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Time To Change Gods

2012/05/31

The text bellow was taken (with permission) from Carl Duivenvoorden’s website and was originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal on May 28th, 2012.  Mr. Duivenvoorden is a writer, public speaker and “Green” consultant.  He had the opportunity to be involved with both of Al Gore’s climate change projects: An Inconvenient Truth and more recently 24 Hours of Reality.  I first met Mr. Duivenvoorden when he was a speaker at a conference about teaching sustainability in the classroom.  I’ve been reading his newsletters ever since.

“It is hard to change gods,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Possessed over 100 years ago.  No doubt anyone who has tried would agree.

But there’s a particular god our planet has been worshiping since WWII, and there are many reasons to suggest it’s time for a serious rethink.  The god is “growth”, specifically economic growth and the way we measure it, GDP (Gross Domestic Product).

Growth always, everywhere
It’s hard to ignore the blitz of messages espousing the virtues of growth.  Jobs and prosperity, we’re told, happen only through growth.  When growth doesn’t happen, we experience a recession, and that’s bad.  Growth has become the mantra and god of governments around the world.

Growth is certainly the buzzword in Ottawa these days.  “The wealth we enjoy today has been based on — and only on — …growth-oriented policies,” Prime Minister Harper has said.  “Under our government, Canada will make the transformations necessary to sustain economic growth, job creation and prosperity now and for the next generation.”  (Ironically, it appears that much of our national strategy lies in exploiting and exporting non-renewable resources.)

Of course, it’s not just Ottawa – it’s everywhere.  After last week’s G8 summit, President Obama said, “All of us are absolutely committed to making sure that growth and stability and fiscal consolidation are part of an overall package” to achieve prosperity.

A false god
Unfortunately, this theology of growth that underpins most of the world’s economies ignores the critical fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources – something most of us had figured out by grade two.  Economists soothingly assure us that growth can continue indefinitely, and that the easiest way to get ourselves out of an economic downturn is to just have everyone buy more stuff – regardless of whether it’s useful, whether we need it, or whether we can afford it.

The implication is a limitless planet with limitless resources.  Run out of copper?  Just move on and find a new mine.  Run out of oil?  Just drill a new well.

If only it were that easy.  In a world with seven billion souls to feed and foster, such new mines and wells are becoming a lot harder to find.  And since their contents are non-renewable, finding more just delays the inevitable day when we will find no more.  But the theology of growth would have us consume until it’s all gone.

Clearly, there are limits to growth in a finite system.  Just put a few bacteria in a petri dish to see what happens when the limits of resources are encountered.

Or here’s author Paul Erlich’s take:  “Perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell.”  Try reading the above quotes again, this time substituting ‘cancer’ for ‘growth’.  Cancer often ends badly.

A flawed measure
Since WWII, the most widely used measure of growth has been Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.  It measures consumption, investment and more, but is perhaps more notorious for what it doesn’t measure – such as the environmental impacts of economic activity, or whether anything productive was actually created, or whether people are happier and better off.

So you can spill a tanker of oil and clean it up, and that’s growth.  Or you can rip up the wilderness of northern Alberta, burn one barrel of oil for every five you produce and create a lake of toxic wastewater, and that’s extraordinary growth.

As Robert F. Kennedy said in 1968, “Gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.”

A better way
Clearly, growth and the way we measure it are signposts enticing us down a highway to hell.  We need a new way to measure prosperity – a way that factors in future generations, and understands that non-renewable means non-renewable.

There is hope: work is ongoing to develop all-encompassing indices to replace GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, Gross National Happiness or the Happy Planet Index.  And two books with the same title, “The End of Growth,” have been published in the past year.

But Dostoyevsky was right: it is hard to change gods, and deposing the god of growth won’t be easy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 2012/05/31 5:29 am

    Great post!
    There are certain shortcomings of GDP. Even if the economy like China which is growing rapidly does imply more jobs and more wealth, issues of pollution, deforestation, and corruption are also high. And even if economic growth is creating more wealth, GDP also doesn’t show who in society is getting the most benefit. Because GDP measures an average of per capita output, it doesn’t reflect changes in specific segments of a population. So poorer populations within a single economy can be getting poorer, even though GDP is going up.
    NEF has done some work in creating the HPI and Bhutan (of all the countries) first came out with the concept of GNP.
    Incidentally I also did a post sometime back on the same topic at http://linkingsustainability.com/2011/08/12/decoupling-gdp-and-happiness/

  2. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/05/31 6:23 am

    Great stuff, JP. I think you know me (and/or my blog) well enough now to understand that I think Mr Duivenvoorden is 100% right. I also think that Ehrlich quote, which I have not seen before, is very incisive: “Perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell” could very easily be the tagline for my blog. I try desperately hard to advocate reform of humanity’s modus operandi but, with people like Mr Duivenvoorden reminding us that it is fundamentally flawed – it is hard to escape the conclusion that the ship is holed below the waterline.

    I have had a copy of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth on my bookshelf for over a year but still have not read it. This is because I know it will challenge me in many ways I have not thought of yet; and it clearly challenged the people for whom he wrote it – the UK Government promptly closed the Sustainable Development Commission down in their Bonfire of the Quangos… enabling them to ignore reality and keep on with what Herman E Daly called “Growthmania”.

    However, reality does not go away just because we refuse to look at it or engage with it; a fact of which I am reminded every time a car manufacturer comes on television looking very pleased with themselves to announce a growth is global sales: Growthmania is a collective form of insanity. We are all like courtiers in the throne room of the ruler in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes – all telling each other (not just the king) how fine his garments are…

    The Post Carbon Institute nailed this issue well in their ‘Who Killed Economic Growth’ video:

    • 2012/05/31 8:32 pm

      I love that video. In fact, I think it is somewhere on my blog… somewhere : )

      Oddly enough, the concept of infinite growth is relatively new to me. Like most people, when I heard a politician or a company executive talk about “growth”, I always assumed it was a good thing. Something to strive for. It is only when you begin to learn what has to be sacrificed in order to obtain that growth (employee wages and benefits, safety, environmental protection) that you begin to see the toll that growth takes on society. And that is before we even consider the limited resources with which we hope to maintain this infinite growth.

      Oh yeah! That’s right. We are going mining on asteroids soon. Well, there you go. Problem solved!

      (I’m kidding!!!!)

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/06/01 4:43 am

        Over on 350or bust, I suggested that the fossil fuel lobby may be a bunch of shape-shifting aliens. If they are, the planetary resources mob have clearly stolen some alien technology because that is the only way it could ever make economic sense to try and do what they propose.

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