Friday 20 January 2017
I read that President Trump said that energy regulations are hampering economic growth and that his new administration will dismantle a whole range of regulations. This reflects an archaic way of thinking about economic growth – the old paradigm. My starting point is that we do need to seriously increase global economic growth to get us out of problems caused by poverty. This may be controversial but we only have a real chance of solving our many problems and achieving positive goals if we make everyone rich. The question is what kind of growth do we want or need? In the Trumpian view of the world it appears that all economic growth is good, even if it damages the environment, or health and safety, or exploits workers. Externalities such as pollution, health or wage fairness are not considered. This is the robber baron capitalism typical of 19th century America and which is still being practiced in many other places in the world. It has no consideration of consequences or of the quality of economic growth.
Considering the quality of economic growth led me back to one of my all time favorite books, “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. For those that haven’t read it, go and get a copy as soon as you finish reading this but be prepared for a difficult, though ultimately rewarding, read. By the way, it is not about motorcycle maintenance but is rather about a philosophical journey that explores the nature of human experience. Pirsig talks about quality or value and says that it cannot be defined because it empirically precedes any intellectual construction of it. It is that sense you get from the numerous sensory inputs that you have before you intellectualise it.
So what kind of economic growth do we want, and need? Economic growth that pollutes the environment, or is based on exploitation of workers, reduces the quality of our experience – sometimes in a sub-conscious way which contributes to a “dis-ease” – but always with an impact on our experience. It is most obvious in examples such as clean air. People want clean air – breathing clean air is a pleasant high quality experience, breathing polluted air in places like Beijing, or increasingly London, reduces the quality of our experience. This negative effect is over and above the clear economic benefits of having clean air such as reduced health care costs from the reduction in respiratory disease. At the micro-level our quality of experience is increased by certain buildings – you know the ones that make you feel good when you walk into them. Likewise there is that positive sense of well-being, a high quality experience, that comes from being in beautiful countryside.
So we need to have economic growth that improves our quality of experience. This means growth that reduces quality sapping factors such as air pollution, growth that does not rely on exploiting workers at home or abroad, growth that repairs and restores environmental damage, growth that reduces our fears about climate change, growth that builds beautiful buildings and cities, growth that creates beautiful and uplifting landscapes, growth that comes from radically improving energy and resource efficiency.
The Trumpian view of growth may appear to be in the ascendancy right now because of the high profile of the US Presidency, but at the micro level many, many businesses, large and small, as well as individuals, are committing to more sustainable business models and practices. In the medium term the trends are unstoppable because people naturally seek higher quality experience – it is hard wired into our DNA. We are witnessing a short-term reaction from the old guard which is typical of the collapse of a paradigm. The robber baron mentality will ultimately be confined to where it belongs – the history books.
Dr Steven Fawkes
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