Rich Burkmar

An economically curious ecologist

GDP growth – the Emperor has no clothes

Moral Maze thumbnail.

Review of Moral Maze: Is Growth a False God?

Moral Maze with Michael Buerk

Is Growth a False God? is an episode of the Radio 4 programme Moral Maze broadcast on 22nd March 2023. Presented by Michael Buerk, the programme has an unusual format where four semi-regular panelists question and elicit testimony from several invited guests representing opposite sides of an argument. I’ve never been a big fan of its adversarial format but, given the subject, I couldn’t miss this episode . The four panelists on this occasion were: Melanie Phillips1Melanie Phillips is a social commentator in The Times., Anne McElvoy2Anne McElvoy is a columnist and editor with the Politico news and commentary feed., Mona Siddiqui3Mona Siddiqui is professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburg. and Matthew Taylor4Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation.. The witnesses were Beth Stratford5Beth Stratford is an ecological economist at the University of Leeds, and a fellow at the New Economics Foundation., Ross Clark6Ross Clark is a political commentator., Kate Raworth7Kate Raworth is Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. and Matthew Lynn8Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author..

At the outset of the programme, the four panelists briefly outlined their own positions on the pursuit of GDP growth. This immediately revealed a bias. Whilst two of them – Mona Siddiqui and Matthew Taylor – were willing to question the hegemony of growth, neither occupied what would be considered a degrowth position. But the other two panelists – Melanie Philips and Anne McElvoy – were openly hostile to degrowth. Melanie Philips said “Being against growth means wanting to go backwards, reduce living standards and embrace decline. To me, degrowth is a kind of cultural deathwish“. In a format such as this, the panelists ought to be both well informed and, notwithstanding their own opinions, as open-minded as possible. Melanie Philips’ statement revealed that she was neither. Her astonishing misrepresentation of the degrowth paradigm means either that she hadn’t done the most basic preparation or that she willfully misrepresented degrowth. I suspect a mixture of the two. The opening did not bode well for the quality of the argument in the rest of the programme. And so, by and large, it turned out.

The bias of the panelists meant that there were, effectively, four people arguing in favour of growth, two in favour of degrowth and two adopting a gentler position of ‘growth skepticism’. I use the term ‘degrowth’ for convenience – in fact both Beth Stratford and Kate Raworth argued that we should be agnostic to growth, shifting our economic goals to better represent human wellbeing, whilst acknowledging that this would result in lower or negative growth in many sectors. Another indication of Melanie Philips’ misunderstanding of degrowth came when she attempted to wrong-foot Beth Stratford by saying that it would be wrong for rich nations to prevent poor nations from growing their economies. But Beth Stratford simply agreed! I’ve never come across an exposition of degrowth that argues against poor nations growing their economies. Later in the programme, Anne McElvoy returned to this, saying that the idea that growth is required for some nations and not others is a ‘fault-line’ in the degrowth argument, but it simply isn’t – there is no contradiction. All economies (rich and poor nations alike) should aim to provide a good social foundation for all their citizens without exceeding planetary boundaries. In poor countries, that often means growing many sectors of the economy; in rich countries it doesn’t. It’s that simple.

For me, a highlight of the programme was Kate Raworth’s testimony. She is always lucid and persuasive, but in this programme she also showed herself to be combative and effective under hostile questioning. If it had been a boxing match, she’d have been an easy points winner! I particularly enjoyed an exchange with Anne McElvoy when Kate said that functioning systems in nature do not grow indefinitely and unchecked growth in the human body is called cancer. Anne McElvoy said that this was a ‘loose metaphor’ (left jab) but Kate immediately shot back that it was a very tight metaphor – both the earth and human body are complex, delicately balanced systems (right hook). Later in the show, after the testimony of the guests, Michael Buerk returned to this metaphor and this time Melanie Phillips made another astonishing statement: “Nature shows us that if you grow you live and if you don’t grow you die“. I don’t know where Melanie gets her knowledge of biology and ecology, but it’s definitely not a from a textbook. Curious, because her very opening remark in the programme was: “Unlimited anything is not a good thing“.

Rather than starting his testimony with a defence of growthism, Ross Clark instead (like Melanie Phillips) chose to attack degrowth by misrepresenting it. He describes degrowth as a ‘dangerous myth’ and without any further explanation claimed that the degrowth movement wants ‘permanent recession’. Again, even the most cursory reading of the degrowth literature would disabuse him of that misconception. We have all experienced recessions – but none of us has experienced an economy built on the principles of degrowth. Recessions are an all too familiar feature of growth-based economies. Degrowth aims to restructure economic and social infrastructures so that zero growth would not result in the same acute social problems that arise from the recessions of growth-based economies. (Unfortunately none of the panelists made this point.)

Matthew Lynn began his testimony by asking if consuming more stuff puts the planet at risk and this is how he answered his own question: “Possibly if you extrapolate it too much, but I don’t think we’re there at the moment“. He says that GDP is the most important measure of human success that there is no conflict between GDP growth and the environment. His views fly in the face of virtually all the evidence accumulated by environmental scientists over the last four decades or more. When pressed by Mona Siddiqui and Matthew Taylor to defend GDP growth as a measure of wellbeing, he agreed that it tells us little about how happy people are, but argued that doesn’t matter. He seemed to place wellbeing wholly outside of the realm of economics and politics, preferring the line that things relating to wellbeing are issues of personal choice.

The subject of inequality and redistribution arose frequently of course. There were a couple of notable exchanges on this. Matthew Lynn was reluctant even to admit that inequality was increasing, saying that it depends on how you measure it. That’s an extraordinary viewpoint given the overwhelming evidence of increasing inequality in the advanced economies. Melanie Philips viewed redistribution of wealth as a red herring because, she argued, redistributing money from one group of people to another simply changes the people who consume rather than reducing consumption. But that completely ignores the sort of stuff that different sectors of society consume. I can confidently predict that redistributing money from billionaires to poor people would result in a slump in sales of luxury yachts and improved sales of fruit and veg.

I will always applaud the broadcasters involved in bringing programmes on this subject to air. The pursuit of GDP growth has an overwhelming impact on society and our planet, yet it is rarely questioned in the mainstream media. So I congratulate the BBC on producing this edition of the Moral Maze. But I felt that the programme misfired and failed to realise its full potential. That may have something to do with the adversarial format which generates not a little heat at the expense of some light, but I think that the biggest problem was the selection of participants. On the pro-growth side the two panelists and the two experts tended to adopt extreme positions and were either unable or unwilling to mount a cogent defense of growthism, more often relying on attacking a misrepresented version of degrowth instead. I ask myself why? The answer I think is fear. People resort to those tactics when they have no confidence in their own arguments and are afraid of being exposed. Growth is no god, but as Emperor it has reigned supreme for some 70 years. But the world is waking up and the the word is out: the Emperor has no clothes.

Footnotes

  • 1
    Melanie Phillips is a social commentator in The Times.
  • 2
    Anne McElvoy is a columnist and editor with the Politico news and commentary feed.
  • 3
    Mona Siddiqui is professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburg.
  • 4
    Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation.
  • 5
    Beth Stratford is an ecological economist at the University of Leeds, and a fellow at the New Economics Foundation.
  • 6
    Ross Clark is a political commentator.
  • 7
    Kate Raworth is Senior Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.
  • 8
    Matthew Lynn is a financial columnist and author.
,