Friday, February 04, 2011

Better than growth

Is growth good? Australia needs more economic growth like a kick in the head.

The pursuit of ever more goods and services is not delivering what most people want, but their opposite. Rather than meaningful work and rest amongst genuine communities in tune with healthy natural environments, we are overworked (or unemployed), families and communities are fragmented and we are living well beyond our ecological means.

Many studies have shown that once a basic standard of material well-being has been achieved, further increases in consumption levels do not correlate with higher levels of reported happiness, health or mental well-being. Instead, we are fatter, more stressed and more depressed than previous generations. And worst of all, we are squandering our inherited ecological wealth at an alarming rate. Our average ecological footprint (the third largest in the OECD) means that were everyone to live like us, we would require four Earths. Australia has the highest percentage of threatened vertebrates and plant species in the world. Our carbon footprint is the highest in the OECD, despite possibly being the developed country most directly threatened by climate change.

The ongoing quest for growth all else is killing us, since growth without reference to its context is cancer.

So am I then a cheerleader for what economists quaintly call "de-growth" (i.e. recession), or am I perhaps advocating the dramatic overthrow of the present order? Both are too simplistic. It is possible to argue that creative, practical reforms are possible (and necessary). Things don't have to be this way and the alternatives don't have to involve living in caves or blood on the streets (though these could be some of the ultimate results of business as usual).

The Australian Conservation Foundation has recently released a very interesting 40-page report called Better Than Growth, which lays out three problems with our obsession over GDP growth and suggests eight areas in which a re-conceived better-than-growth economy would be an improvement over current assumptions and practices. Each of the eight areas receives a brief chapter suggesting creative changes to Australia's economic system. Here is the outline:
1. Better progress: improving quality of life, not quantity of wealth
Emphasising measurements of social and individual wellbeing, and ecological health, will give us better results than focusing on narrow economic measurements such as GDP.

2. Better work: balancing paid and non-paid work, family and leisure time
While some australians are unemployed, many more are overemployed. We’d be better off reducing average working hours and increasing time available for leisure, family, community and our democracy.

3. Better production: making cradle-to-cradle manufacturing a reality
Rather than producing disposable goods that are destined for the tip, we should reorient design and manufacturing toward completely reusable products.

4. Better consumption: stepping off the consumer treadmill
Overconsumption is at the root of many social and environmental challenges. Government can support people to become smart consumers; to consume less and consume smarter.

5. Better markets: aligning prices with social and environmental impacts
Ensuring that the full environmental and social costs are included in the price tag of goods and services will stimulate a cleaner economy.

6. Better business: matching private incentives with long-term public goals
Businesses that focus too much on short-term profits are unlikely to be part of a long-term transition to a more sustainable economy. Supporting non-profit business models and ensuring that executive compensation rewards long-term performance are needed.

7. Better taxation: rewarding work, not waste
Shifting taxes away from productive activity such as income generation and towards pollution and resource use would create jobs while improving environmental performance throughout the economy.

8. Better regulation: fixing cost-beneft analysis
Much government analysis depends on cost-benefit calculations which are based on faulty assumptions and exclude the full value of the natural environment. We should insist that cost-benefit analysis include all aspects of wellbeing.
Fortunately, many of the solutions are staring us in the face. As William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet." In each of this report’s sections, we outline some of the best thinking from around the world on what is needed to transform to a better-than-growth economy. All of these ideas and specific policy recommendations are already being implemented or seriously considered somewhere around the globe.
The full ACF report is available here.
H/T Greg.


Anonymous said...

Good points provided. We certainly can do more to recycle. It amazes me that most councils provide a green waste bin... it would be much cheaper to provide every household with a compost bin..

I would argue than that its not degrowth..rather its sidewise growth... Employment from current schemes need to be replaced with other schemes to avoid job losses.

And to a certain extent, we do need wealth, and perhaps even for some an over abundance of excessive wealth, which will help provide for those who are in need of the state.

Take my own example of having had to live on a disability pension, the need for government to provide essential services etc.

Greg said...

This constructive report fleshes out a broader vision for how our society could reorient its identity away from being 'consumers' and back towards 'citizens.'

As with the shift towards renewable energy, there will be sectors of the economy that are either winners and losers from a change to a new paradigm of citizenry. Hence the need for new metrics that can persuasively express the non-economic benefits of change.

I'm not convinced the Happy Planet Index is the solution (e.g. Australia ranks 102nd but Vietnam 5th!), but this concept is moving in the right direction.

Mike W said...

Thanks Byron

byron smith said...

Greg - That's really helpful. Bring citizens before (instead of) being consumers is very important.

I'm also unpersuaded by some of the specifics of the HPI, but it's a start at attempting to express something important.

Craig - Sideways might be a good way of putting it in many cases, though I guess I'm saying that if in pursuing citizenship and the long term good of humanity we end up shrinking GDP as traditionally measured (while increasing the things that really matter), I have no problem with that. The point is that once we reject GDP growth as the goal of politics (and economics, for that matter), then that doesn't necessarily mean de-growth becomes the goal. If it happens to be a side-effect of this reorientation then so be it. Other things are more important (including caring for those in society with disabilities and ensuring that all have access to essential services and so on).

Anonymous said...

There has to be a different way to measure GDP also. Take the last few years in Australia as an example.

GDP had in impact on home loan interest rates... yet in reality home ownership is perhaps one of the most stabilising effects for any nation and in reality I don't see how that can really effect the total GDP.

byron smith said...

Craig - Or a different thing to measure other than GDP. Read the report, it has some very good suggestions about this.

byron smith said...

I note that the Green Party UK include this in their most recent manifesto:

"We want to improve the welfare of people and the health of the planet rather than the size of the economy. Because size matters: if the economy gets too big it will grow beyond its ecological limits. Now we are up against a very challenging limit: the capacity of the atmosphere and the Earth to absorb
our greenhouse gas emissions without overheating. Only the Green Party is willing to face up properly to these limits, and to say that limitless economic growth without thinking about the consequences is a dangerous and careless fantasy." (p. 8)

David Palmer said...


Flipping through your recent posts I think this might be the best spot to give a link to my AP article

I hope to do a further follow up article dealing more thoroughly with the ethical and theological issues, issues like sustainability. However, I felt it was important to deal with questions of science, technology, economics and politics first as a prelude to ethical and theological reflection. Some Christian writing on climate change and what to do about it is let down by not first grappling with these prior questions.

Perhaps we will have further discussion



byron smith said...

(First, an apology to those who were actually interested in the (very interesting) contents of this post and thread. If I had the ability to do so, I would move this discussion to an open thread. WordPress is looking more and more attractive.)

David - I'm two paragraphs in and already feel like giving up.

No warming recently? I thought we'd been there before and you dropped that line of argument: "I'm willing to concede, and not grudgingly so, that the planet has been on a warming cycle with CO2 likely being a contributing factor."
Even cherry-picking years (starting in 1998 and ending in 2008) still gives a +0.11ºC/decade trend. And of course, this ignores 2010, hottest or equal hottest (within measurement error) year on record, depending which data set one looks at. And the oceans are still soaking up most of the extra energy, gaining energy at an average rate of about three Hiroshima bombs (186TJ) every second since 1970.

"Climate change" as a change of terminology? Seriously? Come on, you're better than that David. Tell me it isn't so.

Two clangers within two paragraphs doesn't fill me with confidence.

Page 1, paragraph 6:
Concerns were being raised almost 30 years ago about a possible link between global warming and
the ever increasing emissions of greenhouse gases ( GHG)

Knowledge about the nature of greenhouse gasses has existed since John Tyndall published the results of his experiments in 1859; the first calculations of what effect human greenhouse gas emissions would have on the planetary system were conducted by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. The issue was already big enough in the 70s for President Carter to order a review, which found a mainstream scientific understanding not fundamentally different from that of today.

Page 3: However, we are asked to take the IPCC findings on trust and that is something I cannot do.
No. The IPCC does not find anything. It is an exercise in collation and review. You are being asked to take the multiple lines of converging evidence from a variety of fields that supports the mainstream theory and the lack of any credibly coherent alternative as good reason to take the mainstream understanding seriously.

Page 3: Personally I suspect we are still
in the throes of a recovery of the little ice age which is generally considered to have ended mid
nineteenth century. But then that was the last scientific paper I read.....

Your personal suspicions seem to be counter to mainstream scientific opinion, which says that the net effect of climate forcings with anthropogenic factors removed is likely to be slightly negative (i.e. we would probably be cooling a little). Got a reference for that paper?

byron smith said...

Page 3: I'm a little surprised at your Whiggish view of the history of industrialisation, given your political leanings. Here is a more balanced account of the effects of industrialisation on the 19thC British working class, itself a field of genuine historical disagreement. The article points out the many problems with relying on accounts of wage reconstructions as a proxy for progress. Certainly there are many advantages to living in a wealthy nation after industrialisation, but then there are also advantages to living in a house insulated with asbestos, another one of God's gifts. The rise in population and life expectancy is more closely correlated with sanitation and public health measures than fossil fuel use (as can be seen in Cuba, for instance).

Page 5: there is peer reviewed scientific journal papers to support just about any position.
Claim: There has been no statistically significant warming for the last fifteen years.
Claim: Observed climatic changes in the last decades are mainly due to natural fluctuations and have little influence from human actions.
Claim: Climate sensitivity is low (below 1ºC for a doubling including fast and slow feedbacks).
Claim: Volcanoes CO2 emissions dwarf anthropogenic emissions.
These are all positions held by figures you recommend in your bibliography. Can you find a single recent unrefuted peer-reviewed paper in a respected journal that supports any of them?

And so let's have a look at the bibliography of your main paper. Of all the books you include, only one supports the mainstream understanding accepted by every major scientific institution in the world, and that was a Christian book which did not receive a recommendation from you. Of all the websites, again only one was mainstream, and that presumably because it takes a line on nuclear power that you like. David, you claim to be aiming for some kind of middle ground, but reserve all your criticism for the mainstream science and all your praise for deniers and delayers. Your bibliography suggests why this might be so.

From the abstract of your longer paper:
I accept that it’s going to warm because of increased carbon emissions, but whether to the extent projected, and with the flow on effects for melting ice, rising sea level and so on, I’m not so sure. And, in a way, I’m not bothered. Humankind has always lived by its wits and if sea level rises we will build dykes and/or move further inland. This is what we have always done.
I suspect that this may actually be one of the keys to our disagreement. Your optimism is breathtaking and flies in the face of the sober and understated IPCC summary: "During the course of this century the resilience of many ecosystems (their ability to adapt naturally) is likely to be exceeded by an unprecedented combination of change in climate, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification) and in other global change drivers (especially land-use change, pollution and over-exploitation of resources), if greenhouse gas emissions and other changes continue at or above current rates (high confidence)." (AG4 WG2 4 Exec Summary).

I may have been remarkable able to adapt and cope with all kinds of impacts in the past: being dropped on the floor by my parents, bike crashes, punches to the face by drunken man, slipping on ice. That doesn't mean I can expect to survive a bullet. Anthropogenic climate change is not dangerous because it is change, but because of the scope and pace of the change. The precise figures on these are indeed up for debate, but they generally range from really bad to horrendous (bullet hits arm vs bullet hits head).

byron smith said...

Page 1: I wonder what readers of Australian Presbyterian think about paying more for their electricity, gas
and petrol as a result of the Government imposing a carbon tax? We are not talking about a few
dollars here and there, we are talking about hundreds of dollars extra each year on top of all the
other recent price rises.

It's going to happen anyway, and ironically, not having a carbon price might actually push coal prices higher.

According to a report put together by a large group of Australian scientists and engineers, for just $8 per household per week, Australia could be fully renewable by 2020, a cost that would be paid back within a few years or a few decades (depending which assumptions are made).

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron,

Just checking in, I've been away for some time.

I was rather hopeful of a better response from you. I won't bother to refute you - it is too tedious.

You have made up your mind and it is a closed and narrow mind, which I find a sad thing in someone who I imagine is in his early 30's(?)

Your dismissal of Hulme, Pielke, Curry, Parkinson, Lomborg, etc is breathtaking in its arrogance.

Well, time will tell, and in the meantime I will leave you in peace.

byron smith said...

David - I've read decent or significant slabs of each of those authors (except Parkinson, of whose work I admit I haven't seen more than reviews). None have particularly impressed me. Hulme was probably the best, making a number of good points but had some strange views on science. Pielke also makes relevant critiques that are sometimes worth paying attention to. Curry's work on hurricanes is well-respected. Can't say the same for her recent blogging. Lomborg is almost pure ideologue. Parkinson (from what I've read) seems mainly concerned to warn against dangerous geoengineering schemes, which is fair enough and there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about some of the suggestions.

But the fact these are pretty much the only voices you're listening to raises the question of whose mind is more closed. Of course I can't read yours, but your citations don't demonstrate familiarity with the relevant literature.

As for whether I expected you to engage my critique, I would have in the past, but you seem to have given up talking and now resort to drive-by insults, which saves us both time, but is disappointing.

byron smith said...

New Scientist edition on how a growth economy is killing the planet, which includes an amazing graph.

byron smith said...

CASSE: What should we tax? An argument that we should tax resource extraction (and possibly pollution) rather than income. In general, we should tax things we want less of, rather than those we want more of.

byron smith said...

Gary Egger: Economic growth, obesity and the creed of greed. Nice quote:

A simple and logical definition of growth is “maturation till maturity.”

byron smith said...

Andrew Cameron has an excellent short piece reflecting on economic growth from a Christian perspective.