Despite all these observations, the pursuit of national economic growth—measured by growth in GNP—has been the common goal of national policy throughout the world, over many decades. The conventional development paradigm continues to argue that the creation of monetary wealth is the key to development. According to that viewpoint, it is this wealth which will provide us all with a higher standard of living. It is this wealth which will allow us to invest in new, more efficient technologies. It is this wealth—man-made capital—which can substitute wherever necessary for the losses of natural capital which are increasingly visible around us.
The same economic wisdom contends that the paradigm of global economic growth is the only way for poorer countries to develop. Arguing that 'rising tides...raise all boats',19 economists see growth in the rich North as the best and probably the only way to alleviate Southern poverty. The 'trickle-down theory' of economic progress thus provides intellectual support for the translation of the consumer society into a global vision.
In reality, the conventional pursuit of economic wealth has failed to prevent increases in both relative and absolute poverty. The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that the income disparity between the richest and the poorest 20 per cent of the world's population doubled between 1960 and 1990, while absolute per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa (for example) fell by almost 20 per cent during the 1980s.20
In fact, conventional economic development has failed to provide equitably for human needs even within the industrial nations. Problems of poverty in industrialised countries worsened during the 1970s and 1980s, according to the World Resources Institute, with the mean income of the lowest 20 per cent of the population in the United States falling by over 3 per cent between 1970 and 1990.21 Figure 30 has shown the rapid changes in relative poverty experienced during the economic boom of the 1980s in Britain.
So what is the truth of the matter? Has economic growth made us worse off, or has it made us better off? Should we pursue it, or should we avoid it? How are we to make sense of the contradictory evidence we are faced with? On the one hand, economic development seems to have lifted us out of Boltzmann's desperate 'struggle for existence'. On the other hand, it has delivered untenable environmental impact, unsustainable resource depletion, and rising levels of systemic unemployment.22
There is no simple resolution to this dilemma. The complexity of the situation, and the extent to which we are embedded in it historically and socially, suggest that we will find no miracle cure, no simple palliative, no one-word answers to the problem. In a sense we have come full circle. This is almost exactly the dilemma which I outlined in Chapter 1 of this book; So maybe we should not be surprised that we have returned to it. What is perhaps remarkable is that the most advanced, most extensive and most accepted pattern of social organisation in human history should so self-evidently have failed to solve this dilemma for us. The industrial economy, as we have come to know it, is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution.
This is not to say that the industrial economy itself is necessarily bankrupt. Even if the social and economic system we have come to accept as the norm proves to be unsustainable and inappropriate in the longer term, the reality is that for the time being at least we have to operate within it. In those circumstances, any strategies at all which can move us in the direction of a solution are at a premium.
Much of this book has been devoted to presenting options for reducing the material intensity of human activities. Many of those options are broadly technological and economic in nature. Is it possible that we could use the existing system to pursue these strategies? The answer is surely yes. Some institutional changes might be needed.
Profitability in such a revision would have to be based on something other than the volume sale of material goods. But the vision of a new service economy offers an exciting avenue for commercial development. Almost certainly, this process would buy us the time in which to devise a more appropriate framework for human development than the one which has presided over the economic, social and environmental crises we face today.
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