The pursuit of ever more goods and services is not delivering what most people want, but their opposite. Rather than meaningful work and rest amongst genuine communities in tune with healthy natural environments, we are overworked (or unemployed), families and communities are fragmented and we are living well beyond our ecological means.
Many studies have shown that once a basic standard of material well-being has been achieved, further increases in consumption levels do not correlate with higher levels of reported happiness, health or mental well-being. Instead, we are fatter, more stressed and more depressed than previous generations. And worst of all, we are squandering our inherited ecological wealth at an alarming rate. Our average ecological footprint (the third largest in the OECD) means that were everyone to live like us, we would require four Earths. Australia has the highest percentage of threatened vertebrates and plant species in the world. Our carbon footprint is the highest in the OECD, despite possibly being the developed country most directly threatened by climate change.
The ongoing quest for growth all else is killing us, since growth without reference to its context is cancer.
So am I then a cheerleader for what economists quaintly call "de-growth" (i.e. recession), or am I perhaps advocating the dramatic overthrow of the present order? Both are too simplistic. It is possible to argue that creative, practical reforms are possible (and necessary). Things don't have to be this way and the alternatives don't have to involve living in caves or blood on the streets (though these could be some of the ultimate results of business as usual).
The Australian Conservation Foundation has recently released a very interesting 40-page report called Better Than Growth, which lays out three problems with our obsession over GDP growth and suggests eight areas in which a re-conceived better-than-growth economy would be an improvement over current assumptions and practices. Each of the eight areas receives a brief chapter suggesting creative changes to Australia's economic system. Here is the outline:
1. Better progress: improving quality of life, not quantity of wealthThe full ACF report is available here.
Emphasising measurements of social and individual wellbeing, and ecological health, will give us better results than focusing on narrow economic measurements such as GDP.
2. Better work: balancing paid and non-paid work, family and leisure time
While some australians are unemployed, many more are overemployed. We’d be better off reducing average working hours and increasing time available for leisure, family, community and our democracy.
3. Better production: making cradle-to-cradle manufacturing a reality
Rather than producing disposable goods that are destined for the tip, we should reorient design and manufacturing toward completely reusable products.
4. Better consumption: stepping off the consumer treadmill
Overconsumption is at the root of many social and environmental challenges. Government can support people to become smart consumers; to consume less and consume smarter.
5. Better markets: aligning prices with social and environmental impacts
Ensuring that the full environmental and social costs are included in the price tag of goods and services will stimulate a cleaner economy.
6. Better business: matching private incentives with long-term public goals
Businesses that focus too much on short-term profits are unlikely to be part of a long-term transition to a more sustainable economy. Supporting non-profit business models and ensuring that executive compensation rewards long-term performance are needed.
7. Better taxation: rewarding work, not waste
Shifting taxes away from productive activity such as income generation and towards pollution and resource use would create jobs while improving environmental performance throughout the economy.
8. Better regulation: fixing cost-beneft analysis
Much government analysis depends on cost-benefit calculations which are based on faulty assumptions and exclude the full value of the natural environment. We should insist that cost-benefit analysis include all aspects of wellbeing.
Fortunately, many of the solutions are staring us in the face. As William Gibson said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet." In each of this report’s sections, we outline some of the best thinking from around the world on what is needed to transform to a better-than-growth economy. All of these ideas and specific policy recommendations are already being implemented or seriously considered somewhere around the globe.