In Search Of A Grown-up Economy – by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams for Radical Ecological Democracy

This blog was first published by Radical Ecological Democracy

‘A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell about themselves’ wrote Nigerian poet Ben Okri. ‘Sick storytellers can make nations sick’.

Our age seems to be an era of sick stories.

Not just the stories that appear on our TV screens or social media threads, but the deeper stories about how and why things are the way they are. These stories are the terrain in which our imaginations for a better world walk. If they are narrow and flawed, full of blindspots and miscalculations, our ideas for a better world will be narrow and flawed and full of blindspots and miscalculations.

The story of infinite growth on a finite planet is a sick story. So is trickle-down economics, or the rising tide that lifts all boats. Yet these stories pervade much of the public imaginary. They inform the articles of faith held by politicians in capital cities around the world, the policy advice offered to so-called ‘developing countries’ by international agencies, and the metrics that so often rank the success of a country and thus the prowess of its leaders.

These dead-end stories must be countered with another story, a better story.

The story of Arrival

A new story is found in the twin concepts of ‘Arrival’ and ‘making ourselves at home’. Arrival is a recognition that economies do not need to grow forever and ever. That there comes a time when no ‘more’ is needed, enough wealth and resources have been accumulated. From here the benefits of any growth to date start to tail off and pursuit of more and more risks causing harm and damage to people and planet.

Allowing a new story to be imagined would recognize that the benefits of growth are not only beginning to tail off in many respects, but pursuit of ever more growth is often driving more problems that require yet more resources to fix. This is called ‘failure demand’ in social policy terms. It also speaks to the notion of defensive expenditures used in ecological economies and underpins the concept of uneconomic growth in respect to the economy writ large.

The idea of Arrival does not imply that all problems are solved. It does not suggest that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. It is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.

Rampant inequality is forcing people to question the foundations of our societal existence, and explore new economic and political options.

Ours is still a world where some use toilets that flush by waving your hand in front of them while almost a billion people have to defecate in the open air. A world where an investor was prepared to pay over $450 million for a single painting while 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity. Where Rolls Royce imagines driverless cars with silk ‘thrones’, while a billion people have no access to an all-weather road. Divide global food production by population and you get 2,870 kcal per day each – enough to feed everyone with room to spare, but one in nine is undernourished.

Addressing such inequalities is a story of distribution, and that makes it a story of politics.

Beyond blindspots

Blindness to the downsides of growth has consequences at planetary scale. Both non-renewable resources and the earth’s capacity to absorb economic effluent are wearing out. The Food and Agriculture Organisation reports that almost 60% of fish stocks are ‘fully fished’, and land-based wildlife is faring little better. The increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere has gone from 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to over 400ppm today. The number of weather-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, with climate change shown to be a key factor.

Many in the poorest countries may never reach a point of Arrival, if economies and people in countries that industrialised first leave nothing for them. What a tragedy it would be if, in the rush for more, the fruits of progress rotted before everyone had a chance to enjoy them.

Making ourselves at home

Getting a sense of what making ourselves at home would entail is a matter of listening. There are clear commonalities from different corners of scholarship, religious texts, and more popular songs than one could mention. The answer is also innately within us as human beings. Whenever people are given time and space to reflect or when they are surveyed about what matters most to them, they point to things that are rarely connected to mountains of money. A suite of evidence also tells us that people are not happiest when they are consuming, but when spending time socializing and engaged in meaningful activity. Not when working longer hours to make more money, but when they are in nature, learning, and undertaking fulfilling activities. This is revealed in emerging research in neuroscience, epidemiology, and psychology. Neuroscience, for example, tells us that cooperative behaviour activates the reward areas of the brain, which suggests that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to enjoy helping others, cooperating, and being kind. In fact, life expectancy; voice; government accountability; climate and natural capital are more important than GDP per capita in predicting mean levels of life satisfaction in 79 countries.

Research in neuroscience has indicated that human beings are hard-wired to cooperate with each other.

Making ourselves at home means allowing humanity to determine economics, rather than the other way around.

An economy that has Arrived and is focused on making itself at home will be one that enables people to build good, healthy lives. Using resources in a smarter, fairer way (rather than wasting or hoarding them) means getting things right for people in the first place, rather than having to constantly repair the damage created by an economy set on growth at all costs. It will not harm people and the environment, and so will avoid having to deliver expensive down-stream intervention to fix the damage caused by the growth-ist economic model. We see it in the cooperative businesses such as John Lewis, whose partners live longer than employees of comparable, but non-coopertive businesses. We get a glimpse of it in initiatives such as the Edinburgh Remakery that is teaching people to repair their gadgets and furniture rather than throwing them away and purchasing more. It can be inspired by enterprises such as Ishack in South Africa which is providing jobs and training while installing micro-energy generation. In politics there are also pioneers of this new agenda: New Zealand is launching a wellbeing budget and Wales has appointed a Future Generations Commissioner

New initiatives like “Edinburgh Remakery” are an attempt at questioning the logic of incessant and endless consumption.

The current regime of late, last minute, downstream intervention which seeks to cure and heal is an approach to progress and development that demands more resources, more effort, more political agreement, and more patience than is really needed. It is an inefficient approach to delivering good lives sustainably. And it is bumpier, has more distractions and diversions and flimsy political bridges to cross than the route economies could be taking.

The alternative is avoiding the collateral damage created by the growth economy in the first place. This can be done by attending to distribution, focusing on how resources are shared and what is done with resources in terms of how they impact the natural world. This means taking a long-term perspective and applying measures and goals that align the purpose of institutions and businesses with the needs of people and planet.

Safer routes home

For those economies that do not yet have the ability to meet the basic needs of their citizens, any reading of the journey of GDP-rich countries reveals a cautionary tale. If development is taken to be a linear and one-size-fits-all process, this risks everyone following in the dirty and alienating footsteps of the GDP-rich nations. But if the world can imagine that other routes to development are possible, then there is no need to follow.  Countries that are trying, even if imperfectly, to chart a different course show the ideas are there – just look at Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living and its constititon that talks of vivir bien, Bolivia’s National Development Plan or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

Instead, the story can be one of ‘leapfrogging’: learning from the failures of GDP-rich nations and bypassing them altogether – for example, building renewable energy, circular economy industries and employee ownership from the start.This means pioneering a better path to Arrival – a gentler path that is more conducive to making oneself at home when the time comes, and one that is less harmful for people and planet along the way. That doesn’t diminish the role of growth – low income countries do need morein order to boost the standard of living of their citizens in a material sense. Like laying the foundations of a house, growth is necessary here, and of course it needs to be good quality and shared well.

Renewable energy could help low income countries address their socio-economic needs and leapfrog the fossil-fuel based developmental path.

Importantly though, for this growth to happen in places and communities where it is needed, GDP-rich countries need to make room – quite literally in an ecological sense. GDP-rich countries shifting towards making themselves at home can facilitate the Arrival of others.

From new stories to system change

Arrival and making ourselves at home fundamentally offer a success story in which fighting for survival could be over if the economy were to engage with a new challenge: building ourselves a lasting home in this place of plenty.

Embracing this story shouldn’t be seen as an easy option – simply dreaming it into being. Aspects of it will be difficult. Shifting gear, from an economy based around pursuit of growth to one making the most of what it already has, will encounter resistance. It will be susceptible to regression and mistakes. It will be an ongoing project. It seeks to transform a system built on an ideology that itself took several decades to emerge. Re-focusing on making ourselves at home represents a deep cultural shift, let alone an economic and political one. The progress narrative runs deep and is constantly reinforced. Mainstream, marketised and corporate conceptions of a good life are currently defined by a capitalist system that defaults to constant expansion. Dominant Western institutions and ideology have come to suggest that this is even inherent in human nature, using a blend of free market doctrine and misappropriated Darwinism. But that is a reductionist philosophy, a modern construct premised on the discredited notion of ‘rational economic man’.

While there are many instances of businesses, projects and policies that show what making ourselves at home entails, going beyond simply tallying up good examples demands tackling the thorny, but ubiquitous question of ‘how?’. Insights come from systems thinking, from political science, from behavioural science, and from movements and change agents themselves. They suggest that with sufficient agitation, amplification and attention a shift to an economy that makes itself at home is not an idealistic dream, but a possible alternative to the current state of affairs.

So sharing a new story is just the first step…

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