28 February 2013
Pest Control, Puke and the Monster of Growth
This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on 18th January 2013.
When I was nineteen I did some work experience in the economics and strategy office of a City investment bank.
Though my four months there confirmed that investment banking was not for me, the office was an interesting place to be, with real characters possessing real brains which they enjoyed pitting against each other and the world outside.
A nugget of wisdom from one of these characters, a quiet and unassuming man called Leo Doyle, has stuck with me ever since.
It was about Rentokil, the pest control company.
Leo explained Rentokil’s role in the economy as being to eradicate something, to clear up a mess that needed getting rid of. This activity earned money by meeting a social need, but it did so by removing something bad and not by creating something new and useful.
If I recall correctly, Leo held up Rentokil as an exemplar of the British economy, which he saw as devoting a large proportion of its energies towards dealing with internally-generated problems and clearing up mess rather than actually creating economic goods.
The argument applies to a great many businesses and organisations which provide services that are necessary only because of problems that need clearing up.
Security companies, car alarm makers, CCTV system firms, waste management businesses, pharmaceutical and healthcare providers and, moving into the public sector, the police, courts service, the NHS and street cleaning – all provide necessary functions, for the most part. But they are all devoted towards clearing up problems, just like Rentokil.
From crime to liver disease to the rubbish-strewn, vomit-soaked streets of our major towns and cities every Friday and Saturday night, Britain has its fair share of these social problems that we spend a lot of time, effort and money clearing up. Yet, as a society – and as an economy – we keep the same processes going on a loop, from day to day, night to night.
We have whole industries supplying these social problems with their fuel, and then others feeding off the unfortunate by-products. One bunch of people makes its money selling booze, drugs, fast food, packaging and a culture of greed. Then another bunch gets paid to clear up all the debris afterwards.
Leo’s general point sits uneasily with the prevailing narrative of our political-media class: that “Everything else is a sideshow to economic growth” as Jonathan Todd put it over at Labour Uncut.
Economics is bound up with everyday life and culture; the two are inseparable. What is ‘wealth creation’ for one group of people can be a living nightmare for others.
We can see these dynamics in the growth versus ‘NIMBY’ (not in my back yard) battle going on currently over the prospect of a new tunnel under the River Thames from Silvertown to Greenwich. The two Labour local councils on either side of the river are both in favour and claim businesses are too, but people down in Greenwich (including David Gardner, the chair of Greenwich Labour Party) are up in arms at the prospect of yet more traffic and pollution in their local area.
This same interminable story has been played out ever since the Industrial Revolution, and is becoming increasingly international.
Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony told a tale about how industrial progress transformed Britain forever, and not completely for the best. The tale stands true not just for Britain then, but for now and worldwide as well.
The Indian tribes of North America, for example, could be forgiven for not welcoming the influx of wealth creators from the 17th Century onwards.
For the sake of new lands to populate, buffalo to kill, farms and searches for minerals, native tribes were kicked off land they had lived on for generations and hunted down indiscriminately when any of them dared to protest; their culture was then relentlessly suppressed, mentally and physically, to confirm their defeat.
They were not alone then, and are not now.
A different version of the same process is currently happening in London, where prime land is being progressively sold off to oligarchs, oil-rich Arabs and other foreign billionaires who are not citizens of our country and do not spend much time here, let alone vote. This has knock-on effects all the way down, sending property prices ever upwards and making it harder for ordinary people and especially the young to get by, even without a Conservative-led government around to make it more difficult.
Will it ever stop? Will this monster of indiscriminate growth stop eating someday?
The signs are not good.
Far from representing ordinary people, the London Evening Standard tells commuters every day how we need to do more to tempt the über-wealthy like Gérard Depardieu to come and live here, thereby squeezing people further.
This is ultimately a tale of democracy, about what society we want to live in and, not least, who owns it.
Political parties seem to have largely given up on these cores issues of land and ownership though, having capitulated for the most part to the dominant ideology of our times, that we need more wealth, more money.
The ‘super-casinos’, the ‘strips’ of bars that have helped turn our town centres into a different type of ‘wild west’ every weekend, the betting shops that blight our high streets and the payday lenders that profit from poverty; all suggest that not all ‘economic activity’ is “socially useful” as Mervyn King might say.
We should respect NIMBYs. We should respect people exercising their right to have a say about the communities they live in.
A bigger problem is that so many of us do not participate and do not show care for the areas we live in. This is a problem of democracy, made worse by the transitoriness of so much modern life.
We lack something that the American Indians had and still try to maintain.
As the Lakota (Sioux) saying goes, “The Earth is our Mother. One does not sell one’s Mother.”