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Economic change not growth needed for health

Nov 2022

Jerry Buckland 

‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed’ Mahatma Gandhi. 

The problem 

The evidence has mounted that we can no longer rely on economic growth to foster the common good. The goal of economic growth has been to regularly increase the size of the economy so that there are more goods and services for everyone. With more for everyone, the story goes, society is better off. Moreover, since markets have features to protect the environment (e.g., prices go up in the face of scarcity), ecosystems will not be harmed. What I call growthism is the unquestioned assumption that continuous economic growth is the best means to achieve the common good. But growthism has been a blunt instrument and it is seriously eroding our environment and damaging social wellbeing. What we need is not more economic growth but vibrant economic change that is driven by, not driving, the needs of society and environment.  

Outline 

After presenting a view on human wellbeing I want to outline some of the problems that can be attributed to growthism, talk about some of the forces behind it, and then wrap up with some thoughts on how economic change, itself, might be re-conceptualized, to contribute more fully to the common good. 

A framework to think about human wellbeing  

What is the relationship between economy and society? This is a critical question and one the philosophers have struggled with. Sen, Rawls, Nussbaum, and Goulet are contemporary ethicists who have thought about this relationship. I choose to describe Goulet’s view. According to him, all people throughout history have had three critical needs: material sufficiency, esteem for self and group, and control over key features of one’s life. For Goulet these are foundational values common to many religions and non-religious traditions or ideologies (e.g., Socialism, localism). Of course, general rules always have exceptions, but this is the starting point of this piece.  

The implications for the material realm are that we need an economy to provide for our needs, while managing the distribution of the economy’s outputs equitably, and protecting the environment. We need to value ourselves, and be valued, in whatever simple or complex identities we have. Racism, ageism, ablism are disallowed by this value. And finally, we need to have a sense of having some control over our future. That’s not to say we control our destiny but to say that we understand that we have a part to play in shaping who we become and what we do. Achieving these three goals is deeply challenging, each on their own, and much more when they are combined.  

The problem of growthism  

Growthism has not delivered on the promises of growing material plenty, social harmony, and environmental health. Certainly, material plenty has been achieved for many but not for many others. And for those who experienced the material improvement it often does bring with it the sense of fulfillment it is said to achieve. Moreover, today we see declining financial markets, inflation, wide income- and asset-inequality, low-waged and precarious work, rising interest rates, and very present recession-fears.  

And, as is often the case, the distribution of the negative consequences of a crisis, like global climate change or the pandemic, hits the most vulnerable the hardest. For instance, climate change hit poor countries the hardest, and these are the countries least responsible for the crisis. Think of coastal areas in Asia and semi-arid regions in Africa. The pandemic, and covid19-induced economic decline, hit the poorest the hardest, whether unemployed Canadians, or people living in urban slums of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Think of India during its second covid19 wave in summer 2021.  

Our environment is in crisis. Global climate change is just one of several components of the earth’s ecosystems that is under threat from human action (e.g., biodiversity loss, interference in the nitrogen cycle). And without a healthy environment how can an economy operate? What will happen to farms, forests, and what about human settlement with rising temperatures and weather extremes.  

Growthism is driven by a group of actors who have a lot of power 

One of the reasons that growth has not delivered material sufficiency is that it has been driven by a certain set of agents who have a particular set of interests. The growth economy has relied on the concentration of control in the hands of large companies sometimes described with the prefix ‘big’: big-data, big-pharma, but really data and pharma are representative of an economy-wide phenomenon (outside farming and the informal economy) particularly in the Global North.  

These large actors, with their technologies, their advertising, and their lobbyists have delivered products and services to middle-income consumers, convinced these consumers to buy their wares, and have convinced government that this is all for the public good. This is not to argue a conspiracy is at play but, drawing on John Acton’s statement ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Growth actors have been given too much power and this has been at the expense of power in society (e.g., civil society) and the state.  

Sufficiency as an alternative  

There are many alternatives to growthism including steady state, de-growth, localism, and anti-globalization. I am not endorsing one of these models. I am reasoning that the principal that Goulet identified, the need for sufficiency and not superfluity, needs to become a driving force behind economic change. A sufficient economy focuses on meeting the material needs of all people while nurturing a healthy environment. This is not a totalitarian state or ideological commune but a system that is rooted in a universally held principal. We need economic change, for sure, but it needs to be transformed to meet this universal principal. Greta Thunberg eloquently rejected the “fairy tale of eternal economic growth.” But to reject the one requires we replace it with another, a new narrative of economic change for human sufficiency. This transformation can enable us to better focus on the other features of human wellbeing, as Goulet argued, social esteem and a sense of control. Instead of thinking that we can ‘buy’ our way out of environmental and social crises, valuing human sufficiency will more automatically enable social harmony and environmental health.