The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States took me completely by surprise. I didn’t think such a thing was possible because I believed that, as a world, we were beyond such a blatant swing to the right in terms of political attitudes. But I should not have been so surprised for, when you look at the US elections in light of the world political stage, including here in Australia, there has been a clear and consistent swing to the right for some time. From Brexit in England, to the rise of fascist parties in various European countries, to the Australian Government’s Asylum Seeker policy and the rise of the One Nation party, there is a right wing reactionary trend that certainly causes me great concern for the future. So what has caused this swing?
An obvious and immediate answer is the destabilisation created by the rise of Islamic Fundamentalist based terrorism. The events of 9/11 changed the developed world’s attitude profoundly. It has heightened a sense of insecurity and particularly fear of an enemy that can strike without warning on home soil and has civilians as the primary target. This perceived threat to our way of life has led to a mushrooming in the ‘intelligence state.’ We have more government intrusion in our lives from airport security checks to phone surveillance. Intelligence budgets have increased substantially and defenders of these practices say extraordinary measures are necessary to keep us safe.
But is this enough, on its own, to explain the political swing to the right in the developed world?
I would suggest that there is a deeper issue at the heart of this shift. While the fear of terrorism offers a perfect political tool to fuel this shift, the bigger threat to current political parties in developed nations is the unsustainability of our economic system based on the unrealistic goal of ‘sustained growth.’
The model that Western governments have pushed for some time has been that a bigger economy is always better. But this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, economies can’t grow forever.
If developed nations were to grow their GDP by 2% over coming decades, and by 2050 the global population had achieved a similar standard of living, the global economy would be approximately 15 times larger than it is today in terms of GDP. If the global economy grew at 3% from then on it would be 30 times larger than the current economy by 2073, and 60 times larger by the end of this century.
But it is utterly implausible to think that planetary ecosystems could withstand the impacts of a global economy that was 15, 30, or 60 times larger than it is today. Even a global economy twice or four times as big should be of profound ecological concern.
It has been estimated that we would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined. Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.
Why governments fail to act on this knowledge is that we, the people who live in developed western economies, have gotten used to the high standard of living our countries have developed and enjoyed since the end of the Second World War. In other words, we have become spoilt and our governments know this. They know that to stay in power, they have to deliver what the people want – that is maintaining a high standard of living. But because it is unsustainable, short-term ‘solutions’ are all the go, like keeping out migrants who would ‘take our jobs’ and make more demands on our resources and infrastructure.
After all, if governments respond responsibly to issues like the environment, it would demand a shrinking of the economy or a diversion of resources that would impact on the way of life we have become accustomed to. If people start to feel their way of life is affected too dramatically, they will vote that government out. This is a far greater threat to the longevity of a government in power than a terrorist attack.
The right of politics notoriously favours those who benefit most from the current economic model – those at the top of the economic food chain. Scapegoating is a political tactic as old as time to distract people from the truth – that the way of life we have come to enjoy is unsustainable and is going to come to an end one way or another.
This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “de-growth”. In other words, a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.
Mainstream economists will accuse de-growth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. The fatal problem with the growth model is that it relies on an extent of decoupling that quickly becomes unachievable. We simply cannot make a growing supply of food, clothes, houses, cars, appliances, gadgets, etc. with 15, 30, or 60 times less energy and resources than we do today. We need to embrace renewable energy, but renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. Some countries have shown trends of decoupling; but under closer examination, this is generally because of them outsourcing energy and resource-intensive manufacturing elsewhere. Technology and ‘free markets’ are not the salvation they promised to be.
In order to move toward a just and sustainable global economy, developed nations must reduce their resource demands to a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint. This might imply an 80% reduction or more, if the global population is to achieve a similar material living standard. But such significant quantitative reductions cannot be achieved if we persist with the dominant economics of GDP growth. It follows that the developed nations need to initiate policies for a post-growth economy at once, followed in due course by developing nations. This is humanity’s defining challenge in coming years and decades.
A de-growth society embraces the necessity of planned economic contraction, seeking to turn our environmental and social crises into opportunities for civilisational renewal. Among other things, we would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our material simplicity, we would be rich – if we manage the transition wisely.