Inside George Monbiot

The Guardian ran a little Q&A with George Monbiot. And it's remarkable how ill informed he appears to be on the major points.

Can we survive without economic growth?


This is a key question and it is under explored. It should now be the central issue in economics. How can we live without destroying the ability of others to live? Does that mean an end to economic growth, and if so how can that happen without harming the prospects of the poor, and while achieving democratic consent? No other issue in economics is anywhere near as pertinent and important as this one.

It is not underexplored - it has been asked and answered. Of course, we can survive without economic growth. To any reasonable approximation we did so from the Year Dot right up to about 1750. The question is whether we need to abjure economic growth in order to survive. To which the answer is no.

Which is good of course, for we generally like economic growth, it makes people happier. Where Monbiot is going wrong is in the supposition that economic growth requires more inputs. In the words of Herman Daly, that it will be quantitative growth. But, again in Daly's words, qualitative growth is entirely possible. And what we normally call "economic growth" is a mix between the two. It's entirely true that we cannot use more copper atoms than there are copper atoms on the planet - there is a hard, if very far away, limit to quantitative growth. But there's nothing obvious stopping us continuing to work out new ways to add value to copper atoms - qualitatitive growth - meaning that there's no reason why economic growth should stop.

Offsetting aviation emissions is simply not going to work. It demands that every other sector of the economy has to cut its own emissions even more than under the existing targets. And why should the sector that most favours wealthy people (who are overwhelmingly the major users of aviation) be allowed to dump its impacts on everyone else?

Assume that we do want to cut emissions. OK, we want to cut those emissions which add least value, least to human happiness, and keep the ones which produce the most value. We might, for example, cut cow farts and continue flying. If it is true that summer holidays add more value than steaks. Or, to put it in the economics that Monbiot doesn't understand, we do not want cuts in all emissions we want people to substitute away from low value such to high value such.

I think this is a big issue. GDP is an entirely inappropriate yardstick for measuring the health of society, and attempts to maximise GDP often lead to environmental destruction and the marginalisation of the poor. Yet both the media and politicians remain obsessed by it. Changing this is a major challenge but it appears to me to be essential.

Nobody does measure the health of society via GDP. It is what it is, a measure of the economic capacity of the society. And no one tries to maximise it either - GDP would rise significantly if we all worked 60 hour weeks but no one at all suggests that. Finally, just have a look around the environment of the higher GDP countries. Very much cleaner and better preserved than those of lower, no?

The simplest solution to almost all environmental problems is government intervention. But as a result of neoliberal ideology and regulatory capture (the first in service to the second) the self-hating state refuses to intervene on a wide range of issues where it could quickly make a difference.


It's quite remarkable how gifted he is at grasping the wrong end of the stick, isn't it?