How economic growth can destroy

Why we shouldn't want the economic 'benefits' of airport expansion

I feel cheated. Reading the government's air transport white paper progress report, I have just discovered that Paris and Amsterdam airports have four and five runways, respectively, while Heathrow has a measly two. I therefore demand not just a third runway for Heathrow, but a fourth, fifth - and maybe even a sixth, too, just to put us ahead of the game for once. A quick glance at the map shows that there are plenty of obscure little villages around the airport which could easily make way for another mile or ten of tarmac. The economic growth that this entrains would make us all better off.

Whoops, I've just echoed government policy. Every major decision the government makes is guided by the desire to maximise wealth creation and economic growth, on the assumption that raising our incomes is and should be the top priority for us all (though it is never stated why). It is this perceived need for constant growth that is cited as a reason for overriding other needs, such as good air quality and open space. According to Sir Rod Eddington's report for the Treasury, two new runways in the south-east of England would deliver economic benefits of £17bn. Yummy - that's a lot of cash. Who could object?

I could. Travel close to Heathrow, Stansted and Luton airports and you will see why. Economic growth has laid waste to vast areas of southern England. This is already one of the most over developed and overpopulated parts of the world, where tens of millions of people are squeezed in to a few small counties. Where once there were farms and countryside, huge roads now criss-cross the region - on a "country" walk near St Albans recently, I managed to hit both the M1 and the M10. Identikit shopping outlets blight towns and cities across the land, giving way to charmless corporate hotels and shed warehousing closer to the airports.

Here's another good example. My wife's grandmother, now ailing and in her mid-nineties, has lived in the same house in Hatfield since the 1930s, when it was surrounded by fields, footpaths and bridleways. Now the horses have been replaced by houses, and the footpaths by roundabouts and dual carriageways. Walking or cycling any distance is impossible, even if it were desirable. There is nothing special about this place: its story is the story of southern England. Another example: where I live, on the edge of north Oxford, I have never once stepped outside my back door without hearing the perpetual roar of traffic from the A34. Nor can anyone else in the town, which is in effect throttled by thundering traffic. To me, this roar is the real sound of economic growth.

Of course, this growth makes us all wealthier - in conventional terms anyway. It is the opposite of real wealth, however: wealth that is expressed in close communities, meaningful landscapes and real human relationships. Capitalist economies thrive on alienation and dispossession, where the much-vaunted "good" of labour-market mobility constantly fractures communities, leaving people stranded far away from roots and family, with nothing to do for recreation except shop and drive or fly long distances. That is partly why rates of mental illness and depression rise in tandem with economic growth in industrialised countries once basic needs have been satisfied. It also helps explain why, as a recent academic paper in Science magazine said: "Large increases in income for a given country over time are not associated with increases in average subjective well-being." People with nothing to do but shop and work are perfect consumers, but they are not particularly happy.

As Christianity declines, materialism has become the new official religion. Our children are taught to worship consumption from the earliest age: the average ten-year-old has internalised between 300 and 400 brands; more three-year-olds know McDonald's than know their own surname (70 per cent versus 50 per cent). Materialism has become the guiding principle underpinning all important societal decisions, and is so widely accepted that to question it leaves one isolated on the margins of acceptable political debate. But question it we must, before any more of our true wealth is lost for ever.

So never mind climate change, noise or pollution: we don't want the economic "benefits" of airport growth either. There has to be more to our country than money and tarmac. If materialism is the new religion, then I am an atheist.

"Carbon Counter", a new book by Mark Lynas showing how to calculate your carbon footprint, is newly published by Collins (£4.99)