What Makes a Successful Country? The Madness of Sustainable Economic Growth

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“Scotland needs a planning system that has, at its heart, the overriding principle of delivering sustainable economic growth … We want future planning decisions to give significant weight to the economic benefit of proposed developments, particularly the creation of new jobs.”

Derek MacKay, Scottish Minister for Local Government and Planning[i]

Economic concerns, as we have seen many times in practice (like here and here), and in statements like the one above, enjoy a privileged position in determining the outcome of planning decisions. Indeed as we can see from the Scottish Government’s stated purpose: “to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth”, this is so throughout Scottish public policy.

From these statements it is clear that ‘sustainable economic growth’ is primarily seen as a means to an end. Growth is seen as the best way to make Scotland a “more successful country”.

But what makes a country successful, and is sustainable economic growth the best way to get there? As Scotland prepares for a nation shaping decision, we should be very sure that we are on the path we want to be.

Two vital components of any successful country are the health, and happiness of its citizens. A country may be wealthy, and powerful, but if its citizens live short or unhappy lives, is it really successful? Wealth is important only in so far as it encourages greater well-being.

Furthermore, as we grow more aware of issues around environmental sustainability, it is clearly important to live sustainably. Countries must provide well-being within environmental limits: sustainable well-being.

It is likely the Scottish Government would agree with this formulation. The Strategic Objectives which apparently underpin its “core purpose” include strong rhetoric regarding the need for a greener nation, and their commitments to, and achievements in GHG emissions reductions are amongst the strongest in Europe.

It is not a contentious point then, that for any country to be truly successful it must generate sustainable well-being. Its people must be happy and healthy, without having undue impact on the environment. This is the premise underlying the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF’s) ‘Happy Planet Index’ (HPI), the world’s leading measure of sustainable well-being.

A country’s HPI is calculated by multiplying life-expectancy by a self-assessed well-being score. This number is then divided by ecological footprint per capita giving a number representative of the happy life years produced per unit of ecological input. HPI is an efficiency rating.


A successful country must have a high HPI score indicating good levels of sustainable well-being. Thus if the Scottish Government are correct to pursue sustainable economic growth, we should expect to see a steady increase in HPI, with increasing GDP.

It is unlikely to come as a surprise to many however, that this is not entirely the case. Of 151 countries graded with an HPI score, there are 33 with equivalent well-being to the UK. The 35 countries[ii] featured in the graph below[iii] demonstrate how richer countries are significantly less efficient at producing long happy lives, than middle-income countries.


Strikingly, all of the countries with the highest HPI scores are amongst those countries with the lowest GDP, marginally above the world average. Amongst these, Costa-Rica stands out with the world’s highest HPI score, while enjoying a higher level of well-being than the UK, and many other OECD countries, despite having a fraction of the wealth and the smallest ecological footprint of any country included.

In contrast most of the countries with the highest per-capita GDP are amongst those with the lowest HPI. Amongst these Qatar stands out as the world’s richest country per-capita, with one of the world’s lowest HPI scores. It is also slightly behind the UK both on happiness and longevity, and boasts the world’s greatest per-capita ecological footprint (not to mention some of the developed world’s worst human rights abuses).

For Scotland to achieve greater sustainable well-being, we need to move up the Y-axis of this graph towards Costa-Rica. This can clearly be achieved, without a negative effect on well-being, but economic growth is not going to get us there.

This leaves us in some need of an alternative.

Within the growing field of literature known as ecological economics, many economists have argued that the growth paradigm is destructive, misguided and unsustainable. This is largely because growth is based either on increasing consumption or increasing debt – neither increases well-being, and both must function within finite limits (Jackson, 2009), as Tim Jackson states: “no subsystem of a finite system can grow indefinitely”[iv].

Ecological economists tend to suggest a process of ‘degrowth’ leading to a stable-state economy as the only real solution to the tripartite social, environmental and economic crises, holding responsibility, well-being and environmental sustainability as paramount to creating a just world, with opportunities for all to flourish[v].

Perhaps a more convincing approach than continued reliance on GDP growth?

Considering that growth is only likely to make our lives less sustainable, rather than better, we must question the basing of planning decisions upon spurious at best economic ‘benefits’ which all too often neglect to consider public opinion as well as health and environmental concerns.

Scotland’s planning system plays a vital role in shaping the country we live in, in a very literal sense. Our built and natural environment is one of our most important assets, and decisions affecting it must be taken with the upmost care to ensure we are progressing to the benefit of all in a sustainable way. If we wish to make Scotland a truly successful country, how we go about planning our landscape has got to change.

Stepping back from relentless pursuit of ‘growth’ and taking a look at the bigger picture, as well as seeing what we can learn from countries like New Zealand, Panama and Costa-Rica would certainly be a good start.


Author: Rurigdh McMeddes

All opinions expressed within this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of Planning Democracy.

[ii] Including Kuwait and Hong-Kong with lower well-being than the UK despite higher GDP

[iv] Jackson, Tim. (2009) Prosperity Lost, Prosperity Without Growth Economics for a Finite Planet, Routledge, p.17

[v] Schneider, F. Kallis, G. Martinez-Alier, J. (2010) Crisis of Opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Journal of Clearer Production, Vol-18, Iss-6, pp.511-518

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2 Responses

  1. averagejoe

    An interesting article, that starts to scrape the surface of what I call the ‘oxymoron’, at the heart of the planning system, “sustainable economic growth”. Whilst not political acceptable to acknowledge, the endless quest of perpetual economic growth is neither feasible or desirable. Anyone who has found themselves baffled by the concept of endless growth in a finite world, with finite resources would do well to read the paper, “Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome which written as far back as 1972. More accessible recent works by Richard Heinberg, in particular his book “The End of Growth”, confirm that the predictions made i.e. that growth is a process with an end, and that is expected to arrive sometime this decade. Our debt based financial system, which requires perpetual growth to avoid crisis, is the canary in the proverbial coal mine. The economic system that we have, is built on a shaky assumption that economic growth can continue indefinitely. That assumption is false. And the proof will emerge over the next few decades. It’s about time that common sense prevails and we started to look at alternative solutions that take reality into account.

  2. James Mackenzie

    There’s a really good article on this subject at EU level by Frances Aldson. She won a prize from the UK Environmental Law Foundation for it:
    Her concluding paragraph is:
    ” ‘Sustainable’ economic growth is not a precondition for human survival. ‘Sustainable’
    societal progress and financial prosperity are not essential for our existence. GDP has nothing
    to do with the continuation of humanity on planet earth. The inconvenient truth is that our
    survival hinges exclusively on ecological sustainability. Until and unless EU law and policy
    reflect this singular fact, the aspiration of ‘the sustainable development of Europe’ will remain
    exactly that: an aspiration.”

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