"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Germany Reconsiders the Growth Imperative

A three part series in Der Spiegel examines the growing disconnect between national growth and national well-being.

"Our affluence has quadrupled in the last 40 years. But at what price?" asks Kurt Biedenkopf, a member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the former governor of the eastern state of Saxony. The growth rate is "no longer a clear indicator of rising affluence," Biedenkopf told SPIEGEL in a recent interview.

Even German President Horst Köhler is suspicious of politicians' assurances that growth is indisputably beneficial to society. "We have convinced ourselves that permanent economic growth is the answer to everything," Köhler said in March, in the midst of the financial crisis. It was an astonishing statement, coming as it did from a professional economist and former head of the International Monetary Fund. And yet Köhler did not reveal what the correct answer could be. Stagnation, perhaps? Or even contraction?

Apparent certainties are now beginning to falter, as a broad front of critics of the system develops. They question whether it is really necessary for consumers who already have everything they need, to consume -- and throw away -- more and more each year. And they are also searching for new methods of measuring well-being, applying criteria like healthcare and level of education. French President Nicolas Sarkozy attracted attention last week when he proposed such an alternative way of measuring wealth.


We have reached the point at which the Earth's regeneration capacity is being stretched too thin. Theoretically, humanity today already needs 1.3 planets to maintain its lifestyle. If everyone were as wasteful as the Americas, five planets would be needed. To make matters worse, by 2050 the world's population will have increased by 2 billion -- people who will also need food, clothing and shelter. How is this even feasible?
In the end, though, they back down to what I consider a slender hope:
The principle is clear: Resource consumption must be decoupled from growth. The respected US economist Paul Romer employs a kitchen metaphor to illustrate the concept. "Economic growth springs from better recipes," he says, "not just from more cooking."

This is effectively what representatives of the world's governments will be discussing when they meet in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December. But the world is still a long way from this goal.
The problem is that when you think about it, it turns out that In order to support business as usual without increasing net impact or abandoning any claim to international equity, impact per unit wealth has to decrease by more than a factor of fifty.

That's a tall order.

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