The End of Growth & Keeping Out the Giraffes

Sometimes we are so focussed on our own here and now, that we can miss the bigger picture.

It’s also sometimes hard to see ourselves as others see us.

In the UK, like the rest of the developed world, we’ve become used to the idea that, on average, our standard of living will rise every year.

We’ve come to expect we will all own more and newer cars, more and better consumer goods, have more choice of food, and take more holidays to ever more exotic locations; not to mention having better health care, better roads and trains and earlier retirements in more comfortable financial circumstances.

It’s understandable – this is the way it was for the last generation, and the one before that, in fact for the majority of the last two hundred years or so, with a few temporary blips due to wars, recessions and a depression. For most of us in the rich world, things have been generally getting better, and as a result we’ve gotten used to the idea of continual economic growth and increased prosperity.

But for the last few years things have been different – stationary or falling wages coupled with increasing energy, transport and food costs are making us worse off. Our jobs are less secure, our retirements will be further away and will be less comfortable than we’d imagined, and we’re also having to come to terms with the cuts in our public services.

While some commentators talk of ‘market corrections’ and ‘U-shaped returns to growth’, increasing numbers take the view that the current financial turmoil is not simply another blip on the long-term path of continued growth, but represents a more fundamental change.

They argue that increasing scarcity of resources, especially cheap oil, coupled with rising aspirations and demand in the developing world, mean the period of continual economic growth for the rich world is over, and that  in fact we’ve been living beyond our means for several decades, building-up huge national and personal debts as a result.

This isn’t an economics blog, and I’m no economist – but I am persuaded by many of the arguments presented in books like Meadows and Rander’s  Limits to Growth and Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth (which interestingly is also on Ed Milliband’s summer reading list). Tim Jackson’s similarly titled report Prosperity Without Growth, produced for the now axed Sustainable Development Commission is available for free download, and is a very interesting read.

The key argument is simple: growth cannot continue forever – in a world of finite resources there must be limits. Trying to return to ‘business as usual’, isn’t going to work. We need to find a different way of doing things, and change from our current growth-based economic model, to something more sustainable.

For the luckier ones amongst us, who still have jobs, and can keep putting food on the table, it will no doubt mean lowering our expectations for the future – keeping our cars for longer, not doing so much home improvement, fewer gadgets, less exotic holidays, and no-doubt working for longer before our retirement. But there will be others less fortunate, facing real hardship – struggling with bills, debt, unemployment and the loss of support services. In tough times it always seems to be the most vulnerable who suffer even more.

One of the aims of this blog is to encourage us all to consider what action we can take in support those most in need, locally and across the world. We should do what we can to find enough time in our lives, not just to ‘keep out the giraffes’, but to do the simple things to help both ourselves and those around us – from donating a few tins of baked beans to a food bank every week, to offering to run an elderly neighbour somewhere, now that the bus service has been cut.

There’s something else equally important we in the rich world might want to do as well: remind ourselves that even in the current economic situation we’re still rich.

When we look around us, and compare ourselves with our friends, colleagues, neighbours – and especially what we see in the media, we can easily convince ourselves we aren’t that well-off. But our world isn’t the world !

If you earn more than £13,000 a year, you’re one of the 10% of highest earning people on the planet. If you’re lucky enough to earn more than £26,000, you’re in the top 1%! Visit The Global Rich List to check out how your income compares.

(Tim Jackson’s video below explains the giraffes !)

Limits to Growth                        Economic Reality Check           The Exponential Function

Dennis Meadows                        Tim Jackson                              Albert Bartlett

Photo by Ted Murphy via Flickr

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  1. Gareth Richards says:

    Why don’t you scare your readers! If you’ve read “Limits to Growth”, you should know that we are spiralling towards overshoot and collapse. Signs of overshoot:
    1) No more fish left in the sea
    2) Deforestation
    3) Desertification
    4) Overstretched water resources, some parts of the world are harvesting water which will not be replenished.
    Collapse according to LTG will cause an acceleration of environmental degradation; How can you argue with someone who needs to trash a particular part of the planet in order to survive the next 6 months. In order to satisfy their predictions there has to be a massive increase in mortality due to malnutrition and social breakdown. Imagine most of the world going the way of Somalia.

    In order to avoid this future we should have changed our ways in the 1970’s when this warning was first issued. The world acting as one to solve climate change, is as of now not going to happen. I’m beginning to believe the world is getting worse at problem solving; If we had to solve the CFC problem right now, we would have CFC deniers who would cause grid lock in our political class and nothing would get done.

    Instead we could ignore LTG and hope their possible future doesn’t come true.

  2. For the economically ignorant amongst your readers – what is the value of global per capita income comparisons? My professional friends in Kathmandu bring in a joint annual income of less than £12000, but this is enough for them and their family to live extremely well. On the other hand, my friend in Southampton constantly has to budget in order to bring up her 4 children on her husband’s £24k per year salary. I don’t understand how comparisons of income across such vastly different conditions can be meaningful.

    • Debs – good question.

      The comparisons are made on local purchasing power, and are nothing to do with currency exchange rates.

      This is known as purchasing power parity (PPP) :

      ie: the GDP per capita in Kenya is $738 – this means that the average Kenyan can buy goods and services equivalent to what $738 would get you in an average US city !

      The strength of the comparison is that it works for things like food, water, energy etc, but it doesn’t work so well for housing – because there are no homes available in Southampton, for example, for the poor quality of many Kenyan homes.

      Additionally there are the ‘lifestyle costs’, many unavoidable – from water rates, to petrol for commuting, most Kenyan’s don’t have these costs, but we do, at least if we want to participate in our society.

      Your Southampton chums probably have to pay for petrol, electricity, gas, water rates, Council tax, car tax and maintenance (or train/bus fairs) etc etc etc. Your friend in Kathmandu may well have a lifestyle that doesn’t require much of this spending.

      I’ve also found these comparisons very challenging to come to terms with – it doesn’t seem that we’re that rich does it. It takes us a lot of money just to ‘take part’ in our society – we have a lot of ‘overhead’, as it were.

      We take this ‘overhead’ for granted – from clean water and sewerage, to house insurance, washing machines, health care, abundant food and reliable power and law and order (well usually anyway!).

      It is complicated – income isn’t the same as access to goods and services, and in any event standard of living (financial) isn’t the same as quality of life (being happy etc) . . . but it does seem clear to me that compared to the majority of people in the world we have ‘so much stuff’, while they have (comparatively) so little.

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