Social Question

mattbrowne's avatar

Beyond GDP and Earth's limited resources - How can our societies move on without the dependency on economic growth?

Asked by mattbrowne (31557points) October 17th, 2009

We all know about Earth’s limited resources. When consumers buy less, it’s actually a good thing. Well, at least from Earth’s point of view, if our planet had one. Everyone talks about changing our lifestyles. To many it makes sense that we only consume what we really need. We should buy less, not more. But corporate leaders are horrified by this notion. It will destroy our economies, they say. We need economic growth! Let’s invest more into advertising our products. Let’s trick people into buying something they don’t need. Back to business, for heaven’s sake.

Really? What do you think? Are we trapped? Is progress linked to economic growth?

Here’s a recent initiative called “Beyond GDP” and this is its mission:

“Spurred on by the success of the 2007 conference, the Beyond GDP partners continue to work on improving our measures of progress, wealth and well-being. This website reflects this effort and aims to more widely share information on recent developments and ongoing work on indicators to assess social, economic, and environmental progress.

Economic indicators such as GDP were never designed to be comprehensive measures of well-being. Complementary indicators are needed that are as clear and appealing as GDP but more inclusive of other dimensions of progress – in particular environmental and social aspects. We need adequate indicators to address global challenges such as climate change, poverty, resource depletion and health.

In November 2007, the European Commission, European Parliament, Club of Rome, OECD and WWF hosted the high-level conference “Beyond GDP” with the objectives of clarifying which indices are most appropriate to measure progress, and how these can best be integrated into the decision-making process and taken up by public debate. The conference brought together over 650 policy makers, experts and civil society representatives to address these critical issues. Preceding the main conference, an expert workshop was held, wherein leading practitioners discussed the development and application of indicators of progress, true wealth, and well-being.”

Is this the way forward? Can it get us out of the dilemma?

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10 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

replicators. it is the only way i see.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Big business is not essential for life. Food, clothing and shelter are and in many cases, these can all be produced locally. Our lawmakers should introduce legislation which encourages this more.

Sandydog's avatar

Ive been thinking along the same lines for the last couple of years, and in particular the issue of energy supplies and the concept of Peak Oil
If demand begins to exceed supply ( some say this will really kick in in about 3 years time ), and with our whole society dependent on oil for nearly everything, transport, heating, food supply, we could be in for a very rough ride.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

It’s a good idea, definitely. But with globalization on the rise, which is spreading rapidly, all they are is pretty words. Urban cities all over the world are seeing such an influx of people from rural areas that the cities are literally bursting at the seams. They have no choice but to make the cities bigger, which of course means depletion of even more natural resources. People need more jobs, the cities need more food… It’s never ending. Until globalization slows down, things are going to remain pretty bad. The more it spreads, the bigger our problems are going to be.

aeschylus's avatar

Growth in GDP is only good when considered from the point of view of a society that is completely dependent on institutions. Investors’ money grows with the growth of a company, which only grows with increased assets and revenue. That revenue comes from the “consumer” (not a “citizen”). But the people who get really fucked by a decrease in GDP are not institutions, but the people employed by them. The current assumption underlying our conception of work is that an individual cannot provide value to other individuals without working for a company. When the company cannot find more people to sell to, they don’t need individuals to help them make and sell their products. But people continue to believe that they need companies. This is the root of the disparity.

The fact is, especially now with the internet, that people don’t need companies to provide the value of their skills and dedication to their fellow citizens.

On a side note, I would point out that the limited resources of our planet are only limited because of how we use them. For instance, the biosphere is constantly growing, and its growth creates the conditions for even more growth. A tree’s growth purifies water, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, produces complex sugars and food from sunlight, creates microclimates and habitats for other forms of life and changes color with the season. In Nature, growth is good. How can we make the growth of human society good?
Nature is growth, and that includes humans.

I don’t think people need companies to make money, which ultimately comes from people doing good for other people. If everyone’s actions were exposed to the raw market, while we included the adverse effects of everything made as part of their price (taxed negative externalities), then perhaps we could resolve the asymmetry of the employee-company relationship (that one needs the other all the time, while the other only needs the one some of the time), and come to live as citizens of a more transparent, beneficial society.

Zaku's avatar

As The Compassionate Heretic points out above, people (and non-humans, including environments like forests and oceans which we want and ultimately will need to be healthy to survive) have actual fairly simple basic needs. Safety, food, shelter, etc., starting with the most basic and essential ones and working up to others. Those could be used for a new well-being index based on the needs met or unmet of the whole planet, which could show how focusing on GDP actually impairs the well-being of the planet overall.

Jack_Haas's avatar

For decades the residents of China, India and Brazil could only dream about the goodies we take for granted. I wonder how they would react to these nice considerations now that they can afford the good stuff.

proXXi's avatar

Since humans are imaginative we can conceptualize a society that has evolved beyond a need for an economy as we know one today but such a reality is way, way down the road.

Write a book about it and keep enjoying those current economy produced tacos.

mattbrowne's avatar

@aeschylus – I agree that the web has enabled individuals to compete on a global level. This observation is one of the key messages of people like Friedman and his flat world or Toffler’s revolutionary wealth. But even with fewer companies, those individuals have to sell products or services to generate income. Now one could argue that bits and bytes are virtual, but more software requires more hardware and even worse more electricity. All computers worldwide combined are now a major contributor to climate change. There are interesting ideas like building data centers right next to mountain rivers to cool the machinery naturally. Still, with the current model jobs will get lost when the economy shrinks, even for people without the need of a company. How can we change the world and increase employment without having to depend on worldwide economic growth?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Zaku – But it seems that satisfying basic needs alone doesn’t offer economic growth. Companies must be creative and invent stuff like the tamagotchi to keep our system running. Who needs a handheld digital pet? This weird small critter was sold 70 million times. When we look at the resources involved from cradle to grave a lot of damage is done not just during the manufacturing process. There are ships traveling the world oceans and there are trucks cruising the countries, to make sure that every child in dire need of a digital pet gets one. And when he or she is no longer interested the creature ends up in a landfull or in the atmosphere when waste incinerating plants are being used. Yet the tamagotchi is good for our economy. Is there no other way? Is crade-to-cradle manufacturing just a unrealistic dream? Is kids being happy with fewer toys realistic? And now Chinese, Indian and Brazilian kids are joining the club,as @Jack_Haas pointed out correctly. Yeah, maybe I should write a book about it.

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