Consuming Cornwall: Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth (Part Two)

Not a sound basis for a sustainable economy
Not a sound basis for a sustainable economy

Click here for Part One.

Unfortunately, orthodox economics doesn’t look in much danger of being radically inverted any time soon. That’s a shame, because it’s what needed if we’re going to ever see an economic settlement that prioritises the needs of the majority, rather than leaving to be half-served as a side-effect of the dash for private profit.

Once the small matter of that kind of spectrum-shifting overhaul was out of the way, though, areas like Cornwall could be comprehensively lifted out of poverty, given stability and security while at the same time achieving something as momentous as it is pulsatingly urgent.

The next hundred years is likely to be the make-or-break century as far as human civilisation is concerned. Growth-obsessed hyper-capitalism has left us wobbling on the brink of environmental disaster. What we do in the next few decades will be crucial to determining how bad that disaster ends up being – it’s far too late to stop it altogether, tragically – and how well we weather it. And Britain needs to gear up to deal with this rapidly approaching new world.

Over decades, if needed, the government could invest in the people and the places that were socially scrap-heaped by Thatcherism, providing skills and training for the low-paid and the un- and erratically employed. Then it could give them stable, decently-paid jobs, building and operating wind and solar farms, constructing flood defences, desperately-needed council houses, new hospitals and new schools, and repairing and expanding transport infrastructure, among other things. It wouldn’t be just construction either – there’d be people in the offices doing the admin, people working in the canteens, people cleaning, plumbers, electricians and maintenance staff.

People will always ask where the money’s supposed to come from. We live in a country where the 1000 richest people, or 0.003% of the population, saw their wealth increase from £99bn to £413bn between 1997 and 2008. The richest 10% of British people have got more than enough money they don’t need to fund this kind of programme twice over.

That would do for the short to medium term. It would lift thousands of people out of poverty – not just because of the wages, but the finally affordable housing and the like too. Longer term, the whole economy will have to become about stability – if we’re going to survive within our environmental limits, we need to have economics without the obsession with economic growth. That means radically cutting down what we consume, and producing as much of what we do as locally as we can.

The kinds of industries have been flogged abroad over the last century – food production, all kinds of manufacturing etc – should be brought back to Britain, creating jobs aplenty. It wouldn’t be the most efficient way of doing things, but that would no longer be the point – economics would be about providing stable livelihoods and locally producing what people need to live comfortable, healthy lives, not massive profits or endless expansion.

Cornish people might wear clothes made in Cornwall, for example, eat food made in Cornwall (what kind of eco-socialism worth the name would be without state-subsidised pasties for all), live in houses build by Cornish builders. People would still come to Cornwall on holiday – even more than now, perhaps, as travellers were discouraged from making fuel-guzzling plane journeys. But the county wouldn’t be held hostage by tourism. It sounds incredibly, implausibly radical in 2014. Pre-industrialisation, people managed it for thousands of years.

In the current political climate it’s hard to think of a situation less likely to come about. But that doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly possible – and that it wouldn’t be the best thing both for the majority of humanity and the environment we depends on for our survival.