The article I discussed last time, by New Zealander Allen Cookson, was a brief gem with an emphasis on population growth and some mention of the flaws, as well, in our economic model of continual growth. The same day I came across it, occasional GIM commenter, Tim Delaney, sent me a link to an article in Mother Jones by Bill McKibben. Reversal of Fortune, drawn from McKibben’s new book, Deep Economy gives us a more thorough look at the problems with our growth-based economy. McKibben suggests that while a focus on growth did serve us well for some time, now “growth is bumping up against physical limits so profound—like climate change and peak oil—that trying to keep expanding the economy may be not just impossible but also dangerous.” It’s an important article. Here are the Cliff’s Notes plus a little commentary:
It wasn’t always this way
The growth which most of us have come to assume to be necessary and good has its earliest roots in the industrial revolution, but really got cranking in the middle of the 20th century, in the post war boom. Prior to that, Mckibben tells us, “even FDR routinely spoke of America’s economy as mature, with no further expansion anticipated.” I suspect most Americans and residents of other industrialized countries would find that historical tidbit surprising. No further expansion anticipated? Was FDR crazy or something? He wasn’t; the growth imperative, so pervasive today, simply hadn’t yet taken hold.
New problems, and happiness has flatlined
Among problems we face today which should prompt us to rethink our economic model, McKibben mentions three: First, there’s peak oil. Our economy, as dependent as it is on fossil fuel consumption, cannot be sustained in its ever-growing form as we pass the peak of oil extraction and enter a slow decline.
Then there’s the problem that despite a growing GNP in the US, for example, for most of us our wealth is not increasing. Instead, “The average wage in the United States is less now, in real dollars, than it was 30 years ago.”
Finally, there is simply no way we can keep growing toward worldwide consumption levels similar to the US’s. To do so, according to some reports based on the “ecological footprint” indicator, we’d need five earths to support ourselves. Nevertheless, as detailed in a post on Trinifar, the US Department of Energy projects a continued rise in energy consumption. (Given past trends, this is understandable. Still, it’s unsettling given data such as we see in the Ecological Footprint.)
More generally, McKibben points out, for all our economic growth, we’re no happier. This is backed up by surveys on life satisfaction in the US from the National Opinion Research Center, going back to 1972. I’ll add that, independently, the Redefining Progress group’s Genuine Progress Indicator reveals similar results on a more purely monetary level. Mckibben adds that people actually report experiencing more negative life events. And the results from other countries are similar.
Well, you didn’t think the old saw, “Money doesn’t buy happiness,” was wrong, did you? McKibben reports researchers have in fact identified the point beyond which the old wisdom kicks in. It’s at $10,000 income per capita. Below that modest level, an increase in income does bring increased satisfaction. It does help, after all, to have one’s basic life needs met. Beyond it, though, we find our happiness more in friendships and community. Consistent with that is the finding that “a sampling of Forbes magazine’s ‘richest Americans’ have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai.”
One wonders when we’ll begin to take these kinds of data more seriously than GNP or GDP, as we see in the adoption of the “Gross National Happiness” indicator by Bhutan. Despite its unfortunate linguistic echo of Western economics jargon, discussed by signature103 at sustainability theory dharma, it represents an attempt to put the focus on what matters.
Making matter worse is our growing isolation. Arguably as a result of the drive for economic growth, we spend more time at work, have fewer friends, spend less time with them, live more often behind walls, and spread ourselves over more land, out of proportion even with population growth. Thus, for many years, the economic growth imperative, built on Adam Smith’s notion of individual initiative, has not only been of no value in increasing satisfaction, but has eroded that which does bring satisfaction — our social connectedness.
In a strong statement that nevertheless sounds understated, Mckibben says of our growth obsession, “On the list of major mistakes we’ve made as a species, this one seems pretty high up.” It’s tough to think of one that should be listed higher.
Relocalize, and bring back a little of the ’60s
Part of the solution, Mckibben suggests, is to relocalize our economies and return, for example, to reliance on local, small farms. That small farms, using sustainable farming practices, produce more food per acre/hectare and are more efficient in their use of resources such as oil and water, makes this not just a swell idea, but a necessity as population continues to grow.
Our approach to economics won out over other systems, and served us well for some time, concludes McKibben. But we’ve passed the zone in which rewards were greater than costs, and are now paying a heavy price, both ecologically and emotionally, for our continued push for growth.
Back in the Sixties, we challenged the notion that More = Better, but as the counter-culture faded into the background somewhere along the way in the Seventies, our society’s thinking reverted back to the old Adam Smith model, and forgot all about the long-term consequences of such a formula in terms of economics, ecology, and human happiness.
Indeed, had we managed to hold on to the counter-culture ethos of the ’60s, might we have moved beyond our growth obsession already and averted the crisis we now face?
Image source: joni, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license