Month by month, the detail around the idea of an economy on the other side of growth is being filled out. There are conferences, papers, books, all filling out the picture of how it might work and how we get there. The idea of a postgrowth economy isn’t new, but in the last decade or so we’ve seen a wave of interest. Slowly, but I think inexorably, it is creeping towards the mainstream.
This latest contribution comes out of the University of New South Wales in Australia: A Future Beyond Growth – Towards a Steady State Economy.
That subtitle matters, because there has been a proliferation of new economy terminology, from green growth to degrowth, the blue economy, the restorative economy. As a co-founder of the Postgrowth Institute, I tend to hang my hat on the catch-all term postgrowth, but there are distinctive things about the steady state economy that the book wants to highlight.
The first of these is population, and the book opens with four chapters on the topic. I’ll write more about this another time, but it’s a topic that has to be addressed. One reason is that population is a driver of environmental destruction. Another is that if the population can grow but the economy or material use can’t, then the future means ever smaller shares. Herman Daly, the foremost proponent of the steady state economy and a contributor here, had a stable population as a key plank of his vision. It’s been a blind spot in much of the debate and its inclusion here, in some detail and with multiple perspectives, is very helpful.
One of the reasons why some people dismiss population as a problem is that consumption can framed as the bigger issue. So it’s good to see consumerism featured here two, putting both sides of the equation. Erik Assadourian of the WorldWatch Institute is always worth reading, and he contributes an essay on the cultural change that is needed to break down consumerism. “Moving away from consumerism” he writes, “will undoubtedly be the most difficult part of the transition to a sustainable society.”
Other chapters investigate other aspects of the transition. Joshua Farley looks at whether the steady state is compatible with capitalism. Philip Lawn looks at how we measure progress towards sustainability. Helen Kopnina writes about the circular economy. It’s a diverse collection, with some writers more optimistic than others. “It is neither hopeless nor too late” insist the editors, Haydn Washington and Paul Twomey. Graham Turner on the other hand, suggests that “the realistic likelihood of a transition to a sustainable future is, unfortunately, vanishingly small.”
There are things missing from the book. There’s very little on inequality, which is a vital aspect of the transition. The authors acknowledge the absence. Also missing is anything from a development perspective. Obviously the idea of the steady state is most pertinent to over-developed countries, but unless lower income countries have an alternative vision of development, all the same mistakes will be repeated. I’m also looking forward to someone smarter than I am looking more seriously at Japan, which is in some ways a postgrowth society already.
“We do not pretend that this book is definitive” say the editors. “Some of the ideas and solutions here will work, others will be superseded by others better suited to both society’s needs and the evolving reality we face.” At this point the most important thing is dialogue, breaking down the denial around growth and limits, and making it okay to ask difficult questions.
If you’re following the postgrowth debate, which in my opinion is one of the most important debates of our age, then you’ll want to dip into A Future Beyond Growth.