Economic growth is malignant

Economic growth is malignant

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 November 2019

700 words

While the exchange between my fellow columnist, Lawrie McFarlane, and myself on the issue of economic growth may seem esoteric, it is fundamental to the future wellbeing of our civilization and many forms of life on our planet, including humans. In his column last week, Lawrie took issue with my view – responding to his column about the policies of the Greens and the NDP – that continuing to pursue economic growth is mad if it meant “further harm to the Earth’s natural systems, further depletion of vital natural resources and further extinction of the species that make up the web of life – as it does in the current mainstream model of development”.

He argues that economic growth has lifted many out of poverty and brought us improved health and an improved quality of life, and that with many still living in poverty and a growing population, “we’re going to need a lot more of it, not less”. To some extent he is correct, but only if we qualify what sort of economic growth we are talking about (not all growth is good), where it is needed and by whom, and how its benefits are distributed.

First, the health benefits of economic growth are not linear. If we look at the relationship between GDP per person (GDPpp) and life expectancy for the world’s nations, we find that as GDPpp goes up, so does life expectancy, and quite dramatically – to a point. That point is about $20,000 US per person, according to a 2014 report from Euromonitor International, with life expectancy increasing more than 20 years from the lowest levels of GDPpp to the $20,000 level.

But beyond that point, further increases in GDPpp have little or no relationship to life expectancy, with a mere 2 years increase in life expectancy in developed countries between $20,000 and $60,000 GDPpp. Indeed, the Euromonitor International report showed that for the wealthiest countries “where income exceeds US$40,000, the relationship becomes inverse”. So high levels of GDP may actually be harmful.

Moreover, the most common measure of a country’s economy, its GDP, is a grossly misleading indicator, because it fails to distinguish between good and bad economic activity. For example, GDP grows if we sell more tobacco and treat more tobacco-caused disease, if we spend a lot of money clearing up oil spills, or if we produce and sell more fossil fuels and worsen climate change. Is that the economic growth we want?

In fact, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) – both of which are more sophisticated indicators of social progress – show that while the economy has grown a lot, human and social wellbeing has not. An estimate of global GPI per capita published in 2013 found that it had decreased since 1978, when it peaked, that “Life Satisfaction in almost all countries has also not improved significantly since 1975” and that beyond about $7000/ GDPpp the GPI does not increase.

Similarly, for the 20 years from 1994 to 2014 Canada’s GDP grew 38 percent while the CIW increased only 9.9 percent. In other words, while the economy, as measured by GDP, may be doing better, Canadians are not feeling all that much better for it. Peter Victor, a leading Canadian ecological economist, wrote with respect to the USA that “Americans have been more successful decoupling GDP from happiness than in decoupling it from material and energy”. In other words, GDP growth is related to growth in use of materials and energy – with their attendant environmental impacts – but not with growth in the social benefits of improved happiness and wellbeing.

This is because we have lost track of a very simple concept, well described in a statement from the WWF’s 2014 Living Planet Report: “Ecosystems sustain societies that create economies. It does not work any other way round”. So growing the economy in ways that harm the ecosystems that sustain, especially when there is little or no social benefit or even harm, is a ridiculous proposition. As a physician, when I find something that grows exponentially and does harm I recognize it as cancer. Our current economic system does exactly that, and is thus malignant.

More on this next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


It’s time to be responsible ancestors

It’s time to be responsible ancestors

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 October 2019

700 words

As I listen to the increasingly shrill and heated rhetoric of Jason Kenney, and others of his ilk as they try to defend and promote the fossil fuel industry, it brings to mind a phrase from a 2015 report from The Lancet. This leading medical journal has sponsored several Commissions, often in partnership with international organisations, on the health effects of global ecological change. There have been two on climate change and one each on pollution, healthy diets from sustainable food systems, and planetary health.

The Commission on Planetary Health, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, examined the “health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”. In their report, the Commission noted “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present. By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilisation has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life support systems in the future.”

In other words, we have been flagrantly violating the fundamental principle of sustainable development put forward in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission: To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Or to use an older concept, we have forgotten that we do not inherit the Earth from our parents, but borrow it from our children.

Of course it’s not just the fossil fuel industry that is causing harm. Other major industries behind these global ecological changes also bear a heavy responsibility – as do we all, ultimately, in that we use and enjoy their products. The focus on making money now and to heck with the future is grossly irresponsible. The legacy is a depleted and impoverished natural environment for our descendants, an infringement of their right to a healthy environment.

But I cannot think of a better example of a group that is intent on harming the health of their descendants than the fossil fuel industry and their political allies and supporters. We know that our present path will take us well beyond a global temperature increase of 20C. We also know that much of the carbon in the ground, in the form of coal, oil and gas, will need to stay there if we are to avoid this.

So continuing to push for the use of fossil fuels, leaving in place tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and opposing carbon taxes and other measures to limit fossil fuel use is the height of inter-generational selfishness and irresponsibility. The defence of the industry in Canada – which basically amounts to ‘other people around the world are being irresponsible, so we should be irresponsible too’ is an abdication of leadership.

The approach of these fossil fuel advocates is also harmful to those who make their living from fossil fuels, because in going to the wall for the industry, Kenney and his fellow-travellers around the world delude not only themselves but these workers that the industry must be there and must grow.

In doing so, they are postponing the vitally important work of creating a socially just transition away from fossil fuels for these workers, with the training, support and other measures they and their communities will need. That will only make the changes, when they do happen, that much more sudden and wrenching.

What we all need to do, including Kenney, Ford and the rest of the fossil fuel support clique, is to follow the advice of Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who said “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors”. Being responsible ancestors does not include mortgaging the health of future generations and compromising the ability of those future generations to meet their own environmental, social and economic needs.

Acting as responsible ancestors means, first of all, recognising the issue of intergenerational justice, the right of our descendants to a healthy environment. It means seeking to create high levels of human and social development for this generation in a way that is socially just and within the limits of the Earth. It does not mean continuing to boost the fossil fuel industry, but seeking the quickest possible transition to a low-carbon future.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019