Wednesday, July 22, 2009

If growth is the measure of all things, why aren't we 20 feet tall?

The question of the juncture - or is it disjunction? - between sustainability and economic growth is being raised all over the place right now. Over on Rob Hopkins' Transition blog, there's a lively debate on the UK's low-carbon transition plan and its emphasis on economic growth. Nate Silver, at FiveThirtyEight, responds -- with a mordant logic worthy of Jonathan Swift -- to arguments that global warming won't be so bad because it will only cut GDP by 5% over the next 100 years. Hey, look, he says, we could wipe out almost half the world and drop GDP by only 4.4%, so why worry? And Dennis Pacheco, on Chelsea Green, asks whether California's IOUs are really a cleverly disguised alternative local currency.

It's a huge topic, and while, after decades as a financial reporter, I know something about the subject, there's a lot more that I don't know than that I do. But it does seem clear to me that there's something perverse about the way that economic growth has become the fundamental measure of the health of our society. Or any society.

If you watch financial news, you've noticed that the very first question out of any interviewer's mouth is "When is the economy going to start growing?" The very definition of a recession is negative financial growth. We are taught, over and over again, that the test of our well-being is how fast our economy is growing, and the first argument raised against any attempt to curb greenhouse gases is that it will hurt economic growth.

So when peak oil folk talk - and they do - about a steady-state economy, it's kind of scary, even to me. Can we thrive - all of us - in an economy that does
not grow? Where everything stays pretty much the same?

Of course, it's not that there's not enough to go around. Just as there's enough food in the world to feed us all - if it could be gotten to the people who need it - so there's enough money in the world for a decent, if not extravagant, lifestyle for all, if some of it could be taken from those who have a ludicrous excess and given to those who have almost nothing.

The trouble is, I can't think, off the top of my head, of a single even slightly developed society that has succeeded in doing that. The human desire to hang onto what you've got is very, very strong.

On the other hand, to argue that economic growth is the only way to bring even a modicum of wealth to the world's poorest people is - essentially - to claim that it's necessary to make some obscenely wealthy in order that others may have the barest necessities of life. Does that make sense?

I certainly don't know the answer. But if climate change and peak oil are the overwhelming and intertwined emergencies of this century - and I believe they are - then it's a question we're going to have to tackle, and soon. Journalists and economists and politicians -- and all the rest of us -- are going to have to find a new way of defining social well-being. Growth won't cut it.

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