political status.

    Calvin is being unfair when he states that low carbon technologies are simply “born from a belief that technology and increased resource efficiency can ‘solve’ our ecologically and climate problems”. They can be part of the solution, as Tim Jackson demonstrates in ‘Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet’.

    And I do not share Calvin’s sense of terror at the prospect of developing marine renewables in the Severn Estuary. What terrifies me is the increase in the use of coal globally, that we have a Government and Environment Agency in Wales that allows wasteful and environmentally damaging power stations like Aberthaw and Pembroke to operate, that I still have to spend so much time countering the myths put forward by climate change deniers and wind energy bashers (who are often the same people), and that the conservative right has managed to almost fatally slow down our response to climate change.

    As we are all so firmly locked into growth orientated economies, we face a massive challenge in achieving a rapid switch to low or zero growth ones. In the absence of magic wands, developing renewables in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in Wales is part of the route we have to take to get there. Will it be fast enough? Probably not.

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  3. David Clubb says:

    As I’m getting used to pointing out to everyone from the Wales Secretary to the BBC, the UK’s energy use is not continuing to rise. It peaked in the UK in 2005 and is now down to levels last seen in the 1970s and 1980s. See Chart 1.5, page 8 of the most recent DECC ‘Energy Trends’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/170736/energy_trends_march_2013.PDF) for a 3-year view, and the ‘overall data tables’ (table 1.1 (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/energy-consumption-in-the-uk) for the trend since 1970.

    Globally it’s a different story, I’ll grant you. However, Western Europe is moving in a direction which gives rise to optimism (incidentally even the USA is starting to see a drop in energy use – http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/pdf/aer.pdf).

    I agree that Wales could potentially be an interesting place to try a different model: the IWA could play a role in facilitating that discussion.

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  4. Calvin says:

    Dave

    I suspect, given demographic and economic change, what happens in Western Europe is irrelevant and has limited lessons or implications for the BRICS or China. Although I will grant you I am a miserable b*****d and fervently hope you’re right and I’m wrong on this.

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  5. Richard Nosworthy says:

    To echo points already made – I think you are largely right, Calvin, however I disagree with the framing of renewable projects.

    We need both – renewable energy development to replace fossil fuels, alongside a transition to a sustainable economy. Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth puts forward interesting ideas on a ‘steady state’ economy.

    What seems crazy is that in Wales we can have such relative poverty alongside such levels of waste. Surely we can be smart enough to treat waste as a resource and meet our needs without further environmental destruction?

    How about a pilot ‘steady state’ economy project e.g. a zero waste community which maximises proper employment and quality of life, within environmental limits?

    Glad you have raised this issue Calvin, but renewable energy is part of the solution here I think.

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  6. Calvin Jones says:

    May I just make a point of clarification. The title to this piece ‘Technology cannot tackle climate change’ was inserted by IWA and is significantly different to my original ‘Economic Growth: Grabbing the Elephant’

    Of course renewables are central, core and critical to any ecological solution. But such a solution is impossible under any material growth paradigm irrespective of energy generation technology. 100% renewable grid still leaves the issue of (as Rich points out) where we find clean water, fish to eat, space for all our waste etc, etc.

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  7. Simmo says:

    A great pull no punches article; Like other commentators above, don’t sign on with the idea that we can’t crack the resources nut (energy, water etc.) through technology; or, with concerted effort, through promoting the intelligent usage of these resources, which I believe will have more impact.

    Couldn’t agree more with “… We need to deal with economic growth, the elephant in the room…”

    …and particularly the sign off sentence: “It strikes me that Wales is a really, really good place to start all this.”

    Why couldn’t we start something like this in Wales? We’re small enough to initiate something like this on a national scale. To my mind we have a good associations with sustainability – policy, Centre for Alt Technology etc. The Sustainability ethos could be something really positive to hang Welsh identity on following the last industrial age.

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  8. Moneyman says:

    Calvin offers a new take on the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ thesis, in the fine old Malthusian tradition. Call me complacent, but I’m not convinced. The doomsayers have been prophesying that we’ll run out of food / coal / oil / natural gas within X years ever since 1798. People often forget all the dodgy old forecasts that were never borne out by reality, and seem determined to believe that catastrophe lies just around the corner.

    As for the end of economic growth – this is something to dread, rather than wish for. It would mean the end of credit, as borrowing money at interest is senseless unless you expect your income to grow. It would mean the end of aspiration, as young people could no longer envisage a better lifestyle than their parents. Presumably it would mean the end of increasing investment in health, education and numerous other public goods. Politics would become a vicious zero-sum game of competing claims on stagnant national wealth.

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  9. Tredwyn says:

    You can’t have a steady-state economy without a steady-state population. While population grows you can forget a no-growth economy, at least one without increasing poverty. If the human population can stabilise, Professor Jones will probably be wrong. The sun pours more energy on the earth than a stable human population could ever use. Improved technology can harness it, store it and desalinate oceans of water. Perhaps we are all doomed but if I have to bet on Professor Jones’ static socialist nirvana or on technology as the most likely saviour my money’s on technology.

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  10. Steve Garrett says:

    Thanks for a typically cut-to-the-chase article, Calvin. IF we had a visionary and courageous devolved Government, Wales would indeed be a brilliant place to initiate an exciting, forward-looking and realistic social experiment in how to actually live and work in a post-carbon economy. We could be the Cuba of Europe (in terms of commitment to a set of ideals and self belief, not necessarily in terms of an economic or governance model!).

    But you’ve noticed that capitalised ‘IF’. In the meantime, thankfully Wales is full of dedicated and intelligent individuals and small organisations who are quickly realising that THEY really are the leaders now – and it’s too late to think about playing it safe in order to (maybe) get another grant. We’ve nothing to lose in ‘going for it’, because without radical and visionary action we are all lost anyway, as Calvin makes clear.

    For a start we need to insist that unused public land is given over immediately to food production so that as the oil economy, and the food system which is totally dependant on it, begins to wind down we will at least have something to eat while we figure out what to do next. We also need to apply our best minds to understanding and working out how to evolve quickly from the competitiveness, wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance to which the human species is vulnerable like a kind of disease, which made it possible for the lifeboats on the Titanic to be inadequate and largely empty when the ship went down, and for the Easter Islanders to have cut down every tree on their beautiful Island and basically destroyed themselves.( I heartily recommend Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ to anyone who thinks that humans wouldn’t really be so stupid as to stand ineffectually by or even get behind and push as a collective human handcart heads ever faster on it’s way to Hades).

    There is room to still believe in a hopeful future, but that depends on a lot less self-deluding hot air and a lot more practical action. Probably the best help the ‘big talkers’ (e.g.. government, universities, institutions etc.) in Wales can give to this process is to lend their support, or at least get out of the way, so that the rest of us can get on with building a model for a truly post-industrial society – one that is likely to seem unrecognisable alongside today’s rapidly sinking societal ship.

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  11. Calvin says:

    @Moneyman
    Ah yes, Malthus. there should be a version of Godwin’s Law for that.

    In the US kids can already ‘aspirationally’ look forward to being fatter, unhealthier, unhappier and shorter-lived than their parents. How long, exactly, would you like growth to continue?

    @tredwyn
    Human population will peak by 2050. The issue is not population but distribution of finite resources.

    The characterisation of any a-growth or de-growth agenda as boring dead ‘stasis’ is a straw man. Development does not necessarily equal growth. Athens was a very interesting place, culturally, socially and scientifically, for a number of centuries without getting any bigger. Unless you were a slave of course…

    And it really, really hacks me off when defenders of the status quo (which is socialism & bail out for the rich, capitalism for everyone else) just paint any alternative as ‘socialism’. Where in this piece do I suggest the state has any significant role to play? Mr Garrett has it just about right…

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  12. alun-wyn griffiths says:

    As we often say in the rarefied academic situations that Calvin (and I, sometimes) operate in, “Big Up” for this article which if it didn’t catch “the elephant in the room” at least “set the cat amongst the pigeons” by debunking the growth paradigm myth.
    It may well have been published on a Sunday but isn’t that just when we have the leisure time to digest such ideas? Moreover the article has generated a breadth of considered comments from many sides of the debate suggesting that it is a discussion that urgently needs to go much further, and showing that there is a willingness to move towards a Post Growth analysis of the future for Wales.

    So the question is, having been considered enough to publish this opinion, Could the IWA under it’s new Direction, respond to Calvin’s positive opinion…

    “It strikes me that Wales is a really, really good place to start all this.”

    And facilitate an event to explore the multitude of opportunities for PostGrowth Wales to become the “Cuba of Europe”, because it really, really, does have that potential.

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  13. John R. Walker says:

    Nobody has mentioned the idea of a numerically sustainable technically competent super-race and genocide yet. That would arguably be a totally feasible engineered solution.

    There may be a few arguments along the way about who gets to live and who gets to die but I’m sure we can sort all that out in the time-honoured manner when the time comes!

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  14. Tredwyn says:

    Calvin, how can you be so confident about human population? Past projections have been notoriously unreliable. No doubt if population growth continues unchecked natural disasters will intervene to limit the numbers of humans eventually. But it is very hard to date or specify such disasters. It seems to me population is very much at the root of our problems. As for finite resources, the argument that we can’t grow for ever because the world is finite is childish. For ever is a long time. A thousand years is not for ever so how do you know we can’t grow intelligently for a thousand years? Also you can’t get annoyed when people assume your static co-operative economy (sharing out the work?) is socialist while you characterize everyone who thinks continued growth is possible as a defender of “the status quo”.

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  15. Tredwyn says:

    PS don’t know about Athens but Hippocrates would have been disappointed to learn he had not advanced medical science thereby increasing the productive potential of his society. Ditto Archimedes who must have thought his advances in mechanics which enabled Syracuse to defend itself against the Romans had improved some sort of productivity while his famous screw got water out of the stream faster than previous methods.. The Romans invented the arch and concrete enabling bigger buildings to be constructed and were no more than a century away from having the industrial revolution 1200 years early if their society and empire had not collapsed. Political failure has led to periods of regression throughout history but given stability growth has always occurred in societies with critical mass. While science and human ingenuity exist, there will always be growth of some sort.

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  16. Moneyman says:

    Calvin,

    Between 1980 and 2009, male life expectancy at birth in the US increased by six years. But why single out America? Other rich countries have seen bigger gains. And more generally, wealthier countries tend to enjoy longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality and less inequality.

    I have no idea how long growth can or will continue, but I do know that I’d rather live in a society where there is innovation, wealth generation, job creation and improving living standards, as opposed to a society where there are none of these things! I think your vision of flourishing culture and science in spite of economic stagnation is a little fanciful; surely subsidies for luxuries like the arts and research are usually amongst the first in line for cuts when money gets tight.

    You’d have a more credible case if Wales was as rich as Norway, Switzerland or the UAE. It would then be more believable to say that we had reached the apex of human material progress and could only see diminishing returns to further increases in income. But of course we are not in that position; Welsh earnings and employment rates lag behind the UK average and a large part of the country is an Objective 1 region. There’s so much good that we could usefully do with more economic resources.

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  17. Morgan Parry says:

    David: your optimism about declining UK energy use may be unfounded, and your advice to the Welsh Secretary and the BBC is probably misguided.

    The report you refer to (DECC Energy Trends) doesn’t tell us the complete picture about the UK’s energy use, in fact it doesn’t tell us much about energy at all, it tells us about use of fuels and electricity within the territory of the UK. And yes, its true that our use of fuels within the UK has fallen, even after we take into account import and export of fuels. But we import embodied energy in an increasing range and quantity of commodities, manufactured goods and services from steel (56% imported) to food to remote ICT systems and electronic consumer goods with their massive energy footprint. These form a significant component of the UK economy, and are purchase by consumers and importers on the basis of price, not energy efficiency, and the cheapest commodities are produced in the places that energy and labour is cheapest. So its not true to say that “globally its a different story” because the commodities, raw materials and energy that make up most of our manufactured goods are traded in the global marketplace so we’re probably part of the global trend of increasing energy use.

    To be able to say that we are truly decoupling energy use (and perhaps as importantly CO2 emissions) from GDP, we’d need separate statistics for domestically consumed energy for things like space heating, transport and UK manufactures bought in the UK – where we can probably increase efficiency – and embodied energy in imported goods and services which we as consumers have little control over but which we consume more of per capita every year.

    Those statistics are not easy to come by, but I’d be suprised if they didn’t prove Calvin’s hypothesis correct – that we need to question economic growth before we look at energy technology.

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  18. Dave Adamson says:

    An excellent article which throws us the ultimate challenge. It’s not about the relative balance of energy saving, green technology solutions. All have a part to play. Calvin’s real challenge is to the normalisation of the growth agenda. It is an absurd assumption that each generation should be ‘richer’ than the last. This new right orthodoxy has prevailed for too long and has given us the current crisis. I share Calvins view that Wales has scope to try something different. The current WEFO consultation is predicated on growth based economy. We need to find an alternative. EZs, city regions will do nothing to balance the Welsh economy and eradicate poverty. We need a society that stresses local production and no growth aspirations in which our dominant values are social rather than economic.

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  19. Joe says:

    The problem with paying off debt and debt interest is that economies are usually required to grow to do so. If the debt is rising at £2.3 billion per week, it’s usually considered a fairly compelling reason for growth (and quick!). When you’re borrowing just to pay off interest, the future, economically speaking, has to be bigger than the present.

    In Wales, where the economy is largely public sector based, it’s proportionately more reliant on borrowed money. Ultimately that will have to be repaid… through growth!

    Don’t misunderstand, I see the flaws in a system based on endless growth. In particular, I worry that our kids will be even more locked into a growth-based economy than we are. But for the moment, our creditors seem to have us locked into the status quo.

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  20. Calvin says:

    Moneyman,
    What will the world look like when China and India are at the level of Norway, Switzerland or UAE? Or do we have some special status in Wales?

    Tredwyn,
    I accept the point about progress being key; the point surely is that for Hippocrates, Archimedes or Pythagoras, growth in the size/material throughput of their society might have been a by product of their activities, never the goal.

    Rome fell (although never fully) in part because it stopped getting bigger in the face of external resistance and internal political strife. Hence its’ growth-based agri-slave economy stopped functioning (although I could stand corrected here – must re-read my Gibbon and Tainter). I’m not sure the technology or lack of mechanisation was an issue. Although of course if they had discovered hydrocarbons as a means of power, not just lighting, it would be interesting to consider what kind of world we’d be living in 2000 years later…

    My, this is the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on for ages!

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  21. max Wallis says:

    The “conference last week” was actually in December in Bristol, launching the Regen report sponsored by the South West region. That report failed to mention the front-running Tidal Reef (http://www.severntidal.com/), which has already secured DECC endorsement and is better quantified than lagoons. It would run from Aberthaw to Minehead and generate more power and less discontinuously than the Barrage.
    See Green Party briefing: docs.google.com/file/d/0B5-HODLqTnX7OXAyR2x2XzBYZ0E/edit?pli=1
    While building a consensus to address Cavin’s argument for less power and less consumption, let’s get on urgently with substituting renewable for fossil-fueled power.

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  22. Calvin says:

    @Max

    Different conference…

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  23. Andy Chyba says:

    As a Green Party activist, I have followed Calvin’s work for some time since sharing a platform with him at a Co-operative event. There is ever more convergence in our views.

    Let me focus on this passage first:
    “Worthy attempts to develop replacement technologies – in energy generation and storage, in weight saving, in bio-engineering and so on, ad infinitum – are born from a belief that technology and increased resource efficiency can ‘solve’ our ecological and climate problems. This is Walter Mitty land. It is populated by well-meaning, intelligent people to be sure, but a fantasy none the less. On ‘current trends’ we can expect three billion more people in the global middle class by 2030, at the same time as the West gets richer, albeit perhaps more slowly. To enable this, we require a mere doubling of world electricity production.
    Let me say this slowly. This. Will. Not. Happen. There is not enough stuff in the world for material consumption to effectively double on a global basis. There is not enough water for the dishwashers, or indeed to drink. There is not enough aluminium for the Audis, and not enough kerosene for the short-haul holidays to Hong Kong. There are certainly not enough prawns for the cocktails.

    Any efforts at resource efficiency and technical transformation to enable this growth have to contend with the fact that firstly, companies like Tata (nee British Steel) have, over the last 60 years, already taken out the vast majority of possible energy costs. Secondly, as any economist knows, we use up the easy stuff first.”

    This is not Calvin trying to tell us that technological innovation is a waste of time; just that it is not likely to be enough – certainly for us to continue using resources as we currently do and to continue the lifestyles we still seem to aspire to. I happen to think, and I think Calvin agrees, that technological innovation does have enormous potential to help us re-shape our futures (e.g. http://www.ted.com/talks/justin_hall_tipping_freeing_energy_from_the_grid.html?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2011-10-19&utm_campaign=newsletter_weekly&utm_medium=email ) But his premise is sound enough, that the current capitalist economic growth model is not capable of delivering either the technological solutions to the masses, or the socio-political change to our societies.

    It is also clear, that like most on the Green Left, Calvin has no time for Malthusian arguments. In the comments below the article he responds thus:
    “Ah yes, Malthus. There should be a version of Godwin’s Law for that.

    In the US kids can already ‘aspirationally’ look forward to being fatter, unhealthier, unhappier and shorter-lived than their parents. How long, exactly, would you like growth to continue?

    Human population will peak by 2050. The issue is not population but distribution of finite resources.”

    There is, of course, a legitimate argument that issues around the re-distribution of finite resources can only be harder when there is a bigger population involved. But again Calvin’s premise is sound enough in that the current capitalist economic growth model cannot facilitate the required re-distribution of resources and/or people. His assertion that human population will peak in 2050 is based on statistical trends that may not come to pass, but there are good grounds to believe that once capitalism is dismantled and some form of ecosocialist system put in its place, the drivers of population growth will disappear and bring about stability. The Green Party is currently getting itself in a bit of a flap over what our stance on population should be while capitalism continues to prevail. (See other posts on this blog re Population Matters)

    Calvin does, however, shy away from the ‘socialist’ label. In fact he uses it creatively in stating:
    “And it really, really hacks me off when defenders of the status quo (which is socialism & bail out for the rich, capitalism for everyone else) just paint any alternative as ‘socialism’. Where in this piece do I suggest the state has any significant role to play?”

    I am not sure we share quite the same definition of ‘socialism’, but Calvin may be re-assured that modern Eco-socialism, while seeing a bigger role for the state than we have now in providing key public services, is fundamentally based in a belief in localism and the commons.

    In essence then, Calvin is very much in tune with Green Party, and the Green Left especially, in its belief that capitalism’s fixation with economic growth is what will bring it crashing down – if it is not taken apart in a planned way. He states:
    “We need to deal with economic growth, the elephant in the room. Insofar as it relates to the increased material throughput of an economy (and believe me, it really always does) growth is not only undesirable (for the West at least) but in the medium term impossible.

    Yet this fact (and I use that word advisedly) is completely un-discussed in any mainstream policy context, particularly now in our repeat recessions. We assume that an increased level of economic activity is required to protect jobs and ‘prosperity’. Let’s be clear: increases in growth (achieved most recently by offshoring production to cheap Asian locations, and by flat-out-lying about the value of our financial wizardry) reward not labour but the owners of capital. Median middle class disposable incomes, adjusted for inflation, peaked in the 1970s. That is in contrast with the best-off, and for the owners of land and other capital.”

    Un-discussed in mainstream policy context? He clearly fails to see the Green Party as part of the mainstream at this point in time, but we are the only ones singing from his song sheet!

    GPEW’s current economic policy (http://policy.greenparty.org.UK/ec) clearly enshrines most of Calvin’s core arguments. It is not perfect, but I would like to invite Calvin to join us and get involved in refining it alongside other ‘green’ economists like Molly Scott Cato.

    If Calvin wants to see meaningful change, he needs to engage with us in the political system to bring it about. This is the only way we can hope to become that crucial part of the mainstream!

    For Calvin and others: http://join.greenparty.org.uk/

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  24. Moneyman says:

    Calvin,

    China and India won’t equal the income levels of the world’s richest countries in our lifetimes. HSBC’s ‘World in 2050′ report forecasts that the average American will still be three times richer than the average Chinese forty years hence. Of course the average Chinese should be much better off than he or she is now, and surely that will be a good thing for human welfare.

    The point about growth is not having more goods and services for their own sake. As I’ve said before, it’s about the better health, longer lives and improved public services that are made possible by having more economic resources. You think that this will lead to the world running out of materials and environmental catastrophe, but it seems to me that the key to future growth is finding new, more efficient and less carbon-intensive ways of doing things. You offer a pessimistic scenario of either collapse or stagnation, but what about an optimistic one, a new industrial revolution driven by emerging technologies such as nanotech, fuel cells, 3d printers and genetic engineering?

    Dave (and others),

    The assumption that each generation should be richer than the last may seem absurd, but this is the world that we have lived in for the last 200 years. Personally I’m grateful that I don’t have to endure the more arduous, unhealthier and less interesting lifestyles of my great-grandparents and their forebears. And to me, it seems natural to hope that my children can achieve longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than I will.

    You want to eradicate poverty, but you don’t want any economic growth. So basically you are just looking at redistributing existing resources from some people to others, presumably through tax and government spending. But Calvin has said that he doesn’t see a role for the state to play in his no-growth agenda, so perhaps you’ve misread his argument or you have other means in mind that have escaped me?

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  25. Dave Adamson says:

    Hi Moneyman, I am not advocating any return to pre-industrial society but simply to recognise that our material conditions now satisfy all or social and physical needs. At 60 years old I grew up in a home which had no fridge, my mother cooked on a open fire range and we had no television until I was 12. In comparison my current material condition never ceases to amaze me and I feel no compulsion to continue improving it or for my children to continually improve their material lives. I do want them to be healthier, better educated and live in warm, environmentally supportive housing. All this can be achieved with current technologies and less energy than we currently consume.

    The trick word in your response is ‘prosperity’. What exactly does this mean? We have the greatest income and wealth differentials since the times of Dickens. We have 33 per cent of children in Wales living in poverty. There is no trickle down of growth driven wealth. It accumulates increasingly in the hands of the already wealthy. Prosperity is the myth of the monetarists and new right, free marketeers. Poverty will not be eradicated by making more wealth. only by sharing more equitably the wealth we have. This is achievable through a mix of fiscal and monetary policy – yes, implemented by the state – just as it currently supports the free market distribution.

    Do you think the current economy runs without state intervention or that the tax regime we have exists by some natural law? It is driven by state-led decisions and policy which favours an unequal distribution of society’s resources. A simple strategy of paying a living wage could have a major redistributive effect and actually cut out the state role which currently taxes us to pay benefits to working people who are not paid enough to live effectively. State benefits are a subsidy for employers who do not pay the full costs of labour’s ability to reproduce itself, an essential element of capitalism since Adam Smith’s analysis. So there is a role for the state, a role for the economy and a role for individual consumers in accepting our current material level of ‘prosperity’ and not seeking to squander the earth’s resources on an unsustainable quest for ever increasing wealth in the hands of an ever decreasing minority. Calvin’s challenge is to recognise that this cannot be sustained, nor rescued by increasingly sophisticated technologies.

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  26. R.Tredwyn says:

    Are we talking about ecological limits or an unfair order of society? People are shifting their ground in a dizzying fashion and this has become my contender for most confused discussion of the year on Clickonwales. It is also distinguished by people making highly improbable assertions as if they were incontestable fact. Now:

    Are we overheating the planet? Yes very probably.
    Are we about to “run out” of any essential resource: No
    Is society unequal and rather unfair, nationally and internationally: Yes
    Is that easy to fix and does anyone have a working receipe for a different sort of society? No, we are stuck with trying to make gradual improvements to the one we have.
    Will ecological problems be resolvable by technology and the price system if the global population stabilises? Very probably
    Will they if the population goes on growing as it has over recent decades? No chance.
    Can we all get better off and grow indefinitely if we have a stable population? It all depends what you mean by ‘grow’ and ‘better off’. Not everyone can be richer than average, own a Rembrandt or have a holiday home in St Lucia. But the bulk of people can go on being more comfortable, more economically secure and longer-lived than they are today if we do things right.
    Will we do things right? Don’t know. As Churchill said of the Americans: they generally do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

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  27. Calvin says:

    Confused discussion? Yes. But a lot of improbable assertions there Tredwyn.

    We’re not ‘running out’ of oil as such, but if you think economic growth is sustainable on $100/barrel tar sands you may be mistaken – the work of Ayres and Warr is worth a look on this. IMF estimate a doubling of oil price to 2020 in their central scenario. That is genuinely growth-busting stuff. Where is the cheaper oil?

    Your argument seems to be that you want growth to continue but you don’t seem to suggest just how technology will enable this, beyond a general mention of resource efficiency. I am genuinely interested in where you think the Chinese will get the water for their dishwashers, coffee (700L of water per 1L of coffee), washing the car etc., given the increasing levels of water scarcity across Asia? And what happens to our Western food systems that require 7 calories of fossil fuels per 1 cal of food?

    If you could address these questions, to show that growth is *possible* going forward, then we can have a later debate about whether it’s desirable?

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  28. Peter Robinson says:

    The article title disappoints me immensely. It does not seriously explore the technology question; it seems to dismiss technology, having locked it around the Severn estuary example.
    Humans have created this dose of runaway climate change. In so doing they used technology. The situation is so series but we are not seeing massive investment in technology, or even exploration of the potential of such, in order to mitigate or even undo the damage.
    Most of the discussions about technology I have seen have been about the principal – or about specific and low level schemes. It may be that those in power, when they wake up, will consider turning their quite considerable guns towards climate change. I believe we need massive investment now in research and development relating to renewables and looking at what is toxically called geo-engineering. There is a useful article in the latest London Review of books, called How to Survive Climate Change by Thomas Jones which explore s the question of how to slow climate change down.
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/thomas-jones/how-can-we-live-with-it?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=3510&hq_e=el&hq_m=2498906&hq_l=5&hq_v=54570c92ff

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  29. Robin Llewellyn says:

    A truly interesting article. I’m not an expert on economics, but is capitalism not characterised by falling profit margins, thus necessitating economic growth? A second question: I think ancient Athens is interesting if it didn’t grow (although maybe it’s domination through taxes of the League following victory over Persia might count as a growth economy – I don’t know), but are there any examples of a technologically advanced modern economy that is not based on growth?

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