|Wordle of what we thought we'd talk about...|
Growth – the elephant in the room?
One participant drew an analogy with the natural environment and the way that living organisms are born, develop, mature and die – there isn’t enough space for everything to grow indefinitely. If we only talk about growth then we are only talking about half of life and missing the bit where some things die in order to make space to develop and nurture other life or something new.
There are two big reasons for needing growth, one is to service (interest bearing) debt – to pay back more than was borrowed needs growth. The second reason that growth is the mantra, particularly internationally, is that if a population is growing, you need economic growth otherwise by definition living standards are declining - and population growth is something else that is difficult to talk about. There is a common perception of growth as meaning success, an investment for your children.
What are the alternatives and how to we get to something that is more about leading happier, more fulfilled, healthier lives, something about development rather than growth?
International vs. local
If the current systems seem too embedded and talk of developing alternative frames and narratives too difficult to achieve then don’t talk, just do things differently. The idea of ‘everyday making’ is that individuals just start behaving differently day-to-day, it has a cumulative effect and the end product is change. It’s an idea in academic literatures but it can be seen in real life too. Examples include buying food from local suppliers, ethically sourced clothing, and saving in green investment funds. In Bristol, the Bristol Pound is a manifestation of this idea - that by having a local currency people can gradually make more conscious consumption decisions. The new ‘Real Economy’ network has been developed through the Bristol Pound in an attempt to challenge the dominance of big business supermarkets. In the Real Economy, buying groups source food from local producers to start to create a food system that is fairer to all.
|The Bristol Pound currency. Image credit Bristol Pound.|
Talking about economics
There is such a dominance of growth as being the necessary outcome that it’s easy to portray everyone outside as excluded or naïve. In this narrative, growth translates as success and anything else is irresponsible.
Is it really a free market?
There’s also a simplistic perception that everybody who is in the private sector (or at least the big business, multi-national part of it) must be bad but there are many entrepreneurs who act ethically and responsibly, who want to create good (local) businesses that employ people on fair wages and give back to their communities.
Part of the problem is that we’re all part of a very complex, interdependent system. This interdependency allows risk to be shared. For example if a city loses core industries, employment and income, shared resources from central government are there to help out. These interdependencies are highly complex which is why cities and businesses are not allowed to fail – for now at least, we’re all tied together in a global monetary system.
Politics, power and change
The constant growth narrative feels to some like a form of oppression. Individuals feel disempowered and that no-one else feels like they do, that they are all alone in being the good guy, all alone in arguing against the current system and narrative. There are many groups and conversations reflecting this view but they are fragmented and weak against the established power structures. Can a city bring its dissenting voices together into a more powerful collective? What is within its power to change?
|...Wordle of what we talked about during the debate.|
This conversation started feeling a bit gloomy, that all the wrong people have the power, that we’re all alone in trying to make changes, that anyway we’re a bit powerless in such a globalised system and that the two big reasons for needing growth seemed unarguable.
A few good examples from around the world got us thinking about what could be done at the scale of Bristol. The examples from elsewhere included Ecuador which has legislation for the rights for nature, Sweden is experimenting with six-hour working days and Bhutan has a measure for gross national happiness. What could be the different ways of measuring economic welfare in the city – and which are not trying to put a monetary value on non-monetary issues such as quality of life or care for the natural environment?
The shift from growth to development or other forms of prosperity could involve a major change in how we see the economy and what we want from it. Rather than seeing growth as the end in itself, the economy should be seen as a means to achieve different development goals such as better public services, improved housing, increased inclusion, reduced inequality and greater levels of sustainability. This would take a cultural and structural shift - overcoming the vested interests in maintaining the status quo.
What about Bristol?
With these problems in the city it feels really important that we make efforts to work together better, to learn from the good examples and to join up this conversation outside the university and across the city. The big organisations in the city, such as the health sector, universities, council and businesses, have an important civic role in contributing to the wellbeing of the city. They have the resources and potential in their workforces, customers and supply chains to create new partnerships and city-wide change.
A new economic future?
Again in this debate we talked about reducing inequality and creating a fairer system. The aim of the Bristol Pound was to support a green and fair economy - more equality and a more sustainable way of using resources. There is a wider role for business in contributing to life in the city, to have a positive impact. Local businesses and social enterprises are more connected with their communities and larger organisations have a civic role.
In the future we need to think more about what the economy is for - how to help pay for public services and improve housing, increased inclusion and greater levels of sustainability. We need to understand how to measure the real cost of environmental damage and that growth in itself is not the aim.
And sometimes we just need to do it, to make changes locally, to work together and to act on our beliefs in a way that supports the new economic system that we want to see.
This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Other blogs in this seriesBlog 1: Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?
Blog 2: Delivering the ‘Future City’: collaborating with or colluding in austerity?
Blog 3: Delivering the 'Future City': engaging or persuading?