Robert Colvile

Have we reached the end of ‘The Great Acceleration’?

Danny Dorling, a firm believer in ‘degrowth’, anticipates an older, wiser, more eco-friendly — and massively more socialist — society in the future

Have we reached the end of 'The Great Acceleration'?
Photo by Dan Callister/Liaison via Getty Images
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Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration and Why it’s Good for the Planet, the Economy and Our Lives

Danny Dorling

Yale, pp. 373, £18.99

Ah well. It was a nice try.

A few years ago I wrote a book called The Great Acceleration, arguing that the world around us is speeding up and that this is on balance a good thing. Enter Danny Dorling with a new book called Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration and Why it’s Good for the Planet, the Economy and Our Lives. Cue a mischievous commission from The Spectator’s literary editor, doubtless hoping for a good old-fashioned nerdfight. The problem with this cunning plan is that Dorling, an Oxford geography professor and demographer, has written a very strange book indeed — and one that shows the extent to which the modern left has driven itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac.

Let’s start with the part that’s relatively uncontroversial. Dorling uses the term ‘great acceleration’ to refer primarily to the huge expansion of humanity’s numbers over the past few decades. This, he argues persuasively, is coming to an end much faster than we think: China’s population will top out at 1.5 billion but fall back to one billion by the century’s end. India will not get past two billion. Africa is the only place where numbers are still mushrooming, with the population set roughly to quadruple by 2100. This is not a new thesis. Fred Pearce’s Peoplequake said much the same thing a decade ago, rather more elegantly. But what is startling is the scaffolding that Dorling erects on this foundation.

Using a vast array of time series graphs, he argues that all sorts of things are fitting this pattern of slowdown, including technological progress, the number of books published and GDP growth. But this, he insists, is welcome news, because it means we are all slowly waking from the capitalist delusion. The society he envisages will be older, wiser, more eco-friendly — and massively more socialist.

The result is a cascade of wishful thinking that contains an almost homeopathic level of insight into human nature:

As so many have written so often, there is no need for us to spend so much time producing so much that is of so little worth. We will have more leisure time, but all that time will have to be used sustainably.

Has the man not heard of Netflix?

Those who market goods that are not much needed, that you might be persuaded to think you need but that do not increase your wellbeing, are becoming ever more desperate as we all become collectively wiser.

Has the man not heard of Gwyneth Paltrow?

Perhaps the nadir is when this eminent demographer points out that there are not enough young males in southern Europe, and rather a lot in northern Africa. Why hasn’t anyone realised, he asks, that we could simply import the surplus? Likewise, David Cameron’s promise to reduce immigration is dismissed as ‘stupid’ — as is anyone who sees the issue as a concern.

The central problem is that Dorling appears to regard capitalism as the product of the greed of a few rather than the needs of the many: as something done to us, rather than something we do ourselves. I had thought, for example, that Britain introduced tuition fees to widen access to higher education and improve the sector’s finances. But no: the growth of student debt in Britain and elsewhere was ‘largely the product of economic slowdown, corruption and ineptitude in these countries which, fuelled by political malice, led in turn to policies that increased economic inequality’. Similarly, the reason people do not feel happier despite their greater riches is that ‘we have not yet learned how to control the greedy’.

It was at the point where Dorling was waxing lyrical about the hunter-gatherer era — when life was more relaxed, diets were better and the aspirational were brought to heel — that I remembered a talk with Dambisa Moyo, the leading economist. What, I had asked her, did she think of the ‘degrowth’ movement? ‘Go to visit my parents in Zambia,’ she replied, ‘and see how even middle-class professionals there still have to put up with regular power cuts. Then go out into the countryside and see what lack of growth can do.’

The one bright point of Slowdown is that it features this honest footnote: ‘Most of the assertions made in this introductory chapter are justified by the evidence presented later in this book, but a few will simply be guesswork and my intuition.’ Talk about academic rigour. Elsewhere, Dorling sniffily dismisses Stephen Hawking’s views on population with the line: ‘Don’t expect great demographic insights from… people who spend their lives studying the Big Bang and black holes.’ By the same token, don’t expect any great economic, social or cultural insights from a demographer. At least, not this one.