est professeur de développement durable à l’université du Surrey (Royaume-Uni). Il dirige un groupe de recherche sur les modes de vie durables (Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group).


Prosperity without Growth: where is the new economy?

Society  is faced with a profound dilemma. To resist growth is to risk economic and  social collapse. To pursue it relentlessly is to endanger the ecosystems on  which we depend for long-term survival.

For the most part, this dilemma goes unrecognised in mainstream policy. It’s only marginally more visible as a public debate. When reality begins to impinge on the collective consciousness, the best suggestion to hand is that we can somehow ‘decouple’ growth from its material impacts. And continue to do so while the economy expands exponentially.

The sheer scale of action implied by this is daunting. In a world of 9 billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it is today. By the end of the century, economic activity will need to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere not adding to it.

Never mind that nobody knows what such an economy looks like. Never mind that decoupling isn’t happening at anything like that scale. Never mind that all our institutions and incentive structures continually point in the wrong direction. The dilemma, once recognised, looms so dangerously over our future that we are desperate to believe in miracles. Technology will save us. Capitalism is good at technology. So let’s just keep the show on the road and hope for the best. 

The reason for this collective blindness are easy enough to find. Expanding demand is the default mechanism for achieving economic stability. When demand falters, bad things happen. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. In these circumstances, questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. 

But question it we must. The collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15th September 2008 signalled more than the onset of a cyclical liquidity crisis.  The pallid light of recession illuminated crack after crack in the shiny surface of capitalism. It is now apparent that these cracks run right to the heart of the model. 

Leaving aside for the moment that a system built on continually increasing demand is ecologically illiterate.  The financial crisis revealed that it is also structurally dangerous. Relentless expansion of demand requires rising levels of debt. When the debts become toxic, the system collapses. Since September 2008, governments have committed trillions of dollars to bail out the banks and re-stimulate the global economy. But fiscal spending financed through government borrowing has only precipitated a further crisis.

Across the Eurozone, country after country is facing rising deficits, unwieldy sovereign debt, and down-graded credit ratings. Austerity policies, brought in to protect these ratings, have failed to solve the underlying problems. Worse, they have created new social problems of their own.  The withdrawal of social investment has bred an increasingly agitated public.

The message from the ‘Occupy’ protests (and elsewhere) is that prosperity for the few, founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice, is no foundation for a civilised society. Economic recovery is vital. Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential. But we also stand in urgent need of clearer visions, braver policy-making, a renewed sense of shared prosperity.

The question is no longer whether we need such a transition, but how to achieve it.  Where will the next economy come from?  What will it look like?  How does an economy work when it no longer relies on persuading people continually to spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need? 

The answers to these questions are slowly being worked out.  It’s clear, for instance, that we need a radical overhaul of capital markets – something long overdue in the wake of the global financial crisis. Investment is vital. But it has to be fit for purpose. Untrammelled speculation in commodities and financial derivatives brought the financial world to the brink of collapse just three years ago. Long, slow capital is what is needed here. Solid investments in lasting assets: in clean low-carbon technologies; in health and education; in good quality housing and efficient transport systems; in public buildings and open spaces. Investment in the future of our communities. 

Enterprise still has a critical role in this new economy. But the days of untrammelled profiteering at the expense of the taxpayer must be ended. The invisible hand of the market must be tamed in the service of community. The most foresighted CEOs of the most visionary companies already understand these demands.  But this new economy is no longer simply a playground for the well-paid executives of the multinationals.  New smaller-scale, local and community-based enterprises have a vital role to play in this new economy. 

Perhaps the most interesting suggestion of all is a shift in the nature of economic activity in the new economy, away from the mass throughput of material products and towards the provision of valuable human services.  A new kind of ‘service economy’.  Clearly this can’t just be the ‘service economies’ that have characterised development in certain richer countries over the last few decades. For the most part those have been achieved by reducing heavy manufacturing, continuing to import consumption goods from abroad and expanding financial services to pay for them. 

But this doesn’t mean we should throw away the underlying vision entirely. Whatever the new economy looks like, it’s clear that low-carbon economic activities which employ people in ways that contribute meaningfully to human flourishing have to be the basis for it. So rather than starting from the assumption of growth then, perhaps we should start by identifying what we want a sustainable economy to look and behave like.

Clearly, some form of stability – or resilience – matters. Economies which collapse threaten human flourishing immediately. We know that equality matters. Unequal societies drive unproductive status competition and undermine wellbeing not only directly but also by eroding our sense of shared citizenship.
Work – and not just paid employment – still matters in this new economy. It’s vital for all sorts of reasons. Apart from the obvious contribution of paid employment to people’s livelihoods, work is a part of our participation in the life of society. Through work we create and recreate the social world and find a credible place in it. 

Perhaps most vital of all, economic activity must remain ecologically-bounded. The limits of a finite planet need to be coded directly into its working principles. The valuation of ecosystem services, the greening of the national accounts, the identification of an ecologically-bounded production function: all of these are likely to be essential to the development of a sustainable economic framework. 

At the local level, it’s possible to identify some simple operational principles that these new economic activities need to fulfil.  Let’s call these activities ‘ecological enterprises’ if they satisfy three simple criteria:

  • they contribute positively to human flourishing
  • they support community and provide decent livelihoods
  • they use as little as possible in the way of materials and energy.

Notice that it isn’t just the outputs from economic activity that must make a positive contribution to flourishing.  It’s the form and organisation of our systems of provision as well. Ecological enterprise needs to work with the grain of community and the long-term social good, rather than against it. 

Interestingly, ecological enterprise has a kind of forerunner. The seeds for the new economy already exist in local, community-based social enterprise: community energy projects, organic smallholdings, local farmers markets, slow food cooperatives, sports clubs, libraries, community health and fitness centres, gardens and parks, local repair and maintenance services, craft workshops, writing centres, outdoor activities, yoga, martial arts, meditation, or community music and drama. 

People often achieve a greater sense of wellbeing and fulfilment, both as producers and as consumers of these activities, than they ever do from the time-poor, materialistic, supermarket economy in which most of our lives are spent. So it’s ironic that these community based social enterprises barely count in today’s economy. They represent a kind of Cinderella economy that sits neglected at the margins of consumer society.

Some of them scarcely even register as economic activities in a formal sense at all. They sometimes employ people on a part-time or even voluntary basis. Their activities are often labour intensive. So if they contribute anything at all to GDP, their labour productivity growth is of course ‘dismal’ – in the language of the ‘dismal science’. If we start shifting wholesale to patterns of de-materialised services, we wouldn’t immediately bring the economy to a standstill, but we’d certainly slow down growth considerably.

We’re getting perilously close here to the lunacy at the heart of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive, consumer economy. Here is a sector which could provide meaningful work, offer people capabilities for flourishing, contribute positively to community and have a decent chance of being materially light. And yet it’s denigrated as worthless because it’s actually employing people. 

This response shows up the fetish with labour productivity as a recipe for undermining work, community and environment.  Of course, labour productivity improvements aren’t always bad. There are clearly places where it makes sense to substitute away from human labour, especially where the working experience itself is poor. But the idea that labour input is always and necessarily something to be minimised goes against common sense. 

In fact, there’s a very good reason why de-materialised services don’t lead to productivity growth. It’s because for many of them it’s the human input to them that constitutes the value in them. The pursuit of labour productivity in activities whose integrity depends on human interaction systematically undermines the quality of the output. 

Besides all that, work itself is one of the ways in which humans participate meaningfully in society. Reducing our ability to do that – or reducing the quality of our experience in doing so – represents a direct hit on our well-being. Relentless pursuit of labour productivity in these circumstances makes absolutely no sense.

So in summary, it seems that those calling for a new engine of growth based around dematerialised services are really onto something. But they may perhaps have missed a vital point. The idea that an increasingly serviced based economy can (or should) provide for ever-increasing economic output doesn’t quite stack up.

On the other hand, we’ve made some clear progress here. The Cinderella economy really does offer a kind of blueprint for a different kind of society. New, ecological enterprises provide capabilities for us to flourish as human beings. They offer the means to a livelihood and to participation in the life of society. They provide security, a sense of belonging, the ability to share in a common endeavour and yet to pursue our potential as individual human beings. And at the same time they offer a decent chance of remaining within ecological scale. 

Whatever the future holds, one thing is clear: change is inevitable. There is no comfortable scenario in which we just carry on as before. Those who hope the growth economy will lead to a materialistic utopia are destined for disappointment. We simply don’t have the ecological capacity to fulfil this dream. By the end of the century, it will leave our children and grandchildren with a hostile climate, depleted resources, the loss of habitats, the decimation of species, massive food scarcity, large-scale migration and almost inevitably war. 

So our only real choice is to work for change. To transform the structures and institutions that shape the social world. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades. And to replace it with a more credible vision for a lasting prosperity.

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