More, more, more

Economics, as it’s currently understood, is all about growth. The economy is failing unless it continues to grow; wages must keep rising; there must be inflation; we must spend more and consume more. If not, we are failing. But why? What skewed theory is based on continuous growth? It doesn’t work in natural systems, so why would it work in human systems?

Adam Smith, who seems to be at the bottom of much of current economics, considered that technology would result in increased outputs. The enhanced economy would lead to reduced mortality and increased fertility thus delivering an increasing workforce to deliver this ever-expanding economic growth.

Unlimited growth isn’t possible in a limited space

At much the same time as Smith was developing his theories, Thomas Malthus was writing about about limitations. In recent years, Malthus has been somewhat maligned and his Limits to Growth model has been criticised for its simplicity. It’s true that there are more factors to consider than Malthus’ simple contention that food production could only increase arithmetically, whilst the population could expand geometrically, thus the former would limit the latter. However, in a more general way, you have to accept that he had a point: the world contains finite resources, and at some point these are going to limit the populations (human and other organisms) that can be supported.

And it is resources that I have been thinking a lot about lately. The two main environmental issues in the news recently have been plastics and climate change, but really the overarching factor is over-exploitation of finite resources. Whatever aspect of the environment you are concerned about, reducing your use of resources will have a positive impact. Use less “stuff” and you will reduce energy consumption (in production and transportation of goods). Buy less “stuff” and make what you have last longer and there will be less material that needs to be disposed of or recycled. Make the best use of the resources you already have and you will be reducing your impact on the planet.

The economy may not grow as a result of your actions, but the economy is simply a human construct, whilst life in the oceans (for example) is very real and will certainly benefit. In my opinion, a change in what we consider important – from economics to ecology – cannot come soon enough.

Spend, spend, spend

Question: What is the best way to help the environment and, at the same time, save money?

Answer: Stop buying stuff.

We in the UK (and the US, Australia, Canada, Europe and many other places) live in a consumer society. We buy stuff. We are encouraged to buy stuff… not just by manufacturers, but by the governments that we elect.

The UK Government website (gov.uk) list one of their policies as being ‘Achieving Strong and Sustainable Economic Growth‘, stating

To make sure the UK can succeed in the global economy, we are taking action to stimulate economic growth while supporting people who work hard and want to get on in life.

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can't produce any more!

Even in the most abundant space, eventually you reach a limit and can’t produce any more!

Well, maybe I’m being stupid here, but I think that continuous growth is simply not sustainable. As an ecologist, I know that natural systems have a ‘carrying capacity’ for any given species and ecosystem. Growth occurs until the carrying capacity is reached, then there is sometimes a bit of an overshoot, but eventually if nothing else changes, an equilibrium is reached and numbers remain steady. Since our world does not have infinite resources, then infinite growth is not possible* and any government that claims it is (in whatever context) must be lying.

However, many governments continue to present continued economic growth as a panacea that will cure all our woes. And how do they wish to deliver this? By getting you and me to spend money: to buy ever bigger houses, to replace our mobile phone as soon as a more advanced model becomes available, to follow fashion, to feel we can only be happy with the biggest TV, trendiest trainers and latest computer. Of course, much of the ‘stuff’ that we buy comes from overseas (why do you think China has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years?), but some of the money (especially linked to things like construction) goes to companies based in our own country… and if this increases then, hey presto! economic GROWTH and, apparently, universal happiness.

But it’s simply not true. First, apart from the media telling you that we need economic growth, do you really see a great benefit for YOU? And, perhaps more importantly, do you see any great benefit for the planet and the other people living on it? We continue to use up finite resources (and they really are finite, let nobody tell you otherwise) in a drive toward this nebulous thing called growth.

Of course we can do things like recycling, but a demand for more and more stuff means we have to expend energy to produce it, whether from new materials or from recycled ones; plus, if we buy from overseas we have to meet the environmental costs of transportation. The more I write about it, the more like nonsense it seems.

So, what are we to do? Well the answer is in your own hands – stop buying so much. Environmentalists used to talk about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. These days how about reduce, repair, revamp… and learn to treasure your possessions. Buy items that are good quality and can be mended if they break… reject the throw-away society and our governments and corporations telling us to spend, spend, spend our money. Instead, how about a bit of civil disobedience? Lets

SPEND more time growing things
SPEND more on good quality items that won’t need replacing
and
SPEND your leisure time being creative

-oOo-

* Malthus had something to say about this… Google him if you’re not familiar with his “Limits to Growth” work

Civil disobedience is homemade pants!

A few months ago I read a post by my friend Seema about making her own pants (or underpants as you would say in the US I think) that prompted me to start writing this entry on my blog. Somehow I didn’t finish it and has taken me until now to get back to it, but finally here I am…

Now, you might be wondering how making your own underwear resulted in thoughts of civil disobedience…

Apparently my homemade socks could bring down the government!

Apparently my homemade socks could bring down the government!

Well, Seema mentioned something called ‘The Compact‘, which started out as an agreement between a group of friends in San Francisco not to buy anything new for a year, with the exception of a few things, including underwear. Seema felt that it should be possible to make your own pants and thus further reduce the purchase of new items. I have previously written about buying secondhand socks, but perhaps secondhand pants are a step too far! The answer, therefore, is to make your own, and Seema tells you how.

This still doesn’t really explain the link to civil disobedience, does it? But, stick with me, I’m getting there.

In researching The Compact I discovered that this attempt to reduce consumerism and do something to live more sustainably has been widely criticised, because it does nothing to support ‘the economy’. If you watch the news or read newspapers in the UK, US and probably any industrialised country, you will know that governments want ‘growth’. And by that they mean more manufacturing, more purchasing, more exports. For example an article in the Star Tribune states:

The American economy depends on consumers willing to buy the latest in fashions, furnishings and flat-screen TVs. Indeed, in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, shopping was cast as a patriotic duty, a way to help prevent the economy from tipping into a recession.

And that sums it up – if you don’t shop and buy more stuff, you are going to bring down your country… the whole of the economic system that many of our countries rely on will no longer function. What can be more civilly disobedient than that?

But, I hear you ask, do I really want to bring down the economy of my country, even if it is by making my own knickers and not buying that new mobile phone that will make my life worth living once more? Well, for many people, the current economy is not working well – there is a huge gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and this is becoming increasingly difficult to govern. In addition, common sense tells us that all economies cannot continue to grow indefinitely – surely we should be looking at stable, sustainable economies, where the needs of all can be met without constantly trying to exploit either groups of people or the planet? Buying new things is driven, to a great extent by large corporations wanting to make money (I direct you once again to The Story of Stuff – do watch it if you haven’t already) rather than their desire to make you happy!

I have to confess that, as an inveterate bibliophile, I can’t bring myself to promise not to buy anything new, but I think that we could all reduce, reuse and repair in order to make the world a better place… and if that means I’m bringing down our whole economic system, then I’m fine with that

-oOo-

If you are interested in The Compact, there is an online community

And if you want to find out more about economics and alternatives to constant consumption, you can do no better than to visit the website of the New Economics Foundation… sounds dull, but it really isn’t!

Money, money, money

I used to have a ‘real’ job: I went to work every day and somebody paid me a salary at the end of the month. My contract came to an end and I could have applied for a permanent job, but I didn’t want to carry on in that particular role, so I didn’t bother. After a brief break a friend rang me up and asked if I was available… I said yes and, after an interview, I was offered a job that involved working three days per week. This seemed like a good idea as I already had a bit of freelance copy-editing coming in and I was doing a bit of teaching adults for the local university’s lifelong learning department. That job got made permanent and I got fed up with it so I moved to a new post – two and a half days a week – continuing to copy-edit and teach plus taking on other editing. I managed that for six years before I decided that life was too short to spend two and a half days a week doing a managerial job that I no longer enjoyed, so I resigned. Four years down the line I have a lot less money, a wardrobe full of clothes I never wear and a much more productive garden. No regrets.

Since I have less money I probably think more carefully about what I want to spend it on. This is not to say that we are short of money, it’s just that I think I value it more now than I used to. I spend a lot less these days because I rarely have lunch out, or buy a cup of coffee, or go and buy something because I’m feeling stressed and I no longer have the bus fare or petrol to pay for to get me to work (although I have worn out quite a few pairs of slippers in the last few years). But when I do buy things I want to get a good product and I want my money to do good… so my coffee is fair trade, my meat is organic and my electricity supply is green, but this is only part of the picture. What I want to do is support my local community and my local economy. I want to spend money within the local economy as much as I can. There is good evidence demonstrating the value to your community of spending your money with local businesses – more people in your area benefit from it and it makes your community financially more robust. It also encourages more local production, which has great benefits as, for example, oil prices rise and the cost of transporting goods goes up. There is loads of information about this… look at the work of The New Economics Foundation, for example. Just type ‘local economy’ into their search and you will find all sorts of information, not to mention free publications to download.

We are lucky here in west Wales – there are lots of local food producers, one of the best farm shops in the country, many small businesses on the high streets, lots of local crafts-people, a local flour mill and great places to eat. There are great opportunities to support our local economy and thus our local community. I’m not saying that I never shop in a supermarket or on-line, but many of my purchases do support local shop keepers and/or producers and I hope that my money is going round and round in the local economy and doing lots of good before finally moving out of the area.

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