Yesterday (18 January) Steve Howard, IKEA’s head of sustainability said that we are witnessing a ‘peak’ in home furnishings – like peak oil (!) Today it is announced that China’s growth rate has fallen to its lowest level, at 6.9%, in twenty five years, primarily as a result of slow down in manufacturing. Are we beginning to see the end of the era of mass consumption? There will certainly come a day, sometime, when people give up worshipping this false god. According to Grant McKraken: ‘Consumer culture perpetuates itself here precisely because it succeeds so well at failure.’ It offers a brief flicker of satisfaction which quickly dies away.
Then of course there are the arguments made by Robert Gordon in his famous 2012 article and his new book, that high rates of economic growth, as witnessed over the last 250 years, are a thing of the past – at least for countries on the technological frontier, such as the US and Europe. His explanation is that there is no technical discovery on the horizon that could have anything like the same impact as that of first steam power and then electricity. (The telegraph was a more significant innovation than the internet.) So if we’re going to see decling demand as people get turned off mass-consumption, and declining supply of technical innovation all the government and central banks playing with mirrors will not restore economic growth. A more likely outcome will be, again, asset price inflation which will only further increase wealth inequality.
Yet in the West we live in an economy of great abundance. There is no absolute need for people to be homeless or cold or hungry. But there is a need to rethink economic institutions and structures so that thise abundance is shared more equally. For this, at the moment a universal basic or citizen income seems to be the best idea around.