Do you ever watch a friend or family member pursuing a goal while you sit back and think, ‘but it won’t make them happy.’ Whether that is chasing an unsuitable partner or having cosmetic surgery, you hope it will have the desired outcome for them, but more often than not, you know it won’t.
We’ve all done it though, because flawed logic can be persuasive. Our culture likes to tell us half-truths, such as ‘thinner = happier’ and it gives us something to focus on. However, it is one thing for individuals to base their life choices on flawed logic, but quite another for our politicians to make the same mistake.
This error is particularly evident in the way we think about our economy. Government is fixated on growth above all else. Economic growth of course indicates positive movement out of recession, but so often it is pursued for its own sake.
What counts isn’t growth, but quality of life across society. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, gross domestic product (GDP) measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. The environment is something that suffers with this approach.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement that this will be “the greenest government ever” is still oft quoted by jaded environmentalists, who have long given up hope of this being the case. It seems to be accepted that difficult financial times have made it necessary for the environment to fall off the priority list.
Yet this is like pursuing thinness rather than health; skinny hips instead of strong bones, or starving for a miniscule waist rather than exercising for a supple back. It may look pretty in photos (or sound impressive in a headline) but it is not the whole picture and it should not be mistaken for genuine strength and health.
Economic growth without a healthy environment behind it is weak and flawed. It will not support us and the next generation into the future. GDP completely fails to consider social and environmental costs and inequalities.
In focusing on GDP, we have made the assumption that our environment is a luxury product – something to worry about only when times are good, like a sports car or yacht. If pennies get tight, simply flog it to the highest bidder.
This approach may improve the cash flow, and thus GDP in the short term, but it doesn’t actually change the real balance sheet. We have simply cashed in on our environmental assets, probably for less than they are truly worth to us. And unlike sports cars or yachts, once they are gone, they are very hard to get back.
We need to be cleverer than to use old-fashioned GDP to value our society and measure the success of our economy. An alternative approach is called GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator). This takes into consideration annual income, net savings and also environmental costs (for example, pollution or the loss of wetlands) as well as counting the value of leisure time and volunteer work.
No system of measuring progress will ever be perfect, but one that focuses on GDP alone risks us forgetting to care about the things that really matter.
First published in the EDP and EADT