To succeed is to destroy ourselves; economic growth and fossil fuels…


We all kind of know that the system of economic growth we are hooked on is not sustainable. However, it is so pervasive in how we understand the world that envisioning life without it is almost impossible. Take the concept of ‘economic growth’. Put simply, without growth we stagnate. Without an overall increase in the stuff we consume, own, or waste year on year, quarter by quarter, our economy is seen to be failing. In fact our politics dwells in the ever present fear of the spectre of of this terrible thing called recession. So much so that we allow them to sacrifice support to the poorest and weakest of our number by cutting social supports in the name of ‘stimulating growth.’

There was a brilliant article by George Monbiot in The Guardian yesterday in which he said this;

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.


Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.


To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Put like that, the whole pursuit of economic growth is madness right? Monbiot says more than this however, he points out this kind of economic growth was only ever possible because of the fossil fuels that we have been burning for the last 300 years or so;

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.


It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

How do we stop this? Monbiot thinks that first of all we have to SEE it, but most of us simply do not;

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.


Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.

Step forward then the politician who is prepared to say that economic growth is no longer desirable nor advisable, and that we need to learn to love what we have, to mend stuff, to share stuff and to live within our localities.

Who is going to vote for such heresy?

Or shall we just blame it all on the immigrants?

The false-god of economic growth…

Interesting article in the Guardian today about this book;



Interesting title- considering discussions about apocalyptic end times obsessiveness in some parts of the Christian world. A timely reminder of how we can get snarled up in religion at the expense of hope for the future this beautiful planet.

The book opens up again the question about what we can do as a nation to break economic mono culture that we have spent ourselves into. Here is a quote from the article;

Consume less, he says. Be sceptical about new technology. Slow down. And do not fall for the modern political class’s post-Blair belief that history is bunk, and to draw on the past is to be a hopeless throwback: it is only a comparative blink since the second world war found millions of people reshaping their lives in the cause of a common endeavour, and the same thing could yet happen again.

And then there is the fetish of growth, or rather growth-ism. As Simms points out, the idea that economies necessarily have their limits was being voiced when capitalism was still young: in 1848, John Stuart Mill argued that “a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement”. A century and a half later, Adair Turner, a former director of the CBI, told Simms that if anyone thinks “the most important objective of public policy is to get growth from 1.9 per cent to 2 per cent and even better 2.1 per cent”, they’re worshipping a “false god”, and “extra growth does not automatically translate into extra human welfare and happiness”.

These are pretty ordinary thoughts, but ones that the dull noise coming from Westminster renders almost exotic – and essential.


Economic growth; lie number two…

How do we know that we are in recessiondouble dip or triple dip as it may be? What mysterious yardsticks are used in the Bank of England to make them reach for the strings on which we all dangle?


Above all, it is this one; Economic Growth.

Economic growth usually refers to the growth in value of GDP (gross domestic product).

The total output of the country – the value of all the food produced, all the pharmaceuticals manufactured, cars assembled and services rendered – forms GDP.

GDP also takes into account the effect of imports and foreign investment.

If GDP is bigger this year than last year, then the UK is experiencing ‘economic growth’.

But inflation will also have driven up prices since last year, and thus GDP. To assess whether the economy is actually growing, the rate of inflation has to be subtracted from the nominal rate of growth to get the real rate of growth.

Lets be clear about this- economic growth happens when the overall value of what have, what we make, what we own, gets bigger. Our system is set up to be always dissatisfied with what we have, with what we are. No growth is regarded as stagnation, shrinking is recession, and recession is to be avoided at all costs- particularly at the cost of those who have the least.

We can only have economic growth if we continue living the kind of lifestyles that we are living now- if we continue spending money on the next gadget, another car, the latest trend in exotic food, the newest cut of skirt and suit. We can only have economic growth if we exhibit enough collective desire for new bathrooms, conservatories, paved driveways.

Increasingly we can only have economic growth if we can persuade other people to be just like us– to want the things that we want, the food that we eat, the mobile phones that we have glued to our ears. And so was born the globalisation of markets; the ubiquitousness of product. The penetration of our ways of being into every far corner of the earth.

Is this a problem?

Well, perhaps we need to distinguish between different periods of economic growth. In the UK we went from being an agrarian economy, whose countryside could only support a certain population number to being a place of canals, coal mines, factories and population explosion- all in the space of around 100 years. During this time our economy was growing exponentially- rather like that of China now. Victorian Britain was a place of huge inequality and the accumulation of vast wealth by the few on the backs of the labour of many. Like China now.

Of course to achieve this continued economic growth, Britain also needed an export market and control of sources of cheap natural resources-  for this we colonised and enslaved half the world.

More recently our economic growth has slowed- we achieve figures of one, two, three percent, and call it success. This ‘success’ is nothing to do with society changing, but everything to do with a desire to stay the same. Our growth is conditional on the pursuit of technological innovation by those who would sell us more product- rendering those we already have as obsolete.

Economists have a word for our willingness to spend- to slap down the cash rather than salting it away- they call it confidence. A healthy economy is full of confident consumers. Or, as Wikipedia put it;

Schumpeterian growth is an economic theory named after the 20th century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Unlike other economic growth theories, his approach explains growth by innovation as a process of creative destruction, which captures the dual nature of technological progress: in terms of creation, entrepreneurs introduce new products or processes in the hope that they will enjoy temporary monopoly-like profits as they capture markets. In doing so, they make old technologies or products obsolete: this is the destruction[disambiguation needed] referred to by Schumpeter, that could also be referred to as the annulment of previous technologies which makes them obsolete, and “which destroys the rents generated by previous innovations” (Aghion 855).


Now, back to the LIE that are at the centre of all this. We are told that for our economy, even our society, to survive and prosper, we have to have sustained economic growth. The spectre of the Great Depression hangs over us- lives ruined, people starving in the streets. Economic growth is a holy cow that we have to keep feeding.

Everywhere we hear people asking questions of this cow however;

  • Is it sustainable? Can we really just keep producing more and more? Are we not burning up our resources at an alarming rate? Are we not slowly poisoning our planet with it all?
  • Is it fair? Can we really continue to live in a world where our lifestyles are dependent on the raw materials and cheap labour of others who are half way across the world?
  • Is it working? Given the instability in the system, can we really trust it to maintain our lifestyles? Is it not all just coming unraveled anyway?
  • Is it not just terribly wasteful? Do we really need all this stuff? Is there not a simpler way to live?
  • Is it making us happy, fulfilled, complete?

The relationships between economic growth and equality within society is one that has been the cause of much argument- think about the Marxist analysis, or of recent arguments that suggest that stable economic growth always leads to greater equality.

The argument has taken a new turn recently however- this from here;

Labour is drawing on research by the New Democrat Network (NDN) central to the Obama re-election campaign to shape its own election thinking.

The research was described by the Obama campaign as its North Star. It tracked three trends in the US economy between 1992 and 2009, showing how two – higher growth and higher productivity – had not been matched by a rise in living standards for the majority…

Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary and a close student of US politics, told the Guardian: “Back in 1992 the famous dictum of Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville was: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ It contained the implicit assumption that economic growth ensured rising living standards.

“Today that no longer can be taken for granted, as this important research by NDN and the Resolution Foundation shows. I’ve worked closely with the NDN in recent years and that collaboration confirms to me this is one of the defining challenges for today’s progressives on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Similarly, work in Britain maps how growth before 2008 did not guarantee a rise in living standards, and how the bottom half of society suffered. UK wage stagnation is more recent than in the US – theirs started in the 1970s, the UK’s in the early 2000s.

And that is just within our own society. No mention of this sort of thing;


So, what is the alternative? Can our society, our economy, really kick our addiction to economic growth as the primary measure of our worth?

What might replace it?

Can commerce ever be based on a fair exchange of skills based on need (although surely there is always room too for celebration, for art, for pleasure.)

Can we learn to live in ways that are sustainable- that only cost the earth what it can afford to give to us?

If the answer to these questions are ‘yes’ (and I deeply hope that they are) then might these not result in negative economic growth?

Because in the Kingdom that Jesus talked about, things often get turned upside down and inside out- the last become first and the least of these become the keys to the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is not interested in statistics, in abstract measurement- it is rooted in the here and now- the shit and blood and spit of being ME, and my individual relationship with you. Everything else just gets in the way.