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The alternative to growth that could save humanity

Fifty years after the seminal Limits to Growth report, climate experts have written a survival guide for the planet.

By Philippa Nuttall

“What I’m about is about growing the economy. And growing the economy benefits everybody,” Liz Truss, the new UK Prime Minister, has said. A book published this month suggests, however, that growth for growth’s sake is responsible for the environmental, economic and social inequality problems the UK and other countries are facing. Without a change of tack and greater wealth distribution, these problems will only get worse, it warns.

Fifty years ago, the Club of Rome, a network of thought leaders, published the seminal Limits to Growth report. It was based on findings by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who used computer models for the first time to demonstrate that the Earth’s resources were finite, and contained a stark warning about humanity’s direction of travel. Earth for All, the latest publication from the Club of Rome, is a roadmap for getting out of the mess we are in, a “survival guide for humanity”. Authored by a team of climate experts, economists and scientists from around the world, it sets out how we can, in the writers’ view, choose either to move forward and create a cleaner, better, more equal world for all, or opt to continue to destabilise people and the planet with business-as-usual policies.

Published in English in September, Earth for All seems particularly pertinent in the UK. Despite heatwaves, record-breaking temperatures and drought, the Conservative Party under the leadership of Truss seems more focused than ever on “turbocharging” economic growth at any cost. The UK government’s response to the energy crisis has not focused on marrying the energy and the climate crises by trying to reduce electricity demand and emissions as ways to bring down prices and reliance on imported gas. Instead, it has opted to bring back fracking, and to push for more North Sea exploration. 

Such a response is not only misguided in terms of the climate crisis, but will fail to benefit everyone, in particular those most in need, suggests Earth for All. The UK government’s response to the energy crisis appears to fit the book’s “too little, too late” scenario, where “societies keep boasting and bumbling about ‘sustainability’ while muddling through”. The alternative scenario is the “great leap”, which relies on “five extraordinary turnarounds” to substantially reduce the interrelated risks facing the world. These turnarounds mean a conscious, active “essential reboot of civilisation’s guiding rules” to end poverty, address inequality, empower women, make food systems healthy for people and ecosystems, and to transition to clean energy.

For the book’s authors, inequality and poverty are at the heart of the world’s problems. Unless they are tackled, it will be “impossible” to solve other environmental or social issues within the auspices of a democratic society, says author Jorgen Randers, professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School. His colleague Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, acknowledges that growth will be necessary to level up incomes. “But it doesn’t mean growth for growth’s sake,” but growth that is “directed to bettering the conditions of particularly the bottom half of the population.” Earth for All recommends a shift to “well-being economies”, with a general acceptance that the richest 10 per cent take less than 40 per cent of national incomes. 

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In short, says Ghosh, we need to “turn the problem on its head” – “forget about thinking how everything else can serve the economy” and instead “think how the economy can serve our social needs and goals and allow us to live in harmony with nature and the planet”. Such change can only happen with “much greater regulation of the financial markets, which have frankly gone haywire” and “the taxation of the extremely wealthy and of large corporations”, says Ghosh. Governments need to intervene more in the public interest and provide the required finances for the transformation to a well-being economy. “The alternative is really too hard to contemplate,” says Ghosh. We won’t see a “gentle decline” in future living standards, but “major catastrophes and disasters”.

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Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of the Club of Rome, suggests leaders around the world know things are not as they should be, as they face “social disruption or climate impacts such as droughts, floods, or conflict on their soil”. The key question, though, is “whether we can tap into that consciousness” and demonstrate that ultimately everyone will suffer from continuing on a business-as-usual trajectory. “The wealthiest in our society can try to hunker down in bunkers,” comments Dixson-Declève, but they can’t outrun reality. The most vulnerable are the worst-hit, “but at the end of the day, the Covid pandemic hit everyone. [During the pandemic], the state took control and… focused on what is most crucial and essential in our economies, which is the well-being economy in a nutshell…Making sure people have access to food, energy and healthcare, that our children could still be educated.”

The books’ authors are clear that their conclusions are also backed by large swathes of the public. Among G20 countries, 74 per cent of people would support their country’s economic priorities moving beyond profit and increasing wealth, and focusing more on human well-being and ecological protection, shows a survey carried by Ipsos Mori for Earth for All

The mess we are in can be sorted out, insists Ghosh. “It was created by human minds and can be undone by human minds.”

Listen to a special episode of the New Statesman’s World Review podcast: “Will the world end its addiction to growth?”

[See also: Decoding the UK’s economic crisis]

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