Be careful what you wish for. When the Government Economic Service agreed to co-host an exploratory meeting with the soon-to-be-disbanded Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) we were delighted. It had all the hallmarks of a meaningful engagement with a key government service. The aim of the exercise (or so we thought at the time) was to improve guidance on sustainable development in the government’s ‘green book’: the economic bible for assessing the merits of public sector investment projects.
In the Commission we saw it as the first step in a succession of reviews: first we would have the ‘green book’, then the ‘blue book’ – the guidance on national economic accounts (including GDP) – and finally the ‘pink book’ – the national guidance on investments and assets accounting (including the rapidly rising public debt).
How on earth did we get from there to the poorly written, weakly argued, incoherent document masquerading as a Review of the Economics of Sustainable Development (see here, and also covered in the latest issue of the ENDS Report)? Frankly, I’m glad this wasn’t submitted as an MSc dissertation by one of my students in the University of Surrey. I really dislike failing people.
Riddled with typos, laden with straw men and built almost entirely on non-sequiturs, the most striking feature of this review is nonetheless its wanton disregard for the original terms of reference. Mission creep doesn’t get close. What started as an exercise to get better accounting for ecological limits, more attention to social justice and greater long-term vision into public investment has ended up as an apologia for the status quo.
Admittedly there is a somewhat belated recognition of the blindingly obvious fact that we must protect critical natural capital and provide some way of achieving that in economic appraisal. Quite how that’s to be achieved without more far-reaching reforms of appraisal processes is left unexplained. But astonishingly the Government Economic Service has seen its main role here in terms of two much more perverse tasks.
Firstly, the document makes a concerted attack on the government’s own widely praised 2005 Sustainable Development Strategy – which for the first time laid out clear principles for protecting environmental limits and ensuring social justice. The GES accuses the strategy of failing to provide clear policy guidance in the face of trade-offs. Fair enough, that task could clearly be outlined further. But to recast sustainable development as a minor sub-branch of economics achieved through a slightly improved social cost-benefit analysis is to miss the point entirely.
Aside from this, there’s something very odd about this ‘trade-off’ argument. Because the GES’s second main goal – again nothing to do with the original remit – is to seize the opportunity to re-iterate its own belief that there is no fundamental incompatibility between long-term economic growth and the environment.
Quite where this came from isn’t at all obvious at first glance. It seems to have little to do with the original aims of the review. And it is clearly at odds with the idea that trade-offs matter. Yet it occupies an extraordinary profile in the document, appearing right up front in the foreword, reiterated in the summary and supported – I use the word loosely – by a further 20-page document on economic growth, wellbeing and sustainable development.
It’s here that my 25-year experience in teaching people to write and think clearly does me no service whatsoever. Try as I might I can’t find a single coherent argument supporting the claim that long-term economic growth is compatible with sustainability. It must be something to do with my foolish attachment to sound argument based on robust evidence.
The document acknowledges that wellbeing has not always kept up with growth in the GDP and even accepts that trade boundaries mask the displacement of environmental impacts to other countries. It spends a lot of time rehearsing well-known arguments about the link between growth and employment. And is upfront about the need for an absolute decoupling of resource depletion from growth.
But it is plain wrong to claim that absolute decoupling of natural resources is already occurring. And frankly disingenuous to claim that accordingly the economy can grow forever.
What on earth motivated a key government agency to produce such pap? It’s only in the interim report (published in October last year) that we find a clue to this puzzle. In the foreword to that document the recent attention given by the media, by civil society and by the SDC itself to the relationship between economic growth and sustainability is described simply as ‘increasingly unhelpful’.
Never mind that these ‘tirades against growth’ – as the report characterises them – are supported by Nobel Laureates, draw on robust scientific evidence and are honest enough to acknowledge the fundamental dilemma in which a growth-based society finds itself.
The possibility that a finite planet cannot cope with an exponentially expanding economy is one the Government Economics Service simply cannot stomach. Better by far to waste hundreds of hours of public sector work and tens of thousands of pounds of public sector money to assure us that the ‘government is already doing much to ensure that decisions taken are compatible with sustainability’. Oh right. Well that’s ok then.