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Dublin: 22 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Column: Economic growth won’t save us – in fact, we’d be better without it

The manic pursuit of growth tipped Ireland into economic crisis. It’s time to look elsewhere for inspiration, argues sufficiency expert Anne B Ryan.

Anne B Ryan

IN THIS TIME when businesses are failing and people are losing their jobs and in some cases their homes, it may seem crazy to criticise economic growth.

But the kind of growth we saw in recent decades did not provide long-term security, nor is it capable of doing so in the future. In the drive for economic growth at all costs, we brought monetary wealth to a few. At the same time we lost sight of limits, destroyed ecosystems and created huge global and local social injustices. The culture surrounding growth also encouraged many of our worst human capacities: indifference, cruelty, denial, cynicism, a narrow materialism and short-term thinking in an effort to compete with others.

For years in Ireland our cultural tendency was towards misery, then in recent decades towards excess. Now, however, is the time to reflect on how we might create a culture, economics and politics of just ‘enough’.

Embracing the beauty of enough is counterintuitive for many, because modern English has degraded the meaning of the word, equating it with poverty and mediocrity. But in Irish, the phrase go leor has a dual meaning: enough and plenty. It is time we restored that understanding about the richness and satisfaction that sufficiency can bring.

Enough has an immediate personal value. If one can work out what is sufficient in life, it is a way to be content – not in the sense of tolerating poor quality, but in the sense of knowing what is valuable and what is not, and relishing the good things we have already. Having this sense can provide security in times of boom and recession.

Enough helps us cope with the world as it is, but it is also good for us morally and ecologically. If we apply enough to our health, finances and personal energy, we automatically restrict the kinds of damage we might be unwittingly doing in the wider world. Practising enough allows us to get what is needed from the world to sustain human well-being, but without taking too much from individuals, or from social and natural systems. It is also about how to give adequately to the world around us. A sense of enough could give at least some of the earth’s ecosystems a chance for renewal and at the same time foster social justice.

Enough is about creating many different channels for human growth and expansion. A culture of enough would judge human progress in diverse ways – not just in the quantitative sense of increasing GDP. Such a culture would always attempt to balance the considerable scientific and scientific achievements we humans have made with an increase in our moral, ecological, spiritual and emotional development. Humane and ecologically sound cultures would be a mark of progress and human advancement.

However, most of our elected leaders, along with orthodox economists, are currently focusing on recovering the kind of economic and financial systems that have just broken down. Even if it were desirable to get back to such systems, it is unlikely that we can. We are near the end of cheap oil, have immanent crises over water, and face the huge challenges of climate change.

The philosophy of enough provides a sane basis for moving into the future, and underpins many proposed frameworks for economies of sufficiency and genuine sustainability. One of these frameworks is a universal basic income.

Financial security for everyone

Under a formal scheme for Universal Basic Income or UBI (also called Citizens’ Income), every citizen and legal resident receives a regular and unconditional cash income from their state, from birth to death, whether they engage in paid work or not. This replaces social welfare benefits, the minimum wage, child benefit and the state pension as we currently know them.

Ideally, a UBI would be sufficient for each person to have a frugal but decent lifestyle without supplementary income from paid work.

UBI creates social inclusion by means of equal basic financial security for all. It benefits small enterprises, family farms, anyone whose paid work is precarious, the self-employed, the elderly, the young, unpaid carers and those doing other types of unpaid work. It gives all kinds of employees increased bargaining power within their jobs, because it reduces their reliance on income from paid work. It benefits employers since it acts a kind of employment subsidy, albeit one that goes directly to the worker rather than the employer. It also gives those currently on welfare a way out of the poverty trap: if they get decent paid work, they can take it without losing benefits. UBI fosters social solidarity and reduces resentment and divisions among groups that currently experience different levels of income security.

The proposal is not new; there is a huge body of work and thought behind it since the middle of the eighteenth century. In this country, work has already been done to demonstrate the economic and financial viability of UBI. One creative and ecologically sound source of finance is to tax the use of earth resources such as land, airwaves and water, while simultaneously reducing the tax on labour. Earth resources belong to the whole community and anyone who wants to use them should pay a fee to the community, represented by the state. The state would then issue a payment directly to individuals. In Alaska, for example, residents receive a direct dividend from the profits from the state’s oil resources.

A new citizenship

The function of government, in the philosophy of enough, is to regulate for basic securities such as climate, income, energy, transport, food and water, at the broad parameters of economy and society. Within those parameters, people are encouraged to engage in all sorts of creative and ecologically sound enterprises. In the absence of politicians and policies that provide basic securities, ordinary people stand in the gap between what is and what might be. We all have the capacity to be leaders in bringing about cultural change. Acting together, we can educate elected leaders and lawmakers.

An appreciation of enough can help us to get away from the obsession with getting back to ‘business as usual’. Imagination is crucial in this project of developing our capacities and resources for enough. Enough facilitates a consideration of what true advancement would look like for the human race. The philosophy supports hope and possibility, rather than cynicism, denial or despair. It can help us to survive in a difficult present world; it can help us to critique and resist what is wrong, and it can help us create new social forms and exciting personal ways to live.

Anne B Ryan is currently a lecturer in Adult and Community Education at NUI Maynooth. She is a trustee of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.

Read more detail about the philosophy and practice of enough at enoughisplenty.net. You can find more information about UBI at bien.org. To find out about a fledgling movement for UBI in Ireland, email basic.income@nuim.ie

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