If a country preserves open spaces like parks and nature reserves for the benefit of everybody, it does not see this increase in human and ecological wellbeing reflected in its economic performance. But if it privatises them, commercialising the resources therein and charging fees to users, then growth happens. Preserving our infrastructure, making it durable, long-term and free adds nothing or only marginally to growth. Destroying it, rebuilding it and making people pay for using it gives the growth economy a bump forward.
Keeping people healthy has no value. Making them sick does. An effective and preventative public healthcare approach is suboptimal for growth: it’s better to have a high- ly unequal and dysfunctional system like in the us, which accounts for almost 20% of the country’s gDP.
Wars, conflicts, crime and cor- ruption are friends of growth in so far as they force societies to build and buy weapons, to install security locks and to push up the prices of what government pays for tenders. the earthquake in Fukushima like the Deep-Water Horizon oil spill were manna for growth, as they required immense expenditure to clean up the mess and rebuild what was destroyed.
Against this pretty grim depiction, you may ask yourself: where is the good news? Well, the good news is that growth is disappearing, whether we like it or not. Economies are puffing along. Even China, the global locomotive, is running out of steam. and consumption has reached limits in the so-called developed world, with fewer buyers for the commodities and goods exported by developing countries.
Energy is running out, partic- ularly fossil fuels, and even if pol- luting energy sources were endless as some supporters of shale gas, or fracking, suggest – global agreements to fight climate change require us to eliminate them soon.
as a consequence, mitigating climate change forces industrial production to contract, thus limit- ing growth even further. What this means is that, on the one hand, growth is disappearing due to the systemic contraction of the global economy. On the other, the future of the climate (and all of us on this planet) makes a return of growth, at least the conventional approach to industry-driven economic growth,
politically and socially unac- ceptable.
Window of opportunity for change
Even the International Monetary Fund and mainstream neoliber- al economists like Larry summers agree that the global economy is entering a “secular stagnation”, which may very well be the domi- nant character of the 21st century.
this is a disastrous prospect for our economies, which have been designed to grow – or perish. But it is also a window of opportunity for change. With the disappearance of growth as the silver bullet to success, political leaders and their societies desperately need a new vision: a new narrative to engage with an uncer- tain future.
In my new book, I argue that as we begin to recognize the madness behind growth, we start exploring new paths. these include: forms of business that reconcile human needs with natural equilibria; production processes that emancipate people from the passive role of consumers; systems of social organisation at the local level that reconnect individuals with their communities and their ecosystems, while allowing them participate in a global network of active change makers.
this is what I call the “wellbeing economy”. In the wellbeing econ- omy, development lies not in the exploitation of natural and human resources but in improving the quali- ty and effectiveness of human-to-hu- man and human-to-ecosystem inter- actions, supported by appropriate enabling technologies.
Decades of research based on per- sonal life evaluations, psychologi- cal dynamics, medical records and biological systems have produced a considerable amount of knowledge about what contributes to long and fulfilling lives.
the conclusion is: a healthy social and natural environment. as social animals, we thrive thanks to the quality and depth of our inter- connectedness with friends and fam- ily as well as with our ecosystems. But of course, the quest for wellbeing is ultimately a personal one.
Only you can decide what it is. this is precisely why I believe that an economic system should empow- er people to choose for themselves. Contrary to the growth mantra, which has standardised development across the world, I believe an econo- my that aspires to achieve wellbeing should be designed but those who live it, in accordance with their val- ues and motives.
This article is part of a series to be published following the release of Lorenzo Fioramonti’s new book:
Wellbeing Economy: Success in a World Without Growth (MacMillan South Africa).