I was more than a little disappointed with BCA spokesperson, CEO Jennifer Westacott’s recent interview on Radio National. As usual, her reasoning was unassailable. However, it proceeded upon a set of assumptions that may be described as being, at best, highly contestable and at worst, absurd.
The topic under scrutiny was the BCA’s prescription for the provision of increasing living standards for Australians. The assumption underpinning this prescription is the necessity and viability of perpetual and increasing economic growth. The BCA and Ms. Westacott are quite aware of the many challenges to this assumption. Such challenges have been around for a very long time and are steadily growing in frequency and urgency, as the burden of scientific data about the state of the biosphere becomes increasingly hard to ignore. For example:
“If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compel them to it”. John Stuart Mill “Principles of Political Economy” – Book IV, Chapter VI (1848)
More recently, in 1972 The Club of Rome published its report entitled “The Limits to Growth”. Last year, the CSIRO published a forty year anniversary, interim report which provides an update of “The Limits to Growth” prognosis for the planet.
I do not recommend this document for those given to anxiety or depression.
These and many scientific papers have in common, conclusions which support a very simple argument. It is, essentially, one of basic arithmetic: finite resources divided by infinite demand simply does not add up and must lead, ultimately, to disappointment. In other words, despite the assurances of the BCA and economic orthodoxy, it would seem that the Earth, and particularly the biosphere, is not a magic pudding. The contention is so fundamental that the intellectual and ethical challenge it presents, really allows no obfuscation; either it is patently without any merit, in which case it should be a simple matter to refute, or its implications must be accounted for. To my knowledge, no attempt has ever been made to seriously rebut the logic of the limits to growth. It remains the ultimate elephant in the stock exchange.
The challenge for the BCA and indeed for the entire mainstream discipline of economics, is not just that sustainable economic growth is an oxymoron, but that the question of perpetual growth must be addressed in an open and honest public debate; one which embraces data from real scientists, rather than just economic theology. Ms. Westacott and the self-serving report she promotes, has demonstrated that the BCA is not prepared to meet that challenge and consequently, lacks both intellectual and ethical credibility.
The ostensible rationale Ms Westacott proposes for maximising economic growth is the need/desire for increasing the living standards of Australians. Given that she has elsewhere acknowledged the fragile ecological health of the biosphere and has explicitly called for environmental accounting, such a rationale demands reflection.
Why do Australians need to increase their already very high levels of affluence? Certainly, ever growing consumption is the orthodox cure for the unemployment otherwise created by higher productivity; but that is a means to an end. Why, philosophically, should increasing consumption be considered an end in itself?
I do not for a moment deny that there are pockets of real poverty in this country. There are growing numbers of people who fall through the cracks of our welfare system. The mentally ill, the victims of addiction, abuse and bad luck all too often find themselves homeless and even hungry. However, such people are a small minority; disenfranchised from the economic system that the BCA promotes. Their poverty is absolute, not relative. They will not benefit from the growth that is sought.
Of more significance is the relative poverty which ensnares a much greater proportion of the population: the welfare recipients, under-employed and under-paid.
It is salient to consider the circumstances of such disadvantaged people in an historical context.
A welfare recipient living in modest public housing, by most measures of well being, has a higher standard of living than the most privileged aristocrat of three hundred years ago. The rental house is likely to be warmer in winter, cooler in summer, have better plumbing and more comfortable furniture. Its inhabitants will be healthier, live longer, be better educated, better entertained, eat better and more varied food, be more mobile and feel more secure. If this perspective is accepted, what does it say to the affluence of the majority of Australians?
The irony is that whilst the aristocrat no doubt felt sanguine in his privileged position, the pensioner is very likely to resent the indignity of being at the bottom of the economic heap. It is at least arguable that in so many material ways we have already achieved our Utopia; we are just too stupid and greedy and competitive to realise it. It is very likely that this same greed and stupidity will turn this Utopia to dust before our eyes – literally.
And then where will the children play?
I have been in business for thirty-five years. Perhaps it is the fact that my business is farming that I am more aware than most that the size of such an enterprise on a given bit of dirt, is limited by its carrying capacity. I am also aware that the health of the biosphere predicates all other issues; particularly our narcissistic pretentions and fantasies. This is called reality. We ignore it at our peril.