By Chris Thomson
Guest Writer for Wake Up World
If the whole world were to consume energy and resources at the same rate as the USA, we would require approximately four planets to meet the demand. Clearly we do not have four planets. We have only one very overstretched planet.
Some might therefore think it odd that we are constantly encouraged, by governments and companies, to consume more and more and more. It seems less odd when we remind ourselves that we inhabit an Alice in Wonderland world of topsy-turvy values, in which many of us over-provide for our material needs – getting fat, sad and unhealthy in the process – while under-providing for our spiritual needs – getting anxious, confused and unhappy in the process.
There is widespread recognition that all is not well. We hear every day about crime, corruption, war, global warming, poverty and inequality, disease, pollution and many other problems. The litany is all too familiar. But there are many of us who continue to believe that by making the economy even bigger, we will be able to solve these problems. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, economic growth is widely regarded as the universal solution, or at least the precondition. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that perpetual economic growth has become the central purpose of the world, a world that cannot tolerate any more of it.
We often hear about economic growth, but how many of us ever stop to ask ourselves what this really means? In fact, it simply means that more money was spent this year on goods and services than last year. When we take a closer look, we discover that many of the things that are growing are undesirable. The list includes traffic, crime, stress, noise, ugliness, pollution, violence, dishonesty, greed, unhappiness, inequality, not to mention all the damage to the natural environment and the climate. We say that these things are undesirable, but we have a schizophrenic attitude to them because some of them are growth factors in the economy, which we think are desirable.
Our chief measure of economic growth, GDP, registers the bad and the ugly as well as the good, without telling us which is which. Actually, it is worse, because GDP registers the costs of growth as if they were benefits. For example, if dealing with crime, congestion, pollution, and illness involve legal money transactions, as it clearly does, then this spending will be shown as part of GDP. If an increasing proportion of our economic activity is going on this kind of expenditure, as it is, are we justified in saying that we are doing well and that we need even more growth? In any event, it does not make sense for countries to compare themselves with each other on the basis of economic growth when so much economic activity in so many countries is either outside the official economy (transactions involving cash but which do not get recorded) or does not involve money at all (e.g. people doing housework or other unpaid work or bartering goods and services).
There are much better ways of assessing how we are doing as a society. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is an excellent example. In complete contrast to GDP, GPI subtracts the costs of dealing with crime, divorce, and pollution; it adds in unpaid housework and volunteer work; and it takes account of income distribution and resource depletion. In other words, it gives us a more accurate picture of how we are really doing as a society. Although GPI is being actively developed in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and in some states of the USA, most countries continue to use GDP as their main measure of progress, despite the fact that it is highly misleading. It is significant that although GDP and GPI grew at about the same rate in the UK, USA, and Germany until the early 1970’s, after that point GPI levelled off or declined, while GDP kept growing. If the GPI is a better indicator of what is really happening, this tells us that, although the economy was growing, things were getting worse, socially, environmentally and in other ways too. Comparisons between the GPI and GDP tell us that, after a certain point in the development of any economy, the pursuit of economic growth causes at least as many problems as it purports to solve.
In economically developed countries, promoting economic growth in the hope that it will ultimately enable us to solve our problems is rather like using petrol to try to put out a fire.
Of course it is true that when people do not have their basic needs met, there is clearly a case to be made for growth. Economic development is undoubtedly required in those parts of the world where there is inadequate water, food, shelter, and healthcare and education. However, once these basic needs are met, the desirability of more growth becomes increasingly questionable, especially when it is associated with forms of “development” that usually mean disrupting the sustainable patterns of centuries. We make the mistake of thinking that because some people have less money or material wealth, they are worse off. Happiness is not necessarily synonymous with having more. More is not always better. Indeed, after a certain stage of development has been reached, economic growth is rarely synonymous with human development. On the contrary, it is closely associated with the many problems of our times, and with pressures to work longer and harder and to spend more. This begs the question: will this process – of having to work harder, and having to become more competitive – ever stop, or will it go on until the end of time as we keep trying to overtake each other in order to get ahead? That is a dismal prospect. Is it not time to make well-being and genuine human development the central purposes of society? And is it not time to acknowledge that these desirable goals may be in fundamental conflict with the goals of economic growth and ever increasing competitiveness?
Truly Sustainable Human Development
There are some chinks of light. The mood is changing, away from the focus on economic growth pure and simple. The Holy Grail of many governments these days is “to promote economically, environmentally and socially sustainable development”. At the same time, many businesses are trying to tread the not very fine line between maximising profit, on the one hand, and socially and environmentally responsible behaviour, on the other. Far sighted business leaders know that they need the good society. They know that it is in their interests to have happy, healthy, educated, energetic, creative people, and an attractive natural and built environment. The challenge remains: how to have this and to pursue reasonable profit at the same time?
Perhaps a better question is: can we evolve and practise a form of socio-economic development that automatically enhances personal growth, wellbeing, social justice, and environmental improvement? Can we, in other words, move away from a world based on competition for, and exploitation of, people and resources to a world based on cooperation and the wise development of people and the planet? The answer to these questions has to be yes. If it is not, then we are in serious trouble. If we carry on pursuing material growth and the belief that more money is the answer to most of our problems, while treating the other two points of the triangle – people and the environment – as secondary, things will only get worse. Yet we are unlikely to change so long as we continue to subscribe to the belief that more is better. So long as economic growth remains the central purpose, we will continue to have to use specifically targeted policies to try to counteract the negative fallout of our obsession with material things and money.
We will get to the point of knowing what we really want only when we make this possible for ourselves. This would mean giving ourselves the space and time to think and feel more deeply about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At present, much of our thinking is carried out in knee-jerk reactive mode, and many of our actions reflect this. There is an urgent need for deeper, reflective thinking, and the wiser actions that would flow from this.
Let us assume that we were able, as individuals and as communities, to work out what we really want the world to be. We would then need to find ways of getting there, and that will take time. Not only this, we would also need to design much better indicators to tell us whether or not we are on track. In my view, we will get there only if the means are the same as the ends. Paul Ekins expressed this beautifully in his book “Wealth Beyond Measure”:
“Many enlightened capitalists, and socialists who connive with them for the sake of economic growth, believe that solving the problems of production will lead people, once they have enough, to turn towards the higher things of life: beauty, spirit, art, love. They are wrong. Making the market the principal instrument of human development has transformed it – in the form of shopping – into society’s principal cultural expression. It is no use changing the goals from economic growth to basic needs or sustainability, for example, if the means, the economics, remains the same. It is the means that determine where we end up. The challenge is not only to decide on another destination…but also to design an economics, and a development process to go with it, that is as sustainable, participatory, equitable and satisfying as the end that is in view.”
Many of us are confused. On the one hand, we are being asked to work harder, to be more flexible, and to be more enterprising and competitive, so that we can always stay ahead of each other. We are caught up in an endless race for competitive advantage, yet many of us instinctively feel that we – and the world – cannot continue this way. At the same time, we are being asked to do our small bit to help promote social justice and environmental sustainability. It feels very much as if we are being asked to go faster and slower simultaneously.
We urgently need a new central purpose for the world. And the world as a whole will have to decide what it wants this to be. My own personal preference is that our new central purpose be the spiritual development of the human being, this planet and everything in it and on it. I freely admit that, when I look around me at a world that seems to getting madder by the day, such a central purpose feels very unlikely. Yet, I wonder how long we can continue spiralling downwards, ever deeper into materialism. We keep getting wake-up calls – wars, natural disasters, man-made disasters, global warming – and each time we wake up for a few days or weeks. But we soon go back to sleep again and get back on the materialist merry-go-round. How loud and painful will the wake-calls have to be before we really take notice?
Perhaps I am being unnecessarily alarmist. Perhaps there is already a large number of enlightened people who have moved away from materialism and other behaviours that damage society and the planet. Perhaps their numbers will reach a critical mass one day, and that will change everything. I hope so. However, if this is going to happen, it will have to happen very soon. Even if we ignore all other problems, there is one that we cannot ignore, and that is the fact that our behaviour is rapidly destroying the lungs of this planet, on which all life depends. Many of us are aware of the loss of rainforest. But how many of us are aware that the rainforest is now disappearing at the rate of 50 football pitches per minute? That is an area the size of Greenland since the turn of the century. And the rate of destruction is getting faster every year.
How loud does the wakeup call have to be?
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About the author:
Chris Thomson has worked as a lawyer, economist, researcher in Chinese, and as a director of think-tanks in Scotland and the USA. He now works as a writer, therapist and course leader. He is organising two new courses: “A Course in Intelligence” and “Less is Better”. His book Full Spectrum Intelligence: A Practical Course on Behaving Wisely and Well (Changemakers Books) was published in 2014.
Chris lives in Catalonia, and also gets to the mountains as often as he can. He can be contacted via email at: [email protected].