A radical solution to the west’s damaging obsession with economic growth has depressing implications
With its cover illustration of a giant thumb raised approvingly over an image of the sun – and upbeat, call-to-arms title – Andrew Simms’s book seems to exude confidence in our ability to overcome extreme adversity. Perhaps best known as the author of Tescopoly, a withering attack on the supermarket chain, Simms believes long-cherished economic principles are to blame for impending environmental ruin and prescribes an overhaul of modern-day lifestyles to stave off cataclysm. But some of his recommendations are so radical that readers may finish this book feeling gloomier about the planet’s prospects than before.
Simms’s main thesis is that the relentless pursuit of economic growth – measured in terms of an increase in a country’s gross domestic product – is environmentally damaging and based on a shibboleth of mainstream, “neoliberal” economists. In a developed economy with a relatively stable population, such as Britain, growth no longer generates improvements in wellbeing and life expectancy, but continues to exert pressure on natural resources and fuels global warming. A few establishment figures have publicly expressed this opinion, including Adair Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, but for the vast majority such thinking seems pure heresy.
Simms attributes this largely to habit. The history of developed countries is one of economic growth, as living standards have risen and populations bloomed. The systems that have taken root are geared to ensure this growth continues in perpetuity, regardless of the cost. Having denounced the conventional wisdom, and explained the rationale behind it, Simms argues that societies can prosper in other, more sustainable ways. Encouraging people to behave more like “citizens” – a word that has been steadily falling out of use over the past century – and less like “consumers”, he goes on to address the related apocalyptic threats, from our addiction to flying to our dependence on fossil fuels.
This is a sprawling, ambitious book, chock-full of bold ideas about our capacity to lead greener and more fruitful lives. Where the author succeeds is in conveying the magnitude of the problems we face, making it hard to fault his judgment that society is in need of an urgent fix. Simms also has a laudable go at debunking the central tenet of free-market thinkers that human beings are instinctively selfish creatures, arguing this is neither consistent with the findings of scientific research nor to everyone’s ultimate advantage. For evidence of the latter, look to widening income inequality in Britain, set to hit Victorian levels by 2030 if the current trend continues.
Simms is on riskier footing when in manifesto mode, and may provoke a backlash from the mainstream economists he derides. In straightforward, traditional terms, the alternative to growth is stagnation or decline, and economies in these states are often bedevilled by social unrest and political instability. Simms calls for greater focus on the “quality” of economic activity, and a rekindling of community values, but readers may be unconvinced such nebulous measures represent a happy substitute. Similarly, in tackling the “productivity trap” – the drive for increased output with fewer workers that is usually offset through economic growth – he talks up health and education, where cutbacks rarely have the desired, gainful effect. Essential as these sectors are, any notion that economies can be more reliant on them may strike some as fanciful.
Nevertheless, crises demand dramatic remedies. Wartime rationing is used as an example of how society previously rose to what may have initially seemed an insurmountable challenge. Could a similar policy combat overconsumption today? Simms makes an often compelling case for its introduction, but that is unlikely to make it much more palatable.