These films explain better than I can why we need to change the way our economy works.
Green Economics is often referred to as Steady State Economics, but that phrase fails to express the essential concept of sufficiency, hence my preferred term: Neosufficiency – a deliberate antidote to Neoliberalism.
Dan O’Neill and Rob Dietz did express it very well in their book, Enough is Enough, in which they addressed resource use and waste, population, debt, wealth distribution, the money supply, the measurement of progress (what’s wrong with GDP = everything), working hours, and much more, most of which concurs with my own view – which is why I made a film about it.
Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth is also essential reading, as is Clive Lord’s Green Economics and The Citizen’s Income. I was slightly less impressed by Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, because while he does a good job explaining the problem, he talks of the future in terms of existing economic theory, not climate game-changes, and doesn’t seem fully to grasp the need for sufficiency.
At least, as the film shows, the Green Party do appear to get it. But sadly, before the 2015 UK election they fell into the trap of trying to hoover up disaffected socialists who’d been abandoned by New Labour, and this was a fundamental mistake.
I said on Facebook at the time: People can be forgiven for thinking that the green party are utopian socialists because they went all ‘watermelon’ (green on the outside, red all through) at the election. But actually green socialism is not at all utopian – that’s the Marxists, and others who approach social construction from an equality perspective, (lovely though this would be if it was in our gift to deliver it – which, as we saw in Mind the Mind, it is unfortunately not)
Whatever the genetic / deliberate drivers may be in the left / right / selfish / altruistic / bonobo / chimp behaviour melange, we do know one thing: You need a BiG majority of people to sign up to any kind of rights-based utopia for it to work.
And they have to stay signed up – not undermine it with black economics, corruption or tyranny – which is what has aways eventually happened in every experiment to date – the reason being, of course, that too few humans are currently bonobo-activated.
So though I doubt there’s a person on the planet who would not like to see a fully-functioning utopian socialist society in theory, there are far too many people who’d never trust their neighbours (or themselves for that matter) for it to be a bankable option – especially in the short time we have in which to manage a transition – which is why so few vote that way.
(This is all, of course, notwithstanding my support in The Urbal Fix for Victorian Utopian Socialism – during a time when utopianism really did have strong popular traction. If it was ever going to work it would have done so back then – as it almost did).
We’ve had lots of experiments in utopian socialism around the world, even a pretty good bash here in the UK – with the Welfare State and Keynsean economics on the back of the bonobo imperatives of WWII – but even this soft socialism could not survive the negative forces of globalisation, the resurgence of the right, and the plain shortsightedness (/selfishness?) of the left.
No, Green Socialism is not Red Socialism. It does in fact arrive at near-equality (or fairness, anyway), but not through any utopian egalitarian approach. It is not ideological, it is logical – rooted in ecological science, which tells us how animals exploit the niches they inhabit, and what happens when that niche changes, or begins to prove a limit to its inhabitants.
Fight or Flight – or Allright Mate?
Disputes between animals, and we are no exception, trigger three reactions, Fight, Flight or ‘Allright Mate’. (People often forget the negotiation option).
Sadly, some Fighting in this case seems inevitable, but I would hope that all my readers would prefer one of the other two to a global conflagration. Flight is out of the question – Kepler 2.0 anyone? So that leaves ‘Allright Mate’.
We will need to negotiate, first to conserve the one planet we do have, but second to accommodate a still-growing population.
Population and Global South Development
This is not as impossible as it sounds. Zero population growth is achievable, even inevitable, some say. Education, the emancipation of women and reductions in child mortality are already reducing the birth rate rapidly – in the global North, the rates are almost vertical.
Yes, I had kids – two actually.
Population is, of course, the elephant in the room. Paul Chafurka is very pessimistic in that link, and he may well be right. The UN suggests that human population (currently 6.9bn) will stabilise at 11-12 billion – but can the world support that many?
Well, modern estimates for human carrying capacity have ranged from 1 or 2 billion people living in prosperity (as targeted by Paul), to 33 billion people fed on minimum rations and using all suitable land for high-intensity food production. A recent report suggests we will be able to feed 9bn by 2050, while other scientists now believe that the carrying capacity of a world with a low-consumption, steady-state global economy may be about 12 billion. (The major challenge then will be demographic, but only while the senior generation survives).
In any event, the key is for population to stabilise – which it can only do if people stop producing large numbers of children (and living for longer too). Luckily, the evidence is that once people are confident that they’ll be secure in retirement, and that their children are likely to outlive them, they settle for 2 or 3 kids – providing, that is, that they have access to birth control and the freedom to use it (this, of course, requires the emancipation of women, and an absence of controlling dogma).
So quite apart form the fact that the Global North has largely caused this problem, and has a moral responsibility to even up the score, it is essential that the Global South is allowed to continue to develop largely along conventional democratic lines for the time being (as Lord Giddens says in The Urbal Fix).
This is scary at first glance because consumption (and therefore emissions) in India, China and Brazil seem to rising exponentially, but when calculated per capita, compared with Europe and North America their footprints remain negligible, and will continue to be so until they finally approach western figures.
So what IS needed is a globally agreed contraction and convergence policy, to bring the South up (and the North down) to a permanently sustainable level – and this is what the UN and others are now working towards. There’s a video clip on this topic here.
Some Pigs Are More Equal Than Others
So. We need a non-destructive global system for, eventually, a stable population, and this demands a zero or very low growth economy – which in turn calls for a much more equal society.
Wait – that was a big jump, you say – specially after you just shafted socialism.
Or was it?
No, because, as Dan O’Neill quoted in Enough is Enough, “Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth, there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable” (Henry Wallach – Federal Reserve).
Ergo, if we prohibit growth, then large income levels will become intolerable. And mayhem will ensue – not just within our own borders (that would be bad enough), but on a global scale.
Like the chimpanzee – in fact all animals (the difference merely lies in how big a group we are selfish for) – we are born both ambitious and competitive. We simply can’t help trying to get one over on our rivals, not least because wealth and territory in excess of sufficiency are status markers essential for successful breeding – another thing we’re programmed to do.
So consumption is an evolutionary compulsion. And if we can’t progress by one means or another we either get nasty, (conventional crime for the poor, corporate crime and corruption for the rich), or we just give up, and become an additional drain on the commons / resources of the community.
So we have to find ways to permit personal progress, which means that green equality cannot be flat (as Natalie Bennett accepts in the film).
But how to deliver this when there is no more new territory to colonise, and we can’t let our progress be at the expense of others?
Two things: The first is to offer ways to out-perform your rival without damaging the village green, and the second is to find a way to facilitate ‘planetary altruism,’ (rather than traditional family or tribal altruism).
Does that demand a Marxist solution? Definitely not.
Marx did a brilliant job pointing out the flaws of Classical Capitalism in Das Kapital, but he offered very little of value as an alternative. His egalitarian, equality, rights-based utopia was instantly corrupted by the majority selfish gene gang, and always would have been.
Even the much more benign and British Welfare State was gradually eroded – so a flat, traditionally socialist society is not an option.
A triangular power structure based on fear worked for early hominids and tribes, and though we certainly don’t want that, we have never lost our obsession with leaders (hence tyrants, religion and, heaven help us, their inevitable corollery; ‘celebrities’) as this, also, seems to be genetically programmed into us.
Actually, it would seem that a need for leadership is as ingrained as (or even buried within?) our personal / social paradigm. I’m constantly amazed by the way people will flock to anyone who shows even dim glimmer of charisma. And if you appear to be offering a vision for the future with some tasty cod philosophy, or mumbo jumbo chutney, they’ll soon be carrying you aloft in shouty circles (I’ve even been there too, in my own humble-mumble way).
As Morris said in the Naked Ape, we do remain a tribal / social animal. Perhaps this is why so many people still seem to prefer some kind of pyramidal system (so mainly vote to the right) – they need to have leaders, who they will generally trust to make them better off. By securing new territory and resources on their behalf.
But globalisation (and more recently the internet) have put paid to the respect required for that trust.
So there needs to be a pyramid, but a low one. And people need to feel that they can move up the flanks, without that growth causing problems for the environment.
Can it be done? Yes. Because green philosophy sets social and personal development (learning, creativity, skills, cohesion, wellbeing) above economic growth (though it does allow some differential of wealth, because our animal natures demand it – but only within reasonable limits).
Achieving this ‘sustainable equality’ will, as we’ve seen, require majority agreement (as equality always did and will do) – which can only be reached through a universal understanding of a common threat (as in the UK in 1939).
It is time to stop aping the chimps, and learn to live like bonobos – which, if EO Wilson’s Group Selection theory really is the dominant trait, may not be as hard as we fear.
Consumerism, Markets and Other Runaway Trains
I explored relationship between the economy, society and the environment in The Urbal Fix, and the conclusion was clear – the economy must be subservient to society, and society must be subservient to the biosphere. And that calls for neosufficient thinking.
Mickey Mouse Economics
The Three Legged Stool Economics
But neosufficient thinking demands the reigning-in not only of the consumer/casino capitalist model, but also of our own selfish impulses – many of which are hard wired for reasons outlined earlier.
So if we try to impose a command system which fixes the consumption problem, how to permit sufficient self-serving to prevent civil unrest, and possible resort to arms? How to remain competitive; encouraging innovation, entrepreneurialism and self-advancement – without damaging the biosphere?
This is always going to present a challenge, and no doubt there will always be territorial wars, but we can at least try to manage our commons effectively.
The term ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (see Mind the Mind) was actually coined from Lloyd’s work by Garrett Hardin, who later tried to adapt the term to ‘Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons.’
And regulation remains the key today: Regulation to internalise the ‘externalities’ which are currently damaging our commons.
An externality is defined as an inevitable cost which is not reflected in a commercial transaction. It’s also called a market failure.
Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘you can’t buck the market’, and she was right. Command economics, especially the nationalisation of anything apart from a few complex systems (such as the rail network) which need to be run as a single entity, but are too important to be handed over to a single private owner, only results in stultification – as we found in the 1970s.
The market has proved itself to be the only reliable way to drive an economy – otherwise we are back to Marx and the corruption and stagnification that red socialism caused. (And we do need to drive the economy. Slowly).
But you can skew a market by failing properly to regulate, and thus externalising important the costs. And in deregulating so many markets, Thatcher and her neoliberal followers created externalities on a scale never before seen. Which are now about to cook us all.
At the moment, when we buy a product or a service we do not pay a true price for it. We pay what the producer, wholesalers and retailer feel they can persuade us to pay (including whatever margin they feel they deserve). But we almost never pay what at good is really worth – in terms of the transaction with society and the biosphere as a whole.
This is because we’re not paying for many of the social and environmental costs that were involved in the creation of that product, and they’re not paying for problems associated with its use or disposal either. But even more seriously, we are very seldom paying a realistic price for the raw materials we use.
The assumption has always been that the earth is huge and there’s always plenty more. So the price is set by a market which effectively assumes an infinite supply. But there’s not an infinite supply of anything on Earth (except sunlight). So the price should frequently be far far higher. After all, how much will the last ever bucket of coal in the world be worth? Or the last ever cup of fresh water?
A recent United Nations report found that almost no industry would be profitable today if all market failures were internalised. But as these failures must be mended if we are to survive, we need to find some way to internalise all relevant costs – a way will permit a rapid evolution from damage and waste to permanently sustainable business models.
The world at large still largely thinks that the economy is paramount, and financial growth, which is supposed to deliver some semblance of wealth to all by trickle-down effect (but which in fact only benefits a few) is the only way out of the current crisis.
But that belief must dwindle as the intractability of the situation becomes more clear, and as we saw in Enough is Enough, the negative effects of measuring progress though only GDP (which counts wars, famines and diseases as beneficial because they appear to boost the economy) is compounding the problem.
Many activists still believe that society should be considered equal to the environment, saying ‘if we fix the ills of society, then the environment will be healed.’ But although we are slowly making progress towards social justice, human rights, gender equality, free speech, the eradication of poverty and so on – and these things must remain a priority whatever steps we do take – we need urgently to recognise that these issues are also intractable (note how little real progress has been made around the world in the last two centuries) and are not likely to be fixed, globally, within the next thirty years – and even this may be more time than we actually have.
If we try to fix the environment by fixing society we could be in real trouble. Because the environment – (and that doesn’t mean bird-watching and nice country walks – it means food, which requires healthy soil and pollinators, and water and air and many other things that nature provides for us that we take for granted, and which are seldom internalised in financial transactions) – is in trouble.
Those things we take for granted are called Ecosystem Services, and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005, identified the following ones.
At the moment it is mainly only the cultural services which are partially internalised in our system, and although recognised, the others are not given economic values which protect them against detrimental exploitation or co-lateral damage.
The United Nations established the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecological Services in October 2011. The IPBES works alongside the IPCC (Climate Change), but we seldom here much from them.
I wonder why – because without the ecological services the environment provides, there will be no society and no economy to fix. As Jonathan Porrit says in the film “It doesn’t mean to say there won’t be lots of human beings left over after a 6 degrees centigrade rise, but I assure you they won’t be having much of a time.”
And we might add that the social breakdown implied in that ‘not much of a time’ is likely to make fixing social problems even more difficult, (specially if the men with the guns take over). So we need to fix the environment first – and quickly, and if we are smart, we may even manage to fix some of the major social problems in the process.
But how exactly do we move away from ‘mickey mouse’ and the faux-balanced ‘stool’ to hit a ‘target’ economic system which puts a proper value on these services?
Well, one way would be to establish a Marxist-inspired control economy (as was employed in the USSR), but this is almost certain to result, as it usually does, in a stagnent rather than a steady state economy.
The only other available method at our disposal (unless someone knows something I don’t) is market force.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a free market system, as long as prices accurately reflect the real and total costs (which they currently don’t – and worse; the profits always go to those at the top of the economic food chain, supermarket shareholders, for example, instead of the farmer trying to invest in greener growing).
I can think of only two ways to embrace market forces but manage to avoid the two chief areas of externality – damage to the environment, and damage to the poor and dispossessed.
Damage Taxes and the Citizens Income
I have set out some proposals on how Damage Taxes could be introduced strategically, via the introduction of Tim Lang’s Omnistandards food labelling idea, in Thought for Food.
But controlling consumption is only half of the story – the poor and disenfranchised also need to be protected against damage. The current system – where some languish on benefits that the community can ill afford, some work stupid hours yet still need to be supported by the state, while others work stupid hours for good money but have no time to spend it wisely, and a final group amass ridiculous wealth and capacity to inflict damage – cannot be healthy.
In theory, this protection could be internalised into a damage tax regime, but I suspect it would not be sufficiently robust. I think a better solution would be the introduction of the Citizen’s Income.