We can't keep living this way
Published May 14, 2020
There are a lot of ways to interpret the headline to this commentary.
For some, the obvious allusion is to the current state of pandemic-driven semi-quarantine in which much of the world finds itself mired.
For others, it might just as obviously apply to a pair of recent incidents in Raleigh in which groups of weapon-toting “demonstrators” terrorized the local citizenry by doing their best impressions of war zone militia thugs. (As an aside, one can’t help but wonder if these individuals would have received the same kid-glove treatment they drew from the police if they had been young Black men in hoodies or Latinx meatpackers garbed in bloodstained work clothes.)
Still others might think bigger and see an evident reference to the dire environmental crises and metastasizing economic inequality that plague our planet.
For those lucky enough, however, to have been exposed to the research and writings of Prof. Dirk Philipsen of Duke University, another problem might just come to mind – a problem to which all of the others listed above can, at least in part, be traced.
Philipsen was the featured speaker last week at an online event hosted by the group Interfaith Creation Care of the Triangle. (You can click here to check it out.) During his talk, he explored a long-ignored elephant in the public policy room that could provide an important key to addressing much of what ails our weary 21st Century world.
The subject is how we measure the economic health and well-being of society, and the disastrous effect of our unhealthy obsession with a concept known as Gross Domestic Product (or “GDP”) – what Philipsen refers to as the “dangerous little big number.”
For decades, Philipsen points out, law and policy makers, economists, academics, business leaders and journalists have measured the economic health of every political and geographic subdivision – nations, states, continents, strategic alliances – by using this metric.
It’s an approach that inevitably leads to some massive problems.
First, there’s the crudeness and imprecision of an indicator that simply measures all economic activity and deems it good. As Philipsen explains, GDP simply measures “indiscriminate output.” All kinds of destructive economic activity contribute toward GDP and, thereby, “well-being.” This includes nuclear missiles and assault weapons, oil spills and bottled water, drug addiction and long automobile commutes. All activity associated with these things is counted toward GDP.
Meanwhile, an exhaustive list of things that we would almost all consider better indicators of societal well-being – clean, fresh, natural water and an abundance of natural resources; peaceful communities and freedom from violence and fear; equal opportunity and the availability of meaningful work – are not counted. As Philipsen puts it, “We look at transactions in the market, not relations. We look at quantity, not quality. We look at output, not outcomes.”
To make matters even worse, society not only measures the wrong conditions with GDP, it has also baked in an expectation of perpetual GDP growth.
As Philipsen explains, this is simply impossible to sustain on a finite planet. At a rate of just 2% growth – a rate most have long associated with a “moderately” healthy economy – GDP doubles in 35 years.
If one starts at the year 1900, and applies such a growth rate, the basic math principle of exponential growth would mean that GDP would have had to be eight times larger by the year 2000, 64 times larger by 2100 and 512 times larger by 2200. At 3% growth, the numbers quickly work their way into the thousands.
It’s this kind of “logic” that helps to explain the rapidly deteriorating state of our planet, Philipsen argues persuasively – a planet, he notes, on which humans have emitted more carbon dioxide pollution in the last three decades than in all 2 million previous years of human history and on which four individuals now control as much wealth as half the world’s population.
Philipsen’s answer to this madness: building “a reformed capitalism.” One that “actually serves humanity; an economy that measures what matters; an economy that puts a price on value, instead of only valuing that which has a price.”
We must, he says, have “a fundamental transition away from the growth imperative that is part of the DNA of capitalism.” We need not (and cannot) grow our way to shared prosperity. We have, Philipsen observes, “more than enough” right now to provide everyone on the planet with what they need to lead a healthy, fulfilling and sustainable life. What’s more, if we don’t embrace such a fundamental shift in attitude and soon, we are headed for a dangerous cliff.
The bottom line: Such a transformation obviously presents a massive political challenge. But at this moment in which so many of us are contemplating basic premises of how we live – both individually and as a human family – Professor Philipsen provides several insights that citizens and policymakers would do well to make an important part of their reflections.