Saturday, September 08, 2018

Beyond GDP-growth?

While I am used to that many of those attracted by Malthusian thinking are more interested in promoting a perfectionist social vision than having a meaningful discussion about what sustainability in a globalized world would actually entail, I was still stunned when a friend sent me a link about a large Swedish research project called “Beyond GDP-growth”.

In the text, one of the researchers, Mikael Malmeus, suggests that even as we have had 100 per cent growth since 1985, it has not solved “our real problems” and that “our schools and welfare” are not any better. It is hard to know how to even begin to respond to this claim as it is so patently false. Maybe by stating the simple fact that we today have 1.5 million retired people in Sweden, a number that would have been wholly impossible to support at current welfare levels with the economy of 1985. On the other hand, there would have been much less need for that without the numerous medical breakthroughs that have happened during these thirty years, including magnetic resonance imaging, advanced cancer therapies and improved treatment of cardiovascular diseases.

While we may disagree about exact valuations, few would probably trade their iPhones for a landline, their laptops for a Commodore 64 or even change back to the diet people had thirty years ago (including foregoing Indian food, halloumi cheese and all the other things that are now part of our everyday life). More generally, globalization and economic growth have broadened our horizons in so many ways that it is almost impossible to imagine a world without affordable global mobility or the Internet.

So, how about the “sustainability” of all this? As I often have pointed out, if a ten, twenty or even thirty percent reduction in consumption would ensure sustainability then degrowth would be a no-brainer. However, in a world of almost eight billion people, we are rather talking about massive depopulation and a return to an agrarian society if anything remotely resembling long-term environmental sustainability is to be achieved with existing technologies. As such, I have long argued that rather than trying to reverse all the great transformative processes of the last centuries, we should instead seek to accelerate growth and to fully globalize welfare capitalism. In essence, the distance from where we are now to a space-faring post-scarcity civilization is far shorter than any return to an agrarian past, and also much more compatible with existing values (in particular the values of those who still live in poverty and aspire for what we take for granted).

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