Time to change gods

Published Monday, May 28 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

“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 worshipping 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.