Weaning ourselves off the fetish of growth

A cynic, according to Oscar Wilde, is a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He could have easily been talking about economists. It’s hard to open a newspaper or turn on the radio these days without some economist or other telling us exactly what needs to be done to get ‘the economy moving’ or to achieve ‘more growth’.

And what, you might ask, is wrong with that? For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the solution to all Ireland’s ills lay in ‘growth’. As the last decade has shown, explosive growth brings damage and disruption as well as undoubted economic benefits to many.

Economists have been among the most influential and high-profile cheerleaders of our boom, and as it now turns sour, the same economists are back on the airwaves with their revised prescriptions for survival or success in the post-Tiger phase of our economic development.

The US is of course the world’s largest economy; it has also been among the major offenders in foot-dragging on global warming and climate change. The Bush administration is dominated by energy industry interests. This is bad news for the environment and global efforts to tackle the growing crisis.

However, in recent weeks, something quite unprecedented has happened. Hundreds of the US’s most eminent scientists and economists have come together to issue a first-ever joint statement calling on policymakers to implement without delay major reductions in the man-made emissions that are driving global warming.

“Failure to act now is the most risky and most expensive thing we could do,” according to James McCarthy, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The timing of this historic statement is important. It has been issued ahead of the commencement of a debate in the US Senate on what is known as the Warner-Lieberman climate bill. US scientists and economists have never before joined forces to make an appeal of this kind. It gives an indication of the profound gravity of the situation.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is a serious body, comprising no fewer than six Nobel Prize winners in science or economics, 31 National Academy of Science members, and over 100 authors of the 2007 IPCC climate report (who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore).

“There is a strong consensus that we must do something about reducing the emissions that cause global warming. The debate right now is about how much we need to cut”, warned McCarthy, of Harvard University, who was also a senior figure in producing the influential IPCC reports on climate change.

“Economists now join climate scientists in a unified call for action to address the causes of climate change” added McCarthy.

The joint statement calls on the US to cut global warming pollution “on the order of 80% below 2000 levels by 2050”. This is an extraordinary goal for an economy and a society so completely wedded to its high-energy, high-consumption lifestyle.

The first step on the road to this mid-century target is to achieve cuts of 15–20% below 2000 levels within the next 12 years. The US has been by far the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases; now it’s payback time; the country is now being urged to use its leadership position to set a powerful example and encourage all other countries to rally together to meet this profoundly serious challenge.

“The fact that so many scientists and economists have spoken out and signed this letter should give policymakers the confidence that we can avert serious adverse climate impacts”, McCarthy said.

Up until now, while the scientific community has been issuing increasingly dire warnings about the dangers of continuing to heat the planet, these have in many countries been simply brushed aside. Big businesses have a strong vested interest in business-as-usual, and exert power through advertising as well as political lobbying.

Many governments too seem unable to move, perhaps fearing their electorates would punish them at the ballot box if they are seen to do anything that in any way dents people’s “right” to higher income and more and more consumption.

Right now, the irresistible force of global consumerism is on a collision course with the immovable object of a finite world. This is a world that has been severely damaged by deforestation, pollution, species mass extinctions, desertification, overuse of water and rising temperatures.

What’s more, human pressures are increasing all the time. Just one hundred years ago, there were around 1.7 billion people on the planet. Today, there are another 5 billion mouths to feed. Every year, the equivalent of Germany is added to world population. By 2030, barring calamities, there are likely to be nearly 9 billion people on Earth.

There is a widespread view in Ireland that climate change is something that happens somewhere else, and affects other people. “While the poor and the impoverished will suffer the most, the potential for catastrophic climate change that can adversely affect the habitability of the entire planet is quite real”, said professor Jagadish Shukla, one of the document’s signatories.

Take a moment to read into the careful scientific phrasing in his statement; it’s a clear warning that what’s on the line here is life on Earth, including all human life.

Tackling this crisis while we still can is also good economics. “Preventing dangerous climate change is a great investment. It will cost between 1–2% of GDP, and the benefits will be between 10–20%. That’s a return of 10 to 1 – attractive even to a venture capitalist”, said co-author Geoff Heal, an economist at Columbia University.

For the last 50 years, economists have been the Pied Pipers cheerfully leading us towards environmental collapse; it is good news indeed to hear them finally change their tune. If we are to have a future on this small planet, it can only be achieved by abandoning the fetish of consumption in favour of a radical new creed of conservation.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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3 Responses to Weaning ourselves off the fetish of growth

  1. Pidge says:

    To be honest, it’s a bit simplistic to refer to “economists” as a single group. Even within individual universities, economists have wildly differing views on the causes, effects, definitions and methods of measuring economic growth.

    Even within the group of economists who recognise the problem with endless group, there are divisions. For example, there are ecological economists placing a value of infinity upon the environment, with environmental economists attaching a market value to specific environmental resources. Even within those subsets, there are differing strata.

    To argue that “the economists” have all messed up, and have all suddenly jumped on board isn’t a good way to examine the issue at all, since there is no single “economist” viewpoint.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Pidge, I take your point about economists not all necessarily singing the same tune at all times. It just so happens that the kind of economic ‘thought’ that is in the ascendancy in the western world – and as articulated yet again on the Marian Finucane show on RTE radio earlier to day – is the ‘growth-at-all-costs’ variety.

    Doubtless there are other voices out there, but they ain’t getting themselves across, probably because all involved – public, media, politicians and economists – are so wedded to this mindset that they actually think of it as ‘reality’, and anything else as quirky or heretical. The example I singled out in this case is picked out precisely because it’s so unusual.

    Economists have useful skills, as do architects, engineers, physicists and a host of other professionals, yet they seem to have been transmuted into some higher role in society, a role I contend they are ill equipped to deliver on, and that is being the guiding hand in shaping how our society organises itself, what has value, what does not.

    These are political, philosophical, even metaphysical issues and should be dealt with by groups with appropriate expertise. These are far too important to be left solely in the hands of economists.

  3. Wexford gal says:

    Thought I was the only one that found economists to be a bunch of self important, preachy gits that are never off the radio. My favourite variant are the ones that work for auctioneers that are wheeled out in the media to tell us that this is “a great time to get into the market”.

    I’m waiting for the day one of these guys says: “The market is shot to pieces, cash out now, while you still can!” Then, and only then, will I take the blindest bit of notice of the bullshit they pedal for a living. The lot that work for banks and stockbrokers are about as useful, wheeling out whatever line their corporate bosses are flogging today.

    How they get so much airtime, now theres a six-marker! Guess its just the bone-lazy media wheeling in the usual dial-a-comment “experts”?

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