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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left