To rule is to look ahead, it has been said. Let us therefore cast our eyes at the virtually universal wish of nations and their population to achieve economic growth. Jared Diamond argues in his latest book âCatastropheâ that this âgrowth fetishâ (as Clive Hamilton calls it) may well lead us as a species to eventual extinction because our fetish blinds us to the environmental dangers of economic growth. For those with an interest in our long-run survival it is thus no trivial matter to consider the effects, source, and potential remedy to this growth fetish.
The negative effects of economic growth have again been highlighted in recent months. The ongoing pressure on our scarce environmental resources has lead to a booming price of oil and other natural resources, which is good for the stock market price of BHP but probably not so good for the environment. Our increased demands on space have just last year for instance lead to the intentional burning of Portuguese Eucalypt forests by greedy entrepreneurs. The depletion of many of the ocean fishing grounds (already heavily over-fished) now seems nigh inevitable, as does the ongoing extinction of many associated species, simply because weâre catching more fish than our ocean support systems can endure and few countries dare to openly oppose their own fishing industries. Likewise, the UN 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment tells us weâre about to lose over half of all tropical rainforests in the coming 50 years, mainly due to our increased activity as a species. The same report tells us soil erosion and salination are at the moment continuing unchecked. The increased energy activity that follows economic activity has very likely lead to the Greenhouse effect and is projected to worsen in coming decades. Though the Greenhouse effect may also have benefits on wildlife because of the increased biomass production associated with more CO2 in the air, itâs important to realize that its trajectory is completely unchallenged. Neither Kyoto nor the agreement between the US, China, India, Australia, nor anything else currently on the political agenda, is projected to make much change to the ever increasing emission of greenhouse gasses. Even if we discount the Greenhouse effect as a phenomenon with ambiguous environmental effects though, the environmental disaster weâre hurtling towards in other areas is closely tied to our growth.
There are other negative effects of the growth fetish closer to home: the demand we place upon other society members to be âmore productiveâ stigmatizes the roughly 2 million Australians dependent on the state and apparently unable to keep up with the current levels of productivity demanded; increased work stress associated with the pressure to be productive is partially responsible for the more than 700,000 Australians on disability benefits (the fastest growing category flowing onto DSP is âpsychological stressâ). Families and communities are similarly increasingly caught up in the economic rat race, with less time to spend on social relations.
World social commentators, such as the Dalai Lama or the previous and current pope, view these effects of the growth fetish with bemusement and advocate the widespread adoption of less materialistic oriented lifestyle. Some of these commentators argue itâs not a sin to be unemployed and living off the state; one where individuals are busy with their social relations rather than their bank account; one where governments adopt Gross National Happiness as the be-all and end-all of policy, such as adopted by the mountain state of Bhutan (incidentally, New Zealand official social statistics now indeed keep track of New Zealandâs happiness). Lord Richard Layardâs new book on happiness also takes this line and advocates a kind of âprozac nationâ solution to many of our current problems. If only weâd adopt happiness as the goal in stead of growth, these commentators argue, weâd be so much better off.
To be blunt, no major political party in any major country seriously challenges the growth fetish. The Australian Labor Party is as pro-economic growth as the Coalition Party. The 2004 debacle with the voter backlash in Tasmania after Labor adopted a relatively tough pro-tree stance in defiance of the pro-job pro-growth alternative, has probably taught it the hard way that Australian voters too are growth-obsessed. The recent education policy announcement of Kevin Rudd explicitly stated that the objective of better education was to become wealthier and thus firmly married Rudd to the goal of even greater prosperity. The Greens in their folly claimed the 2004 election result to be a success because they won some minor battles for seats, but in reality that election signaled that they had lost the war for the minds of Australian voters with respect to the environment. Indeed, Labor claims it can get Australia to grow even faster than Howardâs government can.
The political situation with respect to growth is exactly the same the world over: from the Chinese communists, to the BJP in India, to the French conservatives, to the Chilean liberals: the promise of higher economic growth is a key election pledge everywhere. Any party seriously advocating that economic growth is undesirable commits political suicide. It is in a sense fascinating that the world over, leaders and voters are completely ignoring their religious and spiritual leaders on the desirability of growth, but there it is. This reality means any serious environmental treaty that would affect growth and that requires global cooperation is dead in the water. This reality also means welfare recipients all over the Western world rightly fear reductions in their benefits.
This growth fetish, which appears such a universal political force, has not just lead to outcomes one may think of as bad. Quite the contrary: many of the most positive developments in the last 50 years have arguably been due to our growth fetish and it is important to see these benefits in order to avoid deluding ourselves that we stand to lose nothing of importance if weâd manage as a species to give up our growth fetish. Take for instance the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. This break-up was self-inflicted by the communist hierarchy spearheaded by Gorbachov because they perceived their communist system as failing to deliver what was of real importance to them, i.e. economic growth. Itâs thus the growth fetish that in my opinion diffused the capitalist/communist stand-off that so long threatened to destroy us all. More close in time, it is the growth fetish that is the true basis of the power of our ally, general Musharraf of Pakistan: he is able to curtail the Madrasses (religious schools where the Taliban were raised) and the religious ambitions of many in Pakistan on a platform of economic growth. There too, growth can outweigh religion. The promise that his policies hold in terms of economic growth is what has so far politically allowed him to be the Westâs ally. The hope of the âWar on terrorâ is similarly that we can get various countries and their populations to join the international economic rat race and thereby dilute the effect of other ambitions they may have. The growth fetish hence to a great extent seems the chief source of tension reduction between nations and the chief reason why the number and severity of wars has been on a clear downward trajectory ever since the second World War. We are increasingly as nations bombarding each other with products in stead of missiles.
Where does this growth fetish come from, one may wonder? Itâs certainly not a religious thing, for the worldâs major religions donât appear to have a growth fetish. Neither Hinduism, nor Confusianism, nor Islam, nor Christianity celebrate prosperity. They stop short of advocating poverty but theyâre not far off and each of these religions indeed has a version advocating poverty as a means for achieving greater spirituality. The Franciscans are such a group in Christianity, and the late pope actually denounced our obsession with materialism as an evil on an equal footing with fascism and communism! Likewise, humility and simplicity is a virtue in Confucianism. Living simply is also a virtue in Hinduism and Islam. Our growth fetish is thus clearly not a religious dictum and stands apart from it.
One could wrongly surmise that our growth fetish is an obsession solely of some businessmen and high ranking civil servants. Yet happiness data shows this is not the case: populations genuinely on average respond to the economic fortunes of their countries, much more than they as individuals respond to individual incomes. When the Soviet Union became poor, life satisfaction plummeted much more than warranted by the limited importance of income for the happiness of individuals. When Russia began to experience fast growth in the late 1990âs, so did happiness levels recover. The same held for East Germany, and the 2003 study by Di Tela, McCulloch, and Di Tella on European and US data shows the same pattern for those countries: countries moving up the economic ladder indeed get a warm glow in terms of greater happiness levels. Rates of depression are similarly known to go up in great economic slumps, as do rates of suicide. Hence, itâs not just the elite, but the general population that truly values economic growth. Indeed, one could just notice the importance of economic growth during election times as pretty conclusive evidence that growth is important for nearly the entire electorate.
As the Nobel-prize winning author Elias Canetti already argued in 1960, itâs most likely a form of patriotism that underlies our growth fetish: âweâ like the idea that âourâ country is rich and powerful in the world and âweâ feel bad if âourâ country has lost standing. This idea is consistent with the happiness data showing how the income of the country as a whole is probably more important than the income of the individual. This idea is also consistent with the observation that the growth fetish is not due to religion, which after all is not nation-specific. It is consistent with the observation that the Soviet Union self-dismantled because its leader felt its country would âfall behindâ if the communist system was maintained. It is consistent with the observation that the Chinese communist party has defended itâs decision to abandon pure socialism on the basis of the necessity for the âChinese nationâ to growth. In this regard, recall the words of Deng Xiaoping, the communist leader who initiated economic reform in the 70s, who argued that it didnât matter whether a cat was black or white as long as it caught mice, with which he arguably meant that the purpose of an economic system was to provide growth to the country.
Our growth fetish is hence quite likely a tribal thing. We identify with our country and take part of our personal self-esteem from the perceived standing of our country in the world. This feeling is worth a lot to us, witnessed by the fact that it is that feeling that is called upon during wars; the tombstones of many soldiers read that they âfell for the glory of their countryâ; hence, the same tribal feeling leading to the growth fetish keeps our country together.
Consider in this light again the plea of environmentalists and certain happiness researchers to abandon economic growth as the be-all and end-all of national policy. Itâs like asking a sports team to stop trying to win. Itâs like asking families to stop having children. Itâs essentially asking countries to stop doing the essential thing a country does, which is to advance patriotic pride by advancing the countryâs standing through growth. Itâs an idea as dead in the water as any one can think of.
This simple reasoning, which is by and large absent in environmental circles because of its devastating consequences for many of their pet policies, also leads to a simple prescription for those who wish us as a species to abandon the rat-race: one must do away with competing countries if one is to do away with the growth fetish. One must hope for a single country or an agglomeration of countries to take over the world and to establish a single bureaucracy under which all other patriotic feelings are subdued.
Is there any historical evidence to suggest that in the absence of competing countries one would enter a no-growth era? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. China in the late 15th century perceived itself so above the rest of the world that its leaders literally argued there was no need for China to keep growing. Its leaders perceived China to already be the greatest nation in the world and impervious to outsiders. Amazingly, the Chinese authorities then disbanded their international fleets and closed down many enterprises and hit upon a trajectory of no growth in the ensuing 4 centuries. Now, these decisions by the Chinese of course had many more aspects and political intrigue behind them, but they are nevertheless an example of a conscious choice against further expansion. This example is not the only one: Japan too closed itself down in the 17th century, actually regressing militarily and economically, simply because it saw no threat in the outside world or from the inside.
We can hence as a species free ourselves from the growth fetish and history shows us how: some country or agglomeration must gain control over all others to the extent that we no longer feel in competition with other countries. Just like a central tax office forces all to pay for the services we all enjoy, so too would a central world administration most likely curtail the environmental impact of our economic activities for the benefit of all. A true environmentalist should be in favor of world government and indeed should not be too squeamish as to how such a government comes about. An environmentalist who simultaneously wishes to maintain national sovereignty is essentially in denial as to what is needed. This is why the voluntary agreement of Kyoto is so feeble and why the hopes of its proponents that Kyoto is the start of a serious voluntary curtailing of our growth is probably misguided.
We can speculate as to how a world government would come about. Given current technological military proliferation, its hard to envisage a single country actually conquering the rest of the world. No, it is more likely that some common disaster is what is needed for nations to effectively self-dismantle and submit to a world government. Even that is hard to imagine in our own lifetime yet it would seem possible in future centuries. In this light, the environmental disasters weâre experiencing and hurtling towards may at some distant future moment, when the dust of history has settled, be seen as the necessary catalyst for a world government to emerge who could seriously address these issues. What this thought practically means for proponents of environmental measures (including myself) is that we should become warm advocates of increased military power for world organizations and that we should help set up as best as possible the various embryonic structures needed for a future system of world government to function.