The cult of growth

George Monbiot’s article in today’s Guardian features a critique of the media’s handling of economic growth which is so spot-on it’s worth quoting in full:

“As the Guardian revealed yesterday, the British government is now split over product placement in TV programmes: if it implements the policy proposed by Ben Bradshaw, the culture secretary, plots will revolve around chocolates and cheeseburgers and ads will be impossible to filter, perhaps even to detect. Mr Bradshaw must know that this indoctrination won’t make us happier, wiser, greener or leaner; but it will make the television companies £140m a year.

“Though we know they aren’t the same, we can’t help conflating growth and well-being. Last week, for example, the Guardian carried the headline “UK standard of living drops below 2005 level”. But the story had nothing to do with our standard of living. Instead it reported that per capita gross domestic product is lower than it was in 2005. GDP is a measure of economic activity, not standard of living. But the terms are confused so often that journalists now treat them as synonyms. The low retail sales of previous months were recently described by this paper as “bleak” and “gloomy”. High sales are always “good news”, low sales are always “bad news”, even if the product on offer is farmyard porn. I believe it’s time that the Guardian challenged this biased reporting.”

Sure is. And clearly there is an internal battle going on for the soul of the Guardian, as manifested in some admirable recent editorial commentary on the subject of GDP growth (even if this piece does represent a speculative break from the assumptions embedded in much of the paper’s usual reporting). But although the paper is evidently not a monolithic corporate entity, unfortunately this battle leads its resident critics of growth fetishism into a head-on confrontation with the routine practices of economic reportage, evident not only in the Guardian but in every paper across the board. As John Dryzek points out in his recent book The Politics of the Earth (Oxford University Press 2005, p. 52),

“The entire way in which economic news is reported assumes that growth is good. This refers to growth in wealth, growth in income, growth in profits, growth in the stock market, growth in employment, growth in housing starts, growth in passenger miles travelled. That economic growth usually means increased stress on environmental systems – more pollution, more congestion, faster depletion of resources – is never reported along with these economic aggregates (though this stress is reported elsewhere). The political-economic discourse of liberal capitalist systems still generally floats free from any sense of environmental constraints.”

If the Guardian is conflicted, its nearest competitor in the liberal media appears to have few such qualms. A recent editorial in the Independent (which was actually cited by Tim Jackson in his important recent report for the Sustainable Development Commission, Prosperity Without Growth?) levels at critics of economic growth the kind of contemptuous cliches one might expect to encounter in the Telegraph or the Daily Express:

“… we do not agree with the anti-capitalists who see the economic crisis as a chance to impose their utopia, whether of a socialist or eco-fundamentalist kind. Most of us in this country enjoy long and fulfilling lives thanks to liberal capitalism: we have no desire to live in a yurt under a workers’ soviet.”

If that seems like a shockingly cavalier dismissal from an ostensibly liberal paper, it makes more sense in light of some information on the Independent’s ownership – by Irish billionaire Tony O’Reilly – and senior management. As Media Lens have revealed in some detail:

“O’Reilly is a former chairman, president and CEO of H J Heinz, the leading food company. He is also a former member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange. His personal fortune, estimated at £1.3 billion, makes him the richest man in Ireland. He makes £15 million a year in salary and dividends. He is married to Chryss Goulandris, a Greek shipping heiress who has a personal fortune estimated at £442 million. (Colm Murphy, ‘The Rich List 2005: Ireland’s richest 250’, Sunday Times, April 3, 2005)

“Together with brother-in-law Peter Goulandris, O’Reilly controls Waterford Wedgwood, the crystal and luxury goods manufacturer. O’Reilly has a controlling 72% share in Arcon, the zinc mining operation, and he has interests in oil and gas exploration. He also owns Fitzwilton, a large industrial group with core activities in food retail and light manufacturing. In 2004, he made a £29 million tax-free profit when a consortium he led refloated Eircom, the former Irish state phone monopoly.

“The [non-executive directors on the board of Independent News and Media] include Ken Clarke, candidate for the Tory party leadership and deputy chairman of British American Tobacco; Brian Hillery, chairman of UniCredito Italiano Bank (Ireland) Plc and Providence Resources Plc; Baroness Margaret Jay, a former member of Tony Blair’s cabinet when she was leader of the House of Lords; and Brian Mulroney, a former Prime Minister of Canada and now a senior partner at the Montreal law firm of Ogilvy Renault. (www.inmplc.com/main.php?menu=menu2&mb=ned)

“O’Reilly explains:

“For the advertiser, the newspaper remains the most effective mechanism to convey to the potential consumer the virtue, value, colour and style of any new product, service or offering that he has.” (O’Reilly, Independent News & Media Plc Annual Report 2004, p.3)”

““O’Reilly counts among his friends and acquaintances a veritable who’s who of world leaders and notables. His castle wall has a photo of him playing tennis at the White House with former President George Bush [Sr.], signed ‘Tony, greetings from the White House Field of Combat – George Bush.’” (Cristina Rouvalis, ‘Living large; Anthony O’Reilly rules a global business empire, enchants all those in his sphere and is now addressed as “Sir”’, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 22, 2001)

“I am a maximalist,” O’Reilly freely admits. “I want more of everything”. (Richard Siklos, ‘“I want more of everything”’, Business Week, December 20, 1999)

“Not just more wealth, but also more power. As one Irish newspaper puts it, O’Reilly’s “acquisition of a full stake in the Independent in London in 1998 gave him complete control of the British broadsheet and the attendant clout and respectability that he had craved.” (‘O’Reilly’s global empire is still built on print’, Sunday Business Post, April 29, 2001).

It is, of course, not impossible that such a character and his entourage at Independent News and Media would be prepared to admit that the economic paradigm sustaining their vast wealth was harmful and unsustainable. It’s not impossible. But it is entirely unheard of.

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