There’s been an unexpected twist to the economic growth debate in the last couple of weeks, with the launch of the Wilberforce Award. Australian businessman Dick Smith has offered $1 million to “a young person under 30 who can impress me by becoming famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy.”
The award will be announced in a year’s time, and there’s no application process. Smith will be watching the media to choose his winner, so the only way to win it is to get on with presenting the case for an end to economic growth. And lest anyone be tempted to point out the ironies of enriching oneself by advocating an end to growth, Smith stipulates that the funds will go towards “advancing the momentum the winner will have already achieved.”
“It has become obvious to me,” he writes, “that my generation has over exploited our wonderful world – and it’s younger people who will pay the price. Like many people my age, I’ve benefited from a long period of constant economic and population growth – we are addicted to it. But sooner or later this consumption growth will have an end. We appear to be already bumping against the limits of what our planet can sustain and the evidence is everywhere to see.”
The name references William Wilberforce, who argued and won the case against slavery despite a popular perception that the economy could not function without slaves. Economic growth is similarly entrenched, and it may take a visionary of Wilberforce’s calibre to break its hold.
The Wilberforce connection was particularly striking to me this afternoon as I read about the award for the first time. If I got up from my desk and walked 20 yards to the office kitchen, I’d be standing on the very the spot where Wilberforce and his collaborators met, albeit three floors up. The office I’m in is attached to Christchurch and Upton Chapel in London, and right out the window is the steeple that was donated by the family of Abraham Lincoln to thank the church for its role in ending slavery. It’s now a rather odd looking office block and a hub for business start ups and charities, including Stop the Traffik.
Anyway, I began this year with the Beyond Growth project and the hope that 2010 would be the year we mainstream the growth debate. It’s not there yet, but it’s tip-toeing closer every week. The Wilberforce Award could represent a big leap forward.
It’s exciting to see someone put their money where their mouth is on economic growth, and I hope the offer gets a wider audience in the media. As a gesture alone it could be very helpful in raising awareness. My only hesitation is that the award will go to an individual rather than to a project or a movement. But as Joshua Nelson suggests in his response at Steady State Revolution, perhaps it’s just what’s needed to bring people together. I’m looking forward to seeing what Dick Smith’s generosity inspires in the next twelve months.