Wednesday, 4 March 2009

"Economic growth": Is it me?

I was just listening to a radio program here in the UK "The moral maze", in which the relationship between national wealth and equality or inequality was discussed.

Naturally, in the course of this, the issue of economic growth as the engine of wealth, and its sustainability, came up.

So far so good. My problem is that people use this term "economic growth" with no apparent reference to what is being produced. It's just "more", never "more what?"

Our current pattern of growth in the affluent industrial societies seems to me to be built on filling demand for something useful, or at least desirable, bringing out ever better versions of it, persuading people they'd be so much happier if they had more than one, and then expanding the pool of potential consumers by lending money to those who wouldn't normally be able to afford this object (good) or service.

For some years now, I've been bleating about how we should surely be able to put all this productive capacity to better and more humane use by manufacturing and growing stuff the rest of the under-provided under-fed world could use, rather than just a small and favoured portion of it, while still providing employment in the industrialised countries.

This could be roundly dismissed as idealistic hogwash in the face of an economic model that did at least work, and was based on tried and tested financial principles.

But, in the light of the catastrohic failure of this much-vaunted financial regime, if my hogwash doesn't work, there seems little doubt in my mind that traditional free market capitalism has also failed. The idea that exponential growth could somehow magically continue to expand was built on an ever growing mountain of debt, and money that didn't really exist. We've even largely given up making things here in the UK, in favour of providing all kinds of mysterious financial services that generate money, apparently out of thin air.
Forgive my limited understanding of all this, but the point is that, if the idealists have a problem, maybe the self-proclaimed realists do as well.

So does this provide us with a rare opportunity to take stock? Should we not be thinking about, not just how to produce more, but thinking about what we actually produce, and what use it actually is beyond just making stuff for the sake of creating a job for someone, profit for a corporation, and using up resources to end up in a land fill somewhere?

Is it really beyond the wit of humanity to restructure our manufacturing base to more useful and humane ends? What if the days of growth for growth's sake are numbered. Addressing the whole world instead of part of it may not make so much money for any of us. Maybe we'll all have to reappraise our attachment to affluence. But perhaps it would at least provide sustainable employment to some purpose, and people of good conscience might feel more connected to creation, and less alienated by vast accretions of pointless stuff.