I was looking up a Lord Stern quote the other day for another project, and while flicking through Blueprint for a Safer Planet to find it, I remembered this section. Stern presents a robust defence of green growth, and why it wouldn’t be right to take the degrowth approach to dealing with climate change. But then he says this:
This is not to claim that the world can continue to grow indefinitely. It is not even clear what such a claim would involve; societies, living standards, ways of producing and consuming all change. A picture of indefinite expansion is an implausible story of the future, but two things are key: first, to find a way of increasing living standards (including health, education and freedoms) so that world poverty can be overcome; and second, to discover ways of living that can be sustained over time, particularly in relation to the environment. Strong growth, of the right kind, will be both necessary and feasible for many decades.
The assumption of our economics and politics is of course indefinite expansion – growth that goes on forever. Here we have one of Britain’s most respected economists telling us that’s an ‘implausible story’. Unfortunately he immediately fends off the implications of that remark and goes back to saying why growth is important, and how it will be “both necessary and feasible for many decades.”
I would love to pick Lord Stern’s brain on this, get him to imagine that postgrowth world – what would it look like? How would we know when we’d had enough growth? How would the transition beyond growth happen? But I’m pretty sure that if we had him here to talk to, we wouldn’t be able to draw him out on it, however speculative the conversation. He wouldn’t want to blow his respectability by entertaining the idea of life after growth.
There are a couple of obvious responses to Stern’s hasty dismissal of the postgrowth future he just suggested, but I’ve covered such things elsewhere. The point of reproducing the quote here is that it’s a perfect example of the strange bind that postgrowth economics finds itself in. It is completely common sense, and simultaneously utterly taboo.