The United Nations climate summit Cop26 is fast approaching, and for many this feels like a crux in human history, where agreements need to be made and held to if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change in the near future.
But alongside acknowledgment of its importance, there is widespread pessimism that the promises made at the summit will be broken, like many made at summits before them, and that a rampant global economy, driven by unfettered capitalism, will continue to push for infinite growth on finite planetary resources.
So this felt like the perfect time to speak to Mark Burton from Steady State Manchester (SSM), who has just published a book, A Viable Future, about their work over the last ten years promoting the ideas of post growth and degrowth as an alternative to the laissez-faire pursuit of growth and profit at any cost type of economy we have at the moment.
Steady State’s work focuses on the Greater Manchester regional scale, and their work does not just focus on how to change the economy to prevent environmental destruction, it also tackles social injustices and inequality. This is relatively unusual in groups working towards creating change which often focus on either social issues or environmental issues, and rarely address both.
Post growth and degrowth explained
Post growth is a movement, a worldview, that is trying to challenge the globally dominant extractive and growth dependent economic system that concentrates wealth, increases inequality and is destroying our environment and life support systems on this planet.
A main focus for post growth is the reimagining of economics, by moving away from the concept of infinite growth that capitalism is committed to. Post growth puts an emphasis on what’s already working in the system and trying to adapt and improve it to provide an economy “that values people’s needs ahead of corporate greed” while protecting and nurturing our life-supporting environment. To find out more check out the Post Growth Institute.
Degrowth has a lot in common with the post growth movement, and has a longer and more European pedigree, dating back to the 70’s, with the name “degrowth” being a translation of the original French term “la decroissance”. Degrowth also is critical of the global capitalist system and its growth addiction, and pushes for economic and social policies and interventions to solve our ecological problems, while achieving a ”good life for all”. To find out more check out the Degrowth website.
Mark Burton says that there is a huge overlap between “the various concepts, degrowth, post-growth, steady state economy blend into one another – as in the idea of degrowth to a post-growth, steady state economy.”
Steady State are approaching their tenth anniversary in June 2022, and the catalyst that drove the formation of SSM was a group of local climate campaigners putting together a response to Manchester councils Call to Action Report of 2009. Burton and his fellow campaigners were critical of the report being produced by a London-based agency, and considered the report weak and vague in its recommendations. Their response was to produce their own report called a Call to Real Action, which A Viable Future describes “was in many ways a model of how to produce policy collectively, from a social movement”, Burton says it was:
“A significant intervention and I think as a result the plan that Manchester came up with was strengthened, they did listen to it. But in that kind of engagement with them we did very much come up against the contradiction between the city’s economic strategy, which was very much about, you know, boosterism promoting economic growth” and what needed to be done to effectively combat climate change.
As a council officer working in the field of social care Burton describes going to management workshops where you had to “kind of frame some of your plans and approaches in terms of economic growth which was bonkers when you’re working in social care.”
This attitude was pervasive across the council’s work in many different areas. Burton pointed out these clashes and contradictions to the council but it fell on “deaf ears”. This led him to the realisation that “we need stronger arguments, we needed to do a bit more homework on it.”
From local, to national, to global growth
Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the official measure of economic growth at the national level, will be high on the agendas of the world leaders attending the summit in Glasgow. World leaders are reluctant to adapt any policies that will significantly reduce the GDP for their country.
Yet, as A Viable Future illustrates, global GDP is closely linked to rising carbon dioxide levels. And although correlation does not prove causation, evidence is presented to show that changes in carbon emissions follow changes in GDP. A Viable Future states:
“Economic growth as measured by GDP fails to distinguish between economic costs and benefits, or to account for uncosted things such as environmental destruction and unpaid work, for example looking after family members, neighbours and sustaining community… the narrow focus on GDP determines economic policy, since success in steering the economy is judged in terms of changes in GDP. Its increase becomes an end in itself with devastating impacts on the environment.”
Can world leaders come up with workable plans to combat climate change while GDP remains the primary metric for progress? Burton replied that as it was a “measure of economic policy success” it did have a “material influence on policy” but people should be careful about just focusing on GDP, and must instead look at what was below the surface, driving growth.
“That’s driven ultimately by the capitalist system, which has an imperative to keep on growing, to accumulate more. Can that be overcome, and is that likely to happen? I guess I have to be somewhat pessimistic there. Although, It’s also instructive to compare different varieties of capitalism… the kind of post-war social democratic welfare system capitalism was a lot more benign” than the “savage neoliberal variety of capitalism that we now experience”, Burton said.
The environmental critique of economic growth, once a niche position, is now being adopted by global agencies reporting on the climate crisis. A leaked second draft of a Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, first published in the Spanish publication CTXT in August, was reported as stating that “we must move away from the current capitalist model to avoid surpassing planetary boundaries” and that “greenhouse gas emissions must peak in the next four years” to avoid climate breakdown.
A second leaked report from the IPCC was reported as stating: “the character of economic development produced by the nature of capitalist society … [is] ultimately unsustainable”.
Alternatives to GDP
Gross Domestic Product has also become the main indicator for the overall social progress of a country, despite one of its creators Simon Kuznets saying in 1934, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”
Steady State Manchester have looked at alternatives to GDP and Burton mentioned the genuine progress indicator (GPI) as one that had caught their eye as it incorporates social factors like poverty and environmental factors. So if overall poverty rose in a country, or there was significant habitat destruction or pollution, a GPI metric could fall whereas GDP would not. Burton, however, was sceptical of GPI because like GDP it boiled everything down to one figure.
The logo of SSM incorporates the concept of doughnut economics, created by Kate Raworth, and Burton explained that this could form the basis of a new multi-factor output measure of progress:
“The basic idea of having a floor for human development, below which you must not fall and then having a ceiling which is defined in terms of the planetary boundaries and that being the safe space. You can then begin to break that down, so you end up with not one measure, but probably about a dozen key measures. Key numbers to watch. I think an approach like that makes sense.”
This metric, let’s call it the planetary boundaries index (PBI), could not only replace GDP, Burton also believes it could replace the regional version of GDP, called gross value added (GVA) and be used to monitor progress across Greater Manchester, running initially alongside the old measure of GVA.
Local governments across the world are beginning to experiment with PBI type methods. It’s already on trial in Amsterdam, pioneered by the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, who are adapting the doughnut concept as a tool to guide the economic and social recovery of the city as they emerge from the pandemic. Canadian councillors in Nanaimo have voted to adopt the doughnut economic model as a guiding principle, and in Copenhagen a massive majority of the citizens have voted for the city to work towards adopting the doughnut model to manage their regional economy. Could Greater Manchester be the region to lead the way in the UK in adopting a PBI doughnut model?
The decoupling debate
At the COP26 UN conference most world leaders and the mainstream economists advising them will be relying on an ability to decouple their carbon dioxide emissions from economic growth (GDP), so they can make promises to reduce carbon emissions while not hitting their growth figures too hard. A Viable Future dedicates chapter four to this subject, as a fundamental principle of the post growth philosophy is that it is “not possible to significantly decouple the growth in the economy…from growth in material and energy flows”. Asking Burton where the current debate was to support the post growth case, he said:
“Yeah, I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming. Despite, as we acknowledge in the book that there has been short term absolute decoupling in some economies, and we have questions about whether that’s at all sufficient and just how permanent it is… So even if you went to 100% renewables and so on. Even if you could solve the carbon emissions problem, you’ve still got all these other material flows to worry about.”
Those other material flows result in the destruction of habitat and wildlife across the globe, most notably in the Amazon rainforest, the pollution of our oceans with plastic and air pollution increasing at an alarming rate across the globe which the World Health Organisation describe as “one of the biggest environmental threats to human health, alongside climate change.”
A Viable Future presents an analysis of the latest evidence to support modest decoupling in 21 countries, in 2016 (p.118), and amongst SSM’s conclusions are that the variability in the many different data sets used to construct this evidence, meant the results showing decoupling were subject to even greater variability. Meaning that evidence to support decoupling in this limited number of countries was suspect and far from conclusive. Also noted was that the countries indicated as achieving decoupling had only recorded absolute reductions of carbon dioxide emissions of up to 2% per year.
Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has noted that calculations by many respected organisations have shown that to keep within the Paris 2°C emissions scenario “reductions in absolute emissions greater than 3% to 4% year on year are judged incompatible with a growing economy” for wealthier nations, and that they “need, temporarily, to adopt a de-growth strategy” to stay within a 2°C emissions scenario.
The failures of governments across the world to address the climate crisis, whether it be liberal democracies like the UK or US, or authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, were high in my mind as I read A Viable Future, and my interest was piqued by the mention of “state capture” as a reason for failures to act decisively, particularly in democracies.
Burton said that the issue of state capture was not surprising in a society dominated by a capital owning class. “You haven’t got this kind of rational policy process going on whereby you have evidence of what would be good for the population and then you figure out how to put it into place and then you come up with the legislation and the policies that make that happen.
“It doesn’t really work like that, there’s a lot of irrationality and there’s a lot of power interests in there, the state is a contested place or contested space where capitalist interests are there. But also there are other interests… in a way that’s the nature of it, state capture is almost kind of inbuilt.”
A prime example of this process running up to Cop26 is president Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion programme for investment into climate mitigation in the US, which will phase out coal-fired power plants, being held up by one democratic senator called Joe Manchin, who opposes the bill. Manchin founded a coal brokerage firm called Enersystems before becoming a senator. Now his shares in Enersystems are worth up to $5 million, and he has received over $5 million in dividend income over the past decade.
The fossil fuel industries capture of government attention can also be observed here in the UK, where DeSmog reported that UK Ministers met one-on-one with fossil fuel producers nine times more often than they did with renewable energy producers. And the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry across the globe is indicated by the $11 million a minute subsidies the industry receives from governments worldwide.
Burton also described state capture by vested interested being present through “the revolving door of personnel between the companies, between the bigger accountancy firms and government.”
The revolving door in local government is evidenced by Sir Howard Bernstein’s move from his long-held position as chief executive of Manchester city council to the role of strategic development advisor for Manchester City FC and its ultimate owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s deputy prime minister who owns the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG). During his time as chief executive Bernstein oversaw a £1 billion property deal with ADUG and became a director of the joint public-private development company set up for it. The Etihad stadium site was also leased from the council to ADUG on very favourable terms under Bernstein’s watch.
Low hanging fruit
As for the outcome of Cop26, Burton is pessimistic about their being a positive outcome. The “best we can hope for is an improvement on Paris”, he says, citing the long history of broken promises and missed targets from climate summits in the past as the reason for that pessimism.
From reading A Viable Future it is clear the SSM collective are not depending on world leaders or even local leaders to instigate change. Just like organisations such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, Climate Emergency Manchester and Youthstrike 4 Climate, their work to promote change resonates with the words of the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglas: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The SSM book provides a comprehensive critique of the way our current economic system is failing to improve social and environmental justice, and also provides many viable solutions, policy ideas and demands that can be made to those in power.
One viable policy put forward by Burton as being a relatively easily achievable goal is promoting “sectoral green deals” which would bring together a partnership of local organisations to complete specific green projects such as insulation and retrofit of homes across the region. The council could use its considerable convening powers to create “a model whereby you’re engaging with maybe one or two utility companies with some housing providers, with some financial organisations and… some of the expert bodies out there that are pioneering a kind of radical retrofit,” Burton said.
Another of these low hanging fruit that Burton is stretching to pick with his work with Fossil Free GM is repurposing the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF) to investing in local green economic development initiatives. The GMPF has more than £1 billion invested in oil, gas and coal stocks, and Fossil Free GM are running a divestment campaign, Burton says, to encourage the fund “to move many of the assets in the local authority pension fund. Not just out of fossil fuels, but also out of other problematic sectors and use that for local economic development.”
As Cop26 convenes and world leaders and environmental activists gather, all have a common purpose of combatting climate change, the major problem is world leaders are all enmeshed in a global economic system that prevents them from implementing the radical policies desperately needed to protect life on Earth. Whatever the outcome of Cop26, the Steady State Manchester collective will continue to highlight the failings of our current system, and push for the changes needed here in Greater Manchester.
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