Does Economic Growth Undermine Prosperity?


Image credit: woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons license.

While some folks argue that "sustainable growth" doesn't have to be an oxymoron, others are adamant that it is time to take the notion of a no growth economy seriously. With the dirty fingerprint of consumerism evident on the recent London riots, and even the slightest signs of economic recovery leading to record oil use, we desperately need to seek a balance between economics and community, environment and well-being.

There are some tantalizing signs that this conversation is finally being given the attention it deserves. In a hard-hitting article over at The Guardian, George Monbiot points to the economic ruin in Ireland that was built on debt and illusion, not to mention ongoing environmental destruction we face globally, and suggests that the writing is on the wall for the notion of perpetual economic growth.

Noting that British opposition leader Ed Miliband included in his summer reading a book called Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet by Professor Tim Jackson, Monbiot suggests that desperate times are leading people to finally ask the tough questions that need to be answered, and to realize that economic growth is not necessarily the same thing as material well-being or, in fact, true prosperity:

Once our needs had been met, continued economic growth did most people few favours. During the second half of the growth frenzy, unemployment rose, inequality rose, social mobility declined, the poor lost amenities (such as housing) while the rich enhanced theirs. In 2004, at the height of the longest boom the UK has ever experienced, the Nuffield Foundation published this extraordinary finding: "Rises in mental health problems seem to be associated with improvements in economic conditions."

Tim Jackson's prognosis for exploring a different path is unlikely to be popular among advocates for smaller government, slashed taxes, or cowboy capitalism. From shifting the balance of spending from private to public, to increasing taxation on resource use and pollution, there are plenty of examples of policies that (on this side of the pond at least) will be decried as nothing short of socialism. But shorter working weeks and more time for family, leisure and community sure sound good right now. And given that business-as-usual is in dire trouble, with few options for traditional economic fixes left, it gets increasingly hard to argue that we need an alternative path.

Does Jackson's plan hold all the answers? Almost certainly not, says Monbiot. Do we know it will work? Of course not. But it is, at least, the start of a very important conversation.

And while I myself have called on folks to start their own personal green stimulus plan, the notion that growth may no longer be good for us in the West suggests that we should further shift the focus of that plan onto non-monetary means to ensure well-being.

From tool libraries to tiny houses to connected, resilient communities, there are plenty of ways that we can recalibrate our notions of what really makes us happy, safe and in control of our lives.

More on No Growth Economics and Simpler Living
Does "Sustainable Growth" Have to be an Oxymoron?
What Does a No Growth Economy Look Like?
How Tool Libraries Build Community
Life Inside a Tiny, Portable House
The Massive Impact of Just One Transition Group

Tags: Consumerism | Economics | Poverty | United Kingdom

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