West needs to stop using scarce resources or we’ll pay a heavy price

I COULDN’T believe my eyes but it was all over the papers. The G8 wants growth.

The leaders committed themselves in that burst bubble which is the Lough Erne Resort to “exploiting all sources of growth” including “supporting demand.”

No more tax hikes, no more spending cuts, say the G8. Let’s make our people want more things. When we can’t have more things. Because we have enough already. The developed nations of the rich North — and the G8 represents eight of the most developed — can’t have any more growth because they already are rich enough. They have taken more than enough of the world’s goodies and they can’t have any more without blowing us all to eternity.

This year we passed the threshold of 400 parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The last time we were here was about three million years ago when the temperature was between five and seven degrees hotter and the sea was many feet higher.

A two degree rise in temperature is considered the most with which this planet can cope. We are headed several degrees north of that, and the concentration of carbon is still rising. Even if you leave out the impact of carbon emissions, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to grasp that there is only one planet and it has limited resources. We can’t continue to grow our economies for ever and ever because the resources will run out.

We in the rich West need to consume less so that the rest of the world can get a life. That should be obvious to anyone.

Except traditional economists and traditional politicians. No, they say. The problem is that we don’t have enough growth. If we grow enough we will invest more in the poorer parts of the world and buy more from them too.

That was the attitude the great US economist Herman Daly found in the World Bank when he worked there. He sums up in his classic Beyond Growth (1996): “While the World Bank’s report acknowledged a few conflicts between growth and environment here and there, the world was seen to be full of “win-win” opportunities for both increasing growth as usual and improving the environment.. Problems reside mainly in the South, solutions are to be found mainly in the North. This formulation is politically convenient since the Bank is creditor to the South and debtor to the North.”

Herman Daly’s thinking is known as “Steady State” economics. It requires us to live within the limits of the planet’s resources. That means rich countries need to stop looking for economic growth as a solution to their problems and instead work out better ways of living with what they have.

If the G8 want their own poor to be better off they have to spread the money around better. If they want their resources to last longer they have to waste less.

It’s not all miserable thrift, however, because in a state which was no obsessed with economic growth we could concentrate on growing happiness. There are no limits to the amount we can invest in education, the arts, sport, new models for community, new ways of enjoying and protecting the environment...

Back in 1996 Daly was warning that trying to replicate our Western way of life all over the world would destroy us all. What would happen if 1.2 billion Chinese all had cars, washing machines, fridges and ate meat he asked? A couple of days ago I read newspaper reports that the China’s premier is planning to cut China’s rural population of 642m people in half by pushing farmers into cities because “Urbanisation has the greatest potential for boosting domestic demand.” This policy was predicted to maintain the growth rate at about eight percent for the next 20 years.

I believe the Chinese government’s policy is motivated by fear that slow growth rates will lead to popular unrest. Although they have a one party state, that state is still hugely vulnerable to public opinion.

In the democratic West, the determination to pretend, at political level, that there is a planet for everyone in the audience, is even worse. There seems to be absolutely no awareness of the planet’s limits at G8 or G20 level and if there is, it is well hidden.

Surely we will be out of office before the climate catastrophe kicks off officially? Let’s hope the opposition gets it in the face!

Politics is failing us catastrophically and shamefully all over the world. Discussion of climate change is kicked off to the UN Climate Talks, who have their next fixture in France in 2015. A flying visit by world leaders is usually the most the UN can hope for.

This is because most of them owe their livelihoods to delivering growth. Even those of them, like Obama and bike-riding Cameron, who sang an environmental tune during their campaigns. But though we do love to bash politicians, the truth is that it is not all their fault. We constantly demand growth. We never ask if we might have enough already, if there might be better ways of distributing it so that good health care and education and housing and decent meals were available to everyone. Even the protesters at the Lough Erne summit failed to grasp the growth nettle.

THE IF campaign against world hunger, which claims the lives of three million children annually, did not argue with the G8 growth model. It was looking for a large wealth transfer from the North to the South to tackle that hunger, some of which is caused by climate change, but the transfer is predicated on growth in the G8.

Well, IF supporters like Concern, Actionaid, Christian Aid and Oxfam Ireland are realists and they are looking at alleviating poverty right now. We should not be relying on them to put the house of western capitalism in order.

Western politicians should do that themselves. G8 and G20 summits should be about Steady State economics and mention of “growth” in those over-grown states should be considered immoral.

But while we wait, as Herman Daly says, individual states should show leadership. This State, for instance, which has produced a bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions which has no targets for reductions. The Government says the attorney general advised against targets, although the last attorney general passed a very similar bill produced by the last government.

Is the Government hiding behind the attorney general because any brake on our growth would be politically sensitive?

No? Well, today’s the day to speak out, then. Today the representatives from the departments of Agriculture, Tourism and Sport and Communications, Energy and Natural Resources are before the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change in Dáil Eireann. If our ministers cannot address the committee themselves they must brief their staff to speak — in an expression from Dublin’s just-finished Climate Gathering — like people who want to stay on this planet.

And we must listen. Because right now this world needs two things: politicians who will say that the rich West can’t grow any more and people who will vote for them.

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