Communicating about degrowth, with Mark Burton of Steady-state Manchester
This is the third interview we’ve done about the quest for perpetual economic growth, and the damage it causes.
(Here are the other two: with Brian Czech of the Centre for a Steady-state Society, and with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and a member of the IPCC.)
Today I’m talking with Mark Burton of Steady-state Manchester.
I’ve read some of the literature that SSM put out, and it’s really impressive.
Before we talk about what you get up to – what’s the problem you’re trying to solve? What’s your motivation?
I guess the problem is the dominance of the economic growth model in determining policy, and our dependency on it. Our focus is the city region – in our case, Greater Manchester. A population of about 3 million.
And why is that a problem?
Because it’s unsustainable. It causes ecological damage. Behind the label ‘economic growth’, there’s the constant expansion in the use of energy and materials, and the by-products of their use. We’re also skeptical of the social and economic benefits of growth – society becomes more unequal and divided.
Can’t we decouple GDP growth from those things?
There can be some relative decoupling. The economy has become more efficient in its use of inputs over time. But because it continues to expand, those efficiencies can’t keep up with the rate of expansion.
There’s no evidence that absolute decoupling has ever happened, apart from a few cases, with carbon emissions – but nowhere near the rate required.
Isn’t it the case that when a nation’s economy grows, consumption increases? Western ‘developed’ countries don’t produce much any more, so they’re consuming things that are produced on the other side of the world, and the damage caused is not seen as connected to their GDP growth – China is the culprit, for example, not us.
Yes. Our governments always cite the local territorial figures. It leaves aside the embodied energy, material use and damage of our imports. It also leaves aside sectors like international aviation and shipping.
So shipping of goods into a wealthy country isn’t included in its emissions figures?
Greenhouse gas data – no.
So if you add up all the published emissions for each country, it won’t add up to global emissions?
No – you’d have to add in ‘bunkers’ – the fuel used by those 2 sectors.
GDP figures are also inflated by the expropriation of value from poorer countries where production takes place (see the work of John Smith and Samir Amin). There’s been an interesting recent article by Jason Hickel and colleagues, that has quantified the amount of labour, materials and energy coming into rich countries from poor countries. It’s an enormous, unequal transfer.
Tell us about your organisation. What are you doing, how did you start, what successes have you had etc?
We started 10 years ago. A group of local climate activists saw that although Manchester was early in putting together an action plan and had good ambitions, there was a contradiction in that they wanted to boost economic growth.
We did our homework and developed robust arguments, with alternatives to present, so that it wasn’t just about criticism.
We also had a big question: is it feasible to have a steady-state city economy within a national and global growth economy? Although this would be hard, there are some things that can be done locally. We began to look at the use of local finance, local food production, local social and economic issues like pay inequality and others.
And you can also raise awareness of the problems with GDP growth in Manchester and further afield.
How are you funded, btw?
We operate on a shoestring, funded by donations from supporters and members.
So you’re looking for supporters and members?
That’s all we need. We wanted a very lean model, so we steered away from looking for grants, that have to be administered, often taking you away from your core activities.
Our position at Lowimpact is that there are two big killers: wealth concentration kills democracy, and GDP growth kills nature. The way I explain it is that GDP growth increases spending power, and that increase means that people will consume more ‘stuff’ – because there’s no way to ring-fence the increase in spending power so that it’s not spent on material things. And it is spent on material things, which is why countries with high GDP consume more material things than countries with low GDP, and why global material resource extraction is constantly growing, along with ecological damage.
What’s the best way you’ve found to explain it? It’s very hard to get through the ‘we need more growth’ narrative.
Plus the spending power in rich countries is very unevenly distributed. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats – it sinks some boats. We focus on the consequences – in terms of inequality and ecological systems. We continue to present the evidence that GDP growth can’t be decoupled from this.
I guess the reason it’s hard is because growth does bring benefits in terms of new infrastructure, providing welfare etc. People’s lives get better in obvious ways – but over a certain size, the problems begin to outweigh the advantages in ways that are not so obvious, and I don’t know how to get past that. People don’t necessarily respond well to evidence. Evidence doesn’t often change people’s narrative.
Yes – the idea that we need economic growth shapes so much of the discourse, and policy. It’s pervasive in the media. We’re the ones saying the bizarre things. But I find that we’re getting much more of a hearing than when we started.
Brian Czech of CASSE said that he has the ear of politicians now, for the first time. Some people are waking up to the fact that there can’t be any climate change mitigation in a constantly-growing economy.
What was the light bulb moment for you? For me it was reading something by Herman Daly, many years ago. The more I read, the more obvious it became.
When I was at uni in the 70s, a group of us started an ‘eco-action group’. It was the time that Friends of the Earth was starting, and Limits to Growth came out. Economists were starting to ask questions about growth. I have a book from that period called the Diseconomics of Growth, which talked more about the policy failures of growth, rather than environmental damage.
I was primed for all this, because I came from a socialist background (but more William Morris than Lenin! More of a rebellion against the commodification and ugliness of the modern world).
Socialist governments don’t have a better environmental record or a better attitude towards growth though.
What about terminology – degrowth vs steady-state vs post-growth?
10 years ago, degrowth didn’t have much currency, so we adopted steady-state. We use all those terms, depending on what we’re saying, and to whom. We see ourselves as part of the degrowth movement; and last year we did something called a ‘post-growth challenge’, trying to find better ways to communicate this message. We also have our own concept, called the ‘viable economy and society’. It focuses on the positive, rather than the negative.
I think I might have a slight problem with degrowth. David Fleming said it sounds like we want to de-grow the current economy, rather than building a new economy to replace it, and I think I agree with him. I don’t think it’s possible to take the growth element out of capitalism. Post-growth seems to indicate a new system, which will be steady-state.
There are different interpretations of degrowth. Dan O’Neill at Leeds University said that we need to degrow the economy down to a level where it can then be steady-state – and that would be a post-growth economy.
I don’t think he really answered that question. I would certainly say that a sustainable society is incompatible with capitalism, and most people in the degrowth movement are anti-capitalist – but I think that some maybe don’t follow that through consistently.
The other big idea in degrowth circles is that we should change the conversation, and move the focus away from growth altogether. But it misses the point that Western economies are much too large – we can’t keep consuming energy and resources in the way that we are. That causes problems, because it does imply a certain frugality – which would have to be managed carefully and sensitively, or many people would suffer.
And also, a big problem is that when you criticise growth, and therefore capitalism, the only alternative people know of is Soviet-style state socialism – they can’t imagine a decentralised, mutually-owned economy without a growth imperative.
And another argument we get is that we need to grow the economy to generate the funds to deal with the problems caused by a constantly-growing economy. But only some problems can be solved – meanwhile bigger problems will be caused by growth. That approach is like trying to put out a fire with petrol.
This is why we have differences with the Green New Deal approach. It’s very attractive to think that we can have a package that will solve all of our social and environmental problems. But the Green New Deal is based on the Keynesian model, which is pro-growth to create jobs and government income. But this will increase the use of energy and materials, unless there are caps on their use.
I don’t know how you would persuade governments to do that. They’re incentivised in very different ways.
This is a problem, yes.
I saw your article on monetary reform and growth, based on Positive Money’s ideas. I skimmed it, but it looks really interesting. I’d like to talk with you another time about this. I do think the starting point is money. I watched a video by Richard Werner recently. I like him a lot. He empirically proved that almost all money is created by banks when they make loans. But during the interview, he said that we don’t have to worry about growth – we can have infinite economic growth. Very disappointing.
But I do think the starting point is money; and if the exchange medium can’t be accumulated, and if it’s issued without interest, then people just get rewarded for the work they do, rather than for having money, and it helps prevent the need for constant growth. I’m working with a group promoting mutual credit for exchange, and use-credit obligations for savings. Shaun Fensom, in Manchester, and who I’m sure you know, has been working with us. I’d love to talk with you more about that.
Yes, although I don’t think it’s a good idea to put all of our eggs in the basket of monetary reform.
Love what you’re doing – hope to talk with you a lot more. I do think that mutual credit and use-credit obligations remove the growth imperative – but that could possibly be the subject of a future interview.
- Constant GDP growth causes ecological damage – there’s the constant expansion in the use of energy and materials, and the by-products of their use.
- The economy has become more efficient in its use of inputs over time. But because it continues to expand, those efficiencies can’t keep up with the rate of expansion.
- The idea that we need economic growth shapes so much of the discourse, and policy. It’s pervasive in the media. We’re the ones saying the bizarre things. But I find that we’re getting much more of a hearing than when we started.
- A sustainable society is incompatible with capitalism, and most people in the degrowth movement are anti-capitalist – but I think that some maybe don’t follow that through consistently.
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