In his introduction to Pembroke College’s William Pitt the Younger Seminar Beyond Green’s Executive Chairman Jonathan Smales asks, ‘What’s so good about growth?’
In his biography of William Pitt the younger, William Hague wrote, “The population of England grew from 5.5 million to 7 million between 1751 and 1781….the growth of the cotton industry and trade with the expanding Empire provided new employment on a huge scale…The unprecedented expansion and movements of population would create immense political and social strains…but at the time of Pitt’s Cambridge education these trends had yet to gather their full momentum.”
Well, a lot has changed since Pitt’s day. The population of the United Kingdom will probably reach 70 million by 2030; the global population has grown from an estimated 300 million in Pitt’s time to more than 7 billion today.
And that’s about 5 billion consumers, each with varying degrees of profound, or in the words of Thomas Homer Dixon tectonic impact on the biosphere with massive and growing carbon and wider environmental footprints. The carbon footprint of a Tanzanian is about 0.06 tons of carbon; the average Australian, currently pretty much world-beaters on this score, emits 27 tons into the atmosphere every year – about 400x more!
It is not unlikely that the world’s population will grow to over 9 billion by 2050. And if over the same period global economic growth were to continue to average 2.5% the compound effect of population increase and economic growth on the world’s environment would be c.10x greater in 2050 than it was in 2000 – the so-called Factor 10.
The maths are unremitting. The value of the global economy has grown from $30billion to $69billion since 2000. In 2011 China became the world’s biggest market for new car sales with 13.8million cars sold. But if it ever reached American levels of car ownership – some would say when it reaches American levels of car ownership – there would be another 900 million cars on the world’s roads.
And yet, growth has seemed to many an unequivocally good thing.
That growth is good is a truth, a mantra a shibboleth. We are starry-eyed about it. Hope springs eternal when growth is fast, continuous and cumulative. According to authoritative reports, hundreds of millions of people have been ‘lifted out of poverty’ by growth. Today, party politics is dominated, even perhaps overshadowed by growth. ‘It’s the economy stupid’.
The main parties differ only over the method of its delivery. We grow faster either via Ed Miliband’s One Nation ‘responsible capitalism’– or George Osborne’s less trammeled, free-market capitalism. But the primary purpose – growth – is unchanged.
And greener growth – sustainable development – as Gro Harlem Brundtland christened it in 1987, is claimed by both ideologies. Don’t we need growth to ‘pay for’ environmental infrastructure, green technology and the restoration of habitat – even if only to remediate the damage caused by the last round of growth?
Whatever our backgrounds and, it would seem, whatever our political allegiance, growth is the one thing we can agree on. Or can we?
Is a certain type of growth simply a lie? Are we now paying, quite literally, for a previous era of false growth, an era that may yet bankrupt us? And what about growing inequality? How might businesses in the future and of the future grow in truly sustainable ways? Do fast-growth economies make us happy or unwell? Is the seemingly perpetual pursuit of more an inherently fulfilling experience or a fundamentally discomfiting experience?
Here’s Hanif Kureishi on the subject, “I never understood the elevation of greed as a political credo. Why would anyone want to base a political programme on bottomless dissatisfaction and the impossibility of happiness.”
Harvard economist, Michael Sandel says that if he ruled the world he would ‘have a bigger goal in view’, that is “to loosen the hold that economic reasoning exerts on the public mind, and on our moral and political imagination.”
And when we’ve rehearsed some of these ideas and arguments, if we were to agree that growth per se is not a panacea for economies or the Holy Grail of politics, then what is? What might replace it and how will we sell that to ourselves and everyone else? After the economic crash of 1847 the poet Matthew Arnold wrote of the feeling of, “wandering between worlds, one dead the other powerless to be born…”