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How questioning economic growth left me feeling like a “Pilgrim from the 25th Century”

In 1968, according to Immigration Department papers found on a rubbish dump near London 18 years later, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band arrived at Heathrow Airport. Their inept manager had booked them a series of gigs in the UK, but had overlooked to arrange work visas. As a deeply eccentric, highly individual group who had previously only played the West Coast of the US, to say they stood out like a sore thumb in drab, late 1960s England, would be an understatement. According to the Immigration Department papers, “the group arrived together and presented a very strange appearance, being attired in clothing ranging from ‘jeans’ to purple trousers with shirts of various hues, and wearing headgear varying from conical witches hats to a brilliant yellow safety helmet of the type worn by construction workers…. when they eventually approached the desks, it proved somewhat difficult to interview them, as they appeared to think on a completely different mental plane and found it difficult to grasp the rudiments of a passport control”. When Immigration Officers asked Beefheart who they were, he replied that they were “pilgrims from the 25th century” and that the camera around his neck was a member of the group. I experienced something akin to this feeling of complete otherness last week when I spoke at an event about Newton Abbott’s Development Plan, as the only one really questioning the whole process’s underlying assumptions.

Newton Abbot is Totnes’ neighbouring town, with a population of around 25,000. Teignbridge District Council are presently conducting a development planning process, creating the template for the town’s development over the next 20 years. A public event was held at the Courtenay Centre in the town to explore some of the issues raised by the planning process. There were a few of us speaking, a local businessman who talked about the need to create new, and ideally greener, jobs. There was a great talk by a woman from the Devon Strategic Housing Group which set out the near-impossibility of anyone under 40 actually being able to afford, bar having an inheritance or a very well-paid job (the average income in the town is £25,444), to buy a house. It was a stark reminder of what she referred to as the ‘generation gap’ in terms of those with, or without, equity in property.

I started my presentation with a recent quote from Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England:

“It is not like an ordinary recession where you lose output and get it back quickly. You may not get it back for many years, if ever, and that is a big long-run loss of living standards for all people in this country.”

I then talked about peak oil, and about climate change, arguing that these three challenges are central to any form of planning for the future. I referred to the recent Lloyds/Chatham House report which concluded that “…energy security is now inseparable from the transition to a low-carbon economy and business plans should prepare for this new reality”. I referred to the recent report by the World Economic Forum, identifying the key risks that need to be central in peoples’ minds for the next 10 years, and how they supported the assertion that these are our key three risks (see above).

If you are planning for next 10-20 years of the town and its surroundings, what is vital, I said, is that it is done based on realistic assumptions. If your assumptions are that in 10 years time we’ll be ‘back to growth’, with more cars, more finance, more cheap energy than today, then such assumptions are deeply reckless and irresponsible. I talked a bit about what Transition Town Totnes is doing, and about how any plan for the future must be based as much on plugging the leaks of the local economy as on attracting new businesses.

Teignbridge District Council are talking about the need to bring 28.5 hectares of new employment land into use, to create 41,000sqm of non-food shopping floor space, and to create 114 new affordable homes a year. But what, I asked, are the assumptions that underpin this? Economic growth is, to all intents and purposes, over and done with, the focus now should be on creating a post-growth economy for Newton Abbot, one based around skills, jobs and training, around meeting more local needs locally, and on happiness and wellbeing.

Well, it was a message that was well received by those in the audience, I saw lots of nodding heads as I spoke (unless they were just trying to stop themselves falling asleep). What was so interesting was the next two speakers, especially the district’s Economic Development Officer. “Well I don’t know about you”, she began by jauntily telling the audience, “but after those last two speakers I thought I wanted to kill myself! But there is plenty of good news about Newton Abbot and I’m here to tell you about it”. She then went on to wax lyrical about what a great mix of shops it has, what great car parks, how people come from great distances for the shopping experience the town offers. The assumptions shifted back to a future of more shops, more cars, more spending, more growth.

Well fair enough perhaps, it is after all her job to talk up economic growth, and perhaps it is because I am half way through reading Richard Heinberg’s new masterpiece, ‘The End of Growth’, but it seemed absurd to me. A few days before I had been listening to the BBC Radio 4 6′o’clock news, which had been about how youth unemployment in the UK had risen sharply, how EU ministers were openly suggesting that the whole European Union experiment might be coming unstuck due to the Euro debt crisis, and other tales of economic woe that seemed to come in relentless waves. One business leader commenting on the UK youth unemployment figures, said “these aren’t the kind of figures you see in a recovery, these are recession figures”. On some level with me, it felt like that bit in ‘Titanic’, where the sinking ship groans as it reaches a point of no return. This was the gut feeling I still had as I sat in the Newton Abbot meeting. I was also still absorbing a new article by Chris Skrebowski in which he redefined what we mean by peak oil, so that it referred to the point when “the cost of incremental supply exceeds the price economies can pay without destroying growth at a given point in time”. That feels rather like now to me.

The senior planner for the Council spoke last, and talked about how this would be a plan for jobs and growth (“your plan”) and how exciting it all was. He showed the process whereby the land needed had been identified to the south and west of the town. There was much talk of the need to ‘balance’ the needs of the environment alongside the need for employment, housing and so on. The document prepared by the Council that we were given talked about climate change, “diminishing natural resources” and food security as “overarching sustainability considerations”, and spoke of building “local resilience to climate change”. There were many good words in the document and in what he said, but the reality is that this is a plan based on the assumption that in the future we can expect just more of the same of what we had in the past, whereas most of the indicators are that we are moving into a very different world, a very different terrain.

To be fair to the Council, they have an impossible job. Central government has told them how many new houses and how much new business space they need to get in place, and if the Council doesn’t figure where that is going to go then central government will intervene and tell them. The current administration has adopted an assumption in favour of development, and is going all out based on the assumption that the thing that will get us out of recession is the construction industry (because of course it worked really well in Ireland, Spain and Greece). As George Monbiot brilliantly pointed out recently, all development is now assumed to be ‘sustainable development’.

“The wrecking ball swinging from this chain is the government’s redefinition of sustainable development. “Development means growth”, the new document says, and “without growth, a sustainable future cannot be achieved.” All development thereby becomes sustainable, and all sustainable development must be approved. “A presumption in favour of sustainable development”, the draft insists, must be “the basis for every plan, and every decision … the default answer to development proposals is ‘yes’”.”

The new government’s definition of what constitutes ‘sustainable development’ now includes motorway service stations, roads to the airport and advertising hoardings. Clearly the Council’s hands are largely tied, and the extent to which such a process can be a genuine public consultation is debatable, as was evidenced by the fact that a 2 hour and 15 minute meeting contained just 10 minutes for questions from the audience. Yet, it stuck me there is something that they could do.

They could stop looking at ‘environment’ as being a stand-alone box which refers to protecting things, heritage and increasing recycling rates, and instead replace it with the concept of ‘resilience’, in such a way that it runs through everything. At the moment, the thinking goes like this, “we need houses. So we’ll get developers to come in and build them, and make sure that they do so in a way that respects the environment’. But how would it be if rather than skills, training, employment, the creation of local businesses being in separate boxes from ‘environment’, resilience thinking meant that every development of houses were asked to do as many other things as possible alongside the actual building of houses?

If each new development of housing used local materials, such as strawbale walls (the town is surrounded by some fine farmland), clay plasters (Newton Abbot is famous for its nearby ball clay deposits), local stone (similarly, there are good quarries nearby)? If each development offered the opportunity, given the nature of the materials used, to train local young people, and get the long-term unemployed involved? If this allowed much more of the money put into the development to stay and cycle locally. If it allowed the town to become a centre for research into the practicalities of a post-growth economy?

If the houses that were produced were therefore more affordable, cheaper to heat, more beautiful, and ultimately, could be returned safely to the earth when future generations were done with them? In permaculture we call this kind of thinking ‘Multiple Function’, getting each element of a design to do as many things as possible. Bringing this thinking to a plan such as Newton Abbot’s would revolutionise the whole process, something that Transition Newton Abbot are trying to do.

Yet, when the reaction of the town’s Economic Development Officer to the idea that growth and cheap energy can no longer be relied on is “”Well I don’t know about you, but after those last two speakers I thought I wanted to kill myself!”, clear thinking about the future becomes that much harder. Economic growth is a glittering prize that it takes a big step to stand apart from. To be the first person in any given situation to question it as an assumption is to risk being seen in the same way the Magic Band were at Heathrow Airport in 1968. While the reflections and discussion in the limited question time at the end of the evening showed that many people in the audience shared these concerns, sat on the panel I felt increasingly like Beefheart’s “pilgrim from the 25th century”. Yet it is vital that we continue not to just question this shared assumption, but that we propose imaginative yet entirely workable alternatives, ones that actually tick more of the desired boxes than what is currently being proposed does.

The Beefheart story comes from the excellent ‘Captain Beefheart’ by Mick Barnes (Omnibus Press, 2000).

Editorial Notes: Rob Hopkins recently did a webcast with Transition US, talking about the Ingredients of Transition. -BA

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