Limits to growth: managing the politics

People, Planet and Politics: Is economic growth compatible with sustainability?

Satish Kumar, Editor of Resurgence
Jonathon Porritt, Chair of Sustainable Development Commission
Michael Meacher, former Minister for the Environment

Remember 1971 and The Limits to Growth? The book came up with some strange answers but the underlying question remains as potent as ever. The panel of speakers assembled for this Resurgence event were unequivocal: there are limits to growth and if you live to 2050 you are going to experience them.

Satish Kumar suggested that the key failure of the industrial age lies in the reversal of values attributed to poverty and wealth. The work of St Francis of Assisi reflects a culture of recognition for choice of a “poor” way of life, satisfied with sufficiency. Now, “growth has become such an addiction” that agrarian and craft communities are perceived as poor in a negative sense. Satish challenged us with the concept of the “elegance of poverty” and questioned whether the people of Africa really want “growth” and the disruption of culture that follows in its wake. Is growth like a cellphone – a consumer product that we don’t really need but which becomes a necessity?

Alas such ideas were somewhat off agenda and the remainder of the evening concentrated on the inelegance of politics. Jonathon Porritt stuck to his unenviable brief of explaining why the Blair government has failed to deliver the expectations of the 1999 report “A better quality of life: a strategy for sustainable development”. Porritt’s finger pointed very firmly in the direction of the “wizards and intellectuals” residing in the “bowels of the Treasury”, whose weasel words neutered the objectives of the strategy by imposing “simultaneous” pursuit of economic growth and full employment. Despite government concern that human happiness stubbornly refuses to follow the ever-rising graphs of economic growth, research designed to find quality of life indicators has been quietly buried. Porritt reminded us that the Chancellor will always argue passionately that growth is the path out of poverty, at home and in developing countries. The challenge is to move beyond this prevailing orthodoxy.

Michael Meacher was more explicit: any proposal to the current cabinet which might compromise growth targets for environmental reasons “would be treated with derision”. Instead he concedes reluctantly that only “the earth will drive change” triggered ultimately by one or other of the extreme risk factors building up, notably oil, water, land, and population. The political “dodge” of pursuing simultaneous growth and sustainability is itself unsustainable. In finding a transition, Meacher advocates greater use of existing frameworks – Kyoto, the Clean Development Mechanism, more Commissions like IPCC to explain the limits of resources, and more imaginative use of WTO principles that could result in the EU enforcing sanctions against U.S. as climate change offenders.

At the end a young man in a grey stripy suit stood up and bravely announced that he works in those condemned bowels of the Treasury – so would the panel kindly suggest a policy change that he could recommend to his masters without losing his job? The panel was admirably unanimous. Introduce environmental costs into pricing of goods and services. Follow existing Brown principles that subsidise things that are good for the economy and tax things that are bad. Just change “economy” to “environment”.

The Treasury man would be fired.

And herein lies the problem, further betrayed in a hundred anxious and unheard questioners at the end. What political action can we take? Where is the creative argument that really would dissolve the realpolitik?

Satish Kumar inspires us to think the impossible with no pretence to the political. Michael Meacher has found the freedom to express his pessimism – which noone wants to hear; and Jonathon Porritt seems drawn like a bear to the constraining honey pot of serious politics. Maybe the absent Caroline Lucas would have supplied an answer, as might more well-organised and promoted events such as this.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK