From a green point of view, the trouble with the economic system we've lived with for the past three centuries - capitalism - is that the better it works, the more it destroys the world, squandering non-renewable resources and pouring forth pollution. Since the early 1970s, critics of capitalism's environmental profligacy have argued that 'the material growth that brings us toward [environmental and ecological] limits cannot continue indefinitely ... [We] will surpass several of these constraints within the next few generations if current growth continues. The growth must stop,' as Jørgen Randers and Donella Meadows wrote as long ago as 1973.
The banking crisis has made the going harder for the advocates and representatives of greed, speculative cunning and profit-driven turbo-capitalism. It has strengthened the hand of interventionist, social-democratic government. Talk of a 'Green New Deal' is being heard outside the red/green circles where the phrase originated (see www.neweconomics.org); EU leaders were speaking in November of the need to re-engineer international financial institutions in ways that would help combat climate change and keep world food prices down.
Probably the outcome of all this will be 'business as usual', with a few big 'green' infrastructure projects planned as a means of pump-priming our way out of recession and back into the promised land of growth, full employment and consumer spending. But could we not seize this moment to be innovative in our thinking about economic health, more inventive about the quality of human well-being? May we not dare to imagine that the credit crisis will lead eventually to a non-capitalist economy, where security of employment and welfare provision would no longer be dependent (as they are now) on constantly expanding private profit? The institutional and technical basis of such a non-expansive economy has yet to be framed; but professional economists and treasury civil servants might set their minds to working seriously on it - if political pressure from below can push in the same direction as the fear of eco-catastrophe is pulling.
What would be the attractions of such a steady-state economy? What might there be less of, and what might there be more of? Greens and eco-socialists have been thinking and dreaming about this for a long time: here are some of their ideas.
Less traffic: In a non-expansive economy, we might finally break out of the car culture, and put motor vehicles back where they belong. With walkers, cyclists, and roller-bladers ruling the quiet streets, and motorists proceeding (if they must) at 15 miles an hour max, there would be a marvellous flowering of usable, convivial public space in every city, town and village. Children would come out to play again, people could safely amble and loiter, and we could all start looking after each other a little more.
Less stuff: Things would be made to last, and repairing them would become cheaper and easier than replacing them. Good citizens would no longer be expected to keep the wheels turning by buying and junking clothes and toys as if there were no tomorrow. Following fashion would give way to imaginative self-styling. Having old gear that still worked well would be a cause for respect; being mad for every latest gizmo would be seen as a sign that something was lacking in your life.
Less boring work: Instead of pretending that all work of any kind is fulfilling, we would agree to share out the necessary minimum of tedious or laborious work on which we all depend. Interesting, responsible and socially useful jobs, whether mental or manual (teaching, caring, growing, tending), would be opened up to everyone. Parents could work less and spend more time with their children.
More time: There would be much more free time for people to do what they enjoy. Enough said!
More equality: When people have embraced a less materially profligate way of life, and no longer expect that the future will make them richer, they are unlikely to enjoy watching the super-wealthy flaunting their maxi-yachts (and politicians queuing up to visit them there). Even the 'modest' riches of the two-house, two-car family are impossible to justify if we think everyone should have a reasonable share of scarce resources, and live within the planet's means. A global republic of more or less equal citizens would be very hard to create, but it would be a safer and happier place to live. Human divisions would heal, the prisons begin to empty, and poverty would really have become history.
More space: The planet's beauty is a very good reason for respecting and preserving it, even apart from its unique value as a life-support system. Less work, less hassle, less traffic - and more time to spend enjoying and enhancing where we live - could transform local environments, not least in and around cities. In a sustainable world, people wouldn't fly off to distant (or even nearby) lands every summer. But it would get easier to walk out across the fields, to take bikes on trains, to put a tent up by a lake. What is on and near our doorsteps would be opened up to more people, and visited more appreciatively.
n The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently, by Martin Ryle, Kate Soper and Lyn Thomas, will be published by Palgrave next year