Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, colorado
In Barack Obama’s inaugural address, the president mandated the need to transform growth. His speech created a vital mission statement for America. What he said about growth is one of the most critical pieces of that mission.
Growth is an ideological dogma that defines America’s culture and economy. It has been unassailable until now. But the world has changed, said Obama, and we must change with it. Transforming growth is a keystone of that change.
It has been said that growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell. Heedless economic growth, like cancer, eventually kills its host. The imperiled host today is the biosphere on which all life depends.
Transforming growth is a task that will challenge many of the precepts that have guided and defined American prosperity. It will involve remaking the American entrepreneurial spirit and transforming our collective psychology.
In his visionary book, “The Bridge at the Edge of the World,” James Gustave Speth amplifies on what science has long been warning. “An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost undermines the planet’s ability to sustain life.”
Speth lays responsibility on nearly every doorstep in the high-income countries whose billion people (15 percent of the world’s population) generate 45 percent of the carbon footprint that’s causing climate change. The US produces half of that share.
Challenging today’s economic growth and its inertia in business and government is nothing short of a revolution. Speth suggests that the only possible hope for real change lies in a values-based assessment of what traditional growth provides.
“If today’s growth and capitalism are delivering high levels of life satisfaction, genuine well-being, and true happiness to societies broadly, then there may be scant chance for real change. But if what we actually have is ‘spiritual hunger in an age of plenty,’ there is a large space for hope.”
Speth argues convincingly that the material benefits of economic growth are not meeting our higher needs and values. Instead of providing more and more “stuff,” he says that economic growth should focus on the intangibles of fulfillment, happiness and well-being.
The environment must be stewarded with care, writes Speth. “The gold standard is full protection of human health, no harvesting of resources beyond long-term sustainable yields, no release of waste products beyond assimilative capacities, and full protection of ecosystem structure and function.”
Living within these boundaries will require a new mindset in business and government. It will require putting the good of future generations over short-term gratification. “The further and faster market transformation is pursued, the better off our children and grandchildren will be.”
Much of Speth’s argument lies in statistics he sites that people, on average, are not made happier by gluttony. “The more we examine the role of growth in modern society, the more our obsession with growth appears to be a fetish…an inanimate object worshipped for its apparent magical powers.”
Debunking the magical mythology of perpetual economic growth, Speth emphasizes valuing life, not as an acquisitive game, but as a meaningful, deeply gratifying experience that can transcend our material habits, traditions and addictions.
Rather than burn through resources to churn out ever more stuff, Speth says we must focus on social capital, human welfare, health care, education, good jobs, income for the poor, and security from illness, aging, job displacement and disability.
Investments should be made in public infrastructure, water, waste management, green technologies, clean energy, and restoring ecosystems.
Speth says yes to growth, but only to the kind that best serves humanity through our collective stewardship of the living world.
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