A ground-breaking new report by the leading environmental advisers to First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister Gordon Brown will deliver a damning verdict on capitalism - and demand a radical shift to a fairer, more sustainable society.
The report has been compiled by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), a group of 19 experts chaired by Jonathon Porritt which directly advises Salmond and Brown on environmental issues. Entitled ‘Prosperity without Growth?’, it is due to be published tomorrow.
The relentless and unquestioned pursuit of economic growth, founded on the ever-increasing consumption of material goods, has failed to bring social justice, prosperity or happiness, the report says. And it has trashed the planet in the process.
“The narrow pursuit of growth represents a horrible distortion of the common good and of underlying human values,” the report concludes. “The market was not undone by rogue individuals or the turning of a blind eye by incompetent regulators. It was undone by growth itself.”
It presents a fundamental challenge to the economic policies being pursued in both London and Edinburgh, raising questions about some of the basic tenets of industrial capitalism. We are living in an “age of irresponsibility”, it says, and calls for the whole structure of the competitive consumer society to be dismantled.
“Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries, but question it we must,” says Tim Jackson, a professor at Surrey University and the SDC’s leading economics expert.
“The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems on which we depend for survival. It has failed, spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.”
According to the report, inequality is now higher in industrialised nations than it was 20 years ago. The rich have got richer, but the poor have remained poor, with wealth only trickling up to a “lucky few”.
The environmental consequences have been “disastrous”, the SDC says. In the last quarter of a century the global economy has doubled, leaving 60% of the world’s natural ecosystems degraded and threatening “catastrophic” climate change.
The economy is “fundamentally broken”, argues Jackson. “A return to business as usual is not an option. Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilised society.”
The SDC report dismisses the prevailing assumption that the efficiency of free market capitalism will enable the environment to be protected while the economy grows as “nothing short of delusional”. The belief defies “the basic arithmetic of growth.”
A society founded on the “relentless pursuit of novelty” undermines social well-being. “The economy itself is dependent on consumption growth for its very survival,” the report says. “It’s an anxious, and ultimately a pathological system.”
Market economics have to be questioned and consumerism has to be reversed, the report urges. “Simplistic exhortations for people to resist consumerism are destined to failure,” it warns.
“Urging people to insulate their homes, turn down the thermostat, put on a jumper, drive a little less, walk a little more, holiday at home, buy locally produced food will either go unheard or be rejected as manipulation for as long as all the messages about high street consumption point in the other direction.”
The report recommends 12 steps towards a sustainable economy, including tackling inequality, changing work patterns and respecting ecological limits. It implies a major change in the role of government, making it much more interventionist.
In Scotland the SDC is urging ministers to invest in infrastructure that creates integrated, fair and low-carbon communities. “Rather than build more roads for more cars, the government must make it easier to use rail and buses, cycle or walk,” it says.
Jan Bebbington, the SDC’s vice-chair and an accounting professor at St Andrews University, criticises the approach adopted by Scottish ministers. “The Scottish government must stop thinking the pursuit of economic growth, no matter how sustainable the growth is labelled, is going to make Scotland flourish almost as a matter of course,” she says.
The Scottish Government stressed that its overarching purpose was “sustainable economic growth”. Said a spokesman: “To suggest we stop trying to grow our economy, when we can see the effects of the recession around Scotland, is completely wrong.”
Sustainability was, though, a “fundamental aspect” of economic policy, he argued. “That’s why we have set out actions to create thousands of jobs in sustainable industries that harness Scotland’s natural advantages.”
The Confederation of British Industry in Scotland gave the report a similarly cool welcome. “The dismal picture portrayed by the SDC is not one we recognise,” said CBI Scotland’s David Lonsdale.
“We firmly believe that you can expand the economy and improve prosperity while at the same time taking the climate and environmental agenda seriously, and endorse the devolved administration’s vision of sustainable economic growth.”
This was dismissed, however, by the Green MSP, Patrick Harvie. “We have long argued for a vision of the economy which puts human values above shareholder value, and I'm delighted that the SDC is now saying the same thing,” he said.
“Only when we recognise that the economy must exist within the limits laid down by ecology will we have the chance of a meaningful economic recovery, rather than futile attempts to resurrect the old economy's corpse with more of the same medicine.”