By Oliver Matikainen
We are joyfully immersing in another spring. Delicate buds are appearing on the trees, colourful flowers are lazily stretching towards the clear sky, and seedlings of tasty zucchinis, scallions and silver beads are carefully being nurtured. Images of picnics with loved ones, hikes in the sun with good friends and summer holidays in Southern Europe or in your grandparents’ backyard come to mind. Thoreau was surely right when he wrote that “spring is like the creation of Cosmos out of Chaos and the realization of the Golden Age”.
It is therefore no surprise that the ORGANIC IS GOOD-metaphor has gained popularity among proponents of increased trade and economic growth, who use it as a vehicle to diffuse their visions across the globe. The metaphor is often constructed around pictures of plants being nurtured by benevolent human hands, around talk of growth, and around promises of development. It culminates in an implicit comparison between the integration of national economies into global markets and the way seedlings integrate into the ecosystem. This gives us the impression that the process of integrating national economies into global markets will make them grow – just like the zucchinis, scallions and silver beads – and that this process is both natural and desirable.
In their 2016 Annual Report, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) stresses how “the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put emphasis on the role trade can play in specific SDG goals on boosting growth, tackling poverty and promoting sustainable development”. And they are right. A quick glance at the United Nations’ 17 SDGs shows us that sustainable development, to a large extent, is defined in economic terms by fixed poverty lines, rapid economic growth and free market access.
The logic seems to be that increased trade leads to economic growth, which in turn reduces poverty rates, and that this very process is what constitutes “sustainable development”. Accordingly, the journey to sustainable development goes through full integration into global markets. To embark on this journey, however, it is necessary to first clear the path. This is most effectively done by cutting down obstructive trade barriers, restrictions and regulations. The WTO and other like-minded organisations are major tributaries to this type of mainstream sustainable development thinking which is continually being polluted with naïve economic rationalism and free market fundamentalism.
The deceptive guiding star
There are three main problems with letting growth obsessions and romantic market illusions pollute sustainable development thinking.
First, increased trade means increased production and consumption, and this has significant environmental consequences. It is often argued that a shift from a product-based economy to a service-based economy offers a way out of this ecological calamity. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is happening. The global paper industry is growing by more than 1% per year and is expected to increase by almost a fifth before 2030 (2030 is also the deadline we have set for achieving the SDGs). As George Monbiot, columnist for The Guardian, correctly asked: “If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?”. The belief that a ‘servicification’ of the economy will solve this problem seems fanciful at best, delusional at worst.
The second problem is that after a certain point, more money does not make you more happy. As Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at Surrey University, points out in his influential book, Prosperity Without Growth, the happiness of US citizens has not increased since the 1970’s (according to some it has actually decreased) despite the fact that real income has tripled since the 1950’s. Similarly, while real income has doubled in the UK since 1957, the proportion of people who consider themselves happy have fallen from 52% to just 36%. There is by now plenty of evidence to suggest that higher incomes do not lead to more happiness once fundamental needs are safely covered. The pursuit of happiness through limitless economic growth is the pursuit of a deceitful fata morgana.
Finally, Oxfam lucidly exposed the third problem in their 2018 report, Reward Work, Not Wealth. The report concluded that 82% of the wealth created in 2017 went to the richest 1% of the global population, while the poorest 50% saw no increase in their wealth at all. Findings like this force us to ask a simple, but often neglected, question: What problem is economic growth the solution to? Today, one thing is clear. It is not poverty. It is not inequality. It is not environmental degradation.
Nonetheless, the dubious claim that trade will “tackle poverty” by “boosting economic growth” is continuously repeated by economists, by politicians and by businessmen. Despite obvious evidence to the contrary, the question of whether growth is a reliable guiding star in the era of sustainable development seems to have been settled in favour of growth.
Colourful design and fanciful language
Development – even in the new, sustainable version – is too often understood along a one-dimensional axis where higher productivity, faster growth and more money are the main characteristics of a ‘developing’ society. The symptoms of this one-dimensionality are found in most of today’s mainstream sustainable development thinking, and several cases of clear naïve economic rationalism and pure free market fundamentalism have been diagnosed.
And it is nothing new. If we manage to look beyond the colourful design and the fanciful language, we find that the actors, the means and the ends are much the same as they were half a century ago. Herbert Marcuse’s critique of advanced industrial society from 1964 is just as relevant today as it was then, since it is still the case that
“(…) subjects as well as objects constitute instrumentalities in a whole that has its raison d’être in the accomplishments of its overpowering productivity. Its supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action”
The heart of traditional development thinking keeps beating. It circulates in our system an obsolete ideology which is growing like a tumour. If we do not start a radical treatment now, this growth will create Chaos out of Cosmos, and the Golden Age will slip out of reach.
By Oliver Matikainen