By me, on @RSAMatthew and whether stagnation means we can challenge #growth narrative

One of the things that has surprised me about advocates of ecological footprinting (on which basis we have been ‘eating into capital rather than living off the interest’ of the biosphere since the 1980s) and of capitals metrics (where we measure wealth by adding up social, environmental, human, physical and financial capital, and then watch the trends) is that they have not in the past used the narrative that we have been in recession for a long time.

The evidence has been there to make the case for donkey’s years.

So, while I agree that there is an opportunity here, because the economic situation is so high profile and affecting most people personally, the big question is ‘where is the leadership going to come from to make these ideas mainstream?’. There’s even a populist case to be made that we’ve been tricked by always hearing about mean, rather than median, income: the top X% have been getting wealthier at the expense of the rest of us. You don’t even need to reference capitals models or wellbeing metrics to make this case. But even this sort of argument seems beyond those in the political mainstream.

Remember when you were given an injection at school? You were told to look away and then, before you had time to panic, the nurse was telling you it was all over. Maybe the best way to get people to accept something daunting is to tell them it’s happened already.

June 28, 2011 by Matthew Taylor

This thought occurred to me following a conversation yesterday and reading an article today. The conversation was with Jonathan Porritt, the Founder Director of Forum for the Future and perhaps our most influential and distinguished environmentalist (by the way I am very impressed by the ambition and rigor of Forum’s new strategy, based as it is on fundamental system reform).

As our conversation ranged far and wide,we agreed that in these times of economic difficulty and public spending austerity, the suggestion we should question traditional ideas of economic growth seems to most people at best irrelevant and at worst barmy.  We didn’t pursue the issue much further but the implication was that it is only when growth feels reasonably secure that we can begin again to ask ‘but what kind of growth?’

Then, this morning, I read a powerful article in the Financial Times headlined ‘spectre of stagnating incomes stalks globe’. Here is a quote from the piece:

‘Median male real US earnings have not risen since 1975. Average real Japanese household income after taxation fell in the decade to mid-2000. And those in German have been falling for 10 years’.

We know from research commissioned by the TUC and the excellent work of the Resolution Foundation that the same is broadly true for the UK. The future looks no better (indeed it looks much worse in the short term for many countries including the UK). The impact is not just on those in the ‘squeezed middle’ but, arguably, on the whole liberal market model.

A second FT article on the same topic concluded thus:

‘Dick Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is more categorical ‘this is a consumer society and they’re the consumers…if they don’t buy, we don’t survive’

It is important to understand that what we are seeing is not the result of a downward blip but the collapse of the device – excessive household and national borrowing – which disguised the reality for the decade up to 2007. This is a profound crisis of global capitalism in the developed world.

But if you put the FT piece together with the Porritt conversation a surprising possibility emerges. Instead of talking about abandoning traditional growth as some kind of outlandish and unrealistic green vision, how about recognising that for most earners in the West no growth (in their living standards) has been the reality for over a generation.

In other words, the question is not how do we create a different model of growth but how do we adapt to the long drawn out end of the traditional model of growth? Or, to put it another way, how can the quality of our lives and our society improve even if for the majority of citizens disposable incomes (including the social wage of public investment) are not?



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