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20 May 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 6:32am

What kind of post-Covid recovery do we want?

As long as GDP growth is the defining goal, our economies will remain tethered to a time-scarce, consumerist way of living that is unsustainable. 

By Kate Soper

The hiatus in normal living created by the pandemic, together with intensifying concern over environmental collapse, have caused much reflection on “business as usual” and the wisdom of returning to it. Towards the end of the first UK lockdown a YouGov poll showed only 6 per cent of people opting for a return to the pre-Covid economy, and nearly a third favouring significant economic change. Recent polls have also shown majorities in Europe and the US wanting environmental protection to be given priority over economic growth, and extensive – albeit vaguely formulated – condemnation of capitalism.

Governments have sought to meet the double challenge of acting on climate change while restoring pre-pandemic levels of employment with heady pledges on a post-Covid recovery, including, in the UK, the promise “to build back better” and, in the US, Biden’s $2trn plan for overhauling US infrastructure. European governments have also expressed interest in shortening working hours, with Spain being the first to introduce a pilot scheme for a four-day week.

Biden’s proposals for greening the US economy have – not without justice – been widely acclaimed for their radicalism, although it remains to be seen how far they will meet with bipartisan support. Aiming to end reliance on the oil economy by 2035, they include cancellation of the symbolically important Keystone XL pipeline, a ban on oil and gas drilling on public lands, and environmental protection of a third of US land and ocean. Significantly, they also accept action on poverty and welfare as a prime condition of successful green renewal.

In Britain, the government is also presenting its “building back” as green, although its plans are fuzzy and less ambitious. While sounding the alarm about how far short current global forecasts are from meeting the Paris Agreement climate targets, Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, has recently spoken of wanting “a green thread running through all Covid-19 recovery packages” – and a thread may be all we end up having. Still, let us be grateful for the commitments, differing as they do from anything on offer from the G20 nations only a few years ago. Let us concede, too, that the immediate need, post-Covid-19, is to provide jobs, and that growth in some areas, particularly renewable energy, rewilding and regenerative agriculture, home insulation and heating, and eco-benign transport, will be essential to any green recovery.

However, the investment programmes proposed so far remain caught up in ways of thinking that are ultimately incompatible with any enduringly sustainable order. Economic growth is still the main objective, and achieving it will mean more of the same fast-paced, time-scarce, consumerist way of living. The most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report could hardly hit a more orthodox note in its confident projections of a rebound in all forms of trade and global GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2021. Even the moves to shorten the working week have been defended primarily for encouraging greater productivity and entrepreneurial innovation rather than as a means, as the pioneering eco-socialist André Gorz once put it, of “wresting life away from the commercial imaginary and the total employment model”.

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So long as GDP growth remains the measure of progress, nothing will be done to curb the continuous increases in resource and energy use, or to overcome the inequalities, both global and national, that pre-empt a just and lasting green renaissance. Ecological collapse is being driven almost entirely by excess growth in high-income countries, whose average per-capita consumption of materials is four times the sustainable footprint. The world’s richest 10 per cent produce half of all carbon emissions while the poorest 3.5 billion account for just a tenth, and nearly a quarter of annual global GDP goes to increase the wealth of the richest 1 per cent.

As critical as net-zero pledges are to combating the climate crisis – with the US being the latest to join the growing club of countries committed to decarbonising their economies in the next few decades – there can be no sustainable transition from fossil fuels that relies on continuous expansion in the use of other materials. The energy crisis is fundamentally a resource-usage crisis. And to further aggravate that crisis, there is still much business as usual within the fossil fuel industry itself. The world’s biggest banks have lent nearly $4trn (twice the US infrastructure plan) for fossil fuel projects since the signing of the Paris agreement in 2016. State-owned fossil fuel companies are poised to invest $1.4trn in projects over the next decade that would destroy any chance of meeting its terms on emissions.

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The objections to reverting to the status quo ante are not only moral, however (and it might not be wise to rely on moral repugnance at a time when it is openly proclaimed that “greed is good”). Nor are they simply prudential in the sense that if we go on as we are, everyone is imperilled. The objection must also be to how growth-driven economic thinking obscures any alternative conception of human purpose and prosperity. Even if the post-pandemic recovery initiatives were – impossibly – to succeed in securing full employment and preventing all the global impacts of climate change, they would remain subject to the imperatives of consumerism and the work ethic, leaving us caught in the work-and-spend spiral of affluent existence, its shopping malls, motorways and fulfilment centres.

As we gradually move out of lockdown, we might instead be imagining and advocating alternative ways of living. We might use this moment of economic transition as the springboard for developing the infrastructure and institutions of a different order of existence, one that is rooted in new forms of ownership and control over production, and committed to a reproductive rather than endlessly expanding way of meeting material needs.

This would release the grip of a time-economy imposed by the quest for profit, and permit more home-based activity and self-provisioning. It would also allow for hybrid ways of working that combine old-style sustainable methods in some areas of production with the smartest technology in others such as energy and medicine. Car-pooling and other forms of collective ownership would be encouraged, public transport would be cheap or free, safe provision would be made for walking and cycling. Education would be seen as a means of preparing not only for work but also for the enjoyment of leisure.

The revised conception of prosperity underpinning such moves would expose the anachronism of allowing nations whose consumption vastly exceeds the planet’s carrying capacity to continue to figure as models of a “good life”. Truly to “build back better” would be to promote ways of living that are both enjoyable now and can promise a good future for our children, their children and the generations that will follow.

Kate Soper is professor emerita of philosophy at London Metropolitan University and author of “Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism, which is out now from Verso.