All hail the conscious, responsible consumption economy?


And there we have it. The Prime Minister in waiting has increased his popularity still further in a confident, sober, serious mini budget that promises to support job retention, house buying and the hospitality industry. Meanwhile his failing, flailing boss is delivering Roosevelt-like speeches on building infrastructure (though unusually his focus was more on roads, not bridges this time).

Rishi Sunak’s time may be coming, and sooner than even he expected, as the failings of a Johnson-led administration become ever clearer and the number of cabinet ministers who are supporters of Brexit, highly competent and potential Prime Ministers reduces to just one.

But whoever leads the country through to 2024, when this second-rate administration may be replaced by the former chief of the Crown Prosecution Service, the leader and his cabinet must ask themselves one serious question: is the UK’s response to Covid-19 a return to normal – the old, unsustainable, climate-unfriendly, socially inequitable normal (but at least we are all spending money again, which the Chancellor’s package appears to be implying – or to a new, environmentally adapted, climate-aware normal?

I have argued in previous blog articles that our reconnection with nature during the Great Pause and Great Restoration, which is now coming to an end, gives us the chance to ask ourselves how we might move to a new, better normal, more in tune with the requirements of nature.

It is interesting to see, beyond communities and social groups of similar values, which governments also appear to think this might be a good idea. Germany has resolved to exit entirely from coal-based energy by 2038, but this remains a slow transition and much still needs to be done in the automotive industry, a still powerful lobby.

California is analysing how its response to Covid-19 might be a “green response” and the usual suspects – New Zealand, Canada et al – have promised similar initiatives.

What of Britain? The Chancellor reminded us we are a “consumption economy”. In other words, we must consume, buy, use, renew. Not make do and mend. Not use less, nor consume less. These things will not stimulate the economy.

The Chancellor has provided a £3bn “green stimulus”, particularly targeted at better insulation for homes to cut energy consumption, which is certainly to be welcomed, but I would argue this hardly qualifies as a green substrate to economic policy going forward.

We aren’t aiming for a new normal, a revised, thoughtful, conscious consumption, instead we are aiming to get back to where we were before Covid-19 as quickly as possible, and if that is damaging to the environment, that is a price to pay for avoiding mass unemployment. Meanwhile his boss offers us more roads and car traffic. And a no-deal Brexit offers us the prospect of reduction in food and environmental standards.

I am not an economist but a strategist. I had hoped this strange period of disconnection and reconnection might make us stop and think how our society and economics addresses the issue of climate change and sustainability. Not just at the social level, where I believe this is being much discussed (though of course I am liberal, metropolitan elite, and therefore unrepresentative), but also in terms of policymaking, governmental response and, hardest of all, at a system level.  

I am probably very naïve. I still believe that in some countries governments and regulators are taking that question seriously. The British government has been a deer in headlights since mid-March. And this deer doesn’t seem to be too concerned with its natural environment and long-term sustainability, just its own short-term survival in the face of the wrecking car of deep recession.

I see no recognition in the UK government of the need to think about a greener, more sustainable, conscious “consumption” economy.

So whilst I welcome the possibility that the jovial populist may be replaced by a hard-working, capable economist, I am saddened there is no strategic spark to shape the “new economy” towards a more conscious, sustainable “consumption”. 

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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