Our world hinges on the economic value of GDP. The combined value of paid work and what we produce, complemented by growth, is the measure ingrained into our heads from the beginning of our journey in modern life.
I encounter this as a business consultant when a CEO says, “This year we had a turnover of 10 million dollars, so now let’s make it 12 million.” Often the number is plucked from thin air for the sake of growth. A year later, I am called in to solve the problem of stressed-out employees walking out the door in protest for not having any work-life balance. Talking to people at all levels leads me right back to the CEO’s new target of 12 million dollars.
Economics and Assumptions
The key assumption in economics is: we grow or we languish. Yes, in many business cases, growth is needed for survival. Unfortunately, it has become a mindless mantra that eventually bites back.
The CEO asking for a 2-million-dollar increase in turnover may see the market potential to grow but often ignores the nitty-gritty of the organisation. So growth happens at the expense of the existing employees’ well-being, family life and health – and we wonder why they are walking out!
There are limits to growth when we factor in people. Extend this then to a country, to nature and our planet. Limitless growth becomes problematic, for it means more pollution, deforestation and human suffering. Just as employees need sustenance through nourishment, rest and rejuvenation, our earth needs it too. We cannot keep taking from either without a breakdown.
Sane Minds Prevail
Luckily for us and for future generations, there are people who are courageously questioning the growth mantra and looking at new paradigms. Could there be a “no growth” economy?
Rachel Carson, in the ’60s, awakened us to the perils of mindless growth with her book Silent Spring. The Club of Rome (authors of Limits to Growth in 1972) created a computer model which showed that, although there is the potential for short-term prosperity with limitless growth, Mother Nature will act against us. Resources will become scarce and skyrocketing prices will threaten the world economy.
This prompted mainstream economists to fight back and, supported by big businesses, attacked the book’s “pseudo-science” and called it “alarmist”. So, thirty years later, the growth mantra continues unabated with consequences for both people and planet.
Economists have staked their claim religiously on the primacy of growth. They are emotionally attached to it and, as such, resistance to change is understandable. People fear that “no growth” will lower their standard of living and hit their pockets. So, there are big dilemmas to face.
Having lived for many years in the developing world, I have witnessed rural communities sustaining life on very little growth, with much less material wealth and yet having a better sense of well-being, happiness and health. How can we, then, create a healthier balance in the developed world? By marrying the material world and spirituality? Being influenced by both science and philosophy? Can these opposing ideologies co-exist?
I believe so, and to do that we must focus on the individual.
Educate the Young
Maybe it is too late to deal with adults as a whole; maybe we should begin by educating the young. Develop their minds not to depend on one ideology but to become inquiring and find a set of values that respects the earth and each other.
Facilitate the new generation and allow their inquiring minds to grow, learn how the world works and to question fearlessly. Show them that ideologies are man-made, not cast in stone and, if certain ideologies hurt this earth and its people, have the courage to question and change.
Maybe then the new generation will create new economics that factor in human well-being and happiness; to live in a peaceful co-existence with people and nature around us. Maybe then growth will become more thoughtful and more balanced.
An article by Lalith Gunaratne
Lalith has formed the company Sage Ontario for Mindful Business and has written a chapter on Sri Lanka for The World Guide to CSR: A Country-by-Country Analysis of Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, published by Greenleaf Publishing.
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