Leeds International Festival of Ideas – Green or Growth?

For the last event of LIFI21 on 27 September, a panel discussed the question of whether sustainability and economic growth can go hand-in-hand. Chaired by TV Presenter Michaela Strachan, the event was framed with a recognition that there is an impending climate emergency and that action is needed.

The challenge for an event such as this, trying to tackle such a vast topic – and one which the chair acknowledged can feel overwhelming and disempowering in its scale and urgency – is in treading a line between providing variety of ideas and depth of ideas. Panellists brought a range of experience and positions on the subject, and any single one of them could undoubtedly have filled the 90-minute session on their own in setting out their ideas and the work they are involved with.

The panellists’ contributions were interesting and thought-provoking, but the format didn’t to my mind allow quite enough opportunity to get rich detail about their work. I wouldn’t want to characterise the event as unsuccessful, though – and perhaps there is a measure of success in its prompting thoughts about so many discussions that need to be continued.

Several times it was referenced that the audience was assumed to be one that was relatively well informed on the topic, one that was already engaged enough to attend a panel discussion; a session that allowed, say, Henri Murison of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to set out more detail of how he sees economic growth and sustainability as being mutually inclusive aspects of a proposed future for the North would, I’m sure, have been illuminating for many. Murison acknowledged that his position, and indeed he himself, was not beloved of environmentalists for whom the question is of green or growth (with ‘growth’ being a stand-in for ‘capitalism’), and a platform that allowed him to present a more detailed argument that could then be challenged and interrogated would have provided an excellent opportunity to further unpick the tension between the facets of the subject.

Left to right: Henri Murison, Noga Levy-Rapaport, Paul Chatterton and Anne-Charlotte Mornington.

Anne-Charlotte Mornington, Head of Partnerships at Olio, an app that enables free sharing of food and other household items, brought insight into work seeking to reduce waste by providing an alternative to ‘consumption’ always meaning ‘buying something new’. Rather than a direct challenge to the whole idea of capitalism, the app provides a route to mitigate against some of the ways it impacts on the environment – supermarkets’ economic need to not run out of bread, for example, leads them to overstocking (it being more economically viable to dispose of some unwanted stock than to risk shoppers going elsewhere, in a nutshell).

Strachan asked Mornington if there is a risk of the app becoming so successful that it starts to impact on supermarkets’ growth – the reply that we are a long way off that position was a reasonable one, given the time restrictions of the event, but it remains a valid question that lurks beneath the interesting and valuable work of the app. More time to explore this work could also have led to discussion of how much is known about the use of the app: are people truly using it in an altruistic way, are they taking only what they need and can use? Are non-perishable items going to good homes rather than resale…..? These questions would help get to the heart of a debate that raised its head several times about whether it is right to characterise (or caricature) a split between ‘people’ (inherently cooperative) and ‘corporations’ (inherently selfish, some would say) – this is a simplification on my part of the discussion that was able to be had, I should note. 

The most direct proponent of an overhaul of the current economic landscape was Paul Chatterton, Professor of Urban Futures at the University of Leeds. Coming from the position that “green doesn’t do growth”, Chatterton posited that the challenge is to find a way that people (ultimately, this being all people across the globe) can have our needs met within the natural limits of the world and not at the expense of others. He put forward figures to quantify arguments: if economic growth progresses at around 2-3% per year, then compound growth means that the economy will double in size in around twenty years: the economy is rooted in producing things (using resources) and transporting things (using more resources). Murison suggested that Chatterton’s arguments are “academic” and do not deal with the real world issue of trying to persuade people to change their behaviour who don’t see how this will benefit them. In fact, both Chatterton and Murison, albeit in very different ways, were recognising very real issues of growing economic inequality, with the battleground being about the extent to which the current economic landscape needed to be nurtured or overhauled to tackle this, alongside tackling climate change.

The fourth panellist, Noga Levy-Rapaport, was the person from whom I felt I heard the least about work they are involved with. A climate activist and volunteer in climate strikes, Levy-Rapaport certainly held their own in the debates that sought to define the relationship between green and growth and to unpick the roles of individual and corporate responsibility, but I would have liked to hear more about the detail of their activism and what insights there are about its impact as a way of making change.

Perhaps inevitably, given how tight time was, there were a number of planned threads of discussion that couldn’t be explored. HS2 got a brief mention, but the expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport had to be all but passed over – both provided a glimpse into much bigger debates about transport and localism than there was time to explore.

There was room for a few audience questions, which included an interesting example of a solar energy producer needing to be pushed by regulation to report on the biodiversity of their farms, and a well-received reference to the fact that there are bigger tax breaks for airlines than for rail. The issue of regulation and the role of government had already been touched on – Murison, for example, had noted that regulation which renders it not profitable to be a polluting corporation is what will drive businesses to ‘go green’ – but this still felt like another topic that would merit a longer debate than was able to be afforded.

Editor’s Note: It seems that the scope for discussion at some of the excellent range of LIFI events this year was enormous and defeated by time constraints; that there was so much more to be said and so many ideas to be heard. Nonetheless, the Festival continues to engage, to challenge and to enthuse.

Photography by Tom Martin.

Thomas Chalk

Thomas moved to Leeds in 2001 after a few years in Bristol and a childhood in Hull. He cooks (and eats) a lot, and intermittently blogs about it at https://toomanycookingblogs.wordpress.com/

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