STWR joined a diverse group of academics, activists and business people at the first ever international conference on steady state economics held in Leeds. The event was an inspiring and important step forward for a burgeoning movement questioning limitless economic growth, writes Anna White.
On Saturday 19th June, Leeds Metropolitan University played host to a unique gathering of over 250 academics, economists, NGOs, local community organisations, business people and even a few deviant politicians, all coalescing behind an idea whose time is long overdue: the steady state economy. Given the worrying truth acknowledged by attendees – that the blinkered pursuit of never-ending economic growth is destroying the planet and endangering human well-being – the mood was surprisingly high-spirited. No one came to rail against greedy bankers or deliver doomsday predictions of a dystopian future. The focus instead was on the burgeoning possibilities for a new economy, one that builds prosperity within ecological limits. Albeit with an admission, of course, that we really do need to get a move on in creating it.
Organised by Economic Justice for All (EJfA) in Leeds and the US-based Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), keynote speakers included some of the foremost thinkers who challenge our addiction to economic growth. York University’s Peter Victor, whose book, Managing without Growth offers one of the few empirical analyses of post-growth scenarios in a national economic setting, challenged the “fear of a no growth disaster”. He argued that convincing policy-makers and the public that it is possible to have full employment, no poverty and low greenhouse gas emissions without relying on economic growth requires a comprehensive set of progressive policies, not least of which is fewer working hours.
CASSE’s own Dan O’Neill outlined the qualifications for what a steady state economy would actually look like. Making the crucial point that it is not only stabilising material throughput within ecological limits that is important, he proposed that economic activity must also result in a just distribution of resources and contribute to a high quality of life for all.
In a video contribution, although disappointingly cut short, Tim Jackson linked the structural drive for economic growth to a culture of consumerism. This was apparent, he said, in our somewhat ridiculous tendency towards materialistic social comparison – our desire to “keep up with the Joneses”. Why do we feel the need to constantly buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t know, or sometimes even like? The short answer is that it is one of the more perverse outcomes of a system bent on ever-expanding supply and demand. For the long answer, see Jackson’s excellent publication,Prosperity without Growth.
Andrew Simms, Policy Director at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), gave a rallying call to “harness the transformative impulse for progressive ends”. Venturing into the realm of psychoanalysis, he suggested we could redirect the human desire for novelty and reinvention – upon which consumer culture feeds – by changing the stories we tell ourselves about what is normal and socially desirable. Instead of engaging in the left-wing tendency of navel-gazing and bickering amongst each other, he implored the movement challenging growth to recognise the urgent need to transform ‘business as usual’ and boldly step up to the plate in advocating alternatives.
Inspiring as the keynote presentations were, the real undertaking of the conference took place in the ten interactive workshops convened to explore specific policy proposals for achieving a steady state economy. From suggestions for how to limit resource use to the possibility for developing alternative measures of progress beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP), discussions centred on the concrete steps required to take the movement forward from the realms of academia and into political action.
One recurring theme of debate centred on how to balance bold transformative measures with some sense of political realism. Attendees pointed out that any proposal that seriously challenges the status quo, and subsequently the powerful interests that benefit from its continuation, is bound to run into stiff opposition. Tempering this concern, however, was realism of a different kind. For, as many participants noted, what could be more idealistic than to suppose that economic growth can continue unchallenged on a finite planet?
A theme that received much less attention, but arguably one of the most important going forward, was the question of what impact such a transformation would have on the so-called ‘developing world’. While steady state economics is clearly tailored for the few countries who are over-consuming the world’s resources, the consequences of altering the dynamics of growth would reach far beyond national boundaries. The creation of more co-operative relationships in relation to trade, aid and global governance cannot be treated as a side issue.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the prevailing atmosphere among participants at the conference was one of hope. Alongside the bold policy changes proposed was widespread evidence that the transition is already happening at a grassroots level. Local currencies are springing up around the world, alternative business models are thriving, and politicians and the public are engaging with the issues at stake. Armed with progressive economic ideas, growing political support and - as a few speakers noted - a new name, the movement for a steady state economy has the potential to capture the public imagination and help build a more sustainable and socially just future.