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The Wilberforce Award

August 23, 2010
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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 need to apply. 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 a transition to a sustainable future. And lest anyone be tempted to pursue the award for the wrong reasons, the money will go towards the winner’s awareness raising work.

“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 will take a visionary of Wilberforce’s calibre to break its hold. That person, says Smith, “will need to have a firm belief that we can have a viable and strong world economy that is no longer obsessed with growth for its own sake, but instead encourages both a stable population and sustainable consumption of energy and resources. They must be able to communicate that we cannot continue to squander the resources that will be needed by future generations, and they must also be able to communicate a plan that offers an alternative to our growth addiction.”

Strangely enough, I’m writing this about 20 yards from the very spot where Wilberforce and his collaborators met. My work office 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 a rather humbling place to come to work.

Beyond Growth was devised to help mainstream the growth debate in some small way, and I’ve been watching developments over the last few months. Smith’s award is the most unexpected and interesting turn of events so far, and we shall see what he inspires with his generosity.

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