The elephant in the room that will be present at all pre-election debates

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Posted Mar 19 2015 by Dave Darby of
Chris Smaje argues the elephant in the room is capitalism

Last night I attended an event organised by our local Transition group, Transition Town Tooting, where local people were able to meet and chat to parliamentary candidates for the upcoming general election. The Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems and the Greens were represented. UKIP were invited but didn’t turn up, and so they were ’empty chaired’. However, there was a giant ‘elephant in the room’ that more than made up for the empty chair. I’ll explain the nature of the elephant below.

The evening started with a presentation by Transition members, and unsurprisingly, it had a Transition theme. We were shown a chart of the number of planet earths that would be required for the whole world to have the same level of consumption as various countries. It’s what’s known as a country’s ecological footprint. For the US it was five, for the UK, four; for China, one; and for India, 0.4. In other words, if the whole world wanted the same level of consumption as the US, we would need five planets.

Then the elephant made its first appearance. The whole world DOES want the same level of consumption as the US, and they are going full throttle to try to achieve it. So it’s clear that if China, India, Africa and Latin America are going to increase their levels of consumption, then the US and Europe need to drastically reduce their consumption, because we only have one planet. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that that isn’t going to happen. And the reason it’s not going to happen is economic growth. Every single country, rich or poor, is going flat out for economic growth.

Now, some people at this point might say that economic growth is possible as long as it doesn’t cause material growth – then we can stay within the ‘one-planet’ limit. Here are four logical steps to explain why that’s impossible.

  1. We can’t have material growth forever – it has to stop at some point. (I don’t think anyone’s really disagreeing with this). As the world’s ecological footprint is already more than one planet, that means that the time to stop is now, if we don’t want nature to seriously hurt us.
  2. Economic growth always increases spending power. If it doesn’t, it’s not economic growth, it’s something else – like devaluation of the currency. (some people struggle with this one, but think about it – GDP is measured in terms of money, so as long as the currency isn’t devalued, then economic growth is going to mean that people have more money to spend. The opposite is true too – in economic recession, people have less money to spend).
  3. The increase in spending power can’t be ring-fenced, and restricted to non-material goods. If people have more money, they buy more cars, TVs, clothes, foreign holidays, second homes etc. (this is obvious, surely; it became clear to me when I saw an interview with footballer Andrey Shevchenko, and he explained that he had nine Ferraris. I’m sure he would have had ninety if he’d had more money).
  4. So if an increase in spending power means material growth, and economic growth means greater spending power, but we can’t have more material growth, then the logical conclusion is that we can’t continue to have economic growth. Instead, we have to stabilise globally, then redistribute so that we can all have decent lives.

My point is not that I don’t think we should have constant economic growth, it’s that it’s physically impossible to continue trying to achieve perpetual growth without damaging ourselves, and ultimately, if we don’t stop, making ourselves extinct. I hope that logic is clear, because if it isn’t, the rest of this blog isn’t going to make much sense to you.

election group

Esther, Fleur, Dan and Phil.

After the initial presentations, we huddled on tables with the candidates to talk about the kind of future we’d like to see for Tooting. The first table I was on contained the Tory candidate, Dan. I’ve known him for a while, and had some good discussions with him. I think he’s a good guy (I know, I know, but he is). He’s said to me in private that he’s in favour of the free market, but not in favour of multinational corporations dominating it. He’d prefer to see local economies dominated by independent, local businesses. He stated it again in public that evening. So I believe him, and on that point, we’re in complete agreement – a free market full of independent businesses seems infinitely better to me than a market rigged for corporate benefit (how can bank bail-outs be anything at all to do with a free market?). The problem for me is that he’s a member of an extremely pro-corporate party, and the growth and competition that is inherent within our economic system ensures that the global economy (and therefore ultimately, local economies) are dominated by corporations. It’s unavoidable within a capitalist system – and not only that, but the system encourages independent businesses to grow so that given time, they can become giant corporations too. Capitalism has no brakes. The High Streets and shopping centres in wealthier parts of London, and all over the country, are dominated by multinational chains, and as long as we have a corporate-dominated system, that is exactly what is coming to Tooting.

Lower house prices were on the wish list too, but again, there is zero chance of this within the current system. Affordable houses and independent shops getting a larger slice of the economy are things that are only achievable if we replace this economic system with one that doesn’t have to constantly grow. During the breaks, I put that point to several members of the public in attendance, and to my surprise, they all agreed. It’s a pity that politicians don’t.

Next I chatted to Esther, the Green candidate. As you’d expect, she was lovely, but even she said that we could only have growth ‘if it was sustainable’. But growth is the opposite of sustainable, as I explained above. She said that sustainable growth had been achieved in Canada, for example. I pointed out that Canada has an eco-footprint of around five planets and growing, but we didn’t have time to continue the discussion.

Phil, the LibDem candidate said nothing I can remember, and the Fleur, the Labour councillor standing in for Sadiq Khan, busy with Westminster duties, was a machine when it came to ripping into the Tories. Conservative Dan didn’t rise to the bait. He said that we should be talking about and voting for individuals, which is fair enough – and if he left a party committed to eternal growth and stood as an independent, I’d consider it.

But in the end, I found myself looking at a panel of parliamentary candidates, all of whom seemed to believe in the elephant of perpetual economic growth, the quest for which in the end will wipe out any local gains that groups like Transition manage to bring about. I felt slightly depressed at the absurdity of it, but optimistic that several people I spoke to recognised it as an absurdity. The candidates were genuine people, I think – but the problem is not people, it’s our economic system.