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The main squeeze

Paul Vallely

It is the same question as before. But circumstances keep changing its meaning. At the Cheltenham Literary Festival this year I was on a panel talking about Africa. Alongside me was Mariéme Jamme, a chirpy African woman determined to confound all the old apocalyptic stereotypes about her continent being a place of war, famine, pestilence and death. She was one of the new generation of African social and internet entrepreneurs and she was the advocate of four horsemen of a different kind: opportunity, enterprise, technology and growth. She was determined that no naysayers should allow the Lampedusa disaster to cast its darkling shadow across her sunny optimism.

But then someone asked another question, and directed it to me. How would it ever be possible for people in the developing world to enjoy the kind of economic growth and uplift in lifestyle which was being talked about without we in the rich world necessarily making do with less. Isn't it inescapable that the poor multitudes of the world can't have lifestyles like ours if the future of the planet is to be sustainable? Won't we just have to have less?

When I was writing Bad Samaritans1 in the late 1980s - a book with the subtitle First world ethics and third world debt - the same question was being asked by the Lifestyle Movement. Its motto was 'live simply, that others may simply live'. Its motivation was both political and theological. One of its key figures, a Danish Lutheran, Jorgen Lissner, advanced a number of rationales: it was an act of integrity arising out of faith; it was an act of self-defence against the corrupting influence of consumerism; it was an act of provocative witness; it was an act of solidarity with the poor; and it was - perhaps, in retrospect, most interestingly, an act of anticipation of the time when the poor will assert their rights and there will be less prodigal luxury for us. There was more to this than the ethics of sufficiency or stewardship. It carried the notion, implicit in the parable of the widow's mite, that true giving has to be sacrificial.

Three decades on, many of the assumptions of the lifestyle movement remain valid. As another speaker on the Cheltenham panel, the Irish economist Pádraig Carmody, responded by pointing out that the average US citizen consumes 700 times per year more than the average African. But the question has changed with time. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that it is now 95 per cent certain that it is human activity which has caused the rise in global temperatures which may well threaten the future of life on the planet, certainly as we know it. Us having less is no longer just an act of solidarity with the poor, it is a survival mechanism. What is alarming about that is that, although 97 per cent of scientists accept this, the vast majority of politicians and public seem at the very least lethargic in their/our response. Short-term self-interest trumps even longer-term self-preservation, it seems.

But now the question is taking another twist. The book Carmody was in Cheltenham to plug was an interesting, but quite dense, essay called The Rise of the BRICS in Africa. The acronym stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. What Carmody lays bare is the extent to which these emerging economies are creating a new axis of power which will counter that of the old great powers in the US, Europe and Japan. China is due to overtake the USA as the world's biggest economy in just three years, though intriguingly another economist Will Hutton cast doubt on that, in another Cheltenham panel, saying that all its GDP figures are made up (he predicts a Chinese Spring and/or an economic implosion within a decade, but that's another subject).

What is clear is that power is shifting from the developed to the emerging economies and that life is slowly going to get tougher for us in the West. The 'squeezed middle' may soon be a lot more than an Ed Miliband electioneering slogan. Government research published in October by a cross-party commission, led by Labour's Alan Milburn and the Conservative Gillian Shephard, suggested that the children of today's middle classes are indeed on course to be less well off materially in adulthood than their parents. Standards of living, which we knew were dropping for the less well-off in the UK, look set to decline for the middle classes too - and middle here does not mean middle but the children of parents with above-average incomes too.

The politicians tend to blame the economic downturn - or in the case of the Tory party the finger is pointed relentlessly at economic mismanagement and over-spending by Labour (as if the then Labour government had any control over the reckless lending in the United States mortgage market and on Wall St which was where the 2008 meltdown really began). But the truth is that we have begun a long-term systemic economic decline. There are things we could do to slow that: that is shown by the commission statistic that nearly two-thirds of those who fail to attain an A to C grade in English and Maths are from backgrounds not considered to be deprived. Government policy can make a difference to the rate of decline.

But there is more to this than a gathering 'perfect storm' of increasing graduate debt, lack of finance to buy homes and middle-class job insecurity. The lesson of history is that few elites ever cede power; they have it taken from them. That perennial question - won't we have to have less, if the poor are to have more? - is thus taking on a new dimension. It will of course, be a slow business but it seems likely that the tide has now turned. And we may have no choice about the answer.

1 Published by Hodder & Stoughton Religious, 1990. ISBN: 978-0340526880.