After crises, the boundaries of what is politically possible are redrawn. After the Second World War, the NHS was established and millions of homes built. After the 2008 crash an unthinkable amount of cash was spent to keep the business-as-usual economy limping onwards. This time, we are in for a century of crisis if our redrawing does not include a serious aim to redefine our relationship with nature.
At the moment, economic growth is the main goal for our politicians and economists. Economic growth is supposed to improve human wellbeing, but it does not take into account the biggest determinant of our wellbeing this century: the climate. Also, once the basics are covered, growing the economy for the sake of it does not actually deliver wellbeing or improve society.
Our future wellbeing depends on forests and ice caps more than stocks and bonds
Let's start with the ecological point. This summer, there were headlines about the Arctic permafrost (ice that has been there for thousands of years) melting at a rate not expected until 2090. This ice is crucial for keeping the planet cool because it reflects heat back into space in what’s known as the albedo effect. (Think about how wearing white keeps you cooler than black on a hot day). If we lose this ice, we lose our cooling system. To illustrate how serious this is, some research suggests that losing the cooling power of this ice would be the same as adding 25% to greenhouse gas emissions. That’s roughly another China’s worth of heating.
There are other worrying trends when it comes to forests. Forests inhale greenhouse gas, and exhale oxygen. They hold on to moisture, cooling the area around them, and some research even suggests that they cause rain. When left alone, they store carbon deep in the ground, where it cannot harm us by causing heating. In the 1990s and early 2000s, tropical forests stored around 15% of human emissions in the ground, but recent studies show their generosity is diminishing. A mix of temperatures increasing, deforestation, and farming practices means that these forests are losing their ability to store carbon, and could become a source of emissions within the next decade. Study author Simon Lewis said that “one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun” and is happening “decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate model”.
In all these cases, the initial round of heating caused by humans sets off a chain reaction in nature which causes more and more heating. These are known as tipping points, and they are the reason that with the climate, “winning slowly is the same as losing”.
Business-as-usual misses this. Many growth-first politicians and economists argue that we cannot make progress on climate and ecological problems without a strong economy, constantly leaving these issues as an afterthought. This attitude does not acknowledge that we are on the brink of setting off multiple tipping points that will make a stable, prosperous future nearly impossible.
The symbol of environmentalism in recent decades has been the polar bear on an ice cap, or the panda in a tree. This made many people think that environmentalism is only about animals, when in reality it's about the trees and the ice. As we lose them, we lose the organs of the earth which keep our world liveable and healthy. I’m not arguing, as some environmentalists may seem to, that we should compromise on human wellbeing for the sake of nature. I’m arguing that all of our economic progress will come to nothing if we set off multiple tipping points and trigger climate breakdown.
Growth-first economies don’t deliver on wellbeing
There are reasons beyond climate to move away from our growth-first economic model. Most importantly, our current approach fails to deliver on wellbeing once basic needs are met.
In the UK, the percentage of people reporting themselves ‘very happy’ declined from 52% in 1957 to 36% in 2005, despite real income doubling in that period. The economy doubled in size. Why did we not see a doubling of happiness? Research by the Social Progress Imperative shows that social progress does not rise with the size of the economy. Once a country can afford the basics, further social progress depends on government policies, rather than more economic growth.
Instinctively, we know that on a personal level money isn’t everything. Plenty of research shows this. For example researchers found that being materialistic is bad for wellbeing. You can even hold a workshop aimed at changing materialistic attitudes, and people will report a higher level of wellbeing months afterwards. It turns out we are not economic robots that find fulfilment from material possessions.
This reflects the research of the Institute for Global Prosperity, which is developing ways that communities can establish their own ideas of what prosperity looks like. When people are the designers of their own prosperity, we quickly move beyond the default setting of economic growth. Real prosperity is seen as a much broader sense of flourishing, and doesn’t depend simply on income or employment.
This should not come as a surprise. From its inception, the measure of GDP - how we determine if the economy is growing - was not meant to become an indicator of how well society is doing on the whole. Invented by economist Simon Kuznets in 1934, it was only meant to indicate whether the economy was moving again after the Great Depression - not a broader measure of progress. In 1962, after seeing how his measure had come to be used, he said that “Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what.”
After this crisis...
So economic growth ignores our critical climate and ecological context, and fails to deliver on wellbeing. If we want a prosperous and secure future, we need to think differently about what progress looks like. The task of this century is to design and build economies and societies that deliver social and ecological flourishing. In future posts, I’ll write about what some of this may look like, and hopefully convince you that fulfilling this calling is no burden. It's what we as humans are made to do.
Image credit: Dan Meyers on Unsplash
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