The last twenty-five years have been a time of growing adversarialism between the emerging concept of sustainability and the economic imperative for continual growth to maintain our consumer society. On the one hand we have seen a science-based view that we are dangerously exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth. According to this view we are outstripping the biospheres resource base and its capacity to regenerate itself. Yet the economic need to maintain growth so the entire world can have first world living standards is firmly entrenched in both national sovereignty and democratic egalitarianism.
This clash between very powerful imperatives seems too many to be both intractable and inevitable, but it may be less so than we think. It seems apparent to critical examination that this debate has been framed within technological limitations which are no longer true and contain literally doctored definitions and assumptions based on vested interests of industries directly threatened by sustainability policy and renewable technologies.
Economic definitions rig the game
The first assumption to challenge is that of the ongoing and ubiquitous use of GDP as our base measurement for economic success. Developed in the wake of the Great Depression and the beginning of WW2, GDP primarily measures market transactions. It largely ignores social costs, environmental impacts and income inequality of which are often considered ‘externalities’ or ‘volatiles’ too difficult to adequately measure. If a private business used GDP based accounting, it would aim to maximize gross revenue even at the expense of profitability, efficiency, sustainability or flexibility. A strategy of which is hardly intelligent or sustainable.
Simon Kuznets, the metric’s chief architect had warned against equating GDP’s growth with economic health. Such a warning was delivered in vain it appears as, since the end of the Second World War, promoting GDP growth as the main measure of economic health has remained the primary national policy goal in almost every country today.
Yet GDP and its spin off measurements cannot determine in real terms how healthy an economy actually is in relation to its supporting ecologies, the overall health of its peoples or its projected resource efficiency and supply. Nor can it measure other factors which are ‘not included’ in tradition consumer price index measurements. Factors which are conveniently labeled as volatiles and externalities enabling certain industries to plunder those ‘externalities’ such as the environment and finite natural resources without a ‘true cost’ of delivery. This has also allowed the flourishing of Carbon pollution for which there is ‘still’ no global price to help reign in such exploitation, which is driving catastrophic Climate Change.
This economic practice is particularly specious when the very idea of externalities is at odds with our evidence-based understanding of reality. The economy is not at all separate from the biosphere it draws from and its costs should reflect that – but they do not currently do so. Labeling economic elements such as housing, food and energy prices as volatiles too difficult to be included in CPI enables the true cost of living to be skirted in consumer price indexes allowing the growing gap between the rich and the rest of society to continue to widen.
The final result at the CEO and governmental level is that GDP figures present, as a result, a very inaccurate overall picture of the economy. It is in reality a doublespeak like invention designed to rig our understanding of the economies relationship with the Biosphere and to hide the pernicious growth of wealth disparity and opportunity inequity globally.
A more comprehensive way of measuring the elements of human progress
This year (2015) the UN will announce the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of international objectives to improve global wellbeing. Developing integrated measures of progress attached to these goals offers the global community the opportunity to define what sustainable wellbeing means, how to measure it and how to achieve it. Missing this opportunity would condone growing inequality and the continued destruction of the natural capital on which all life on the planet depends. The 17 goals are selected using the greatest consultation program in history to establish what society at large globally values the most.
- End poverty in all its forms everywhere
- End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
- Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages
- Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
- Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
- Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
- Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
- Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
- Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
- Reduce inequality within and among countries
- Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
- Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
- Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
- Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
- Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.
- Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
- Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
These goals stand in contrast to the earlier developed Millennium Development Goals, which were formulated, by UN and political bureaucrats solely for building government road maps to sustainable development. These earlier goals made no mention of human rights, nor specifically addressed economic development. In theory, the MDG’s applied to all countries, but in reality, they were considered targets for poor countries to achieve, with finance from wealthy states.
With the SDG’s, every country rich and poor alike will be expected to work towards achieving the SDG goals. These more cohesive and broad measurements of economic and societal health are part of the new Global paradigm emerging challenging the false dichotomy of the last 40 years where progress development and growth were seen as antithetic to environmental conservation, social and economic justice and sustainability.
The nature of the Illusion
This false dichotomy, which has retarded both environmental and economic development for the last three decades, is bound by three basic mythologies.
- That the long term view, often seen as economically unreliable due to the increasing degree of uncertainty over time, is incompatible with quarterly profits and the needs of a high growth economy based on continual expansion.
- That profit, is at heart, at war with social justice, fair wealth distribution and the needs of the global biosphere.
- That human progress is stymied by environmental conservation and sustainability policies.
Yet these myths run in direct contradiction with the recent UN initiate of the S.D.G and sociologists like Robert Nisbet who finds that the Idea of Progress in Western civilization for three thousand years is the “dominant idea driving behind global civilization.”
He defines five “crucial premises” of Idea of Progress:
- Value of the past.
- Nobility of Western civilisation.
- Worth of economic/technological growth.
- Faith in reason and scientific/scholarly knowledge obtained through reason.
- Intrinsic importance and worth of life on earth.
Barring the heavy focus on the nobility of western civilization, these definitions of progress are well expressed in the UN’s SDG and seem reflective of a growing harmony between what has for many decades been seen as two opposing sides in an ideological battle. This conflict seems increasingly to be manufactured to defend vested interests in maintaining a particular status quo. The power and fossil fuel industries seem heavily invested in these arguments as are their rather deep pockets used to foster marketing and lobbying to governments to enforce the adversarial perception.
Certainly when new disruptive technologies like Elon Musks battery technology, electric cars and solar power combine, as they are doing so now, they are highly disruptive to existing technologies which are rapidly being rendered less cost effective and will eventually become technologically obsolete.
It is certainly plausible that these threatened industries, much like those who made horse drawn wagons, coopers and more recently, dial up modems, type writers and cathode ray TV’s are pushing back with their existing dollar power. And its likely to be every bit as doomed as previous efforts to stymie the tide of progress. Except that now progress is being increasingly mated to sustainability despite the best efforts of oligarchic industries to keep painting the imaginary intrinsic conflict they have trumpeted for the last 4 decades.
The only conflict that actually exists is between the new disruptive renewable industries and old guard industries determined to keep their monopolies over energy and their permanent financial access to the government teat. In reality there is no inconsistency between promoting economic growth and also building in greater technological and industrial efficiency, less or no pollution and preservation of the ecological assets of the planet. Far from it these new industries will create yet more growth and opportunity than ever as they open up new ways of working, playing and living.
But first the definitions of what constitute economic health must be expanded from simplistic GDP via the UN’s SDG. Future paths for growth determined must be designed to include all the vital elements that sustain our global society and not simply the quarterly bottom line of an economic faction who refuse to see the writing on the wall.