The term ‘economic growth’ must rank as one of the expressions most commonly used by politicians, and economic commentators the world over. Certainly, politicians in English-speaking countries use it in almost every speech on public policy. In the same way as the world was once described in a way that referenced males as the primary change markers and doers, the default way human welfare issues are framed is in terms of continual economic growth. As the former view of the world is oppressively askew so is the view that human wellbeing is almost entirely depended on the economy continuing to grow.
The reasoning that underpins continual economic growth is that not only does it provide people with jobs by which they can earn an income to support themselves and their family but it provides government with tax revenue which they can spend on public services. The equation is that economic growth means more money going into government coffers leading to better public services, which in turn means a healthy, educated population who contribute to economic growth. The high level of crushing poverty across the globe and the deep alienation many feel, as in part reflected in the large number of people suffering from poor mental health, shows that the system simply does not work.
The idea that economic growth is indispensable to our wellbeing has been deeply inculcated into the common consciousness by the agencies of socialization. In fact, so ingrained is the belief that institutions that pride themselves on the notion of being impartial, such as the BBC, present figures that suggest that the economy is growing as a good news story, something to feel cheerful about. The ecological destruction and human injustices that underpin the figures are considered irrelevant and so are not mentioned.
On examination, the idea that continual economic growth is the solution to societal woes, can be seen for what it is, a fairytale. This is because it is mathematically impossible for the finite to contain the infinite. Although the Earth is dynamic as in seasonal changes, evolution and extinction, earthquakes and the eruption of volcanos, its measure of resources such as water and minerals are fixed. The visual fact of this is depicted in the dramatic Earthrise photograph taken on the 24 December 1968 by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 orbit of the moon. In the picture the Earth is seen for what it is, a small self-contained blue and white spherical island of rock in the incomprehensible expanse of dark space.
A tragic outcome of the fable of unlimited economic growth is that we have designed a linear rather than a circular economy. One is which we mine, process, manufacture, use and discard. In doing so we emit global warming gases, extinguish other species and pollute the soil, air and water making life increasingly hazardous, and in many cases, impossible for ourselves and other life forms.
The ubiquity of the belief in continual economic growth, embodied in the idea of Gross National Product (GNP), is not only due to the potency of our socializing agencies but our inclination to believe in impossible and hardly plausible things. A discerning politician who saw the reality of the fairytale was Robert F. Kennedy, brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
In his March 1968 campaign speech for U.S. presidency made at the University of Kansas, Kennedy critiqued GNP saying that it encompassed air pollution, the destruction of the redwood forests, the loss of habitat to urban sprawl, napalm and nuclear warheads. It measures, he said, “everything … except that which makes life worthwhile.” That, which makes life worthwhile, should be the essence of any economic system. Not worthwhile only for the richest 1% who consume more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources but for the entire human family including the unborn generations.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which compromised six nations who prior to the arrival of Europeans lived in what is today the northern part of New York state, made decisions on the basis of the impact they would have on the seventh generation. Of particular concern was the long-term impact decisions would have on the biome. The credo extends empathy and compassion to people who will be living 150 years after we are dead. By way of contrast when Michael Gove was the Environmental Secretary in 2017 he warned that due to the eradication of soil fertility through intensive agriculture the UK had 30 to 40 years of harvests left.
If the seventh-generation philosophy guided our decisions, rather than the four to five-year election cycle, we would steer the world away from the pursuit of economic growth towards an ecologically sustainable economy in which the emotional as well as material needs of everyone are met.
If nothing else the prevalence of mental health problems, climate breakdown, the loss of biodiversity and rising poverty tell us that the orthodox economic construct has failed and a rethink is long overdue. We revaluate and change our paradigms in regards other areas of life. This will happen in the aftermath of the tragic implosion of the submersible en route to view the remains of the Titanic lying on the seabed of the north Atlantic. Why not apply the same rigorous assessment to the long-term feasibility of continual economic growth and consider other economic models?
This is something Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados encouraged world leaders to do at the recent two-day climate summit in Paris arguing for a radical reform of the global financial architecture put in place after World War 11. She told the delegates:
“What is required of us now is absolute transformation and not reform of our institutions.”
Commensurate with this required change is a need to change our view of nonhuman nature from one that sees it as a collection of things that have economic value to one that regards it as an integrated body of life forms that have intrinsic value.
Meanwhile the global temperature is rising, the world’s soil is becoming less fertile and the clock is ticking.