Thursday, April 16, 2009

Growthaholics Anonymous

by the Sandwichman

The UK Sustainable Development Commission's Prosperity without Growth report even contains a 12-step program for overcoming our addiction to economic growth. Personally, I think the first step should be to admit that the growth imperative is an addiction that it has made our society and unjust and unstable and ecologically unsustainable:
12 Steps To a Sustainable Economy

Building a Sustainable Macro-Economy

Debt-driven materialistic consumption is deeply unsatisfactory as the basis for our macro-economy. The time is now ripe to develop a new macro-economics for sustainability that does not rely for its stability on relentless growth and expanding material throughput. Four specific policy areas are identified to achieve this:

1. Developing macro-economic capability
2. Investing in public assets and infrastructures
3. Increasing financial and fiscal prudence
4. Reforming macro-economic accounting

Protecting Capabilities for Flourishing

The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. A lasting prosperity can only be achieved by freeing people from this damaging dynamic and providing creative opportunities for people to flourish – within the ecological limits of the planet. Five policy areas address this challenge.

5. Sharing the available work and improving the work-life balance
6. Tackling systemic inequality
7. Measuring capabilities and flourishing
8. Strengthening human and social capital
9. Reversing the culture of consumerism

Respecting Ecological Limits

The material profligacy of consumer society is depleting natural resources and placing unsustainable burdens on the planet’s ecosystems. There is an urgent need to establish clear resource and environmental limits on economic activity and develop policies to achieve them. Three policy suggestions contribute to that task.

10. Imposing clearly defined resource/emissions caps
11. Implementing fiscal reform for sustainability
12. Promoting technology transfer and international ecosystem protection.


Shag from Brookline said...

Alas, too many may timidly approach these 12-steps as a zero-sum game, especially in highly industrialized nations.

Anonymous said...

"Personally, I think the first step should be to admit that the growth imperative is an addiction that it has made our society and (sic) unjust and unstable and ecologically unsustainable..."

Using the metaphor of addiction opens the question, "If growth is an addiction, what do we get from this addictive behavior?; i.e., what need is our addiction satisfying?"

I think the answer may lie in the role the addiction plays in reinforcing itself as a need. Smoking, for instance, delivers a dose of nicotine to the brain which is itself addicting in the physical/biological effects of the nicotine acting on receptors in the brain.

But there are also a host of behaviors associated with the act of smoking. (I am not a medical person by any means, so don't take this literally.) We have a cup of coffee or a beer, with the cigarette; thus associating the physical/biological effect itself with a number of other habitual ones.

Consumerism may, in fact, be the source of the addiction here for which growth is the social nicotine, or, it may only be a habit associated with growth. The authors of the study offer little or no evidence in either direction.

And, this is important.

If we are to defeat the addiction to economic growth, it would be useful to understand exactly how the addiction works. What physical/biological need (to continue with the analogy) does it fill for society?

The authors of the study fail to establish this link.

Why is this important?

Smoking has an effect on the brain which reinforces the act. However, it also has an effect on the lung and other organs which, in any other circumstances, would discourage it. A compromise of sorts seems to occur where these negative effects - coughing, teary eyes, odor - are discounted by the body, or even associated favorably with the act.

For instance, the smell of smoke makes a smoker want to smoke. Yet, what smoker looks at an automobile accident and wants to be in a car crash?

Consumerism could, in fact, be in like relationship with growth: utterly repugnant and unsatisfying in and of itself, but associated with whatever effect growth produces for the social body.

I would offer that this other thing with which consumerism is associated is work itself. Growth satisfies the need for work, and a society characterized by economic policies to promote growth, to satisfy the need for ever increasing amounts of work, will also be characterized by rampant and uncontrolled consumerism.

Just as a nicotine addiction can be linked to high consumption of coffee, without a direct causal link, so consumerism can be linked to the need for work, and, therefore, growth to satisfy this need for work, without being the cause of either.

The conclusion can very easily be reached that despite rampant consumerism there is not too much consumption, but too little - an observation borne out by the most cursory glance at the circumstances of most of the world's population.

The cause of this shortfall in consumption, I would argue is not too little growth but too much: We, in other words, face not the happy prospect of prosperity without growth, but the actual and very real syndrome of growth without prosperity.

If growth is the addiction, and, consumerism is the cancer, work is the root cause.

Anonymous said...

Let me add a thought which may or may not clarify what I said above:

The way our society is organized - with consumption linked to work performed - it is obvious that the accumulation of debt driven by consumerism is a pathology, since it implies a disconnect betrween work performed and current consumption.

However, for the very same reason the real pathology, the equally rampant need to work - for which growth is offered as the solution - affects us all, and appears to us as understandable and logical.

But, it is not.

Instead, work itself is the real pathology here.

Sandwichman said...

The authors of the study offer little or no evidence in either direction.Did you read the report? If you did, maybe you missed the analysis in chapters 4 and 6, "the dilemma of growth" and "the iron cage of consumerism." that address the symbolic and associational aspects of consumerism and growth, respectively. Further to that point, some of the key ideas in those chapters refer back to earlier discussions by Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, and Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth. They also refer to the literature in behavioral economics.

It may be true that the authors don't dot every 'i', cross every 't' and tie up every loose end. This is a vast and complex issue and the fact is that there will always be loose ends remaining to be tied up. Prosperity without Growth, however, provides a much better framework for looking at the issue of sustainable development than the conventional wisdom and it is much more comprehensive than most critiques so far. And it has the imprimatur of being from an official government 'watchdog' agency rather than from a self-appointed group.

Sandwichman said...

Alas, too many may timidly approach these 12-steps as a zero-sum game, especially in highly industrialized nations.Actually, Shag, too many will rashly dismiss the enterprise at the first sentence because they KNOW There Is No Alternative. This is not conjecture. I distributed the 12-step program yesterday at a "sustainability dialogue" that had a panel of four economists discussing the economic crisis and the environment and I asked them to respond to the report's statement that the growth myth has failed us.

One of them (the "left-wing think tank" guy) responded positively and tentatively to the ideas, with the proviso that he didn't think it was compatible with capitalism. The other three were preemptively sure that the report was based on naive assumptions about how the world works. But the audience applauded when I finished asking my question and people came up to me after the forum to thank me for asking the question.

The folks who believe in the growth myth will continue to do so no matter what arguments are presented. Picture them as being portrayed by John Cleese.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Sandwichman,

I did not intend to appear to bash the study. Actually, I was just thinking out loud - making notes for myself and trying to work through my understanding of what you wrote. Like an idiot, I thought my crude scribblings might be of interest.

I am not familiar with terms like, "the symbolic and associational aspects of consumerism and growth." These words make no sense to me in any fashion. Nor am I familiar with Veblen and Hirsch.

I simply read your note, and tried to fit what you were about it being an addiction into some framewark which made sense to me - I am a smoker, so, naturally, I wondered to myself whether consumerism was the coffee, the brain receptors or the nicotine.

I am actually going to spend the next few days tearing the book apart, but I hope they do not spend a lot of time on the "the symbolic and associational aspects" of the issue. Things like that only succeed in giving me a headache.

Anonymous said...

PS. I am also pretty sure most of my neighbors have never read Veblen or Hirsch, and none of them could define the "the symbolic and associational aspects" of the crushing debt which threatens to engulf them, should they lose their job.

They might, however, be open to the idea that their lives would be better and more prosperous were working time reduced.

Sandwichman said...

Sorry, Anonymous, if 'symbolic' and 'associational' gave you a headache.

You raised the question of association. You used some form of the word associate (associating, associated) at least four times and the word linked at least twice. What can I say? -al is another suffix.

My question "did you read the study" is germane because you talked about the authors of the study offering "little or no evidence" regarding your question. If you had read the report you would have known that they did in fact offer evidence. If you hadn't read the report, it is presumptuous for you to judge what the authors did or didn't do.

When you say you will spend the next few days "tearing the book apart" it sounds to me like you have a predisposition to disparage what the report says before you find out what that actually is. Go ahead. It's not a particularly open-minded approach to learning but at least you will read the report.

Whether or not your neighbors read Veblen or Hirsch, it is nevertheless irresponsible for policy intellectuals advising governments to be oblivious to well established critical traditions. If the criteria for public leadership includes the proviso that the economists don't know any more than your neighbors then maybe that explains why your neighbors have a crushing debt and are at risk of losing their jobs.