Human progress seems to have been boiled down, in the minds of many, to a single notion – economic growth. All human advancement is, it seems, captured in this one variable; politicians and business commentators hold their breath as they receive the latest GDP statistics and our destiny is revealed in a number. Today, growth is the “the supreme, overriding objective of policy” for every government (except one, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan).
It might come as a surprise to learn that governments have not always had this growth obsession. In fact, economic growth only came into the policy picture 50 or 60 years ago, initially as a means to guarantee full employment in a post-war economy and avoid the horrors of the Great Depression. It quickly became the dominant policy goal in its own right. As the OECD makes clear, going for growth is now a basic assumption of economic policy and, outside the realms of green/ecological economics, it goes entirely unquestioned.
The recognition that growth has not always been the be all and end all of human endeavour is the beginning of an understanding of the damage that the obsessive pursuit of growth wreaks. We can challenge the growth imperative, unravel the assumptions behind it, and comprehend the environmental and human consequences of pursuing it with pathological desire. And with that understanding in place we can ask – is there an alternative to growth? It may be killing the planet but can we live without it?