Flourishing without Growth

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Sorry for the premature publishing of this post. I clicked the wrong button in my haste to get on the water and do a little fishing. The weather has been terrible for nearly a week and I have sat inside waiting for the skies to clear. Well, today the sun came out. But best of all, I hooked a couple of keeper-size striped bass, my first of the summer. I use barbless hooks and always release my catch.

Today, I offer up a couple of stories playing a different tune than the usual economic news, that of well-being without economic growth. It is interesting to me that both come from English cousins in Canada and in England. The first appeared in a Toronto newspaper, written by Peter Victor, a professor of environmental studies at York University. Here is the central image of the flourishing world he projects.

In such an economy, success would not be judged by the rate of economic growth but by more meaningful measures of personal and community well-being. We would adjust to strict limits on our use of materials, energy, land and waste, guided by prices that provide more accurate information about real rather than contrived scarcities. We would enjoy more services and fewer but more durable and repairable products, and we would value use over status when deciding what to buy.

Rampant consumerism would be history, advertising would be more informative and less persuasive, and new technologies would be better screened to avoid problems to be fixed later, if at all. Infrastructure, buildings and equipment would be more efficient in their use of energy and we would think and act more locally and less globally. With more free time at our disposal we would educate ourselves and our children for life not just work.

Is all this simply wishful thinking of a sort that flourishes in troubled times? I think not. The undercurrent of discontent with modern life is rich with ideas for a better future, one that is not dependent on economic growth.

Victor, like many others, offers up a vision, but not the path to get there. His solutions are too much fixes to the present economic model of the West. I do not think Victor and others with visions of sustainability fully understand the depth of the change in beliefs and values that must precede the radical change they foresee. Getting the prices right, that is, to reflect the true cost of everything, is a critical step towards stabilizing the unsustainable conditions of the present. But flourishing requires more than fixing the economic system.

Another excellent study, Prosperity without Growth, by the British Sustainable Development Commission questions the growth paradigm in great detail. It is essential reading for anyone concerned about sustainability. The language is often stark as befits the situation.

The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.

In this context, simplistic assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilise the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional. Those who promote decoupling as an escape route from the dilemma of growth need to take a closer look at the historical evidence - and at the basic arithmetic of growth.

The report names prosperity as the normative end of societal functioning. For me this still sends a primarily economic message even though the authors do relate it to flourishing.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings - within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.

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