Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Conference on Zero Growth Economics

On Saturday (26 September) we held the conference at Friends House: ‘A zero growth economy – what would it mean for us all?’ On a lovely sunny autumn day, over 300 Friends and others sat in the Large Meeting House to hear our four speakers, with the whole day chaired by Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

The first participants arrive – doors opened at 9am for
a 10.30am start, and some Friends were there on the dot!

Opening the day were Miriam Kennet and Naomi Baster from the Green Economics Institute. They gave us an introduction to some of the technical aspects of ‘zero growth’ that doesn’t just mean a recession. An interesting distinction was between ‘growth’ (more of the same kind of stuff) and ‘development without growth’ (the same amount of better stuff). The latter takes seriously the limits of natural resources and the carrying capacity of the planet – these are not new ideas: see John Stuart Mill, Malthus and David Ricardo.

There will need to be a transition (substitution of activities) to a new economy characterised by new activities, work shared out fairly, less inequality and poverty, less impact on climate change. The economy must return to being labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive, taxation systems need to tax the ‘bads’ (pollution, greenhouse gases) not the ‘goods’; and the purpose of the economy is to provision for need – inclusive of the needs of poor people, the biosphere, other species.

Left to right:
Richard Douthwaite, Miriam Kennet, Naomi Baster,
Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The next speaker was Richard Douthwaite of FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economic of Sustainability). His title was ‘The Stark Choice is not growth or no growth: it’s share or die’. He gave us a hard-hitting and passionate presentation:
- honesty about energy and climate change is not comforting
- a gentle move from growth to zero growth is no longer available
- we have to move now from growth to negative growth

The choices we have are to manage this change, starting immediately, to protect the vulnerable; or we have chaotic change and the weak go to the wall.

Miriam Kennet and Naomi Baster speaking
in the Large Meeting House

Richard thinks that Peak Oil has already happened – he puts it in July 2008 – oil production is now in slow steady decline, of about 3.5% per annum (although Frederik Robelius, of Uppsala Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group measuring actuals rather than forecasts, suggests the figure is 7%).

With our conference falling just after the conclusion of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, all the newspapers we were reading on the train to London were full of their deliberations. Richard pointed out that they had totally failed to make the link between the credit crunch and the energy crunch. This is the link into climate change, because world leaders know only growth systems and are not being honest with themselves or us. The Stern Report was working on 450ppm of CO2, but James Hansen put the limit at 350ppm, and pointed out that sea ice started melting in the 1970s. We are already at 390ppm, are seeing rapid ice loss, and we need to be taking CO2 out of the atmosphere – not merely reducing the rate at which we put it in.

Without fossil fuel energy (one litre of petrol equates roughly to three weeks of one person’s manual labour) our incomes will fall rapidly, and global energy use distribution is currently in the familiar 20/0 ratio: 20% of the people use 80% of the energy. Richard strongly advocates the cap and share version of our future: it assumes each individual on the planet has the same rights to energy – within a country as well as between countries. The decline on fossil fuels will push up the price of everything, including those goods essential to the world’s poor – hence the need for a system which compensates for this.

After these two challenging presentations we broke for lunch, grateful that it was a fine day.

Friends relaxing in the garden over picnic lunches

Leaving the courtyard to start the afternoon session

Our first afternoon speaker was Duncan Green, Head of Research at Oxfam addressing ‘Should growth be rationed?’. For poor countries, growth is essential to lift people out of absolute poverty – but there is ‘good growth’ and ‘bad growth’ – ‘good growth’ is both equitable and environmentally sustainable. There are three scenarios:
  • get much cleaner very quickly (with the kind of rapid shift we normally only see in a war economy)
  • geo-engineering (but beware unintended consequences)
  • limits to growth

The first of these is happening, but not nearly fast enough; you can’t talk to politicians about the third one – they all want the first one. The second is potentially dangerous. We also know that, above about $20K per year, increased income doesn’t equate to increased happiness. So how do we get growth for poor countries but not for the rich?

We could ration growth by price (a very heavy tax on carbon) – but without a redistribution mechanism this could lead to ‘carbon apartheid’. We could negotiate a binding international agreement – but this is not politically realistic.

We need to address the ‘three I’s’:

  • Ideas (eg: the idea that ‘growth is good’ – we need challenges to this and we need other measures of well-being)
  • Interests (eg: find allies – the insurance industry is very concerned about the way things are going, and does not see its own interests threatened by such measures)
  • Institutions – we have a conservative economics profession advising politicians – so we need alternatives

Duncan Green (centre) with Anne Wilkinson of QPSW (left) and Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Can it be done? Historically, changes of this magnitude only follow from a very large shock to the system – and it seems that the recent financial crash wasn’t a big enough shock. The gap between what the G20 has accomplished, and what is needed at Copenhagen, is enormous.

Our final speaker of the day was Alastair MacIntosh. He asked us: ‘How do we convert a ‘burden of awareness’ in to a ‘precious burden of awareness’? He was clear that for people of spiritual or religious conviction, it was not our place to try to play the politicians and economists at their own game – we are required, rather, to exercise a deep ‘holding’ of the issues, to exercise discernment, no matter how painful. What light might we be able to throw, from that place, on the human condition? Consumerism, beyond necessities, is about status, filling gaps in our souls, and so on – to the extent that we are not well-anchored in God, to that extent we are prey to consumerism – and we are all complicit.

I cannot possible summarise Alastair’s presentation here on the page! All the PowerPoint presentations, and podcasts of all the talks will be available shortly at:

And Alastair's own account of his contribution appeard in 'Face to Faith' in The Guardian on 4 October.

Left to right: Richard Douthwaite, Alastair McIntosh, Jocelyn Bell Burnell

After each talk, participants had been invited to write their questions on cards provided – these were sorted and categorised during the stretch breaks and lunch interval, so that representative questions could be put to individual speakers, or to the whole panel, at the end of the day.

Suzanne Ismail (left) and Sunniva Taylor (of QPSW) sorting questions during the lunch break

I hope the questions/answers will be added to the podcasts. A few of the points were:

  • We heard about the German economist Ignacy Sachs who distinguished between frugality and destitution – we need to move towards a society of ‘rich frugality’ – this is, of course, entirely consonant with our Quaker testimony to simplicity, as Alastair pointed out.
  • We were reminded of Tim Jackson’s report Prosperity without Growth
  • We need to de-link consumption from self-esteem; hair-shirt-ism doesn’t work, said Duncan!

Right at the end we were asked to consider what artists and other creative people might have to offer us in this predicament.

Alastair had wondered if we were called to be ‘hospice workers’ to humanity, to the planet – to facilitate a dying process; as she closed the proceedings, Jocelyn wondered if we were, rather, called to be midwives to the birth of something entirely new.

And of course, here in the West, we live with a religious tradition that tell us that death and birth are deeply connected. As T S Eliot put it, in The Journey of the Magi (1927):

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation

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