Shifting from quantitative to qualitative economic growth

 Photo by  Tyler Wanlass  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tyler Wanlass on Unsplash

Written by Daniel Christian Wahl via Medium

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, […] if we judge the United States of America by that — counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
Senator Robert Kennedy, 1968

We have known for a long time that judging an economy’s progress and success in quantitative (financial) terms leads to dangerous distortions and misplaced priorities. In 1972, Limits to Growth warned of the potentially devastating environmental effects of unbridled growth and resource depletion on a finite planet. While some of the predictions made were delayed by the extraordinary resilience of the planetary system, recent research suggests that we are now very close to witnessing the collapse scenario of ‘business as usual’ that the authors warned of. In their 30 years up-date to Limits to Growth the authors emphasized:

Sustainability does not mean zero growth. Rather, a sustainable society would be interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. […] it would begin to discriminate among kinds of growth and purposes for growth. It would ask what the growth is for, and who would benefit, and what it would cost, and how long it would last, and whether the growth could be accommodated by the sources and sinks of the earth.
Meadows, Randers & Meadows (2005: 22) 224

The calls for ‘de-growth’ (Assadourian, 2012), post-growth economics (Post Growth Institute, 2015), prosperity without growth (Jackson, 2011), and a ‘steady state economy’ (Daly, 2009) have become louder and have found a much wider audience in recent years. All these more or less anti-growth perspectives make important contributions to our rethinking of economics with people and planet in mind, but they might be over-swinging the pendulum.

As a biologist who is aware of how growth in living systems tends to have qualitative and quantitative aspects, I feel uncomfortable with demonizing ‘growth’ altogether. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how as living systems mature they shift from an early (juvenile) stage that favours quantitative growth to a later (mature) stage of growing (transforming) qualitatively rather than quantitatively.

It seems that our key challenge is how to shift from an economic system based on the notion of unlimited growth to one that is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. ‘No growth’ is not the answer. Growth is a central characteristic of all life; a society, or economy, that does not grow will die sooner or later. Growth in nature, however, is not linear and unlimited. While certain parts of organisms, or ecosystems, grow, others decline, releasing and recycling their components which become resources for new growth.
Fritjof Capra and Hazel Henderson (2013: 4)

Capra and Henderson argue that “we cannot understand the nature of complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems, societies, and economies if we describe them in purely quantitative terms”. Since “qualities arise from processes and patterns of relationships” they need to be mapped rather than measured (p.7). There are close parallels between the difference in how economists and ecologists understand the concepts of growth and development. While economists tend to take a purely quantitative approach, ecologists and biologists know how to differentiate between the qualitative and quantitative aspects of both growth and development.

It appears that the linear view of economic development, as used by most mainstream and corporate economists and politicians, corresponds to the narrow quantitative concept of economic growth, while the biological and ecological sense of development corresponds to the notion of qualitative growth. In fact, the biological concept of development includes both quantitative and qualitative growth.

Life’s growth patterns follow the logistic curve rather than the exponential curve. One example of aberrant quantitative growth in living systems is that of cancer cells which ultimately kill their host. Unlimited quantitative growth is fatal for living systems and economies. Qualitative growth in living organisms, ecosystems and economies, “by contrast, can be sustainable if it involves a dynamic balance between growth, decline, and recycling, and if it also includes development in terms of learning and maturing” (p.9). Capra and Henderson argue:

Instead of assessing the state of the economy in terms of the crude quantitative measure of GDP, we need to distinguish between ‘good’ growth and ‘bad’ growth and then increase the former at the expense of the latter, so that the natural and human resources tied up in wasteful and unsound production processes can be freed and recycled as resources for efficient and sustainable processes.

The distinction between good growth and bad growth can be informed by a deeper socio- ecological understanding of their impact. While bad growth externalizes the social and ecological costs of the degradation of the Earth’s eco-social systems, good growth “is growth of more efficient production processes and services which fully internalise costs that involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, and restoration of the Earth’s ecosystems” (p.10). Capra and Henderson conclude: “the shift from quantitative to qualitative growth […] can steer countries from environmental destruction to ecological sustainability and from unemployment, poverty, and waste to the creation of meaningful and dignified work” (p.13).

Nurturing qualitative growth through the integration of diversity into interconnected collaborative networks at and across local, regional and global scales facilitates the emergence of regenerative cultures.

Originally published by Daniel Christian Wahl via Medium on October 25, 2017