The myth of sustainable economic growth

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The current obsession with promoting “sustainable economic growth” has long worried us here at PD central. The myths surrounding economic growth have to be challenged and that is why we signed this excellent Scottish Environment LINK paper.

The main theme of the report is that the Scottish Government places too great an emphasis on a term that is laden with inconsistencies and contradictions. The concern is that the Government’s  primary purpose’ “to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”places undue emphasis on increasing wealth and consumption while ignoring other important factors in life that make us flourish as a nation.

The report states that “In a time of crisis and upheaval, society needs its leaders to be especially clear about the meaning of success; and better at making decisions which properly reconcile social, economic and environmental goals in achieving it”.

We agree

But what we see in the current climate of recession is a kind of panic by politicians in an all out attempt to stimulate growth by whatever means. Politicians see growth as very important. After all elections are apparently won or lost on the state of the economy. So questioning growth is deemed to be the realm of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But is it?

As the report states Oxfam’s humankind index research showed that people value “an affordable, decent and safe home and good physical and mental health” whereas factors relating to the economy were deemed less important.

The LINK report urges parliament to move on from the outdated assumption that economic growth is the cure all and the lazy assumptions that they and others such as the media make; that economic growth = jobs = well-being.

All this chimes with our own thoughts outlined in our manifesto and research paper, which expresses our concerns about the increasing emphasis on pursuing “sustainable economic growth” as the overarching goal of the planning system and using the planning system to stimulate the economy.  We feel that this imbalances the planning system which is put there to weigh up the  competing demands of social environmental and economic interests to ensure the best outcome. Focusing on the economy leads to a prioritising of the interests of one group of stakeholders, namely the developers, whose goal is to make profits. It undermines a system that was put in place to ensure that everyone’s perspective and views are considered and derails our democratic processes. The result? Development that does not reflect what is important in life to most people, that is affordable homes, safe neighbourhoods and a healthy environment.

In addition using gross domestic product as a way of measuring Scotland’s success (as is the current indicator favoured by politicians) does not necessarily properly reflect good development and planning decisions. For example, if the planning system delivers out of town development where people have to drive to the shops, schools or work the commuting costs, the petrol, car insurance and so on are all measured as a positive in terms of GDP, whereas it is likely to decrease your well being in terms of healthy lifestyle. What is the purpose of development then, to increase GDP or create a healthy built environment?

What is needed is for Government to remove this emphasis on growth from their overarching aims and measure success using indicators more sophisticated than GDP. The New Economics Foundation is quoted in the LINK report saying, “When the opposition, pressure groups and citizens all use wellbeing data to make their points, it will be clear that well-being is the real business of government”.

Which brings us onto how do we persuade our politicians to change? For politicians must stop thinking of economic growth as a fix that trumps everything including the environment, the public interest, and fundamentally our democracy.  We believe a public call for change is necessary, but it will not be an easy battle…. environmentalists have been pointing out for years that an economy based on infinite growth on a finite planet doesn’t make sense — not even economic sense. However they are no longer alone, there is a growing chorus of people, including economists, around the world calling for change. We add our voice to this and hope our members will as well.

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2 Responses

  1. Alistair MacIntosh

    The rediculous concept of continuous sustainable growth has concerned me for many years, and last year I had this concern confirmed by reading ‘The Growth Illusion’ by the late Richard Douthwaite – he died a year ago with his obituary in the Daily Telegraph of 28th Dec 2011. It is heavy reading because of the detail but overall very convincing. So I’m glad to hear that PD has identified this seeming universal goal of politicians as at the very root of our planning priority problems.

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