Growth doesn't just mean using more resources. It also means using less

If you can do something for one ten-thousandth the cost it used to be, you'll feel pretty rich.

The Atlantic's Noah Smith has written on whether capitalism actually does require growth to continue. He argues:

Looking at history, we see that the biggest challenges to capitalism actually came during times of rapid growth. The early 20th Century was the heyday of communism, anarchism, and socialism. But this was a time of immense growth, technological progress, and increased material standards of living. It seems possible that those alternatives to capitalism gained popularity precisely because rapid growth disrupted the stable social systems that had been in place before the Industrial Revolution.

Clearly there's something problematic in that analysis; the "stable social systems" in place before the Industrial Revolution had very little in common with capitalism as we know it today. It may well be the case that the age the joint-stock company didn't require growth in the same way that modern financial capitalism does.

Smith does, however, argue that finance doesn't require growth either, because interest comes not just from an expectation of growth but also the value of consumption smoothing. That is, people will put up with having less money in the future in order to have income now, and interest is a reflection of that.

But the whole argument is rather a moot point, either way, because it's so frequently brought up in the context of a second claim: that growth requires exploitation of resources, and that if we desire an economy which doesn't carry on tearing up the planet, we need to accept that that economy will be "steady state".

There is clearly a grain of truth here. Famously, the history of America can be described, in economic terms, as a country continually dealing with financial issues by physically growing; first expanding south, then west, and then eventually overseas in the form of the pseudo-protectorates the US now runs. And an end to resource extraction would definitely hit growth rates enormously, if for no other reason than that it would require the world's economy to be completely retooled around renewable energy and recycling usable material from waste, which wouldn't happen painlessly.

But it's simply not true to say that growth can only come from increased abuse of the environment. My favourite illustration of the falsehood comes from a two-year-old piece by Alexis Madrigal:

Imagine you've got a shiny computer that is identical to a Macbook Air, except that it has the energy efficiency of a machine from 20 years ago. That computer would use so much power that you'd get a mere 2.5 seconds of battery life out of the Air's 50 watt-hour battery instead of the seven hours that the Air actually gets. That is to say, you'd need 10,000 Air batteries to run our hypothetical machine for seven hours. There's no way you'd fit a beast like that into a slim mailing envelope.

That, right there, is growth. For the energy cost of running one laptop twenty years ago, you can now run 10,000. That's an annual growth rate of just under 60 per cent.

Clearly, energy efficiency in portable computers over the last 20 years is one of the most rapid measurable increases in technology ever, but nonetheless, it puts paid to the idea that all growth can be is increasingly extractive.

We should be planning for an economy which takes only memories and leaves only footprints — but that's not the same as planning for an economy with no growth. Though George Osborne might wish to convince you otherwise, that would be an unnecessary disaster for all concerned.

Some MacBook Airs, engaged in naughtiness. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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