The Anglo-liberal growth model has been a disastrous project that has brought austerity, debt and wage stagnation to millions. In addition to the undeniable human cost of decades of economic policy orientated at protecting the finance sector, there has been an unforgiveable environmental cost that now poses a direct existential threat the future of human civilisation and all life on Earth. There will be myriad difficulties in any efforts to demand a just transition primarily from elite backlash, and more research is needed to study how to overcome this suicidal reactionary drive.
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“ ‘Economy’, like ‘ecology’, is derived for oikos – our home, the Earth. An economy that destroys our home is no longer an economy. It is a war against the planet, the people and our future. ”
Vandana Shiva – Extinction Rebellion (2019)
The Anglo-liberal growth model is the zenith of decades of savage neoliberal greed, propped up beyond its lifespan by corruption and ideological zealotry at the expense of the degradation of its supporting consumer class; and the ravaging of the natural world to the point of imminent apocalypse. Decades of growing emissions of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) have accelerated the warming of our oceans and atmosphere, and will now likely push the planet past several crucial tipping points: the release of millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost and CO2 from burning forests are on track to raise temperatures by as much as 4°C by the end of the century (IPCC, 2018). According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service Global Assessment report released in April 2019 this would lead to irreversible breakdown of ecosystems and precipitate a collapse of global food supply systems (IPBES, 2019). It is now unequivocal that the breakdown of our climate imminently threatens not only the future of human civilisation, but also of all life on Earth (IPCC, 2018).
This essay critiques the Anglo-liberal growth model for its inherent unsustainability and reckless ecological impact. I begin an analysis of the uphill task of changing such a monolithic elite construction, highlighting an urgent demand for further research of both the intersectional movements that are increasingly rising up to challenge the establishment, and the emergent ecological paradigms in economics and International Relations. I conclude that there either a massive paradigm shift will reform the overarching public purpose of the state for enabling a just green economic transformation; or the continued dominance of commercial financial capital in economic policy will leave the UK paralysed to adapt to the proliferating existential threats. At this crisis point, change will be inevitable, even if that change is simply total collapse.
The features of the Anglo-liberal growth model as distinguished by Hay, are useful for highlighting its distinctly unsustainable nature:
- Hegemony of an assertive neoliberal ideology,
- an elite policy community increasingly trapped within a narrow ideological framework, substantial deregulation of markets and privatisation of financial management,
- huge dependence on the supply of cheap hydrocarbons with disastrous environmental impacts,
- the systemic build-up of debt primarily to fuel consumption, an accumulation of risk within the economic system, with growth over time increasingly associated with exposure to that risk,
- the absence of a coherent theory of society or social well-being beyond the sum of individual, supposedly rational goal seeking;
- the consequent embedding of inequalities between and within countries;
- a limited view of global governance as little more than rules to manage competition between national economies
It is evident that Anglo-liberal economies are systemically vulnerable to inflationary shocks caused by, for example, a spike in oil prices or rising rates of loan default. Rates of GDP growth were powered by domestic demand driven by credit rather than earned income – there was real term wage stagnation that was disguised by the grossly overexposed housing market (Watson, 2010). The inflationary shock of the collapse of Lehman Brothers shattered the low interest rate–low inflation equilibrium causing mortgage repayments and ultimately default rates to rise. This triggered housing prices to fall, and a collapse in the consumption fuelling the boom (Ibid.). Treasury economists share a narrow orthodox intellectual background that left institutions blindsided by the failure of decades of received wisdom on the infallibility of the market (Craig M., 2017). So pervasive is the logic of the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy that after the crash the mainstream media were provided soothing explanations for the crash by the established authorities of the economic model that caused it, without being held to account (Simms, A. 2013).
The Anglo-liberal growth model depends heavily on a burgeoning financial sector, and is consequently hostile to progressive international action that would limit the ability of its banks to profit from resource extraction and the relentless neo-colonial growth imperative of the fossil fuel industry. This imperative undermines efforts at the global level to constrain the big polluters. Britain and the US export this lack of ambition on the global stage, exposing the mechanisms of the Paris Climate Accord as inadequate in ambition and enforceability. The 25th COP (Conference of Parties) showed that in spite of gushing rhetoric about the determination of young people demanding action on climate change, our leaders have effectively abdicated responsibility for mitigating extreme heating. They have chosen instead to leave it to those young people to find the solutions and invent the technology that will save the world from the mess they have created. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that “the international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis.” (Guterres, A. 2019).
Four days after the end of two weeks of Extinction Rebellion protests that paralysed Westminster, the UK Parliament became the first in the world to Declare a Climate Emergency and legally commit to Net Carbon Neutrality by 2050. On the face of it, this looks like evidence of the ability of existing institutions to pivot to more sustainable forms, and the ability of civil society to activate this change by pressuring their representatives to take transformative action. However, the 2050 neutrality target falls well short of the level of ambition that is required according to Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London because we will already have passed major ecological tipping points, rendering efforts to slow the rate of warming futile (Maslin, M. 2019). In spite of the warnings by the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that is “essential that the commitment [to net-zero] was comprehensive [and] achieved without use of international credits”, the government has legislated for offsetting domestic emissions by investing in tree planting and renewable energy projects in the Global South (CCC, 2019). Furthermore, emissions from aviation and shipping are not counted, ignoring the massive environmental impact of the UK’s import consumption. Our governments are making no steps to meet their own emissions reduction targets, which themselves Anderson is scathing of. “[targets] for example, of 80% by 2050 have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today and those released in the next few years… there is little to suggest that existing mitigation proposals will deliver anything but rising emissions over the coming decade or two” (Anderson, K., Bows, A. 2012). To continue with a consumption-based growth model the driving principle of which is the accumulation of profit at all costs is to sacrifice the lives of both the most vulnerable of the global South and of future generations. The political addiction to growth is a symptom of the relentless hunger of elites to extract every drop of Capital from the national economy before it succumbs to the overwhelming and unstoppable collapse of the biosphere.
The situation is now one of Emergency. When it comes to mitigating climate breakdown, the longer it takes humanity to reduce our collective Carbon footprint the more people will die: time is critical and with each day of inaction the more drastic and painful future cuts will have to be to avoid passing 1.5°C of warming and the associated catastrophic consequences (IPCC, 2018). Scientists are calling for an urgent, coordinated reduction of emissions, necessitating an unprecedented reorientation of the entire global economy and our energy systems (Cia, Y., Lenton, T., Lontzek, T., 2016). But the current efforts of both the US and the UK to reduce emissions are hopelessly inadequate. Despite the lies of our government, “growth remains directly or indirectly ‘coupled’ to a range of growing ecological impacts” – there is no such thing as sustainable growth, because growth necessarily demands greater resource and energy consumption (Craig, M. 2017).
Against this backdrop, the question of whether or not it will be difficult to change the global economic paradigm becomes defunct. It is going to incredibly difficult. The feats of incredible Treasury action taken to prop up the failed institutions and broken economic fantasies of Anglo-liberalism in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crises expose the lengths elites will go to preserve their hegemonic structures and ability to accumulate capital. Creating a radically transformative new economic paradigm is the most pressing task of the UK and all peoples of the world. A new generation of economists are mindful of the words of Buckminster Fuller, the revolutionary 20th century inventor: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In her seminal work Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth illustrates that by ending a focus on increasing GDP economics as a discipline could be refocused with the goal of “meeting the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet” (Raworth, K. 2018). This requires a government willing to make meaningful economic interventions, stimulating “public infrastructure projects that are key to any reconfiguration of the economy… providing the public goods on which the transition to a new model of growth relies.” (Hay, C. 2013) There is a rich developing literature into under what circumstances ‘degrowth’ can become socially sustainable.
The fight for a new economic model will always be a political struggle, not just a theoretical concern. In the last year Extinction Rebellion has mounted the most sustained and globally resonant criticism of the Anglo-liberal growth model with a campaign that draws on the long history of Non-Violent Direct and Action and Civil Disobedience as a method for achieving radical structural change from resistant elites (XR, 2019). In response to the April Extinction Rebellion protests environment Minister Michael Gove said the activists’ “point had been made”. He added it was time to have a serious conversation about what we can do to collectively deal with this problem. Mr Milliband said global warming would get far worse if the government did not act with greater urgency” (BBC, 2019). Given the radical implications of declaring that we are indeed in the middle of the sixth mass extinction and a climate crisis caused by Capitalism, this concession from key political figures of XR’s actions and gives some indication on how far the national political discourse was affected by the tactics of sustained civil disobedience.
However, the incoming Conservative government has abandoned any pretence of prioritising emissions reductions: Boris Johnson is pursuing a trade deal that aligns the UK with the climate-breakdown denying fossil-fuel state of the US and will contain no mentions of environmental protections (Doward, J. 2019). In the first weeks of 2020 they have bailed out the Fly.be airline, dismissing any argument that people should fly less (Despite aviation emissions doubling in the last decade). Furthermore, counter-terrorist police recently signposted XR as potential extremists in a Prevent document circulated to schools, warning authorities to look out for people who talk in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution”. XR are an explicitly Non-Violent organisation, and their inclusion in counter-terrorist guidance was justified by the fact that “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change underlies its activism” (Guardian, 2019). This exposes the severity with which the mechanisms of the state are willing to repress any attempts to demand comprehensive climate action from below. Kallis is deeply cynical that anything less than a black-swan event triggering a full-blown crisis will lead to change: “Given the current political climate, opting for a voluntary ‘prosperous way down’ is extremely unlikely. The pursuit of growth has the features of a ‘collective action’ tragedy. The end result is likely to be ruin for all” (Kallis, G. 2017).
In conclusion, the flaws inherent in the Anglo-liberal growth model may well prove to be literally fatal. The multiple environmental catastrophes we face as a result of decades of unchecked emissions increases threaten to cascade and overwhelm the ability of governments to respond. Dietz fears there is a systemic “underassessment of the overall scale of the risks from unmanaged climate change” because of the failure of growth models to factor in the impact of climate breakdown (Dietz, S. 2015).
There is a rising body of civil society who are determined to achieve system change from below, in spite of the evident difficulties and reactionary establishment pressure. The question of how these movements can achieve this before the inevitable terminal crisis of our economic order leads to the breakdown of human civilisation must be the central focus of International Relations scholarship.
Hay examines the wide body of literature on the aftermath of the financial collapse and concluded that our system is at a critical juncture:
“if crises are judged as much by the transformations to which they give rise as by the accumulation of pathologies out of which they crystallize, then what we have experienced to date is not so much a crisis as a catastrophic equilibrium. Though the symptoms to which it has given rise are pregnant with the possibility of crisis, the crisis itself is yet to come.”
(Hay, C. 2013)
The end of the Anglo-liberal growth model draws near, and there are more reasons than ever for a renewed determination to ensure that what comes next will be better. 85% of Britons are now concerned about Climate Breakdown, a figure that had grown dramatically over the last year (Ipsos MORI, 2019). There has been an explosion of awareness about the threats we face, and more people than ever are resolving to reduce their impact on the planet. The School strikers have shown that our generation has found its voice: we refuse to accept the insipid lies of a political elite who dare to tell us that everything will be okay, that they have the situation under control. Not only has the government’s economic ideology failed to address this rapidly unravelling existential crisis, it is they who are causing it in the first place by condoning the destruction of our natural world in the pursuit of economic growth. We have to Rebel to survive.
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