'Basket cases' could be the way for the world to go

Costa Rica manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Costa Rica manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Heads of state recently gathered in New York to sign the United Nations’ new sustainable development goals. The main objective is to eradicate poverty by 2030.

One might think the goals are about to offer a fresh plan for how to save the world, but beneath all the hype, it’s business as usual. The main strategy for eradicating poverty is the same: growth.

Growth has been the main object of development for the past 70 years, despite the fact that it’s not working. Since 1980, the global economy has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty on less than $5 a day has increased by more than 1.1-billion.

Orthodox economists insist that all we need is yet more growth. More progressive types tell us that we need to shift some of the yields of growth from the richer segments of the population to the poorer ones, evening things out a bit. Neither approach is adequate. Why? Because, even at current levels of average global consumption, we’re overshooting our planet’s bio-capacity by more than 50% each year.

In other words, growth isn’t an option anymore – we have already grown too much. Scientists are now telling us that we’re blowing past planetary boundaries at breakneck speed. And the hard truth is that this global crisis is due almost entirely to overconsumption in rich countries.

Economist Peter Edward argues that instead of pushing poorer countries to “catch up” with rich ones, we should be thinking of ways to get rich countries to “catch down” to more appropriate levels of development. We should look at societies where people live long and happy lives at relatively low levels of income and consumption not as basket cases that need to be developed towards Western models, but as exemplars of efficient living.

How much do we really need to live long and happy lives? In the United States, life expectancy is 79 years and gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $53 000. But many countries have achieved similar life expectancy with a mere fraction of this income.

Cuba has a comparable life expectancy to the US and one of the highest literacy rates in the world, with GDP per capita of only $6 000 and consumption of only 1.9 hectares – right at the threshold of ecological sustainability. Similar claims can be made of Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Tunisia.

Yes, some of the excess income and consumption we see in the rich world yields improvements in quality of life that are not captured by life expectancy, or even literacy rates. But even if we look at measures of overall happiness and well-being in addition to life expectancy, a number of low-and middle-income countries rank highly.

Costa Rica manages to sustain one of the highest happiness indicators and life expectancies in the world with a per capita income one-fourth that of the US.

In light of this, perhaps we should regard such countries not as underdeveloped, but rather as appropriately developed. And maybe we need to start calling on rich countries to justify their excesses.

According to recent consumer research, 70% of people in middle- and high-income countries believe overconsumption is putting our planet and society at risk. A similar majority also believe we should strive to buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness.

The problem is that the pundits promoting this kind of transition are using the wrong language. They use terms such as de-growth, zero growth or, worst of all, de-development, which are technically accurate but off-putting for anyone who’s not already on board. Negative formulations won’t get us anywhere.

The idea of “steady-state” economics is a step in the right direction and is growing in popularity, but it still doesn’t get the framing right. We need to reorient ourselves towards a positive future, a truer form of progress – one that is geared toward quality instead of quantity.

What is certain is that GDP as a measure is not going to get us there and we need to get rid of it.

  Jason Hickel is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. A version of this article was first published on thoughtleader.co.za

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