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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.