Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.
Developed nations have come to associate constant economic growth as a positive in society. However, this ingrained assumption is anything but positive and fails to account for a more important type of measurement: societal wellbeing. Although society is beginning to make these realizations, it is important to look back to where this mindset of constant growth began. Economist Simon Kuznets first introduced the concept of gross domestic product (GDP) back in 1934, and it was solely meant as a way to show national income during the Great Depression. It was given to us with a warning that this is a tool meant to measure economic performance and not the overall economic well being of a country. GDP looks at anything of growth being a positive addition to society: whether that is an increase in the number of children attending primary schools or the building of more prisons. Either one of these examples are a positive for GDP and make the country “look” attractive. This can be perfectly expressed during various days throughout the year where over-consumption is encouraged. This culture of excess can be seen on days like Black Friday where fighting over televisions is completely normal even though most households in the United States own a countless amount. As can be inferred, this form of violence has major moral implications that affect more than just the economics of the United States. GDP also fails to account for the actual well being of society. The importance lies in taking into account quality over quantity. Instead of looking at how many hospitals or schools were built, we should be asking how well healthcare is supporting the needs of the people or how adequately we are preparing children to live successful lives.
In order to vouch for a safe and healthy planet that can continue sustaining life in this Holocene phase, there are certain principles of sustainability that need to be met by society. GDP constantly enforces that growth must happen, but at what cost? We shouldn’t extract substances from the earth’s crust faster than it can be replaced. Therefore, with having a mind of continuous growth, the growing population will soon reach 9 billion in 2050 and will need more substances from the earth. If this extraction of resources doesn’t change, then the next generation will cause an even larger waste problem that can be seen in areas such as many third world countries. The earth’s surface is not only being degraded by waste and a growing population, but also by sea level rise as a sign of climate change. As a result, there is tremendous damage in many coastal communities and a negative effect on agriculture. Finally, continuing on this growth path would undermine the ability to meet the basic needs of people in the world. These basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare are being put in jeopardy with a continuous growth-economy. If we continue on this path, all of these basic needs will either become extremely expensive or scarce, which would make it near to impossible for those in poverty to meet them. It ultimately becomes difficult to change a system ran by hyper-consumerism because those in power have not been directly affected as much as those in the poorer nations.
GDP has been seen privileging consumerism in order to continue growing the economy since the 1950s. Planned obsolescence began having a presence in mainstream society since the invention of the light bulb, but consumerism has flourished immensely with the idea of perceived obsolescence as a consequence. Perceived obsolescence has made its way into the U.S. economy where if the new and “improved” version of a product is available, it must be bought. Not only do consumers experience it, but those that advocate the usage of GDP declare to go out and shop because it will only help the economy. The cycle of making money to then spending it makes us due-diligent citizens who “help” the economy with our expendable incomes. What isn’t realized is that “stuff” really does not make you any happier and goes against the sustainability principles that would allow this planet to continue flourishing.
So, can we have a successful economy without excess? The answer is yes, and thus there needs to be a limit of how far we do grow because the environmental and social costs should not outweigh the benefits. The limit needs to be determined of how far the economy can grow, but should be not be exceeded by any means. Currently, climate change is occurring in third-world countries and therefore is not on the minds of many. With the focus on GDP, all we and other developed nations around the world see is positive growth without any negative consequences. We do not see the harm by continuing these wasteful and immoral acts because the market we heavily rely on does not reflect any of these external problems. The people of developed nations want to see an upward slope of growth, no matter the overall harm.
The solution lies in us adopting different ways to measure and analyze growth: in a socially and morally minded way. Implementing a tool such as the Social Progress Index will allow countries, states, or even municipalities to measure how well the area is doing and not always focusing on how much is being produced. We can make sure that everyone in that given area has their basic needs met, foundations for well-being, and given opportunities to succeed. This new measurement will allow for a clearer picture of what basic needs are being met in a given area and what improvements still need to be taken in order for there to be successful social progress. It would have no measurements on income or investments, just a depiction of what a healthy society should look like with an improved quality of life.
It is important to reiterate that it is completely possible to have a successful economy without continuous economic growth; we just need to shift focus from the economic mindset to a more societally just one. It is now the 21st century and times have changed since the introduction of the GDP back in 1934. There are new challenges this planet is facing that just were not on the minds of many back then. The planet has reached its limit and continuous growth just isn’t an option anymore. Environmentally, this planet can’t be as resilient as it once was with the overabundance of greenhouse gases being emitted every single day. Socially, the basic needs of many are not being met with not enough clean water, food being unable to grow, and homes being destroyed by tropical storms and sea level rise. Economically, becoming sustainably focused would allow for a positive impact on those that have a larger presence in society: businesses. Quite simply, the planet cannot wait for this to become the next generations’ problem and new tools of measurement need to be implemented. By looking past the generic form of economic growth and adopting a mindset of moderation will allow a focus back on what’s important. Humans are not separate from nature: we are one.