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There's more to economics than austerity or growth

There's more to economics than austerity or growth

Andrew Simms
nef fellow

We shouldn't accept the polarised terms of current economic debate

If you went to a restaurant and were offered only a serviette or an after-dinner mint you might think you’d been given a poor choice. You might wonder, is there nothing nutritious I can eat in-between? Similarly, the economic dishes on offer in response to the crisis are either austerity, or growth. That’s it. There is nothing in-between, no other option on offer. You could view this as an improvement. Until very recently it was austerity or nothing. Some might be tempted to view the restart of debate beyond a chorus of austerity as progress, or even a victory over the cuts lobby. But that would be premature. The most recent ecological footprint data tells us that in spite of the rickety state of the economy and lack of demand, globally our rate of consumption is 52 percent more than nature can take. If it’s a case of boosting demand, that has to be specifically for the things that will help deliver a low-carbon, high well being economy. The either-or of austerity versus growth also ignores the wealth of alternatives that lie between the new parsimony and a return to business as usual.

In a single weekend of events for the Festival of Transition nef demonstrated that there were better ways of being in many major economic sectors. For example, on the day that the Financial Times revealed a briefing by the Treasury that described him as ‘dangerous’, leading tax expert Richard Murphy, author of The Courageous State, outlined a progressive agenda for tax reform to avert the need for the current programme of public spending cuts.

Josh Ryan Collins of nef, co-author of Where Does Money Come From? described the monetary and banking reform that would help us escape the crisis and deliver resources for the UK’s low-carbon economic transition.

Alongside him was Mark Burton, helping to introduce a new local currency in Bristol, a model for the kind of local complementary currencies that help to build more resilient economies. James Marriott, co-author of the forthcoming book The Oil Road, addressed how we could re-imagining how we live without relying on debt and oil-fuelled overconsumption, asking ‘what if we left the oil in the ground.’ James made the point that although we have taken the convenience of the oil age for granted it was set to last a much shorter time than, say, the bronze age. Probably, he thought, that means no more than about seven human generations in total.

Since 2008, when we were hit by a combination of linked high oil and food prices, bank crises and extreme weather events, a wave of new enclosures of agricultural land has swept around the world, especially affecting some of the poorest countries. Giving the first talk linked to his new book The Landgrabbers, science writer Fred Pearce pointed out that the world already produces enough food to nourish around 10 billion people. The reason millions go hungry is a problem of access and distribution, not production. He and the Soil Association’s Molly Conisbee described an agenda for change that chartered a path between unnecessary austerity and destructive over-consumption. Lastly I talked about my own forthcoming book, Cancel the Apocalypse, with Eliane Glaser, the author of Get Real.

We discussed how talk of disaster can either paralyse the will to act, or in the case of people historically crying wolf, be used to suggest that we have no real problem. We argued that a proper assessment of the systemic risks we face was needed, whilst remembering that we have immense power to act. And, crucially, not to let the existence of real challenges to be used – as in the case of the austerity lobby – to push false solutions. From food to energy systems we have real choices to make – some might solve hunger and climate change, others merely entrench existing imbalances of power and create other problems.

If we accept the simple, polarized terms of the debate on economics, we become trapped between broken present and a past that cannot be repeated. New economics is about the future, bright and optimistic, it knows that there is not just one alternative, but many. Our task is to make them available for all.

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