As Covid-19 takes its toll on GDP figures, we must avoid a return to the kind of policymaking that chases economic growth above all else. In Positive Money’s new report we argue that by stopping our obsession with GDP, we can start designing policies that really work for people and planet, such as a universal basic income issued via a central bank digital currency, modern debt jubilees and public banks.
After grabbing morning mentions in The Guardian, Yahoo Finance and PoliticsHome, this afternoon saw the launch of our latest report ‘The Tragedy of Growth’, with a webinar broadcast to an audience of almost 900 people around the world with speakers including Green MP Caroline Lucas, Labour MP Clive Lewis, Chair of the UK Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben and SOAS University Professor Guy Standing.
Our executive director and panel chair Fran Boait kickstarted the discussion by laying out the stark choice ahead of us as we enter a post-growth economy: the chance to live longer, healthier lives and avoid catastrophic climate change or risk higher unemployment and further rising levels of inequality and poverty, and how the coronavirus crisis has thrown this decision into even sharper relief.
Report author David Barmes then introduced the report, which argues for the end of GDP as a marker of economic success and for a radical reorientation of our current growth-dependent economy to one favouring social and environmental wellbeing. He posited that growth has been an ineffective way of alleviating poverty and improving life satisfaction and moreover has had dire and destructive consequences for our environment.
A first step for moving away from the excessive focus on growth would be our call for the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to stop publishing GDP figures – which started the first of many lively debates from other panellists, particularly Lord Deben who would go on to dispute this suggestion in his opening remarks.
Green MP Caroline Lucas spoke next praising the report and highlighting that now is exactly the right time to be talking about how we can move away from growth and campaign confidently for an alternative economy. She cited the work she’s done in Parliament in pursuit of this goal including her recent early day motion and also argued for the need of activists to tell better stories about the tragedies our obsession with growth have led to, and more boldness in using our imaginations to make clear what an alternative wellbeing economy would look and feel like to live in.
Labour MP and former shadow minister for sustainable economics Clive Lewis, spoke next and highlighted how the recommendations of our report provide great ammunition to use against those who will be doubling down on their efforts to preserve the status quo when designing policies for our post-covid recovery. Although he made clear that the phase ‘recovery’ itself is harmful in these debates, as it unconsciously labels our previous economic model as a ‘normal’ we should aim to return to, rather than an unsatisfactory past we should be striving to overcome.
Our next panellist, Lord Deben, the Chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, while also enthusiastic about the report in general, argued against the ONS’ abandonment of publishing GDP figures, concerned that such a call would do more to divide – rather than unite – the collective forces who are pushing for climate sensitive policies. Although he was very supportive of our central call to move away from GDP as a sole indicator of growth and success in solely material terms and agreed that by embracing improvements in health, biodiversity and the environment, we are more likely to achieve the truly societal goals we all aim for.
The last round of opening remarks came from our final panelist Professor Guy Standing. He advocated for a wider paradigm shift to incorporate what he sees as the two major failings of current GDP metrics; the negation of the existence and huge value provided by the commons, and the vast amounts of unpaid care work done around the world, which is worth an estimated £1.2 trillion a year. He went on to agree with part of our report, which calls for finance to be put back into its box to serve the productive economy, rather than the other way around – he stressed we should ultimately aim to dismantle rentier capitalism if we have any hope of creating a new economy.
We went on to take questions from audience members who had tuned in from around all the globe, everywhere from Edinburgh, Bury St. Edmunds and Liverpool, to Gdansk, Copenhagen and Sydney. Popular topics included the role of consumerism alongside production in these discussions, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model, and the need for a coordinated approach to bring about a Green New Deal. In response Caroline and Clive emphasised the need to build broad coalitions, including citizens assemblies, grassroots groups like Extinction Rebellion and local councils to get more involved in direct actions, for example the upcoming London rent strikes.
Both Clive Lewis and Lord Deben also brought up the role of the media. They stressed the need for greater scrutiny over ownership to avoid the proliferation of fake news on the issue of climate change that we see in the US and Australia, and to fight for further democratization and the continued existence of the BBC. Ultimately, the goal should be for all media outlets to make the seismic changes we need, relevant to people’s lives.
Report author David Barmes brought the discussion to a close by reminding us that when he started work on this report a lot of changes we’re calling for seemed far off and distant, but now, several actually seem feasible. For example, the Bank of England offering the government direct monetary financing, and the rise in public support for universal basic income.
The fallout of the coronavirus pandemic threatens to endanger our economy for years to come, but it also presents us with an exciting opportunity to emerge with an entirely new economic model. There couldn’t be a better time to amplify our call and demand an alternative economy that puts people and planet firmly above profit.
Many thanks again to everyone who tuned in for the webinar and we look forward to debating our proposals in the months ahead!