When we founded the Green Party 44 years it seemed simple: we needed a way to change growth from something we depend on to an option. ‘Limits to Growth’ had just pointed out that growth was not the normal state of affairs, and that when it meets limits, it will stop anyway. Better to ‘land’ the economy by design rather than the foreseeable, nasty accident.
We are of course much more sophisticated now. Humans are hard wired to avoid loss, even small losses, so telling people that they must cut their cloth cuts no ice, so to speak. I shall return later to my own proposal, that the Green Party’s slogan should have been ‘A Recession can be Fun’, but I do understand why what might be necessary has turned out to be psychologically difficult. Even re-branding less economic activity as a ‘steady state economy’ would not necessarily shake off negative connotations. As a result, even the Paris Agreement on Climate change took continued economic growth for granted.
This view appears correct for several reasons:
Firstly there is what has been called ‘the tyranny of small decisions’ by ordinary people avoiding incremental losses, but making decisions such as cheap air flights which are cumulatively unsustainable. Secondly, no one has yet suggested a way to persuade producers that producing less is a good idea, and may actually be necessary. We Greens envisage a low eco-impact world where long life gadgets are repaired and recycled, but what are manufacturers supposed to make of this? This is compounded by the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ rule that in a competitive situation nearing limits, the first to stop does not solve the problem, they merely lose out to the remaining competitors.
But underlying all this is the fact that no one can afford to put themselves at a disadvantage as long as competition is a dominant force in society.
A friend has suggested that the Lussmann Principle might help. No, you won’t have heard of it, it is simply an extrapolation from a phenomenon she has observed. Andrei Lussman owns a chain of four restaurants in the Hertford area. He has gone to considerable lengths to ensure that his restaurants are ecologically sound and sustainable. Margins are tight, but the business model is viable. However, the crucial point is that Mr. Lussmann does not advertise this aspect of his business. He simply runs restaurants that people like.
Could this be relevant to how to market a society not dependent on growth?
But one interpretation of what is happening is that apart from the minority for whom eco-sustainabilty etc. is important, for everybody else that aspect would be off putting, due either to their preconceived notions or feeling they were being lectured.
The logic of this view is that we Greens who want to achieve a sustainable economy, and regard less economic activity as self-evidently necessary, must somehow keep that out of the discussion. It is true that there are many businesses which do succeed whilst aiming for sustainability, but in many cases their circumstances are specific, and cannot be writ large.
But the nub of Mr. Lussmann’s approach is that you must be positive, which was precisely my point in suggesting ‘A Recession can be Fun’. Those who shy away from this are right in saying that a recession is generally regarded as unpleasant at best, and at worst, frightening. But many Green writers wax lyrical about how pleasant a society not based on growth could be. Tim Jackson’s ‘Prosperity without Growth’ for example Last week I attended a two-day seminar organized by the ESRC on the topic of how far growth was compatible with sustainability. Some speakers said Green growth was possible, but others saw de-growth as wiser. Both made cogent arguments, but both views seemed to overlook the problem that less growth is just not thinkable for almost the whole population. Emotion always defeats logic and reason, and fear is the strongest emotion. Predicting ecological doom may produce fear, but that will only work with a positive alternative, in Mr. Lussmann’s case, excellent food.
But there is such an alternative – an unconditional Basic Citizens’ Income, which per se is neutral on growth. I have not yet thought of how to mollify redundant manufacturers, but no one need see growth as necessary to their well being. All those ideas on how pleasant a world without growth actually become thinkable once needs are guaranteed.
I had not realized in 1973 that all humans are hard wired to avoid loss. Rather than think about climate change, we concentrate on more obviously solvable problems closer to home. Also, one can see why the few who have been making the most profit from an expanding, competitive economy might actually believe the preposterous notion that climate change is a hoax.
In 1973 I thought the Basic Income would work, not on the Lussmann Principle, but the Inchon Principle – if the odds are heavily against you, deceive your enemies by what at first sight looks like a stupid strategy. In chess, this is known as a gambit. In those days it seemed obvious that growth was benefitting everybody, and could go on indefinitely. Recession! Fun?? That assumption has not changed. The odds are still against even questioning growth.
The Basic Income opens up the prospect of a much more fulfilling life for most people – women actually being able to choose to look after their children instead of putting them with strangers. (Feminists please note, I am only offering choice). Entrepreneurs have sprung up in Otjivero. Others are much better than me at expressing the positives. But above all it allows everybody to contemplate the loss of some material advantages. The only disadvantage for some is that society will have to be much less unequal.
But we are all still hard wired to avoid loss. Why should the rich give to the poor, who are poor because they are probably not as bright as us? Because if you do not, you will almost certainly suffer a much greater loss.
The Basic Income allows everybody to think about ecologically sound behaviour, but it does nothing per se to make it happen. In fact, its close cousin Helicopter Money is intended to stimulate the economy. If the Basic Income is not introduced in tandem with the notion of avoiding anything which will damage the ecosphere, at best all that will happen is that the poor will spend the money confiscated from the rich in much the same way. It might even hasten that rise beyond 2 degrees centigrade. It is the culture which needs to change.
Perhaps the Inchon and Lussmann Principles together might just do that? Mainly Inchon, but Mr. Lussmann doesn’t actually deny his Green credentials, he just doesn’t push them. Everybody who agrees with him knows about them by word of mouth. But now that I know that everybody is hard wired to avoid loss, the only way to present less economic activityas positive is as gentle a mention as possible that it might avoid worse.