To avoid climate catastrophe, it’s time for Labour to scrap the idea of growth

We need to challenge our obsession with economic growth before it destroys the planet.

Earlier this month, John McDonnell gave a remarkable speech on the economy after Brexit. In the speech the shadow chancellor challenged the idea of economic growth, directly linking it to the ecological and climate crisis.

“Every 1% added to global GDP over the last century has meant, on average, adding 0.5% to carbon dioxide emissions”, McDonnell said, continuing:

“As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems.

“The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent… on current trends we are heading for a 3.5 degree celsius increase in global temperatures this century; a rise that would wreck everyone’s economy.”

McDonnell directly linked economic growth and CO2 emissions, highlighting how the current system is unsustainable for any economy.

Could this be a hint that the shadow chancellor is looking at post-growth economics, also known as degrowth – where production and consumption are downscaled?

It would certainly be welcome given the “green growth” approach favoured by many progressive politicians goes against evidence showing that the material demand and impact of the economy cannot be significantly reduced while it grows.

An economy that doesn’t have to keep growing is possible and realistic. Here’s what it could look like.

Dumping the mantra of “growth” means devising and securing support for unprecedented and innovative policies. Our group, Steady State Manchester, has explored them at the level of the city region in some detail.

At the national level, socially progressive policies can be implemented that go hand in hand with a reduction in GDP growth, such as:

1. Abolish the misleading GDP indicator: focus on real things- jobs, incomes, activity, investment, care, health, wellbeing and environmental restoration. McDonnell proposes that the OBR include the impact of climate change and environmental damage in its long-term forecasts – that’s a start.

2. Sharing work-and resources: reducing the working week to some 32 hours, supporting employers to facilitate job-sharing, with income loss for the top 10% only.

3. Minimum and maximum income: high incomes mean disproportionate resource consumption: cap them but also set a floor.

4. Tax reform: for a progressive system that taxes use of energy and resources, wealth, property and land value.

5. Curb advertising: reducing the incessant promotion of consumption will reduce production.

6. Optimise buildings: establish a hierarchy from expropriation of vacant housing, incentives to down-size and share, prioritising retrofitting and refurbishment, and then respond to any remaining need by building low energy social housing, within already urbanised areas. Invest in a jobs-generating deep retrofit programme, saving fuel costs and emissions.

7. Establish environmental limits: via absolute and diminishing caps on the CO2 that can be produced and the material resources the country uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

This isn’t a full programme for a steady state economy but it demonstrates how, far from suggesting something impractical and unpopular, Labour could and should promote the genuinely ecological literate and socialist approach of degrowth.

Mark H Burton s a member of the Steady State Manchester collective, a Labour Party member and divestment activist.

7 Responses to “To avoid climate catastrophe, it’s time for Labour to scrap the idea of growth”

  1. paul havemann

    Mark ,many thanks for highlighting this aspect of McDonnell’s very welcome recent speech. To quote Kate Raworth now is the time to be constructively ‘agnostic’ about growth and work towards a system of local and global governance that allows the Earth to return to within its safe operating limits. A key step involves the scaling up of small scale agro-ecology based farming to underpin localising the food system to get it out of the hands of the globalising supermarket ‘cartel’ that controls 95% of our food supply and the air-chemical MNCs that poison us daily with herbicide, pesticides and GM crops.

  2. Mark H Burton

    Thanks Paul. I agree, although there are many other things that need to be done as well. The beauty of “the scaling up of small scale agro-ecology based farming to underpin localising the food system to get it out of the hands of the globalising supermarket ‘cartel’ ” is that it simultaneously helps reduce carbon emissions while building resilience of our food supply to geo-political and ecological shocks, here in the global North and also for those people at the other end of the global food chain in the global South, producing cash crops and losing local sufficiency and crop diversity.

    Readers might be interested in another recent piece by me that responds to John McDonnell’s colleague Chi Onwurah who praised economic growth as the solution to all our problems – it was published on the SERA blog in December – here is the link to a slightly longer version (which also links to the SERA version):

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