I must post a disclaimer here in the name of honesty. The publishers of this book, Routledge Press, are not a stand-alone company. They are part of a wider group of companies. I am, at the time of writing this review, an employee of that same group of companies. I was not asked to review the book by anyone at work, and I work in a different division. So make of that what you will. I aim, as ever, to present purely my own view, but if you think that that compromises my integrity and independence, you are welcome to think that.
So, what’s the book about? You might get a clue from the subtitle, ‘Building a sustainable economy of finite resources’. This is a book of economics. Yet not the kind of economics you might be familiar with from a formal education the matter. This is a manifesto for a radical rethink in how economics could work.
The premise is this: the world and its resources are finite.
That’s it. That’s the foundational idea on which the whole book is based. If you don’t buy the premise, then don’t buy the book; it won’t make sense to you in the least bit. If, however, you have a modicum of education and understanding, then you ought to recognise that the truth of the statement.
What next? Well, think about it. What are the consequences of a world of finite resources? I’m sure you can think of some consequences, but what Dietz and O’Neill do (OK, it seems to be mostly Dietz’s voice, this much is admitted in the text and evident by the poor spelling that typifies the writing of Americans) is guide us through the idea of unending economic growth where that growth is fuelled by the consumption of the earth’s resources. If the resources are finite, then surely economic growth must also be finite?
The authors do a thought experiment, whereby it is assumed that economic growth isn’t finite; it carries on. What would happen with finite resources and never ending growth? These are the questions posed which lead on to the idea that a different economic model is needed. One that is not based on the idea of more and more, but on the basis of “enough”.
From here, the book embarks upon something of a manifesto. What might a new economics look like? One of the ideas that really struck me in this passage was that we measure what we care about and that we care about what we measure. If you read the business and finance news, as accountants like me often do, then one cannot escape from the idea that economic growth is a good thing. It’s one of the key economic measures that we live by. Increase in gross domestic product (GDP) is good, decrease in GDP is bad; that’s the mantra.
Unlike a lot of other accountants, though, I have long queried this. It’s a view of economics that is deeply conservative; one which values the pound more than person. I, for example, am far more interesting in the unemployment rate. If it goes up, who’s been losing their jobs and why? If it comes down, does this mean that those who have been jobless are now in full time jobs paying a reasonable wage? Of course, economic growth and unemployment are not divorced from one another. But is the driver and what is the indicator?
The strategies to achieve the desired economy comes under several headings, each with their own chapter: Enough Throughput, Enough People, Enough Inequality, Enough Debt, Enough Miscalculation, Enough Unemployment, Enough Business as Usual.
Each of the chapters is neatly structured, with an outline of the problem as it stands, an attempt to answer “What could we do instead?” and concluding with “Where do we go from here?”
Potentially, one of the most controversial of these is ‘Enough People’ – which looks at the idea of trying to stabilise the global population. Though not mentioned by name, one could not help but spot the shadow of Malthus lurking in the corner here. I must admit I found this chapter to be rather too idealistic in terms of the practicalities of slowing down the birth rates in countries which are both poor and have high birth rates. It seems a little like ivory tower thinking from the privileged West.
Enough Inequality covers similar ground (and includes some of the same data) as The Spirit Level. As it’s only a chapter, it is less thorough, though the practical suggestions do include setting maximum pay differentials – something I don’t recall from The Spirit Level.
My take on it is that it’s a highly ambitious step in the right direction. Towards the end of the book, the authors state that the proposals are mutually supporting, in that working through one will help with the implementation of the others. The image they used was something akin to the front of the Parthenon, though I couldn’t help but think of it as a house of cards. If they are mutually supporting, then the failure to implement one would impede the progress on the others.
The most reasonable suggestion is on using different economic measures, and I would wholly endorse starting there. The ambition for full employment is vital and one which I am not convinced recent governments have pursued adequately, whatever colour they have been; though some are worse than others. The fly in the ointment here is that talk about having everyone in meaningful jobs, which implies that those who are currently in meaningless jobs must transition, which is something easier said than done. In my view, such a transition would not be painless and would result in an increase in unemployment in the short to medium term; something that should be provisioned for, but which seemed to be largely overlooked in the text.
There are a few other downsides in the writing. Not least very early on they make reference to adding revenue to a balance sheet (p15), a statement so financially illiterate I know many people who would give up reading at that point. Dietz also expresses a frustration with the economics he learnt during his formal education in such a way that one might question whether he understood it.
Those, however, are minor points which should not be used to discard the whole project. One interesting overlap that I wasn’t expecting to be so blatant was the overlap with christianity. The foreword, written by Herman Daly, explicitly references the provision of manna in the desert and the idea of “daily bread” in the Lord’s prayer. The section on reforming the monetary system also echoed Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money, though the treatment here is a lot more accessible.
One could choose to treat this as pie-in-the-sky thinking, the basic premise is one that needs attention paid and demands a change to current economic thinking. Whether this is the perfect solution, one may hold an opinion in favour or against. My opinion is that it’s better to try than to not. The proposed solutions may need alteration and trying to get buy-in from the economic right-wing will be hard to get, but let’s give it a go.