Economic growth will be a thing of the past unless we take the green route

Opinion: The choice is between secular stagnation and sustainable growth

Thu, Dec 19, 2013, 00:01

Sometimes it takes only a few minutes to change the way we think about things. A month ago, Larry Summers spent about ten minutes at an IMF research seminar questioning why US economic growth was stagnant.

He said that since the end of the financial crisis there has been no evidence of growth that would restore economic equilibrium at the level of full employment. This is what he called “secular stagnation”.

His remarks have shaken the economic profession and media more than all the learned lectures and policy papers published since the financial crisis began. He has reshaped our understanding of the economic world we live in.

That’s no small achievement for a ten minute address.

It seems to me that he is right.

The evidence is conclusive. The most dramatic example is the Japanese economy which has stagnated for two decades. The US and German economies are growing only sluggishly while the UK economy has shrunk.

In short, economic growth rates of 3% or 4% per annum have become a thing of the past in the developed economies.

Larry Summers has made it a respectable, even a responsible, thing to say that the emperor has no clothes.

There has been no growth, there is no growth and there will be no economic growth - if we carry on as usual.

The old model depended on three conditions: cheap energy, no environmental constraints; and constant population growth.

Energy is no longer cheap. Fossil fuels are becoming dearer and the supply of raw materials, minerals, clean air and water is finite.

Environmental constraints are evident when you see smog, drought, floods, degradation, pollution and global warming.

Populations in advanced economies are set to decline, unless offset by immigration, which brings its own problems.

In summary, the conditions for annual growth of 4 per cent have long since ceased to operate. The current model has failed.

For the past few decades economic growth was artificially boosted by cheap, abundant credit funnelled into property speculation.

We know how that finished: financial institutions that had to be bailed out by the tax payer, massive public and private debt and the destruction of personal wealth.

We now have an impoverished middle class both in the US and Europe -- one without any hope of recovery if Larry Summers is correct.

At the same time, we have a planet that is threatened with catastrophic climate change caused by a lifestyle that is no longer sustainable.

In the face of these unpalatable truths, we need a new economic model that will enrich ordinary people and protect the planet.

We can do that by creating a green economy based on renewable energy and resource efficiency -- not just in China, Africa and South America, but right here in Europe and in the United States itself.

There is an overwhelming social, political, ecological and economic need to re-float the world economy in the greatest ever act of creativity in history.

We need new factories, products and services, smart appliances and power grids, sustainable cities and intelligent transport.

Everything that either emits carbon or wastes energy will have to be replaced.

We need to think big. The imminent threat of climate change demands a dramatic response.

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