Ian Gough, Heat, Greed and Human Need

Ian Gough, Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate change, capitalism and sustainable wellbeing, Edward Elgar, 2017, ix + 250 pp, 1 78536 512 6, pbk, £25

This book has a very simple message: that in order to avoid runaway climate change, we need to consume less; and that social welfare requires consumption tailored to meeting human needs; and that we therefore need ‘a political economy based on needs, sufficiency and redistribution, not on continuing economic growth’. Gough envisages three stages that will enable us to reach such an outcome: green growth, recomposed consumption, and degrowth, and believes this to be ‘the only way to progress from the hard-headed “greed” and technological might of contemporary capitalism to an ethical, just and sustainable future’ (p.2).

Chapter 1 summarises current knowledge about climate change and its likely effects, and it introduces us to the ‘Raworth doughnut’: a way of visualising the constraints within which social and economic policy now needs to be done. The outer ring is composed of the environmental effects of ‘overshoot’; the inner ring of the social requirements that will not be met if we ‘undershoot’. The middle ring, between these two, represents ‘the safe and just space for humanity’. As Gough summarises: ‘The goal must be to respect biophysical boundaries while at the same time pursuing sustainable wellbeing: that is, wellbeing for all current peoples and for future generations’ (p.37).

The second chapter offers an understanding of human needs as universal, as only such an understanding can enable human wellbeing to be measured and compared across space and time. There are of course other possible understandings of human need (for instance, Hartley Dean’s rather more complex understanding of it as both inherent and interpreted: unfortunately Dean’s Understanding Human Need is not in the bibliography): but Gough’s decision is understandable given his purpose of constructing a universal theory for sustainable global wellbeing.

Chapter 3 shows how the current global capitalist economy results in climatic instability and increasing inequality; and chapter 4 discusses the ‘necessary emissions’ that meeting human needs would entail, and finds that other emissions mitigation strategies would still be required if the economy were only to satisfy needs and not wants.

The second part of the book turns from the global discussions in the first part towards consideration of the policy change required in the rich world. Chapter 5 begins the discussion of how to balance the decarbonisation of the economy with the requirement that climate change mitigation policy should be equitable. Chapter 6 recommends raising the carbon price, regulation of housing and domestic energy, and a strategic green investment policy, and suggests that we shall need a more proactive State if production is to be decarbonised. Chapter 7 recognises that simply redistributing income towards lower income households could increase carbon emissions, and recommends taxation of high-carbon luxuries, the rationing of carbon at the household level, and socialising consumption wherever possible. Such consumption will have to be actively managed and can no longer be left to individual choice. Chapter 8 goes further, and insists that as well as ‘green growth’ and recomposing consumption we shall have to reduce aggregate demand by building an economy based on social relations and a sustainable environment. Such an economy will require redistribution of wealth as well as income, and it will require employment hours to be reduced, thus reducing incomes, consumption, and emissions, and providing more time for the ‘core economy’:

caring for and socialising children within households, building and maintaining communities, creating shared meanings and social cooperation’. (p.108)

It is in chapter 8 that we find a section entitled ‘The illusions of Universal Basic Income’. Gough discusses the ways in which a Basic Income would promote sustainability and post-growth:

It would provide more freedom of choice over citizens’ life courses; it would promote a better work-life balance, enhance gender equality and expand choices between paid and unpaid work. It might enable more people to contribute to the ‘core economy’. (p. 184)

In addition, it would provide a solution to labour market disruption and precarity, especially for young people; it would not require official enquiry into people’s activities or household arrangements; and it would ‘reduce division and stigma and enhance social solidarity’ (p. 185). Gough then suggests that a Basic Income would be either too expensive, or too low to provide sufficient to live on; that Basic Income focuses on money, whereas collective provision for needs is more efficient, equitable, and sustainable; that a ‘more demanding state’ would be required; that a Basic Income would abolish numerous existing entitlements to social insurance and means-tested benefits; and that a Basic Income would devalue ‘participation in productive and reproductive activities’ (p. 185), and by implication employment. Gough has drawn these negative conclusions about Basic Income because he has studied illustrative Basic Income schemes that might indeed have some of these effects. But not all illustrative schemes are of this nature. There are others that would cost no additional public expenditure, would impose no losses on households at the point of implementation, would compromise no public services, would incentivise employment, would reduce the State’s interference in people’s lives, and would leave in place all existing entitlements. [1] As Gough’s negative verdicts on Basic Income can be answered, he is left with only the positive contributions of a Basic Income to his agenda, so that he could, if he wished, conclude that a Basic Income would indeed be able to contribute to ‘a realistic transition strategy from the present to a post-growth society’ (p. 186).

But that criticism of Gough’s argument aside, this is a well-researched, well-argued, well written, timely, and important book: and unlike some other contributions in this field, it is a realistic book. As Gough recognises in his concluding chapter, post-growth would be in nobody’s immediate interest, even if it would save the planet from catastrophic climate change: hence the two transitional phases of green growth and recomposed consumption, with the main driver of these being local action which then integrates vertically into national and global action.

This is not just an academic book by an academic. It is a manual for policy-makers.


[1] For instance, Malcolm Torry, A variety of indicators evaluated for two implementation methods for a Citizen’s Basic Income, Institute to Social and Economic Research Working Paper EM12/17, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, Colchester, May 2017.