GDP Growth, climate change and the end of the peripheral science

Economics has long been known in academic circles as “the peripheral science”. It became increasingly side-lined as people realised how little it added to the world’s well-being. This is another extract from the Chronicles of Nat Eb, the memoirs of the former prime minister of England during the low carbon dictatorship of the 2030s and 2040s.

Nat Eb, recently resigned from being prime-minister of the Midland Counties of Former England, sat on the terrace of the Forgotten Password, overlooking the rewilded M54. Time was, it would have been impossible to hear yourself think just a hundred yards from what used to be known as a motorway. But now from the woodway came only the chirping of song birds preparing for spring, as a couple of i-cars eased gently along the conduit, brushing fronds of wild clematis and carefully nudging lazy bumblebees out of danger.

There was a good crowd in Telford’s favourite pub. Some MPs waved to Eb, who acknowledged them with his pint glass. No better greeting than a lift of Shropshire Gold. Eb’s son was with him, just turned 15, and finally able to share in Shropshire’s finest beverage in a public house.

‘So Dad,’ began Eb the Younger, a bright spark who was in his first year of an apprenticeship in carpentry and insulation at Uni West. ‘How come no-one studies economics these days? Stumpy Regenkurt said the other day that everyone studied economics when you were young.’

His father smiled. “One of our greatest victories, that was. We used to have a thing called GDP Growth. No-one really knows where the word comes from. The general view is that it’s from a kind of Chinese proverb. Something like Gee Dee Pee. Like – Gee, as in gee-gee or horse, Dee I think as in the River Dee, and Pee as in piss. I think it came from the heavy Chinese influence in our economy back in those days, before the fall of the Great Wall. You see you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. However, you can make it pee. The mere sight of flowing water stimulates the urinary tract in a horse. It was a metaphor for a subconscious unthinking reflex of politicians, economists and economic journalists. Remember that pink newspaper I once told you about? And Growth. It’s another word for a tumour or a kind of cancer. So GDP Growth was a kind of cancerous mental behaviour which not very bright politicians would adopt when they didn’t have the time or patience to think more deeply about the world.’

‘Sounds totally bonkers,’ grinned Fred Eb.

Osborne the hunchback barman came out onto the sunny terrace, squinting in the bright light, hobbling unhappily, wanting to be back in the comforting shade of the saloon. ‘Another one for the young gentleman?’ Nat EB nodded, showing Osborne his own empty glass. He raised two fingers. ‘Make it two.’

‘It was bonkers. And we were the ones that put an end to it.’

‘They were looking for some simple panacea. A simple number which would tell them how they were doing. And for some reason they latched on to this figure of GDP Growth. But it only really told us how much business we were doing; very little useful information. It ballooned in importance and politicians and nations were judged by the size of their GDP Growth. Probably so many men with little fundamental self-confidence: size was everything.

‘It was full of flaws. It couldn’t distinguish between good and bad, so bad things increased GDP. Then there were lots of good things people did, acts of kindness like baking a cake for a friend, which would not be included in GDP, even if they were good things. Sitting around at home, doing nothing, just resting or meditating, although a very important thing to do, didn’t affect the GDP count. So we were all forced to work more and more just for the sake of pushing up this daft number. Oh these are just some of the problems with it.’

‘But how odd that they mixed up bad things and good things into one number,’ said Fred Eb. ‘Couldn’t they tell the difference?’

‘In short, no. Or if they could, they didn’t have the courage to say so. There was perhaps a conspiracy of silence, as they say. The real problem was that all sorts of serious people took it seriously: politicians, economists, bankers and financiers, economic journalists. Rather silly people, but awfully influential. That was the way things worked then. Of course, the Truth Laws put an end to that. Once they saw those press barons strung up in Trafalgar Square for falsity and misguiding the general public, the press started showing the Truth a lot more respect.’

‘Cor blimey,’ said Fred.

Nat EB looked at him askance. ‘Where are you getting these old-fashioned phrases from?’

‘They’re what we say at college. It’s cool.’

‘ “Cool”? Crimsons, it’s a long time since I heard that word!” chuckled the former prime minister, thinking of his own days at school and university, when “cool” was the ultimate aspiration.

Fred look alarmed: ‘Dad, for goodness sake, don’t say ‘Crimsons’. No-one says that any more. You know what it means these days?’

‘No?’

‘Well, just don’t say it, right? Anyway…’

Meanwhile the dutiful Osborne returned with two fresh pints of Shropshire Gold. Osborne himself had once been a growthist, then had been shamed and ostracised, and now many years later returned to work in the Forgotten Password. ‘Did I happen to hear you mention GDP Growth, Mr Prime Minister?’ he bleated pathetically. ‘Oh those were the days…’

Nat Eb looked up at him. ‘Osborne,’ he said sternly. ‘How long have you been on the wagon for?’

Osborne raised his eyebrows as if better to look into the past. ‘A good fifteen years since I last advocated any form of unqualified economic growth.’

‘Good man,’ said Eb. ‘And let it stay like that.’ He turned to his son.

‘You see we didn’t have a problem with GDP Growth as long as it was Good Growth. This was the principle error of growthists like Osborne,’ he said as the waiter made his way back inside with the empty glasses. ‘They couldn’t distinguish between good and bad. Extraordinary really. You wonder where the first ten years of their life went. Must have been completely wasted.’

‘So how did you and Stumpy change all that, Dad?’ asked Eb Junior.

‘It wasn’t just me and Stumpy. It was the combined effort of thousands of people, thousands of good thinking people who finally found courage and voice to speak their mind. And, by executing the evil press barons, we put an end to the Business of Falsehood. That helped a bit, I suppose. And putting P.O.T.[1] on the primary school curriculum.

‘But what really ended GDP Growth was the marginalisation of economists. Just as with fossil fuels, we realised that GDP Growth was not necessary. In fact there was quite a parallel between fossil fuels and GDP Growth. Funny really.’

Eb’s son was confused. He wasn’t sure if the two pints of Gold had clogged his faculties or Nat Eb was talking nonsense. What on earth could climate change and GDP growth have had in common?

‘You see for a long time the establishment insisted that burning fossil fuels was necessary; it was the only way of doing things. Without that we would starve, we would all die, we would run out of antibiotics, we would all end up unemployed. Yes, it sounds quaint, I know, but that was how they thought. And in the same way people thought if we got rid of GDP growth, we would all starve, we would all die, we wouldn’t be able to afford hospitals and we wouldn’t have any jobs.

‘What happened, in fact, was that fossil fuels became marginalised. New forms of energy generation were developed – rather rapidly as a matter of fact. New ways of making things so we used much less energy. By gum, if you look back, how we squandered energy in those days! And of course we do all sorts of things these days which don’t use so much energy. The way we live! We don’t spend time rushing around the world to see tourist sights. We don’t drive cars to work and to the shops. We don’t build huge motorways and constructs of cement and steel. We build beautiful forests and restored wilderness. Our richest men and women are not narrow-minded egoistical technologists as in the olden days, but great creators of natural space, who inspire all according to their means, to plant trees and bushes and wild flowers and create eternal legacies for themselves. Thus burners of fossil fuels have been marginalised.

‘Similarly, GDP Growthists simply became extinct like all other species that fail to adapt to change. We realised that our health was important, so we examined statistics relating to health and the prevention of illness. We realised that spending time together as a family was important. And so forth. Whatever was important, we attended to, or, rather, encouraged people to attend to. And if we needed numbers, we used the numbers that pertained to the matter in hand.

‘We worked on health and eating and exercise and families and peacefulness and kindness and restoration of the natural world, and gardening and cooking, and so on and so forth. We didn’t have time to worry about GDP Growth. The economy – whatever that means – looked after itself as people rediscovered what is important in life and therefore thrived with a deeply rooted sense of purpose.

‘Gosh, Dad, that sounds great. But surely lots of people were dead against it?’

‘Oh yes they were. Remember I told you about climate change deniers. People who, despite whatever evidence you could throw in their face, would deny that there is climate change or deny that man’s actions were responsible. Well, similarly, there were deniers in economics. These were people who, despite all the evidence put their way that GDP Growth was bonkers, still denied the damage to society caused by their obsession of GDP Growth. You could throw all the stinking flaws in GDP in their face and they’d wipe it off and ignore you, and deny that GDP Growth was a harmful mantra.

‘And were they the same people, Dad?’

‘Who?’

‘The climate deniers and the people who denied that GDP Growth was a cranky thing?’

Eb thought for a moment over his dwindling pint.

‘Often, although there was another category of people who believed in climate change but believed that unqualified GDP Growth was needed to address climate change. How can you advocate bad in order to achieve good?’ asked Eb wistfully. ‘But in their defence, they were schooled long before the First Ten Years Act was introduced and all the other changes in education.’

Nat Eb looked up. ‘Osborne – refills please!’ The sun was reaching the horizon to the west, flushing the cloudscape in gaudy pinks and oranges. ‘It should be a good day for a spot of gardening tomorrow… Could do with some rain, though,’ he said.

 

Notes

[1] P.O.T. or Pursuit of Truth is one of the most popular and important subjects on the school curriculum.

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