“In the industrialised world, the great challenge is not to remain competitive, or to increase efficiency or production. It is to slow down without derailing, to reimagine progress beyond more of the same. The challenge is to make ourselves at home in the world.” – Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams, The Economics of Arrival
It has been a very long while since I’ve written a book review for this blog but I have one that’s worth that wait. A wee while ago, the CommonSpace team received an advance copy of a book I have been eagerly awaiting. I “volunteered” to give it a read through instead – by which I mean that I nabbed it before anyone else could.
Those who’ve followed me for a while now know the distain I hold for those who still somehow believe that infinite economic growth is possible on a finite (and dying) planet.
The economics that brought us to this point have very clearly hit their limits and we really need to look where we go next. Trebeck and Williams have thrown their hats into the ring with this effort to lay out the scale of the problem and where we go from here.
I’ll be honest. The title somewhat threw me, but it’s neatly explained in the first chapter of the book. One of the early pioneers of growth-based economics was W.W. Rostow who described “The Stages of Economic Growth” using the terminology of “pre-conditions to take-off” and “take-off”.
Taking off from this aviation metaphor, Trebeck and Williams ask us to consider that now that we’re in the air, perhaps we should think about what that means, where we’re flying to and how high we should keep climbing before leveling off.
This is probably the most important point in the book. Where other post-growth thinkers have talked about the fact that we HAVE to level off as a planet, few have really discussed where that level should be or asked if we’ve quite reached it yet. Indeed, some find it easier to push the problem to the future. To say that we need to level off at some point but “not quite yet”. Maybe soon. Just another election cycle or two or three… Fewer still have asked if we’re already flying too high…
Embracing the Doughnut
The book looks at this altitude problem through the lens of the Doughnut Economics model of Kate Raworth (who wrote the Foreword for the book). This model states that there exists a “sweet spot” for countries which, if they fall short, will result in a lack of sufficient goods and services to support a decent life for their citizens but if they overshoot would result in unacceptable environmental degradation.
In a side note on this topic, Raworth recently shared the results of a study showing that no country currently meets this sweet spot. Some countries don’t yet have a sufficiency of provision, some do but have breached their environmental ceiling and a third group of countries have breached their upper limits without yet reaching their lower one.
What this study makes clear is that the pathway to the sweet spot for a country in Box C above has to be different compared to that of a country in Box A or B. If the only way to get to the sweet spot is by first “taking off” like a C country has, then I don’t think there’s much hope of us ever levelling out before we critically compromise the environment.
How do we make sure that we all “Arrive”? As the old joke goes, if we want to get there, maybe we shouldn’t start from here.
Zero-Growth, De-Growth and Inclusion
For the countries already in group C (like us) then we’re already passed the point where further growth is of benefit. Even the Scottish Government’s current buzzword of “Inclusive Growth” is insufficient. As I’ve mentioned more than once – and to the Scottish Parliament directly – linking inclusion to growth is meaningless if growth doesn’t come or if recessions wipe out the gains for the poorest but preserve the wealth of the richest. Arrival spends several chapters exploring this idea in great detail.
You may have seen me talking about things like deconsumerisation, building places for people rather than shops, building places to live rather than to spend money. It’s not for nothing that these ideas have been on my mind as I’ve worked through Arrival.
Similarly, whilst I’ve been interested in alternative measures of economic success beyond GDP Growth for a while now, Arrival’s discussions on the topic did much to crystalise and deepen my thinking here. Again, we need to think about Inclusion and Re-/Pre-Distribution to ensure that we’re making the most of what we have already before talking about growing more.
Even better. The discussion on what a zero-growth economy would actually look like is fascinating and points out that we’ll still have a need to repair and replace what we have – we will probably need a new mobile phone at some point. But do we need two? Three? Fifteen? And do we need a new one every year or could we start “de-growing” by building for longer lifespan goods and a more circular economy?
Arrival is a clear, concise and extremely easy to read book. We all need to start thinking along these lines and start reframing what we think of just now as “good news” economy stories when what is portrayed as “positive inward investment” stories maybe actually means “profit extraction and environmental damage“.
Packed with references for further reading, The Economics of Arrival makes for an excellent gateway into what will need to be the principle mode of economic thinking for the next few decades. I’ll look forward to what Trebeck and Williams get up to in future projects.
Something More:- Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
The almost-Biblical tome for future economic thinking and probably the most important book on economics that everyone in the field has but hasn’t read, Capital gives us the hard numbers behind how we’ve taken off and got to where we are. It’s dense but links in with where Arrival begins and moves on from.
Something Else:- Utopia for Realists – Rutger Bregman
In terms of “where are we going”, this would be another good book to add to the shelf. Deliberately utopian (as the title suggests), it lays out fantastic visions for the future that many would say are impossible. Just like they always have when faced with every advance we’ve seen to date.
Something Different:- More Human – Steve Hilton
Visionary thinking isn’t just the preserve of the left wing. Steve Hilton’s ideas have been extremely influential at a UK political level for much of the last decade and he coined the term “Big Society” that became heavily linked to David Cameron’s time in government. Worth reading especially if your instinct is to disagree with how that turned out as it opens the doors to common areas of thinking and bridges of compromise with folk who you may consider to be unlikely allies.