As politicians continue to try and face up to the worst economic conditions for close on a century, the constant refrain from them seems to be around how we need to create something called “sustainable growth” – a term that is never actually defined, yet which has the benefits of hitting two main topics within a single, woolly, statement.
The presumption has to be that through some form of magic, the economy can be picked off the floor, that money will come in from wealth creation activities without this having any deleterious impact on the finite raw resources such as oil and metals, as well as the less finite resources such as water and food that we have tended to overuse or misuse in the past.
A few problems with this. For every new person in an environment there will be a need for more basic resources such as water and food. And a concomitant growth in ‘need’ for things like fuel and luxury goods. To fund these needs, more money is needed, which requires more growth, which requires more people, which requires more growth, which… Well, you get the picture. Even at the most basic level, there is no sustainability around growth that involves more people, unless a completely different thought process is brought to bear around resource usage and re-use.
Next is around the wealth creation process. A services-led economy is not wealth creating; it is wealth shuffling, generally from the bottom to the top. To create true wealth, something has to be taken, turned into something else that has intrinsic value and sold on to someone else, preferably in a different geography so that the wealth is drawn in from outside.
The problem here is that the main constituent of most manufacturing is on the human resources involved. Those geographies with low-paid human resources have shown how they can draw manufacturing to them, leaving higher cost geographies with higher-end, extremely skilled manufacturing and service-based economies. To get around this involves a mature economy not using human resources, but aiming for as much automation as possible – which means fewer employees, less pay and the need for a larger and more expensive benefits safety blanket.
I don’t believe that “sustainable growth”, no matter how defined by the politicians, is achievable. However, a move towards greater sustainability can work. A more macro view on the economy has to be taken; how can we cut down on the food miles for non-essential foodstuffs by growing more of what we need closer to us? A move towards a barter-based economy, where the physical and mental capabilities of individuals can be well utilised through a non-cash based system, would remove the dependence on financial growth to fund a less manufacturing-focused economy. A concerted approach to energy usage based around facts, rather than lobbying, would lower the overall energy usage across a whole range of areas while optimising how energy is created and distributed, through the use of technologies such as ground heat pumps, community combined heat and power systems and stored hydro power.
This leaves us with the thorny population problem. Seven billion people and growing is completely unsustainable, and population growth has to be faced up to. A greater part can be done through education and allowing choice, but I’d better stop now before I begin to rant…