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The madness behind SA’s growth agenda

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Rowena Hudgson is a supporter of environmental and economic change with an interest in the Green Economy.

The idea that growth can be infinite is foolish and the pursuit of it has resulted in unprecedented levels of inequality while accelerating the climate change crisis.

Global growth is running out of steam. The world’s economy is estimated to grow at a mere 3% in 2019 and 2020. It’s a gloomy future that looms as economies stutter to a halt after pursuing the all-powerful growth agenda for some 75 years. But is this stagnation really such a bad thing?

The idea that growth can be infinite is foolish and the pursuit of it has resulted in unprecedented levels of inequality while accelerating the climate change crisis.

The world’s 26 richest people now own the same wealth as the poorest half of humanity. If that weren’t frightening enough, the UK’s House of Commons library calculates that by 2030, the richest 1% will control as much as two-thirds of the world’s wealth.

It’s a fine mess we find ourselves in. Geopolitical clashes put it down to a massive failure in leadership. All around the globe, the populist right is getting louder while angry new generations shout for political and environmental policy change.

Yet growth remains top of the agenda as the mainstay path to development. As countries, particularly in the Western world, continue this trajectory, believing that the growth agenda is the panacea to solve all, the nature of our failure is larger. It’s both systemic and philosophical.

Growth and GDP, its measurement which calculates the goods and services produced in an economy every year, offers the promise that a rising tide lifts all boats. That a higher GDP will eventually even out inequality — making it essential to a country’s stability and prosperity. But lurking in the corner is the underlying assumption that the pie is ever growing.

A growth economy is an extractive system that can only continue for as long as the planet’s resources can sustain it. And we’re just about tapped out. But if growth is the goal, then to what end?

The South African economy hasn’t grown by more than 2% since 2014. It wasn’t winning any races before that. GDP can’t answer the call for development if the measurement itself has become the goal. And that really is a problem.

If growth doesn’t achieve development, then it serves no purpose. Even taking into account a self-sabotaging political climate over the past decade, by pursuing consumption figures we’ve achieved little impact on social inequality and development, not to mention ignoring the environment almost entirely.

Even the much hoped for “green growth” is looking impossible. More efficient technology has been suggested as a remedy that will let us keep the status quo and grow as we have been while limiting our impact on the natural world.

Unfortunately, it’s proving clearer and clearer that this won’t work on a global scale. A sustainable level of global resource use has been worked out to be around 50 billion tons. We breached this boundary in 2000. On our current trajectory, we’re looking to hit around 180 billion metric tons by 2050. This flag was raised by a team of scientists led by German researcher Monika Dittrich in 2012.

Several computer simulations have since been run, one by the UN Environment Programme, which had been promoting green growth theory, and the results are depressingly clear. Even with slapping on the most onerous carbon and resource extraction taxes, there are limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Those resources still have to come from somewhere.

Rethinking what economic prosperity means takes a philosophical mindshift. To survive, a growth economy needs people to consume. Land needs to be privatised and commercialised — it has less value if communal and none as a park or nature reserve.

Buying things new once “built-in obsolescence” kicks in, rather than fixing them, boosts GDP (not to mention waste). GDP also rises when people are in hospital; nothing happens when they’re healthy. It also ignores contributions from families and communities that prop up the economy. These costs may be hidden, but they’re still charged to both society and the planet.

Twenty-five years after apartheid, South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world, its impact reverberating through the decades. Mpumalanga has the highest levels of air pollution globally. It’s a failed proposition if the pursuit of growth achieves little development, yet has enormous consequences on our environment. What if the focus wasn’t on growth but on wellbeing?

Bhutan is the world’s case study in this philosophical shift, with policies that serve both the planet and its people. Instead of focusing on growth, the Bhutanese implemented a Gross National Happiness (GNH) approach. They see a fulfilling life mapped out in four main tenets: Cultural values, sustainable development, environmental conservation and socially responsible government.

It may be true that Bhutan was already mostly covered with forest and its people have capitalised on its natural environment; however, implementing GNH policies have contributed to Bhutan being the only carbon-negative country in the world. The environment is protected in its constitution where it mandates that at least 60% of the country be maintained as forest and it carefully controls tourism to minimise its impact.

Putting ideas such as wellbeing and individual happiness right into government policy seems like a radical idea. But why is it? We know that there are certain fundamentals to what makes someone happy that can be generally agreed upon.

Harvard has been running a happiness study for nearly 80 years and Maslow’s theory has been around for about the same amount of time. Yet our hamster-wheel growth model discourages these conversations. Living in a system where deviating from producing and consuming at anything other than an accelerated pace is unthinkable. And it shouldn’t be. Following Bhutan’s example would take courage and an enormous amount of political will.

With population growth rates spiralling out of control, the planet and governments can no longer provide for the sheer numbers. The party is very much over. Society is more unequal than it has ever been, and we face an environmental crisis of historic proportions.

A world with little growth may not be the worst thing. With the global 2°C temperature rise limit revised down to 1.5 °C, the system we live in that’s predicated on endless economic expansion needs to change if we have a hope of reaching the goals set out by the Paris Climate Agreement.

Ultimately, if the wellbeing of people and the natural environment isn’t the responsibility of economic policy, what good is that policy? DM

Rowena Hudgson is a supporter of environmental and economic change with an interest in the Green Economy.

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