The late, great environmentalist David Brower used to say that there will be no profits, no corporations, no economic growth, and by implication, no successful economies on a dead planet.
Brower, who made the Sierra Club a powerful force for conservation and founded Friends of the Earth, often delivered what he called his “sermon.” He compressed the age of the earth, some 4.6 billion years, into the Biblical week of creation.
The earth forms on Sunday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first life-forms arrive. Over the next few days, they grow larger and more complex. On the last day of the week, at 10 a.m., the dinosaurs show up. They last until 3 p.m., when an asteroid ends their reign. Only three minutes before midnight on the final night, humans arrive. And only in the last tiny fraction of a second before midnight do we get the consumer society that began after World War II.
So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.
In that last fraction of a second, we have used more resources than all human beings who ever lived before that time, reduced our soils and fisheries by half, caused the extinction of countless species, and changed the climate. Our leaders believe that what we’ve been doing for that last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. We consider them normal and reasonable, Brower observed, but actually, they are stark, raving mad.
We can’t grow on like this.
Already, our “ecological footprint” is well in excess of what is sustainable for future generations. And beyond a modest level of income, growth doesn’t make countries happier either. So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.
Economic growth, our current indicator of success, is measured by the rise of the gross domestic product (GDP), the market value of the goods and services we produce, the sum total of things bought and sold. It’s commonly agreed that GDP is a blunt instrument; it doesn’t measure valuable activities that are not monetized (e.g., housework) and it counts (as a plus) expenditures that only alleviate things gone wrong (e.g., cancer treatments). Perhaps Bobby Kennedy put it best when he said, “It measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”
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