False Metrics

The gospel of contemporary economic dogma is growth: growth in total exports, growth in GNP, growth in per capita income. Economic growth is at the heart of the neo-liberal agenda at home and abroad. We are made to believe that economic growth, spurred by nothing more than the further penetration of markets, private ownership of every square inch of land and every patentable idea, and the deregulation of resource extraction and distribution, is the panacea to humanity’s ills.

It’s amazing that so many Americans swallow this simplistic and incomplete philosophy so readily. Economic growth of the sort proposed by the vanguard of the global economy’s commanding heights has consequences; and every day we are learning that those consequences are dire indeed.

With each percentage point of growth, an economy can be expected to move higher on the ladder of major world polluters. Look at China, whose hyper-inflated economic growth is rapidly pushing the Chinese to compete with the likes of mega-polluters in Europe and the United States.

The consequences of growth, paradoxically, generate income for corporations responsible for cleaning up the mess of rampant consumption. Elevated health care costs, waste disposal, and remediation all contribute to lining the pockets of the global elite.

And yet, as we espouse economic growth as our saving grace, we fail to create the linkages between our behaviors and the social and environmental destruction that they cause. Disposal of solid wastes, air pollution and obesity should be seen not in terms of economic opportunity, but instead as symptoms of a deeper sickness caused by a society in the midst of behavioral dysfunction.

In part, connecting the dots means rethinking our methods of social accounting. Growth in GNP inevitably has negative consequences, currently referred to as externalities, that are not accounted for using current methods. Polluting rivers, exterminating species, emitting CO2, these things affect us all. It is therefore incumbent upon us all to account for the depletion of our natural and social capital in our suicidal quest for unfettered economic growth.

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