Do we really need more economic growth?

Sunday, 9th August 2015

If you want to justify any policy whether it’s higher military spending, deregulation of gambling, lower corporation tax or higher levels of immigration to a sceptical public, just claim it’s good for the economy. How could any rational human being be against greater prosperity? In today’s cultural climate could any political party openly advocate greater poverty, the presumed opposite of a growing economy? Worse still, both left and right-branded mainstream politicians all agree we need to grow our economy. The notional right want to deregulate business so they can boost profits and invest in new more competitive technology, while the rhetorical left wants to inject more virtual cash into the economy so ordinary people can buy more goods. Even the Greens talk of more environmentally sustainable growth. To oppose growth seems tantamount to condemning most people to more misery and extreme hardship.

Here I will argue we have lost sight of what really matters in life, focussing too much on ephimeral techno-fashion and quantitative growth and too little on the long-term happiness, intellectual fulfilment and sustainability of our species. If we are to tackle the great  social and environmental challenges of the next century, we need greater stability, yet our collective consumption is growing at a faster rate than ever before.

For the last 30 years, we have witnessed almost non-stop economic growth with only brief periods of economic recession, i.e. negative growth. If we measured our quality of life in purely economic terms, we should be ecstatic because never have so many had so much financial and material wealth. In the last 25 years car ownership has nearly doubled (from 582 million in 1990 to a projected 1202 million last year) as China and India seek to emulate Western Europe. Just 20 years ago most Europeans did not have a personal computer, now most have an Internet-enabled smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop PC. Now most Indians over the age of 16 have a mobile phone. By 2010 India had some 563 million subscribers. Even in remote Tanzanian villages, where most residents live without mains water and electricity supply, many have second-hand mobile phones. In the UK owning a mobile phone has become for all practical purposes a basic human right. Now teenagers compete to have the latest and greatest branded smartphone, usually setting their parents back £20 to £40 a month. If we add to that growing expectations for fashion accessories, holidays abroad, cosmetic surgery and bottled water, it becomes clear that despite some gains in industrial and operational efficiency, we consume much more per capita today than we did just a generation ago. Worse still, as intensive manufacturing has migrated mainly to low-wage regions, we replace consumer products more often. Fridges and washing machines used to last 10 to 20 years. Furniture would be handed down from generation to generation. Now these items are treated like disposables. The rapid pace of technological change has produced mountains of unusable junk for which mission-critical spare sparts are no longer readily available. Any trip to a waste disposal site in the UK will reveal heaps of trashed devices from just 10 years ago. Topping the list of discarded items are inexpensive printers and CRT monitors. Not even charities want these products as it usually costs more to repair them than buy newer alternatives. Lifestyle changes have led more of us to choose ready meals, buy snacks to eat at work, order a pizza online or grab our food from a smorgasbord of fast-food outlets from budget burger bars to upscale organic health food shops. All these trends result in more packaging, more cardboard and plastic with modest quanities of edible matters, often marketed as health food. While paper and plastic can be recycled, it takes energy to sort incompatible materials and transform them into usable objects.

In theory a growing economy will help us offset any real or perceived downsides to business-friendly policies, e.g. proceeds from the gambling industry could be invested in charities that help victims of gambling addiction. By the same logic we could legalise brothels, just as Spain and parts of Germany and Australia, and invest the extra taxes generated to help victims of sexual abuse. However, our establishment’s fixation with economic growth does not explain all policy decisions in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. A general trend is to see greater regulation of private lives, while simultaneously deregulating the burgeoning leisure, hospitality and mood-altering industries. Smoking is now banned in most public places, but moves are afoot to decriminalise and commercialise marijuana, while a collusion between the state and big business promote the growing use of psychoactive drugs to regulate mood. One may argue that smoking cessation and substitutes are now much more profitable than cigarettes ever were. Have some naughty fun by all means as long as your pursuit of pleasure is commoditised and thus subject to commercial logic and state control.

Are we happier?

Life is certainly sweeter for many privileged denizens of gated neighbourhoods, leafy suburbs and luxury apartments. They gain all the benefits of a dynamic global economy and yet remain protected from the social upheaval it creates. They can mix with like-minded wealthy young professionals, but still believe their purchasing power helps the less fortunate in society as they dine in nearby restaurants or hire the services of chidlminders, cleaners, plumbers and itinerant tradespeople. Today wealth tends to buy exclusivity more than larger amounts of disposable stuff. One pays more to steer clear of the stress of modern life. If you want to be inundated with in-your-face advertising and ostentatious displays of junk consumerism, you can endlessly wander free of charge through shopping malls and supermarkets the length and breadth of the land. Yet if you want some tranquility away from the madding crowd while remaining within easy commuting distance of a busy city, you will pay extra to live in an exclusive neighbourhood.

Yet in the frenetic rat race that everyone else has to endure, we are trapped in a system that necessitates wasteful mass consumption and only succeeds in generating more envy over superficial branded accessories and artificial bodily enhancements. While real world per capita consumption has risen dramatically, emotional unease, often conceptualised as social anxiety, depression, OCD or other personality disorders, has spread by epidemic proportions. Happiness itself has become a commodity sold in the form of retail therapy, cosmetic surgery or mood-altering medication. We find it harder to enjoy the small pleasures of life and are much more likely to abandon our partners due to a sense of non-fulfilment or perceived economic hardships and/or emotional abuse.

Once our basic needs, such as food, water and shelter, are met and we have the sanitary and medical technology to ensure most of us can survive into old age, further rises in per capita consumption and economic activity have only a marginal effect on overall happiness. By contrast economic inequality, debt-fuelled financial stress and job insecurity, all symptoms of our current growth-obsessed corporate-globalist system, engender envy, anxiety and despair. If you lived in a village where everyone has either a horse or a bicycle before the advent of the Internet and smartphone, you would not fret about your lack of a car, mobile phone or computer, but merely about the relative merits of owning a horse or a bicycle. Until recently much of the world remained blissfully unaware of the true scale of Western consumer culture. It took around 50 years for the kind of happy shopper mentality that flourished briefly in affluent suburban North America in the 1950s and 60s to reach rural Africa, India and South America. In the 1990s two trends led to an acceleration of consumer culture awareness. First, hundreds of millions moved to swelling conurbations and came into regular contact with the wonders of the industrial revolution. Second, wider availability of electric power generators  and rapid advances in mobile telephony connected even the remotest backwaters with the rest of the world. To many rural African motor vehicles were mysterious machines that foreign visitors would occasionally use to reach their home settlements. Suddenly they were everywhere alongside advertisements for fashion accessories and technological marvels that promised to transform their lives. The relative stability of subsistence farming, albeit struggling to cope with a growing population (in large part due to modern medicine lowering infant mortality), desertification and climate change, gave way to the instability of overcrowded third world metropolises with a huge levels of inequality. New city dwellers had little choice but to enter the financial economy through street trade, begging, prostitution or burglary. With a massive oversupply of cheap unskilled labour only a minority made the transition to the lower reaches of the middle classes. Most could hope at best for temporary jobs and crumbs from street trade ventures. Yet if we look at the raw statistics, economic growth rates across much of the developing world look very impressive, but hide growing social insecurity.

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