Growth or Prosperity

I can still hear the deafening silence in a study group at my last church when I said that economic growth was neither desirable nor necessary. Before the discussion could continue, someone had to say: “I beg your pardon.  What did you say?”  It was as though I had just declared Jesus to be gay.

Of course, business leaders and politicians would like us to believe that economic growth will solve everyone’s problems.  When the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNP (Gross National Product) increases, the party in power will claim success with the economy, and when it decreases, it becomes the excuse to remove protective measures from the environment (and, by extension, from all of us – present and future – who depend on the environment for our survival) and give tax cuts to the rich, supposedly (and erroneously) in order to spur investment.  An increase in GDP also usually means more abuse of an already-over-abused environment: more consumption, more resources expended, more waste generated, more pollution, more global warming.

GDP can even increase by increasing a variety of bad things: for example, the money you pay to your lawyer to settle your divorce, the money spent on security to protect you from crime, the cost of repairing cars after accidents, the cost of medical care and the cost of the things that cause the need for medical care, such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs of addiction, over-eating, etc.

A far better measure is the well-being of a people.  From 1957 to 1997 the real income (adjusted for inflation) of Americans increased by about 175% – i.e. it came close to tripling.  In short, people are vastly better off economically today than they were in 50’s. I don’t have figures for Australia, but I think it safe to assume that they are at least comparable, and probably better.

However, people’s sense of well-being has steadily decreased over the same period, thus proving the time-honored phrase, money can’t buy happiness. Economic growth is hardly a reasonable goal, especially given its negative effect on the environment, if people aren’t happy as a result.

To be sure, money makes a lot of difference to poor people. Poverty can cause much unhappiness; however, studies have shown that money increases happiness up to about $17,000 a year per capita income.  After this point, it has a relatively modest effect and, at higher incomes, no effect at all.  Very often, the pursuit of economic growth has such negative side-effects that the overall sense of well-being decreases.

Today there are better measures of a country’s well-being than the GDP. Probably the best known is the GPI, the Genuine Progress Indicator, but there are also the Human Development Index, the Living Planet Index and the Wellbeing Index.  The last of these uses 87 indicators to measure human well-being. According to this measure, two-thirds of the world’s people live in bottom two of the five rating levels. Only three countries – Norway, Denmark and Finland – rate at the top level. More recently the Social Progress Index also indicated that GDP is not a reliable indicator of the general well-being of a nation’s citizens.  The World Happiness Report is another. The nations in the World Happiness report are all economically developed countries, though not the wealthiest, but the Happy Planet Index shows an even greater divide between happiness and wealth, with relatively poor Costa Rica at the top of the rankings, followed by Mexico, Colombia, Vanuatu and Vietnam.  Australia is way down the list at 105th, just 3 places above the USA.


The moral?  There are much better ways to be used in the pursuit of happiness than the chase for economic growth, especially when economic growth is sought at any cost, as it is being pursued today in Australia.

This should be no surprise to Christians.  Although Jesus mentioned money frequently, it was usually by way of warning people of the barriers that it put in the way of their being part of the Kingdom of God.  2000 years later, the wisdom of Jesus is being verified and quantified by secular studies, but are people taking note?  The answer is: yes, a few, but these people, more often than not, are European. Again, we discover the intriguing paradox that the country that is the most religiously Christian, the country that Australia loves to follow, is among those that have managed to most ignore Jesus.  Curious, isn’t it?

Finding a Moral Framework

One method by which we establish a moral framework is by reference to an established structure with well-defined rules and obligations, e.g. the Ten Commandments. Emmanual Kant built an ethical system around this concept, which was, for years, the dominant ethical system. The trouble with this  is that no fixed structure can cover all situations in all times, and we are left with the question: who makes the rules in the first place.

Later came Utilitarianism, which focuses on the greatest good, then seeks to maximize whatever value is believed to bring it about, e.g. happiness. It has a similar problem to the first option: who chooses the most important value? Worse, it leads to the assessment of everything and everyone in terms of their contribution to the preferred value, and ignores the means by which this value may be obtained. Unfortunately, in our western capitalist economy the value that has risen to the top of the pile is money and, with it, economic growth.  Consequently, the value that really counts is monetary worth; therefore, those people and those things with obvious financial worth are given high priority when decisions are made. Things having an undetermined dollar-value, such as clean air and water, endangered species, indigenous communities, and a habitable climate, are considered expendable.

There is a third ethical system, attributed to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, based on the concept of a ‘virtuous man’. Aristotle would have us imagine a perfectly moral person who, using wisdom and discernment to wrestle through each unique situation, seeks the right path.  Our goal, then, is to act likewise.  Aristotle did not know Jesus, but I think that he would have found the combination of Jesus’ Great Commandment (Luke 10:27) and his Great Paradox (eg. Mark 8:35) to be a very appropriate starting point for his virtuous man.  So might we.

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