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Good News and Bad News

by Jeremy Williams on 12th October 2011

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Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by a series of good news stories that have accidentally been reported as bad news stories.  Here they are:

  1. Fewer new cars were registered on Britain’s roads this year.
  2. The supermarket chain Tesco has posted its lowest growth figures for 20 years.
  3. The British arms company BAE Systems is facing a wave of redundancies.

All of these were reported in the business section, in sombre journalism full of words like ‘disappointing numbers’, ‘weakness’, ‘lacklustre performance’. Why? Because things are supposed to grow. Companies are supposed to get bigger every year. Sales can only ever go up. Market share can only ever expand.

This is a problem, because if we actually follow through on that, it takes us to places we don’t want to go. “Healthy” end of year growth figures are celebrated, and we don’t stop to ask what happens if those figures continue unquestioned, year after year.

So, more new cars sold every year is considered a good thing – British car companies make profits and create jobs. But do we actually want more cars on the roads every year? The roads are pretty congested as it is, so every new car being registered makes things worse for the drivers already out there. With more cars comes higher CO2 emissions and greater oil dependency.

There were 332,476 new cars registered in September, in what is considered a bad month. Even if you’re sceptical of peak oil and climate change, is it really possible to add hundreds of thousands of cars to the roads every month, forever?  Taken to its logical conclusion, the result is a Britain which is nothing but roads, and so full of cars that they can’t actually drive anywhere. Cars, bumper to bumper, coast to coast. And then more cars just stacked on top of them, presumably, if we have to have more the following year.

Likewise, Tesco is one of Britain’s biggest companies. It already controls 30% of the grocery market, and it has voraciously devoured independent shops up and down the land. Obviously growth in Tesco’s market share is a good thing for its shareholders, but it really isn’t for anyone else.

For Tesco to grow, it has to persuade people to buy more food in a country where we throw away a third of the food we buy, and a quarter of us are obese. It has to take over smaller stores and other supermarket chains, crushing local diversity, annihilating competition and reducing choice. And it has to diversify into insurance, banking, mobile phones, holidays, until everything you ever buy is from Tesco. Do we actually want to live in a country where one corporation does everything? If not, then modest profits for this quarter are a good news story.

Finally, BAE Systems. In what was generally described as a “black day for British business”, BAE announced the closure of one of their factories. Now, this is obviously a big loss to the 3,000 people directly affected, and the community that is losing the employer, so I don’t want to be dismissive. However, when an arms manufacturer reports a decline in demand for their fighter jets, that’s good news.

Consider the opposite if you’re not convinced. The best thing for stimulating the security and defence sector would be a rise in political tensions, more global conflict, maybe a new arms race between Russia and China. Not exactly good for humanity, but great for job creation at BAE. That’s why Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex of course – don’t tie your economy to defence in such a way that peace becomes bad news.

The growth imperative has stolen our sense of perspective. We don’t care where we’re going, as long as we are constantly moving in the direction we have come to understand as forward. There is an endless focus on this quarter’s numbers, this year’s final figures, and no concern for the cumulative effect of that growth, the consequences further down the track.

I’ve certainly got a few ideas about where I’d like society to go. It includes green space and liveable cities, local business and ethical trading; a stable climate, clean water, and thriving biodiversity; greater equality, strong communities, healthy democracy. I’d like more peace and justice and human happiness.

We can agree on most of that, right? So let’s recalibrate our standards of what’s good and what’s bad – because growth, in itself, can be either.

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avatar Jeremy grew up in Madagascar and went to school in Kenya, and his international background has given him a passion for global issues and a compulsion to write about them. This he does, working three days a week for a small publisher, and dividing the rest of his time between writing and activism, reading books, growing vegetables, and boring his wife with post-growth economics. Jeremy lives in Luton, just north of London, where he is a founding member of Transition Luton, part of the Transition Towns network, a grassroots community response to climate change and peak oil.

Jeremy has written 9 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Jeremy

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