A recent exchange between Jason Hickel (and here and here) and Dean Baker (and here) on whether humanity can have a viable future and still have ‘economic growth’, nicely highlights the way old concepts and words can trap us in unproductive debate and action.
The way forward is to recognise the need for a fundamental re-framing of the nature and purpose of our societies, and their economies. The terms growth, GDP, capital and capitalism are so ill-defined, confused or inappropriate they only hinder debate.
I attended the New Economy Network Australia conference in Melbourne recently (19-21 Oct). There I met in person Karl Fitzgerald who does a spot call Renegade Economists on radio 3CR , and with whom I’d done an interview a few years ago. We didn’t manage an interview at the conference, but did one by phone a couple of days later.
I found NENA to be a very diverse group very engaged with each other. They even listened to my pitch about The Little Green Economics Book and bought copies. There are so many people and groups doing good things, my impression is that NENA is likely to spread rapidly and link us into a more powerful movement. It was just their third annual conference.
Endless growth on a finite planet is impossible. Yet endless growth of the economy is the reflexive goal of almost every government in the world. This defines the existential crisis into which humanity is blundering.
Yet even many people who are alert to the problem struggle to prescribe a remedy, or even to give the remedy a name. Various terms float around, like no growth, steady state, degrowth or postgrowth. There are two fundamental problems with these terms: they don’t define what they are talking about and they just keep the focus on growth.
George Lakoff wrote the book called Don’t Think of an Elephant. What did you just do? You thought of an elephant. Don’t think about growth. Oh. You just did. If I want you to think about flowers, I need to talk about flowers. Let’s stop and smell the flowers. Ah, that’s better.
Growth of what, exactly? Steady state what? Well, when the political mainstream says ‘growth of the economy’, it really means ‘growth of the Gross Domestic Product’, the GDP. GDP is the sum of all activities involving money, adjusted to avoid double counting. But what about good activities that don’t involve money, like staying home and loving baby? And is everything involving money, everything that is bought and sold, a good thing?
The best of Oz past, the smartest of Oz present, an enduring Oz future
Most Australians want a more stable and cooperative society, stronger communities and families, more equal distribution of wealth and better care of the environment. However free-market ideologists have badgered and deceived us into selfishness, fear and mediocrity.
We Australians have shown, over our short history, we can be innovative, resilient, bold, generous and welcoming. We have abundant skills and resources. We have clean technologies and techniques. We are creative. We can harness the economy so it delivers a fair go for everyone, without trashing the land and planet.
We can live well and generously in this ancient, fragile land.
Raw Discourse just started following Better Nature. I’m flattered because RD expresses first hand why I want to reform our dysfunctional economic systems – many people get trapped at the bottom of the heap through no particular fault of their own, and a more equitable and caring society would keep them from falling so low, and give them a real chance to climb back up.
My ebook Sack the Economists and Disband their Departments is now available.
Mainstream economists completely failed to anticipate the financial market crash of 2007-8. They then called it an unforeseeable event. This is a clear admission that they don’t understand how economies work. Yet many non-mainstream, marginalised economists gave clear warning of the approaching crash. This book shows how mainstream economics has not one but many fundamental flaws. It is not a science, it is pseudo-science. It lacks scholarly rigour and integrity. Once you understand this, it is not a mystery why the mainstreamers missed the approaching crash, nor why wealth is so unequally distributed, why we are so materialistic and unfulfilled, and why the planet is being destroyed. But modern knowledge and systems ideas reveal market economies to be self-organising systems, and they can be managed to support dignified livelihoods in equitable societies that can survive into the indefinite future, with nature thriving along with them.
See more at the book’s web site, including how to purchase your copy.
[I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, and the September issue of Scientific American finally provoked me. They talk about exceeding our evolutionary limits, living beyond 1oo, manipulating ourselves to be smarter (but no mention of wiser), and so on. So, another long essay.]
The term appropriate technology was popularised after E. F. Schumacher’s pivotal work Small is Beautiful. Schumacher argued against the modern economic pathology of endless physical growth, which of course cannot continue on our finite planet. He argued further that some technology only promotes endless growth, or it distracts us from more important things in life, and is therefore not beneficial. Technology that supports a fulfilling life and is compatible with a steady-state or slowly shrinking physical economy he called appropriate technology.
As for technology, so for science. A common assumption by scientists is that if a challenge is there then it is fair game to address it. In fact it is commonly presumed that freedom of enquiry, a central ingredient of an open democratic society, justifies such an attitude. However we need to recognise that such freedom comes with responsibility. This seems to be recognised regarding human cloning, for example, where strong legal and social restrictions have commonly been imposed.
When I was a young adult it dawned on me there is such a thing as collective insanity. I was reading about Japan near the end of World War II. The Japanese collectively refused to believe they could lose the war, and continued behaviour that was very destructive for themselves and others (they are not unique in this respect, they were just the example I happened to read about). It took the atomic bombs to shock them out of their state of psychological denial.
One view of insanity is the continuation of behaviour that is detrimental to one’s self, despite ample evidence of harm being done. How sane are we now, those of us who live in the rich countries?
The Nature of the Beast: how economists mistook wild horses for a rocking chair.
Mainstream free-market economics fundamentally mis-identifies the nature of market economies. Its record is of retarded growth followed by disaster. It counts costs as positives instead of negatives. It is blind to how the present banking system destabilises the economy. It is relentlessly materialistic and adversarial. It ignores most of what we know about real people and the real world.
The result is pseudo-scientific gobbledygook, and the unstable, inequitable, undemocratic, destructive and unsustainable mess known as the global economy.
The Nature of the Beast draws out the real nature of market economies using modern knowledge of systems, human behaviour, ecology, biology and physics. It points the way to stable, prosperous, democratic market economies that can support people, societies and the living world into the indefinite future.