Book review: The economics of arrival

The fruits of growth are starting to rot. Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams have plenty of ideas for a grown up economy.

Silver Donald Cameron
3 September 2019, 12.14pm
Image: RossoGialloBianco, CC by 2.0

“The fruits of growth are beginning to rot.” That’s the premise of this admirable and stimulating book, and, looking around us, who can doubt it? While species vanish and plastic replaces fish in the oceans, “the economy” – generally taken to be synonymous with Gross Domestic Product – grows and grows. Clearly, we are measuring the wrong things, and drawing the wrong conclusions. We believe we are getting wealthier while in fact we are getting poorer.

Trebeck and Williams argue that we have “arrived” – we now have an economy that provides enough wealth for everyone to live a healthy and satisfying life. They describe growth beyond that level (which was reached, globally, in 1978) as “uneconomic growth” – economic activity that creates additional problems, adding to the mountains of garbage we have already created, for instance. Or it is “failure demand,” economic demand generated by our attempts to repair damage that could easily have been avoided, and may not even be possible to repair. We would not have to cleanse the air, water and soil of pollutants and toxins if we had been wise enough not to discharge them there in the first place.

Furthermore, our wealth is not shared fairly and equally. Many people have too little, while a few have far too much. The rising tide did not lift all the boats; many of us work outrageous hours and struggle to get by. That gives rise to the consumption of “consolation goods,” products that really are designed to console us for having grudgingly spent our lives in pointless and damaging labour rather than on the things that really matter to us. One thing that we do measure – and don’t attend to – is the strange phenomenon of falling life expectancy in the world’s wealthiest country, the United States, due to “deaths of despair” – suicide, alcoholism and other addictions.

Is there life beyond growth, and wealth beyond money? This is where The Economics of Arrival really shines. The work of Trebeck and Williams is part of a growing worldwide trend to explore the possibilities of another kind of economy, variously described as an economy of life (as opposed to our current economy of death), an economy of happiness, an economy of freedom, an economy of genuine wealth, even an economy of love. The objective of the Kingdom of Bhutan, for instance, is to grow not the Gross National Product, but Gross National Happiness – and Bhutan’s influence on the United Nations has led to initiatives like the annual World Happiness Report, which ranks the world’s nations in terms of the happiness of their peoples as described by the people themselves.

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It turns out that money does bring happiness – but only up to a certain threshold, when one has enough to be comfortable. Beyond that threshold, affluence causes more problems than it solves. Durable and expanding happiness comes from human relationships – the love and support of family and community, the development of our creativity, the enhancement of our spirituality, the pleasure of working for the common good in the company of like-minded people.

A whole new economy is emerging, based on values like these. Trebeck and Williams list off new forms of socially-oriented business – co-operatives, foundations, charities, non-profit corporations, and so on. They note that assets that rightly belong to the whole community, like air, water and land, can be vested in trusts owned by the whole community and managed for the common good, including future generations; and they cite research showing that human beings do work together in this way when the structure and culture are supportive. The commons do not always become a tragedy. Norway’s oil resources are owned and managed this way, and the investments of the sovereign wealth fund thus created now earn a billion dollars a week, which is re-invested for the benefit of all Norwegians. (This was Peter Lougheed’s vision for Alberta, but decades of rumbustious and slow-witted leadership have virtually eliminated the once-promising Alberta Heritage Fund.)

Trebeck and Williams stress the rise of businesses that allow us to share, rent or lease everything from automobiles (through car-sharing) and accommodation (AirBNB) to films and music (Netflix and iTunes). We have long had libraries for books, but we can also have libraries for tools, toys, electronics and farm equipment. Today, in various settings, it is possible to buy a service where we used to buy a product. For instance, industries can buy illumination rather than lighting, the use of carpet rather than the carpet itself, the cleaning power of solvents instead of the actual solvent. The products themselves are recycled, refurbished and re-rented. The new economy prizes quality and durability as opposed to consumption and obsolescence.

Trebeck and Williams also stress the relationship between equity, democracy and environment, and note the emergence of participatory budgeting and planning (which can be done right now, anywhere) as models of long-term thinking based in community-wide values and aspirations. They cite examples of multi-generational undertakings based on such values – the construction of Europe’s cathedrals, for instance, or the multi-decade commitment needed for space missions, or Finland’s commitment to store nuclear wastes for 100,000 years.

The Economics of Arrival is a truly remarkable book, describing both the frightening political and economic errors of the present and also the enormous range of projects through which human ingenuity is attempting to resolve them. With a substantial bibliography and extensive notes, it also provides an impressive guide for further reading and research.

At one point the authors ask, “What kind of ancestors do our descendants need us to be?” That’s the right question – and this book provides a whole toolkit to help us answer it in a way that will not disgrace us.

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