There is something unedifying in the fact that the nation’s immediate economic stability rests in the hands of a Green Party faction that has little interest in the economy, except to smother it. At a time of acute economic crisis requiring decisive action, it grates that progress rests on the hardline wing of a minority party, wrestling with its conscience as it fears sullying its purity with real power.
It isn’t even a case of the tail wagging the dog. The poor old dog is already half dead, bleeding out on the floor for want of emergency help. If the dog goes the tail goes with it, no matter how pretty it thinks it looks there, sticking out of the dog’s backside.
It might cause chaos for a short period, but given the delicate economic surgery required in coming years to restore livelihoods, business and workers may actually be better off if the squeamish membership of the Green Party votes against coalition. If they do ultimately choose to go in, the Government’s stability and its ability to take pragmatic economic decisions will be constantly beholden to a minority mindset that believes in deliberate shrinkage of the economy to fight climate change.
That is the dogma at the heart of the economic “degrowth” movement. Environmentalists on the hard left of global politics, such as many of those in the restless faction of the Greens, increasingly subscribe to its ideas. It holds that the only way to reduce emissions fast enough to prevent total destruction of Earth is to work less, make less, do less and shut down chunks of the economy.
The strength of their argument – and the inherent weakness in mine – is that it is impossible to fully discount the degrowthers’ theories. I am not a climate scientist and so I don’t know enough to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that says Earth is on a short route to total environmental disaster due to economic excess. If that course is indeed incontrovertible, and if we can’t come up with a better idea in the meantime, the time may eventually arrive when the plug must be pulled on the economy to prevent an immediate disaster. We just did it for Covid-19. But look at how sore that has been?
In all honesty, most of us truly know little about climate science, including the majority of economic degrowthers and the Greens’ militants, who have themselves taken a leap of faith on the immediate disaster narrative. But many of us know enough about the world to be able to tell when an ideologically-fuelled movement is couched in spin and mistruth. Degrowthers breezily pretend that their vision is some gentle, managed Utopian process of greening that won’t harm anyone’s health or hurt workers.
That is the fallacy at the heart of the degrowth movement: nobody, anywhere, ever in the history of this planet has successfully managed a rapid but gentle economic decline for some noble purpose.
It would be a grand economic experiment with people’s lives. If you deliberately place large parts of the economy and its workers on a downward slope, you will lose control of that process pretty quickly. There is no emergency brake and carnage and acute human misery would very quickly ensue.
If you truly believe that this is necessary, then have the honesty to stand in front of people on the platform of politics and say it. Look people in the eye and win that argument on merit. Don’t pretend to workers that you can shut off swathes of their economic opportunity, and, somehow, their quality of life will still magically improve.
For it to work, it would require upheaval far beyond environmental politics, and no less than the total remaking, from top to bottom, of every aspect of society, the economy and civil liberties. Only an authoritarian government – or one with the express will of the people – could ever attempt to deliberately shrink an economy over the long term.
The degrowthers’ always retort that unless the economy is brought to a halt, we will all die screaming in our beds anyway and, sure, isn’t that worse? That is just intellectual gerrymandering: “Your only choice is to agree with me or you are doomed”. It presupposes that we cannot find a better, more humane and less fear-driven solution to global warming.
Nobody ever thinks rationally when they are too afraid.
For those who suspect I am exaggerating the desire of some environmentalists to shrink the economy, read any of the scholarly papers produced on degrowth. There are hundreds of them online. Or read the Green Party's 2016 paper on "Alternatives to GDP Policy", which decries the "the policy of successive governments to monomaniacally pursue absolute economic growth".
If you believe there has been too much growth, the corollary of that has to be a belief that the excess growth must be rolled back for equilibrium.
Or even just closely examine the arguments repeatedly put forward by the Green Party’s Saoirse McHugh, who is now a pin-up for the restless wing. Her ideas are too often uncritically received by people who seem more interested in her articulacy and charisma. For 18 months, McHugh has suggested that economic growth must be halted. She believes growth is an “obsession”.
It is possible to passionately disagree with the beliefs of hard-line environmentalists while still admiring their passion, verve and willingness to bare their teeth. That doesn’t mean it makes sense to just hand them the reins. They have never ridden this horse before. If it throws them off, we’ll all end up in pain.