Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Buying less, caring more: towards a sustainable, non-growth economy

Woke up early this morning with a blog entry clamouring to leave my brain and get onto the page.

There are two different knotty issues that I’ve been thinking about a bit lately and wanted to place side by side because I think they could illuminate each other. I’m not trying to solve these problems so much as simply start to look at them in tandem. Before I do that I want to warn that I’m just as much a part of the problems as anyone. In fact, it’s my own inconsistencies that lead me to contemplate these issues – the gap between my ideals and how I live my life!

So here goes.

Buddhists tell us that all living creatures want to be happy and enjoy the world. Yet our fast-paced capitalist society treats the earth, as well as human and non-human animals, as resources that need to be productive or at least managed. The effect of this is that we all overlook just how much care and nurturing the earth and its creatures need. In a sense, the whole set-up in many Western cultures requires us to do this if we are to function ‘properly’.

I suppose I’m talking a bit about sustainability here, but with a living creature component.

In his popular blog Rocky and Gawenda, former editor of The Age newspaper Michael Gawenda writes about the effects that his tiny, mischievous dog has had on his life. Since Gawenda’s retirement from full-time journalism Rocky has become his close companion: every morning they rise at dawn and go for a long walk along St Kilda beach.

But Gawenda still has many work obligations, and in an article in The Age a few months ago he wrote of his reluctance to acknowledge the depths of despair that his regular abandonment of Rocky produced in his beloved mutt. He feared that one extended absence had led to an estrangement so great that Rocky would never fully recover the depth of trust and affection he had once displayed towards his master.

In the article, Gawenda reluctantly grappled with just how delicate the emotional make-up of a non-human creature such as Rocky might be, and how much such a creature might require in care and attention.

When we start to be willing to look at a situation like that, the needs of the world can seem too overwhelming. In fact, it is nothing more than an invitation to put living beings before gain – an invitation that the world constantly tries to draw us away from.

Michael Leunig is a Melbourne cartoonist, illustrator and artist turned writer. In his regular pieces for the Age, Leunig contemplates life from the slow lane. Living in the bush, he is alive to its nuances, and documents with great honesty the rhythms of his own emotional life as he relates to an increasingly dysfunctional wider world.

Leunig is far from perfect either: his failure to see the sufferings of women denied agency and power in the world, as well as his inexplicable hostility towards Australia’s embattled intellectuals, not to mention thought itself, are baffling.

In 1995 he produced one of his most controversial cartoons, ‘Thoughts of a baby lying in a child care centre’. A tiny newborn lies in a crib at a child care centre. The child is in despair because it believes that its mother has abandoned it, and it then turns that despair in on itself, deciding that it must be unworthy. Feminists were furious.

No doubt one reason for this cartoon being controversial is that Leunig was pointing out an unpleasant truth: our society does not really want to think about the complexity of the needs of a single child, and instead puts the work ethic and the dollar first.

But what I think made feminists angry was the assumption that only one half of society was responsible for this grave failure to care: women. For one short moment, Leunig was able to contemplate the giant need and great loneliness of a single child; but it was too painful for him. Rather than remain in uncertainty, and invite the ‘negative capability’ that Keats suggests and that he himself claims to be comfortable with, he simply reached for a convenient scapegoat. If he could blame women for the problem, he no longer had to deal with its full implications.

Jeff Kennett was the conservative premier of Victoria from 1992 until 1999. Gung-ho, aggressive and revengeful after many years in opposition, and having inherited a huge debt from the outgoing Labor government, he seemed to take great joy in shutting down hundreds of government schools, carrying out mass sackings of public servants, and privatising the electricity industry (which caused massive job loss).

But since retiring from politics, Kennett has changed. A former chairman of beyondblue, an organisation that publicises depression and assists sufferers, he now regrets his failure to consider the social effects of electricity privatisation. This infamous right wing warrior made the following admission in The Age of 12 December:

It’s very easy to change the natural order of life but it comes with a huge social and economic cost. If I was in office ever again and implementing change as I did in the past … I would make sure that I had a lot of education in place … I would try better to understand the impact of change.

Although many people see the categories of right and left as outdated and meaningless, I don’t agree. It’s been said that what distinguishes them is the left’s willingness to actually consider the effects of political and economic decisions on the ground, for individuals, communities and particular groups, to look at the micro as well as the macro. Through his involvement with beyondblue, Kennett has learned to do this and is a wiser human being as a result.

So – what’s the other issue I wanted to look at? I know this post is getting long, so I’ll try and keep what is an infinitely complex topic outrageously short.

The journal New Scientist had a great collection of articles in its 18 October 2008 issue on why the continued growth model of economic development simply wasn’t possible any more. It’s not a matter of ideology – the earth can’t sustain continued growth any longer because its resources are finite, and they’re fast running out. Rapidly rising population is a large part of the problem.

In his contribution, Tim Jackson looks at the sustainability–growth issue in terms of the need to reduce carbon emissions. He warns that if we factor economic growth (which itself seems to require increasing population) into the equation, ‘the idea that technological ingenuity can save us from climate disaster looks a whole lot more challenging’.

Jackson goes on to calculate how low in carbon emissions our economies would have to be by 2050 if we a) want to stabilise greenhouse levels in the atmosphere at ‘a reasonably safe 450 parts per million’ and b) factor in projected population increases, continued economic growth and the need to eradicate extreme poverty. He demonstrates that to achieve such a stabilisation, ‘the carbon content of economic output must be reduced to just 2 per cent of the best currently achieved anywhere in the European Union’. It would, in other words, necessitate more or less ‘complete decarbonisation of every last dollar’ – a well-nigh impossible task.

But if economic growth is the problem, adopting a different model would represent a change of gargantuan proportions. How is it to be done without causing widespread suffering? In fact, reducing growth in a chaotic fashion already has increased poverty and death – In March 2009 it was estimated that the recent global financial crisis would lead to the deaths of an additional 200,000 to 400 000 children.

Any discussion on changing our economic system to one that doesn’t rely on growth must look at how we can reduce consumption without increasing unemployment and causing widespread hardship.

What would a sustainable society and economy look like? Because goods would be built for the long term, maintenance and repair would become major industries.

There would be major government investment in services that have been sorely neglected for years such as public transport and social housing, as well as huge investment in renewable energy. But let’s not forget that, worthwhile as these investments are, they will still rely on the world’s natural resources to be farmed and dug from the ground (eg iron ore).

The need to care more, which I’ve identified in the previous section of this blog entry, is perhaps one of the solutions. Caring could be a significant form of employment in a sustainable economy. More teachers in classrooms. More childcare workers in creches. More psychologists and psychiatrists and counsellors in psyche units, community health centres, mental health outreach teams and jails. More nursing staff in aged care centres. More doctors in the western suburbs, new suburbs and rural areas.

But a lower consuming society would also leave more time for its citizens to care for each other, which wouldn’t cost anything, but would save a lot of money.

In the long run, this would lead to a reduction in crime and incarceration. Community bonds would strengthen.

Caring for the earth, through environmental employment projects and community vegetable gardens, could also increase.

I’m not an economist and can’t even begin to discuss here what the nuts and bolts of a non-growth economy would be, how it would actually sustain itself, pay its workers and feed its population. My point is that we need to start discussing what such an economy would look like and how we could move towards it. And perhaps the fact that the world demands so much care and attention – so much more than we can currently give it – is one reminder that something needs to change.


  1. Hello Catherine,

    what a thought provoking and inspiring post. Creating awareness amongst society is the starting point, I believe. And writing like yours does just that. Of course, it is an unfortunate circumstance however, that blogs with such content probably arn't reaching out far enough or to the 'right' people - I know mine arn't, anyhow.

    Yes, care for those around us - it takes time and effort, but it is so worthwhile. As you suggest, this will not only save money within society, but it will enrich the lives of others, therefore possibly reducing the need for even more services. A happier individual is a healthier individual, and lots of happier and healthier individuals creates a happier and more sustainable community.

    Catherine, I hope you have a pleasant holiday season.

    Kind regards,

  2. Hi Gaye,

    Thanks for your comment -- much appreciated. I know what you mean -- a lot of people aren't getting the message about how finite the world's resources are. Instead, the dominant message, especially this time of year, is all about consumption. 'I shop therefore I am' is a bit of a cliche now, but it still sums up the direction our society continues to be moving in. There are some small rays of hope, with an increasing number of people embracing sustainability, as well as the 'slow' movement.

    Hope you have a great holiday season as well, and I look forward to reading your great nature/life blog entries in 2010!