While most people intuitively understand that infinite economic growth is impossible on a finite planet, politicians and business are either in denial or simply don’t care. Despite the fact that endless economic growth is unsustainable, and is causing massive environmental damage, it is at the core of how our economy is organised.
While ecological economists have been pointing out that infinite growth is impossible for over 30 years, the ‘mainstream’ economists are apparently unable to engage with this simple fact. Evidence that this is the case is mounting, but instead of doing something about it, over the last 30 years politicians have run our economy according to the diktats of ‘free market’ fundamentalists.
Part of the reason economic growth is considered to be so politically necessary, is that it covers up the gross inequalities in our society. In essence, economic growth means that people with money can invest it and get more money in return. While a few rich and powerful individuals get even more rich and powerful, the rest of us have to be content with the promise that some of the wealth will trickle down to us.
While some do benefit, this trickle down effect is non-existent for many people, and for about half the population real wages have stagnated, or even decreased over the last 30 years. Over the same time period we have witnessed cuts in welfare and pensions, and the collapse of job security, all supposedly for the sake of economic growth. We are running harder and harder just to stay still.
What economic growth actually entails is an increase in the rate at which our society consumes resources, channels them through processes of manufacture and distribution, consumes and then disposes of them. Most environmental and social costs are not borne by the companies that profit from the damaging activity, but by wider society – often decades later. This means that rapacious consumption and wastefulness is good for economic growth, but consuming less and taking difficult steps to avoid environmental damage is not.
Mainstream politics is so obsessed with the fiction that markets are the only way to organise society, that the only answer they have to the growing environmental problems caused by economic growth is to address them through creating new markets. So we have carbon trading and daft ideas about privatising rainforests. These were pretty stupid ideas a few years ago, before the financial crisis, but now it’s pretty obvious to everyone that markets don’t actually rationally calculate risks, or effectively weigh up important social priorities. They are just a bunch of (mostly) men with an overblown sense self-importance, acting mainly from a heard mentality. Surely the only reason that anyone still supports solutions like this is that they stand to gain from it, or they are so wedded to this discredited mode of thinking that there is no going back.
Climate change is the starkest example of our economic system coming into conflict with an ecological limit (in fact, there are two limits at play here because our ecosystem is unable to safely absorb the quantity of waste gasses that our economy produces, and we will also face fossil fuel shortages in the coming decades). Even mainstream economists, such as Nicholas Stern recognise that climate change will cause massive ecological and economic damage if it is not tackled, which will far outweigh the ‘benefits’ of carbon intensive growth.
Contrary to the false choice popularly supposed, we do not face a choice between economic growth and tackling climate change. The actual choice we face is between taking some difficult measures to tackle climate change now, or suffering ecological and economic collapse later. What is quite clear is that, under our current economic model, those who are least well off will suffer the most in both cases. Globally the situation is even more unjust – those in the global South, who have benefited the least from current world economy, are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
This situation cannot be allowed to continue. Climate change is a social justice issue. We need to tackle inequality at the same time as tackling climate change, and fast, and to adopt an economic model that is not built around a fantasy of endless growth.
Aviation is the fasted growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, but unlike most other polluting sectors of the economy, the airline industry does not even pay lip-service to the need to reduce overall emissions. Instead they deflect the question with spurious claims of emissions savings, and are planning massive expansion of the sector. By 2050, according to current government policy, aviation emissions will take up the UK’s entire carbon budget.
At Manchester the expansion of the airport is being justified because it will supposedly bring economic growth to the area. Once the World Freight Terminal is built, the Airport owns a more land to the south and has plans to expand into that too. What is actually being chosen is a small short-term economic gain for a few people at the expense of much greater long-term environmental and economic damage for a much larger group. The policy of expansion, growth for the sake of growth, is just self-destructive short-terminsm and must be stopped.