Provocation 96. Thoughts on growth and need for a more comprehensive economics to help navigate the transitions to serious green.
Economists are often thinking of what could be a better life, a better society and a better economics. But in research and writing we see most economists backing away from the visionary to the exercising of research methods.
Economics is fixated on the need for growth. Conventional arguments are that we must have growth in order to create jobs and to fill in the gaps in Third World development for people still left behind. We must change these widely excepted views about growth in the economy and society if we are to face the challenges ahead, especially climate, and inequality, technology, and militarization.
Economics can be extremely useful in helping us through the transition by helping us be clear as to how the current system functions and dysfunctions and also how the transition will require lots of innovations. Economics can help by specifying the requirements the new system must meet if it is to cope – a new system strong enough to actually make a needed difference. Rethinking growth will be a major part of that. The argument is not growth versus no growth, but what kind of growth is actually consistent with a rapid engagement with global warming and the need to take care of people in the transition.
The transition is not a single step, but many orchestrated and improvised over time.
Growth in its current form leads to an increase in global warming. The two alternatives are, first, to limit growth, and the second is the shift of what growth is about. The first is intolerable because it would not create an alternative and continue putting way too many people in dire straits.
The second, what growth is about, is a more interesting open question. Aristotle wrote that we can have growth without a development, like adding water to wine, or we could have development without growth, basically rearranging what we have. This is the essential playground of the imagination for the transition.
More growth of the kind that we have obviously heats the planet. It also keeps shifting wealth towards the 1% and bankrupting society while undermining governance by creating deep need for corruption. We need to be playing chess here, not checkers. Lots for economists to think about. There are many people in the world who are thinking about, writing about and even implementing local experiments but these are not yet enough to scale to the necessary solutions.
We need to shift most people out of the jobs they are doing because these are energy intense in one way or another, from driving diesel trucks to working and living in air-conditioned buildings. The shift in agriculture will be very difficult because it uses so much energy and produces greenhouse gases. The list is extensive.
We must shift to an economy that is more green. The difficult management task is that building the new economy uses old technologies. For example making solar panels requires factories built with old technology, at least in the short run until new technologies of construction are disbursed. We have the model of industrial shift as when General Motors went from manufacturing cars to manufacturing tanks and planes in 90 days.
Going seriously green is also hampered by the reality that such a transition is being driven in large part by people who are looking to make a big profit and this means a continual shift of wealth toward the one percent, the elites, the kleptocrats, and corruption. Freeing up a green strategy from wealth concentration will take some serious creativity but is very essential if green is to succeed on the necessary scale.
All this means shifting people from what they’re doing to new work that has not yet been specified. The high unemployment rates we have ( much higher than official statistic show if we look at the number of people who are not employed but are adults) could be seen as the first positive move towards redeployment of people from current jobs to new ones that fit an environmental strategy adequate to dealing with the facts of the crisis. But as of now the major activity of our leadership is to patch up the old economy and keep it going.
The caste system we have, dividing people between capital and labor, weakens and maybe prevents creative redeployment. Meaning and benefits must be more distributed if a shift in economy is to succeed. Participating in imagining and innovating requires both capital and skill. Much more could be said about this but we recognize that the current split is stultifying for both ownership and labor.
Some people think that growth is indulgent and neurotic based on pure consumer mentality as in Nike, and we can just stop it, but there are many deep unmet needs in the population. These must be considered in any strategy of change. Standard economics takes desires as given whereas what is needed is a deep exploration of their significance necessity.
We are looking for a strategy of transition that has to last somewhere between a few months and a few years. The details of the transition are very important. We need a flexible plan to be developed and implemented by by a group of managers that do not yet exist. Details, organization and management are not in place and will have to be created from what we have.
Yet dissident economics is near impossible. Economics by its current placement in society must be aligned with the perceptions and judgments of the state and the elite, otherwise economics will be seen as an enemy of the state and the elite, which is not a workable position. The result is that an economics that can help in creating a successful (deals with climate change while not feeding the one percent) green economy must develop very careful narratives of cause and effect, the downsides of current practice and the advantages of new practices and goals. These narratives must show competence in dealing with
global warming – 2 degrees will be very dangerous
Inequality- lost lives
Automation which is eliminating both high and low end work
quality of lives not consumerist but soulful
war – lets renew diplomacy
agriculture – not mega but community
empowerment – education and health for participation
stranded assets will motivate resistance to change
selecting and rewarding leadership
and a few hundred other considerations each as critical as the engine in the airplane.
This is all difficult. We must get past simple thoughts like “congress should..the president must… corporate execs can change…. It won’t happen. Transitions in history, say Greece to Rome, trades and craft to industry, have all shared civil war, Inter-empire wars, dislocation of populations, new elites replacing old, corruption, fall in production, disintegration of governance structures, changes in values and major shift in culture.
It is possible that analysis will show the task is basically impossible. that we can not stop global warming. But we must try and that means assuming that a large percentage of jobs need to be reconfigured and economics could play a strong role at looking at the costs, and the structure of paths to serious green. Leaving this to market correction is a failure of imagination to grasp the scale.
Lao Tzu said “Governing an empire is like trying to fillet a goldfish.” Messy.
Navigating the transition is the task – managing humanity’s relation to nature. To avoid the task is simply to postpone responding to the increasing entropy – the percent if people and institutions in decay – and watch them struggle with each other in a big game of musical chairs where ultimately everyone loses.
To take on the task of thinking through the transition will use courage, knowledge, wisdom, and compassion. Nature evolves very slowly, testing each detail of new DNA. Humans, with tech more responsive to banks than society, embrace new innovations very quickly and cause new problems. Being aware of the secondary consequences of all we do must be part of the new culture.
Economics after the empty marginalist turn is much more the practice of method rather than the imaginative exploration of phenomena.
We have a technology that can produce much of what we need without humans doing jobs.
As Bucky Fuller wrote, “We have x billion people and the planet and putting them together is just a design task.”.
Lots for economists to do. Thinking design is also good.