Peter Ainsworth on degrowth
A transcript of Peter Ainsworth's opening remarks
The plain truth is that human beings are acquisitive, we always have been. It's fair bet that when we originally crawled out of a cave in prehistory, we went looking for stuff to accumulate. Another pelt, a better home, a sharper weapon: stuff, it's what people like. There is only one place for that stuff to come from: the natural world. This didn't matter all that much when there were only a few acquisitive humans around and when, for most, the natural world was their immediate environment. But since the industrial revolution, we've moved on from being merely acquisitive to being rapacious. For the past two hundred years, we have consumed many of the earth's natural resources, as thought they were infinite. Minerals, water, trees, soil, of course these have formed the basis of what we call civilisation for thousands of years. The question now is whether they will be up to the job. Are we asking too much of the earth?
It would be easy to take an apocalyptic view of the future. I do worry about the world that my children's generation will inherit. I am concerned about the failure of my generation of politicians to grasp the point about sustainability. It's a stupid word I know, but it means what it says. The term sustainable development is inadequate in so many ways, but it does reflect the need both to grow and to sustain.
In darker moments, when I think of the future, I think about the four horsemen of the apocalypse which are heading our way. We can avoid them, but we won't do so by espousing ideas like degrowth. The first of these horsemen is climate change. The meeting between world leaders in Copenhagen last year was a failure. It resulted in no binding deal, no targets for CO2 reduction, no timetable for action. Whatever the sceptics may say, and they say what they want to, loudly and very often, the basic science hasn't gone away. The consequences have to be endured. The international response from politicians has so far been pathetic. Meanwhile, a number of foolish errors in the IPCC database have given the sceptics just the chance they were looking for, and the scientific community has yet to offer a convincing response.
The second of the horsemen is all about natural resources. If everyone on our planet lived like an average European, we would need three planets to live on. If everyone had the lifestyle of an average citizen of the United States, we would need five planets to live on, and as you may have noticed, we've actually only got one. We need to look after the place where we live and we need to remember that we are as much a part of the natural world as any other species. The future of the planet is indivisibly linked to the fate of the bee population upon which we depend for the pollination of so many plants. The future of humanity is dependent on the health of plants as the foundation of all life on earth.
The third big challenge we face is all about security, in particular energy security, food security and water security. The United Kingdom is in an especially bad place in terms of energy security. Nobody will thank any government that lets lights go out or allows continued dependence on old technologies to push the price of energy through the roof.
Food and water security issues are linked to the fourth of the horsemen which is global population growth. I know this is a sensitive issue, but a pay a special tribute to Jonathon Porritt who has braved the attacks from both left and right to make the simple point that we need to find equitable, civilised and democratic ways of coming into terms with the fact that the human population is expected to grow from around six billion to around nine billion in the next forty years. It's not just about numbers, it's about the natural aspirations of hundreds of millions of people in the developing world to live as we do in the West. Where is the water going to come from? Will we be able not to fight over it?
The people who live in the poorest parts of the world don't talk about poverty; they live with it. The notion of poverty is for affluent to worry about, and rightly so. But people who live in real poverty, whether in the deprived cities or rural areas of the developed West or in the developing world, they talk about prosperity. The problem with the idea of degrowth is that it is against human nature. There is therefore a particular irony attached to the propagation of the degrowth agenda by people whose avowed mission is to protect the natural world. Degrowth is not a natural idea. I have been actively involved in politics for over twenty-five years. Believe me, the human race is not ready for degrowth and almost certainly never will be. Our concept of well-being is firmly linked to our inherited notion of economic progress. People like stuff and always will. The degrowth agenda could never be achieved in a democratic context in my view, and the few examples of non-democratic attempts at utopia are hardly encouraging. Fortunately, as well as being a bunch of acquisitive and selfish primates, the human race is also ingenious and inventive. It should be glaringly obvious that we cannot continue with business as usual. Most major companies understand this and many are, perhaps surprisingly, ahead of the politicians and of the public on the question of sustainability. They have to think ahead, make plans, engage in forward thinking. It's what they do if they want to stay competitive and to survive. It may be uncomfortable to recognise this but the power of industry and capital which got us into the present mess over the past two hundred years is the only power which can take us out of it. Industry and capital will never willingly degrow, nor should they be asked to. The problem is not growth itself, the problem is the ways we have historically used natural resources and the challenges to use them more sparingly and intelligently in the future. Of course we will need political structures, regulation, tax, and eventually, I hope, a price for carbon. I am convinced that these will happen. I hope they happen through foresight rather than as a reaction to disastrous events.
WWF UK has recently published a useful dossier called green game-changers. It is about businesses who are leading the way throughout the world through investment and innovation. I won't go through the whole list, but I was especially stuck by the concept of the waterless washing machine, the idea of carbon neutral cement, the use of starch to replace the use of fossil fuels in food, cosmetics and automobile industries, solar power streetlights in India. There are many more examples. The idea of degrowth may be an interesting intellectual conceit, but it has no place in the world where we all live. This is a world teeming with hungry and acquisitive people: it's just how we are. The only way forward lies in using our brains to work out how to live happily within the natural constraints of the planet. That means growing more carefully. So with reluctance, I conclude that degrowth is indeed a mirage.
Pour citer cette ressource :
Peter Ainsworth, "Peter Ainsworth on degrowth", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2010. Consulté le 28/09/2023. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/peter-ainsworth-on-degrowth