“Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to slow down, finally giving up on economistic fanaticism and collectively rethink the true meaning of the word “wealth.” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but refers to someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and human collaboration place within everyone’s reach.” – Franco Bifo Berardi
This weekend will see the SNP conference and the long awaited vote on whether or not to adopt the Sustainable Growth Commission’s report as the party’s main economic strategy for an independent Scotland. After almost a year of discussing this document, the party will have their final say on whether or not to adopt it as party policy.
I have written tens of thousands of words of critique, commentary and policy work on this topic. There will be more to come between the time that this blog is published and the vote on Saturday afternoon. Much of it has been centred around currency and the macroeconomic policies. Here, I’d like to look at things from a slightly different lens. How does the Growth Commission reflect upon Nicola Sturgeon’s plan to introduce a Scottish Green New Deal?
Those who have been following my blog for a while will understand my position when we talk about economic success. I’m not the best of fans of overly simple and often misleading metrics such as GDP (even when I’m forced to use them because that’s what’s currently available or because everyone else does)
I’ve also expressed deep concerns about focusing – almost to the exclusion of all else – on economic growth as a measure of “success”. I’ve written about this extensively and need not repeat myself here.
This goes double for attempts to politically sanitise economic growth by attaching labels such as “inclusive growth” and “sustainable growth”. I was recently attacked on Twitter by someone who took that statement to mean that I was “throwing out” inclusion in my economic policy – the very opposite is true. An inclusive economy should be inclusive not just when it is growing (not that our global economy is anywhere near even resembling inclusive in its growth when more than 80% of economic growth is captured by less than 1% of the population). Inclusivity should mean that the poorest don’t suffer most during recessions and the poorest shouldn’t have what little they have taken from them by rent-seekers no matter which direction the economy is moving. Quite the opposite from “throwing out” inclusivity, I want to make sure that it is embedded in our economy regardless of the “growth”. And nor should inclusivity be used to justify the quest for growth. After all.
And so we come to “sustainable growth”. The Growth Commission report rightly identifies that the UK’s economic model is far too regionally unequal and that that inequality is actively damaging regions of the UK outside of London and the South East of England.
But it gets things wrong when it suggests that the solution is to grow Scotland faster to catch up. It gets things doubly wrong when it claims that this can be done whilst spending the first decade of independence constricting public spending and obsessing about the national deficit.
Because that’s the thing. There’s nowhere left to grow on this planet. We’re already way over the sustainable budget by more than 70%. A sustainable economy needs to be smaller. To use less, use longer, use better and use in different ways.
I was recently taken by an analysis by Kate Raworth who expanded on her work on the Doughnut Economy model to show where countries lie on the axes of social provision and ecological sustainability. Not a single country manages to achieve both at the same time.
Worse, it seems that our current model of growth means that no country WILL achieve both at once. If we want a truly sustainable economy, we can’t start from here and continue in the same direction but faster, as the Growth Commission would have us do. It’s not just me saying this either. Very respected economists such as Katherine Trebeck have said the exact same thing.
The Scottish Greens understand this. Patrick Harvie mentioned today in FMQs that the Green New Deal would be impossible under the “Sustainable” Growth Commission’s model. It is impossible to be sustainable while growing and it will be impossible to invest at anywhere near the scale required to change all the things about the current economy that need to change to make it sustainable. A Green New Deal will be as much about replacing our existing economy with something sustainable as it will be about making sure that any future growth is sustainable as well. For one example, not only do we need to make sure that all new buildings are constructed to passive and zero carbon standards, we need to begin retrofitting or replacing all of our existing buildings to meet those same standards (this will be the subject of a future Common Weal policy paper). Again, a Green New Deal will be as much about transforming as it will be about building new.
Though even in a steady state economy there will be growth within it as it transforms. we need to massively expand our renewables sector, for instance. But it will be offset by the contraction of other areas. Our oil and gas sector, for instance.
Here’s the cold hard truth for Scotland. There is no future in oil. There is no sustainable way of hoping for another oil boom. No matter how aggrieved you are at past mis-management and no matter how justified you may be in those feelings, there is no “our turn” in oil and gas.
A report published this week has shown that if the world wants to meet the 1.5C global warming ceiling then NONE of the oil currently held in untapped fields – including those “new” Scottish ones that have been appearing in the press in recent years – can be extracted if we want even a chance of meeting our goals.
Sure, the oil industry might still exist if we do nothing more than stop burning it for energy but that would eliminate somewhere around 85% of our demand for oil. Factor in the phasing out of oil-based products like many plastics and certain chemicals like fertilizers (which are each causing different kinds of ecological catastrophes) and the economics of oil start to look very, very different from what we’re currently used to.
I sometimes liken this particular transformation to the horse-based transport sector where the arrival of the automobile was pretty bad for the number of horse-wranglers (and the number of horses) even as it proved quite good for car mechanics. Horses still exist. They’re still sometimes used for transport. But on nowhere near the scale that they used to be and the economics of horse ownership is now very different to what it was.
This profound transformation in the way we run our economy is completely at odds with the Growth Commission model. Where we need investment, they suggest fiscal restraint. Where the world’s Central Banks are shifting towards Green policy, the Growth Commission says that Scotland shouldn’t have one. Where we need Sustainability, they aim for Growth.
Patrick Harvie was correct today when he said that Scotland currently has one arm tied behind its back because of the lack of independence. He was equally correct to say that the Growth Commission would tie the other one behind our back post-independence.
Common Weal has recently published a roadmap to a transformational, inclusive and investment-led economy for an independent Scotland. It lays the groundwork for what will become our roadmap to a full Green New Deal for an independent Scotland too.
If you are an SNP delegate at the conference this weekend and you want Scotland to take on the challenges present by climate change and for Scotland to adapt and thrive during that transformation then you must recognise that even if we gain independence in the next few years, we cannot then afford to wait another decade for the Growth Commission to bumble us along with its “soft independence” unambition. We need to come out of the starting gate running. For the reasons outlined by Robin McAlpine in his CommonSpace column this week, I believe that delegates should consider voting the Growth Commission model down in its entirety or remitting it back to be reformed into something more appropriate for the Scotland we want to build. Failing that, I’d personally be inclined to follow the lead of the Campaign for an Independent Currency and consider amending the motion to at least give Scotland its own currency and the monetary powers that it will need for the coming years.
The time for discussion is almost over. Soon, the SNP will be making a profound decision over their party’s vision for an independent Scotland. It will be up to them to decide whether the party wishes to maintain their position at the forefront of the independence movement and as advocates of what Scotland could and should be.
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