The author Christopher Snowdon is an historian, working with the Democracy Institute, which is associated with the right-wing Cato Institute, a libertarian free-market group who are man-made global warming sceptics.
I'm going to start in the middle of TSLD, with the chapter on economic growth. He attacks not just Wilkinson and Pickett (W&P), authors of the Spirit Level, but also books by Oliver James (Affluenza) Naomi Klein, Richard Layard, Michael Marmot and Neal Lawson.
Snowdon's basic position is to criticise their position on consumerism, arguing that to try to reduce people's level of consumption is (a) anti-freedom and (b) politically impossible. He presents anti-consumerism as hypocritical and envy-driven, suggesting that its motivation is simply the desire for a Big Government and Big State, and taxation for its own sake.
Remarkably, Snowdon makes no mention of the root problem of perpetual economic growth as a precondition of economic prosperity. So let's state it clearly and unambiguously in terms of two self-evident truths:
- It is impossible to expand forever into a finite space
- It is impossible to take forever from a finite resource.
The doctrine of economic growth is relatively recent, as shown by Richard Douthwaite in The Growth Illusion. It should be noted that continual growth is also required to sustain a Ponzi Scheme.
To be precise, it is the growth in throughput of materials that is impossible - the economic hardware, as it were. A perpetual growth in economic software, such as knowledge, ideas, and culture is theortically possible in a finite planet, and at present we are in the happy position of being able to use Green Growth as a means of making a transition from the present unsustainable economy to the truly steady state economy that is the only reasonable objective of economics.
The modern economy is a linear process that hoovers up materials, fashions them into consumables, then spits them out as waste. We mine metals, minerals, and fossil fuels, use them for a short time and then emit mountains of plastic, metals and toxic compounds. This is stupid enough, but the crowning glory of our folly is to destroy intrinsically renewable resources, such as fisheries, forests and soil. Forty years of study have detailed our actions in destroying the biological systems which sustain our present way of life, and I do not need to review the depressing facts here. We only need to note that free market fundamentalists (FMFs) (aka neo-liberals - a term that some may consider unfair to liberty) in general, and Snowdon in particular simply turn a blind eye to these facts. They are mere market externalities - "A consequence of an economic activity that is experienced by unrelated third parties." - to FMFs.
It is this huge, all encompassing blindness to the real world beyond the narrow consideration of the "Market" that underlies the clash between the FMFs and the new economics, the emerging way of looking at economics that is known by many names: new, green, ecological and even post-autistic.
FMF is an idealism, a pure, fact-free thought construct that insists that happiness can come only if the market is left alone, free of regulation and free of any information about negative externalities. Is there any wonder that it clashes with the new green economics that begins with consideration of the living biological system that provides our water, food, shelter, energy and absorbs (or not, as the case may be) our wastes?
Snowdon is totally and absolutely wrong to ignore the realities that lie behind the critique of economic growth.
Having said that, some of his criticisms of W&P's are interesting, and add to our fuller understanding of the impact of economics on human societal and individual well-being, as later entries on this blog will detail.