The Economics of Arrival: Review

Welcome to the fifth blog post in the Enough is Plenty Series from Anne Ryan, hosted by Feasta. If you like the post, please share it with your networks. You may also find it interesting to browse the Feasta website for other related articles. And please comment or get in touch with Feasta if you want to contribute to the discussion. We are at [email protected], @feasta_tweets and our Facebook page is here.

Thanks to Caroline Whyte for helping me to think through some of the ideas in this post and for allowing me to quote her. I take responsibility for my conclusions.

I mentioned the concept of the Economics of Arrival where I examined vocabulary for a new era but only briefly, as I planned to come back and do a short review of the book that gives rise to the term.

I read The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown-up economy (Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams, Polity, 2019) during summer 2019 and have been dipping back into it ever since. To somebody who asked me what it’s about, I replied, ‘It’s Enough Is Plenty for the current decade; it’s all about how rich countries can share the wealth so that everybody can have enough, and how poorer countries can take varied trajectories that do not result in the maldevelopment we see in many rich countries today’.

It’s a great book and a must-read for anyone who has recently become interested in environment, ecology, social justice and economics. The concepts and ideas in The Economics of Arrival won’t be new to Feasta members and many others who are concerned with steady-state and post-growth economics, but the writing is fresh and accessible. It has helped me in my efforts to communicate the issues and possibilities to people who are not familiar with the need for limits and an end to aggregate growth.

The basic premise is that rich countries have ‘arrived’; we have enough or more than enough of everything we need and we need to stop greedily pursuing economic growth at all costs. While some forms of activity – such as ecological agriculture, renewable energy and care and education work of all kinds — should continue to grow, destructive forms of economic activity need to shrink and wither.

The authors convincingly make the argument for contraction to fit the economy to the biophysical limits of the planet and they argue that we should instead share the wealth we have created. They are also clear that in rich countries there are people who don’t have enough and in poorer countries there are many rich people who have far more than enough and who need to contract. Inequality is a huge issue, and sharing rather than trying for growth is the correct response.

The book uses the Doughnut Economics Model developed by Kate Raworth, who posits a ‘sweet spot’ of ‘enough’ for countries (Raworth has written the book’s foreword). If countries fall short, there is a lack of services and wellbeing for inhabitants, and if they overshoot, there is social and environmental destruction.

The need for maturity and holistic development

The concept of arrival is derived from an aviation metaphor used by WW Rostow in The Stages of Economic Growth. As explained in Chapter One of the book, Rostow used the terminology of ‘pre-conditions to take-off’ and ‘take off’, but failed to discuss arrival when an economy matures; he remained with the idea of flying high. For those who have taken off, how to come down to earth is the challenge.

The book’s title and the concept of ‘arrival’ could give the that everyone should aim to arrive at the same spot, but this is not the authors’ view. Many groups — particularly in the Global South — may not want to ‘take off’ on the journey of economic growth at all. Although they are relatively ‘poor’ in a material sense, they are satisfied with their lifestyles and do not want the kind of ‘development’ that destroys many of the best things in life.

As I wrote in Enough is Plenty (Chapter Two, pp 39-40):

[If people] can stay on their land and produce and consume the food they need, have access to clean water and other basics, they are not actually poor. They may live on less than two dollars a day, and a monetarist mentality sees them as poor because they have so little cash. But contrast them with those in the pockets of poverty in the so-called first world countries. The problems of the ‘peasants’ arise when government economic policies that encourage growth exclude them from the land that supports them, or destroy the resources that allow people to live well with little cash. Poverty is not ‘an initial state of human progress from which to escape. It is a final state people fall into when one-sided development destroys the ecological and social systems that have maintained the life, health and sustenance of people and the planet for ages’.

Global inequality is not all about cash, although a small amount of cash is always necessary to provide things one cannot provide for oneself. Inequality is about the destruction of other forms of wealth (soil, land, climate, communities, systems that developed over thousands of years), in the pursuit of monetary wealth. At first, these destructions hit those without cash the hardest; people with cash can continue to buy from elsewhere things that have been destroyed in their own locality. But eventually those things run out in other places as well. The cash-rich will for a while at least give charity to the displaced or those suffering from other losses, in the form of aid. But mostly we will ask the dispossessed to believe that money is the solution to their difficulties and that they should join the global growth system and earn money, even though the system does not have room for all of them.

The authors take a holistic view of development (pp140-44), and do not assume that people all around the world will want to follow a uniform model of development and participation in the global economy.

That said, the book is primarily about where rich countries need to go and how they need to arrive. The authors’ assert that we need ‘new business models, ways of raising finance without interest, sharing to end poverty rather than relying on “growing the pie”, recasting notions of productivity and a focus on cooperation as well as competition’ (p77).

No blueprints

Trebeck and Williams are also clear that degrowth and steady state thinking does not involve a blueprint and I found their discussion of this helpful. When I speak about degrowth or post-growth economics, I usually assert that a post-growth economy is not simply a growth economy without growth; it’s not the same as a growth economy that has failed, where austerity policies destroy the security of the poorest but preserve the wealth of the richest. Post-growth is about equality and living well in the world for everyone. Yet people often demand a fully fleshed out plan and ask things like: ‘but how are you going to pay for services, etc, if there is no growth?’. The authors give help to people like me with a useful example (p76): ‘In the same way that an electric car is not threatened by a petrol shortage, a steady-state economy is not threatened by recession.’

I understand that electric cars and their components contain heavy embedded fossil-fuel energy and are problematic for many other reasons, (and this has been well illustrated by Brian Davey and others), so it’s not a perfect metaphor. But the change towards a post-growth mindset is a huge learning journey; it requires at least some activists to connect with people who are searching, at the point where those people are now, and to accompany them in imagining things differently and in constructing new stories about better ways to live. So the metaphor of the electric car is a useful starting tool for this time. Of course we need to go beyond these first steps towards more transformational ways of thinking and, as Caroline Whyte points out in our correspondence about this post:

“… ‘deep’ financial-system reform is needed to achieve a steady state economy. You can change the fuel that cars use so that they pollute less, and in the same way you can change the things that money gets spent on so that the financial system pollutes less. But unless you can change the way that both cars and money are created in the first place, along with the infrastructure that supports them, you aren’t going to solve the problem – and given resource constraints, the solution will actually most likely involve a significant shift towards completely different transportation and wealth distribution methods.”

The authors make only passing mention of finance, debt and money systems, and are aware that more needs to be done in this realm.

Regarding metaphors and examples of what life could be like in a post-growth economy, it would be useful also to try to imagine other ways to create in the first place the things that we need. For example, for mobility, we should be imagining scenarios where public transport is so affordable and attractive that people would think one was crazy to use a car and therefore car use is rarely or never a desirable option.

The authors also point out that demand for public services such as medical and health care is often accentuated or even created by policies pursued in the name of growth. It’s often said that we need growth to help people with Type 2 Diabetes, for example, but growth-related lifestyles and inequality are implicated in the onset of this illness.

Trebeck and Williams also say that ‘declining to articulate a comprehensive alternative is actually quite important, because it rejects the idea of grand, top-down visions’ executed by a few smart people at the top (p77). They don’t mention it, but we need to beware of the possibilities of authoritarianism, even of eco-fascism, and we need to constantly work at making all of our institutions participative and to deepen the democratic processes we use. It is more, to my mind, a matter of the keystone attitudes and policies being in place, which will facilitate maximum creativity, imagination and diversity of outcomes.

A gateway book

This is a gateway book that looks at policies and systems focussed on sharing and degrowth, with the aim of wellbeing for all. They give numerous examples of pioneering movements, companies and some governments that are trying to do just that: on small and big scales.

I found many of the ideas and possibilities that I and other Feasta members have worked and longed for over a couple of decades represented here. Land value taxes and commons approaches to resource management (especially treating the atmosphere as a commons) are all recommended. A basic income, which I consider crucial, is not mentioned. But Trebeck and Williams do recommend that governments investigate a ‘participants’ income, which would simplify benefits systems, reward unpaid work, reduce inequality and facilitate volunteering’ (p209).

Given this, naturally I liked the book and would recommend it as a clear and accessible introduction to the issues and responses. It would be interesting to see the responses of people who have not thought about these issues until recently, as well as the responses of those who are still promoting aggregate economic growth as the way forward.
The authors make the point, however, that more is needed than movements and companies modelling good practice.

Politicians of all hues need to take this knowledge seriously and make economic decisions based on it. They need to go beyond the rhetoric of green growth to a genuine understanding of post-growth and steady state. Could this book go beyond the marginalised community of those who currently promote sufficiency and related systems? The clarity and verve of the writing suggest that it could assist citizen-leaders of the great middle ground as they put pressure on high-level decision-makers to also exercise their imaginations and to change the rules we live by.

I’d also recommend reading a couple of older books that make good companions to The Economics of Arrival: The Resilience Imperative and Enough is Enough .

Jeremy Williams writes a very good blog at https://earthbound.report/.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.