Theresa May's timescale of 25 years for tackling plastic waste has been criticised by green activistsPIXABAY

Theresa May recently unveiled an initiative that will aim to eliminate Britain’s avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The plan is a long-overdue step in the direction of eliminating non-biodegradable waste. Plastic packaging from supermarkets currently accounts for nearly a million tonnes of waste in the UK per year, yet it is difficult to escape the impression that her so-called ‘war on plastic’ is a wholly inadequate strategy.

Environmental organisations like Greenpeace have been quick to point out that the government missed a golden opportunity to introduce effective deposit returns schemes to incentivise individuals to tackle their own plastic waste. Even more significant were comments from Louise Edge, Greenpeace UK’s Senior Oceans Campaigner, that the measures that were taken “don’t match the scale of the environmental crisis we face”.

Our abhorrent levels of waste are merely symptomatic of an economic model that encourages incessant expansion without an awareness of living within our means

The inadequacy of May’s environmental strategy is nothing new. Successive governments have made superficial attempts to address the symptoms of the current ecological crisis, like Tony Blair’s failed efforts to shift the emphasis of the energy sector to renewables, and the plastic carrier bag charge implemented under David Cameron, rather than tackling the root of the problem itself. This is undoubtedly because the root issue has been fundamental to the mindset of political elites since the evolution of capitalism – the doctrine of growth economics.

The necessity of growth is ingrained in our perception of macroeconomic success. It is enshrined in everything, from our financial institutions to the preoccupations of our political leaders and our consumerist lifestyles. Our abhorrent levels of waste are merely symptomatic of an economic model that encourages incessant expansion without an awareness of living within our means – and the sustainability of that model is clearly at an end.

Growth-based capitalism has brought enormous material advances since its rise from the nineteenth century onwards, but the 2008 financial crash demonstrated that this current global economic model cannot even sustain itself, far less coexist with the delicately balanced ecological structure of our planet. While tempering capitalism to limit our negative impact on the environment is a crucial short-term solution, in the long run, we must begin to grapple with alternative economic forms. The Degrowth movement has been influential in highlighting the unsustainability of growth economics, but in order to instigate a shift away from growth-based capitalism, a new economic model must be conceived.

This is where Kate Raworth of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute has a pioneer. Her 2017 publication Doughnut Economics radically re-conceptualised economic principles, introducing the idea of a doughnut as an economic model. The economy would be constrained by an ecological ceiling that ensures we would live within the means of the environment, while ensuring that a foundation of social necessities – housing, healthcare and infrastructure – would be maintained. The concept may seem simplistic, but it is extraordinarily powerful; it is the vision of a sustainable, regenerative economy that would meet the myriad needs of every individual on the planet within an ecological framework that ensures the longevity of our planet.


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Whether or not the doughnut succeeds as a blueprint for twenty-first century economics, the implication is clear: we must radically reconsider our perception of the purpose of the economy. Ultimately, this starts in classrooms and lecture halls. Rather than teaching economics students rigid concepts engineered to maximise economic growth, we should start by asking them how they best think the economy should be utilised to meet the challenges of the next few decades. Educating an entire generation to wield economic concepts creatively, rather than constraining them within the dogma of growth economics, would create a global network of individuals ready to tackle the existential challenges posed by inequality and climate change.

Be under no illusion; implementing these proposals will be challenging. After all, the neoliberal consensus has dominated political and economic discourse for the last three decades. Yet as the last two years have shown, the cracks are beginning to appear in globalisation; people are hungry for a just society and a fairer economy. The next few decades will provide an opportunity to forge a new social and economic consensus that fights against inequality and for the environment. To create such a world, we must start by radically changing our economic approach

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