01 Nov

“Green Growth”. Why we need to define it, own it and reframe it

One of the most controversial words in green & progressive politics is “growth”. Conversely “growth” is totally uncontroversial in mainstream economics. The need for growth is probably the single foundational principle upon which the global economy is built. Nothing is more important. The US Federal Reserve’s repeated attempts to “re-start” economic growth are at the centre of the narrative about the current economic “crisis”. In fact the crisis itself can be centrally defined as a crisis of lack of growth.

My colleague here on the Green Words Workshop, Rupert Read, has lately blogged articulately over on Rupert’s Read about Compass’s latest initiative “Plan B”, which advocates “green growth”. Rupert sets out very clearly why green economic growth is an oxymoron and why any economic plan that is based on economic growth – as defined by the growth of Gross National Product – will be making our planetary problems worse not better.

My contribution is aimed at a different level: to examine the cognitive associations that we, other politicians and the public have with the word “growth”. My concern is that simply saying “we can’t have growth because economic growth is bad” will not work: it will not be an attractive message to the public and it will not do greens/progressives any favours. This is a difficult line to tread because rejection of the anti-growth position sounds like tacit acceptance of the pro-growth position. But below I explain why it is not, how we are currently falling into a trap of being too literal and too intellectual (traits which the public does not share) and how we can instead have our linguistic cake and eat it.

Growth is a positive embodied metaphor

Berkely professor of cognitive linguistics George Lakoff – one of our main touchpoints here on Green Words Workshop –  writes about how metaphors are often felt and physically embodied in our experience as human beings. Growth – of all concepts – must be one of the most thoroughly, repeatedly and intensely-felt metaphors that we as human beings can experience.

Think about it: practically our first-mission as human beings, even unconscious and before our own birth, is to grow. After that, growth: physical, intellectual, emotional, linguistic, social, cultural is a centrepiece if not the entire point of our childhood. Once we are grown to adulthood, growth continues. We develop intellectually, educationally, and romantically. Mentally our experiences grow, our ambitions grow, our passions grow, and growing and developing our careers, independence, tastes, free time, leisure pursuits and indeed bank accounts dominates our time. Several times a day our bellies grow as we eat and we feel satisfied. Our hair and nails grow and by the same process of growth our body repairs and heals injuries, renewing us.

By contrast, look at what happens when growth stops (not even the opposite of growth, but simply growth stopping): we level out, atrophy sets in, and we can apply words such as stunted. Then come the opposites: diminishing, shrinking, failing and death.

Needless to say, for most people these things have almost entirely negative associations. Furthermore, there is little difference here between people who tend towards Lakoff’s Nurturing morality system or those who have a more Authoritarian morality. In traditional terms: there is not a Left and Right divide on this issue. You are very likely to have a generally positive impression of the concept of “growth” simply by being a human being.

This is the powerful cognitive framework that greens pitch themselves against when saying “we don’t want growth”. Cognitively you might as well be saying “we reject freshness, newness, renewal, development, fulfilment and goodness. We reject lambs, green shoots, Spring and newborn babies”. You’d be placing yourself up against insurmountable cognitive forces. The human brain cannot de-associate these things from “growth” – certainly not at the embodied, emotional, unconscious level – unless it has the kind of mental training that only a dedicated green thinker has. And that is not where the public is or will be. It also to a large extent explains why mainstream politicians are themselves so sucked-into the idea of the goodness and centrality of “growth”.

Whose frame is it anyway?

But wait a minute. Why should “growth” be the overriding frame through which to see the economy? Just because Gross Domestic Product numerically grows, does that mean that’s the only way to characterise the economic system? In fact there are many different ways to frame the current economy: you could focus on the exploitation of labour, of the environment, of animals; or about the WTO, Bretton Woods and corporate welfare. You could talk about the historical reasons for our current situation, about deregulation, about banking, about financialisation; or about imperialism, colonisalism, slavery and empire. You could describe the disparity of ownership, or the way some resources are intentionally under-exploited in order to maximise profit while denying human need. The frame of growth only characterises a small part of all this, and it allows only two options and two directions: forwards or backwards. Essentially it frames the economy as having no important characteristics that need looking at; there is no description. No judgement of rightness or wrongness, or unfairness or justness. Or description of ownership or monopoly or exploitation. Only an invocation “onwards and upwards”. Or alternatively “backwards and downwards”.

For greens therefore to be quick to shout “yes! We want backwards and downwards” as part of advocating our position of economic sustainability, is cognitive suicide. It’s us buying into the capitalist frame rather than rejecting it. It is at best irrelevent to explaining the truth we wish to communicate, about real sustainability, about living within ecological limits, about a dynamic equilibrium economy.

In fact, if the forces of capitalism had tried to lay a cognitive ambush for dissenting voices, they could not have done a better job than to frame the two options as “forwards or backwards, growth or death, my way or the highway”. We buy into this frame at our peril.

Essentially, every time greens hear “growth” we think “economic growth as expressed through growth in GDP” whereas most of the public thinks simply “growth”, as in “things developing healthily”. Greens therefore try to tell people that (economic) growth is bad, whereas millions of years of evolution and culture are telling people on a bodily level that growth is “good”. Greens are therefore setting themselves – ironically – against natural forces and on the side of death, decay and badness, and putting capitalists on the side of newness, development and goodness.

But, even if we grant that the word “growth” sounds too positive to resist, what about the phrase “green growth”, which is offensively coupling growth in GDP with the lie of it being green? Well, our reaction to this should be not to decry the whole idea of growth. And of course I mean growth as an idea on its own, not “economic growth” specifically. Our reaction should be to claim that the mainstream politicians don’t know what “green growth” is, but that we do.

At the moment, we are making the mistake of claiming that green growth does not exist. But to most people that sounds like we are claiming that no form of good growth exists. And that contradicts so many things that people see and hear and feel around them.

Let’s reframe, reclaim and define

While accepting the idea of “green growth”, we can and should define that phrase however we like, and NOT accept a capitalist definition of it. We should reframe, away from a GDP-based or growthist definition and onto a sustainable and more abstract definition. We can talk about whatever we want, including “where do we grow from here? How do we develop our society?”. We could define green growth as “growing in a different direction” or “branching out”. We can talk about the growth of solar industries, local farms and community organisations, and the growth of a society where we care about ourselves, eachother and our planet. But let’s not claim that good growth cannot possibly exist. Because that’s not a cognitively believable claim. And then when mainstream politicians bring up the idea of green growth we can be in the debate holding them to OUR standards of the definition, not standing outside the debate protesting its existence.

Let’s own the word “green growth” rather than rejecting it. Let’s reframe. Let’s put the debate on our terms, and let our definition of positive, beneficial growth be the standard with which journalists and the public hold other politicians to account.