Economy needs a better goal than “more”
It’s one of those questions that drifts in the shadows of our modern world, just waiting to be asked: “How much is enough?” Yet few people do. Under our current economic system, you can never have enough and you can
never have too much. In fact, our entire economy is predicated on continued, endless growth. Yet we live in a finite world, with finite resources and a limited amount of space to dump our wastes….
Vol. 7 No. 18
February 22, 2006
by David Suzuki
Economy needs a better goal than “more”
It’s one of those questions that drifts in the shadows of our modern world,
just waiting to be asked: “How much is enough?” Yet few people do.
Under our current economic system, you can never have enough and you can
never have too much. In fact, our entire economy is predicated on
continued, endless growth. Yet we live in a finite world, with finite
resources and a limited amount of space to dump our wastes.
Bit of a problem there.
In fact, right now, the standard measurement of human well-being is Gross
Domestic Product (GDP), that is, the monetary value of all goods and
services produced by a country. If the country’s GDP is high, then
well-being is considered high. If the GDP is stagnant or, god forbid,
declining, then – regardless of other indicators – politicians go into
crisis mode to “get the economy moving again.”
Of course, one immediately wants to ask: “Where, exactly, is it going?” To
which the answer is always: “Up!”
There is a good rationale for all this, in that economic growth is tied to
jobs and income, which are indeed to a certain extent tied to well-being.
But the GDP also includes things like cleaning up oil spills, clearing car
accidents and treating asthma attacks brought on by smog. And it includes
things like strengthening process efficiencies to “improve the bottom line”
– which actually means laying off workers so shareholders make more money.
Is that really good for well being?
Few people today seem to be asking the fundamental questions of: How much
is enough? And what is an economy for? In post-WWII United States,
consumption was seen as a way to make sure a wartime economy could remain
in high gear in peacetime too. According to the Chair of President
Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors: “The American economy’s ultimate
purpose is to produce more consumer goods.”
So, this thing that pretty much rules the world and dominates politics at
all levels; this thing that citizens are expected to submit to virtually
without question and “help prop up” or “buckle down for” or whatever we are
being told to do at any given time; the ultimate purpose of this thing that
so controls all of our lives is to … create more stuff?
This seems beyond narrow minded – it’s dangerous. It’s putting us on a
fool’s path to disaster by distracting us from very real environmental and
social problems by allowing us to shrug them off with a simple: “What can
you do? It’s the economy!”
But we can do something. Our economy is a social construct and right now
it’s not working for us, we’re working for it. We have no goal and without
one, we will never be satisfied and never know when enough is enough.
According to ecological economist Robert Costanza, if you make the goal of
an economy sustainable human well being, rather than growth, it allows you
to consider a comprehensive suite of things that should be brought into
economic decision making – things like the value of natural services,
education and fulfilling employment.
Costanza groups these things into four types of capital: built capital,
human capital, social capital and natural capital. He contends that all of
them are important elements of an economy and are necessary to examine if
we are to ever get away from the single-mindedness of relentless growth.
We have a population expected to reach seven billion in the coming decade,
a limited supply of natural resources, looming environmental concerns and
an economy whose sole purpose is to produce more and more stuff. This is a
problem. It isn’t working and it’s time to find something else for our
economy to do.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.
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