Speth begins with a story from his childhood, which was spent near the Edisto River in South Carolina.
Childhood memories like this tumble out of deep storage as I get older. Thoughts of swimming in the Edisto have occurred to me particularly as I have thought about our environmental future. For many years I could not buck the river's current, but as I grew older and stronger, I was able to make good headway against it. In my environmental work for close to four decades, I've always assumed America's environmental community would do the same--get stronger and prevail against the current pushing in the opposite direction. But in the last few years I have been forced to think hard about whether this assumption is correct. I have concluded it is not. The environmental community has grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to deteriorate. The current is too swift, and we must find things to do other than always swimming against it.
The need for a new approach to the environment would not be so urgent if environmental conditions were not so urgent. America is a comfortable place for many of us, myself included. But our comforts deceive us. The mounting threats point to an emerging environmental tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
This piece was written last Spring, so there are some details that have changed a bit:
We live in a world where economic growth is generally seen as both beneficent and necessary--the more, the better; where past growth has brought us to a perilous state environmentally; where we are poised for unprecedented increments in growth; where this growth is proceeding with wildly wrong market signals, including prices that neither incorporate environmental costs nor reflect the needs of future generations; where a failed politics has not meaningfully corrected the market's obliviousness to environmental needs; where economies are routinely deploying technology that was created in an environmentally unaware era; and where there is no hidden hand or inherent mechanism adequate to correct the destructive tendencies. So, right now, one can only conclude that growth is the enemy of environment. Economy and environment remain in collision.
He presents some graphs that purport to measure rising GDP vs. flat-lined 'happiness' indices in three countries:
But is growth in highly affluent societies like ours actually improving our lives? Psychologists have recently turned to measuring life satisfaction, human happiness and, generally, subjective well-being. There is now even a Journal of Happiness Studies. These psychologists have developed measurable concepts of human happiness that are more robust and satisfying than either Benthamite pleasure-seeking or pursuing Stoic civic virtue. For example, they have found very high correlations between self-reported measures of happiness and life satisfaction and an index of psychological well-being that takes into account purpose in life, autonomy, positive relationships, personal growth and self-acceptance. Thus, when the social scientists measure happiness and life satisfaction, they are measuring important things, not superficial ones.
What do these studies tell us? First, there are the studies that compare levels of happiness and life satisfaction among nations, from very poor to very rich. They find that national levels of life satisfaction do increase with rising incomes, although the correlation drops substantially when factors such as quality of governments are statistically controlled.
However, this positive relationship between national well-being and national per capita income disappears when one looks only at countries with GDP per capita over $10,000 per year. In short, once a country achieves a moderate level of income, further growth does not significantly improve perceived well-being.
Next are a page or more of review of different interpretations of the data and concludes:
Study after study shows that there is a sharply declining marginal utility to extra income. As Diener and Seligman put it: "Economic growth seems to have topped out in its capacity to produce more well-being in developed nations. ... Efforts and policies to raise income in wealthy nations are unlikely to increase well-being and might even undermine factors (such as rewarding social relationships or other cherished values) that have higher leverage for producing enhanced well-being. ... Income, a good surrogate historically when basic needs were unmet, is now a weak surrogate for well-being in wealthy nations."
The next set of points concerns criticisms of the GDP 'mentality', summed to some degree by the following statements - with which most of us here should agree:
GDP includes everything that can be sold or has monetary value, even if it adds nothing to human well-being or welfare. Imagine a society that spends 20 percent of its GDP on prisons and police, on cleaning up pollution and on the consequences of traffic accidents. Now imagine another society that has no need for these defensive expenditures, for example, because its citizens don't pollute or drive recklessly and are law-abiding. This second society, instead, allocates that 20 percent of GDP to better schools, on improving life expectancy and on alleviating the problems of the poor. GDP is the same in both countries, but welfare is much higher in the latter case.
Second, GDP does not count the costs and benefits that occur outside the market. For example, a country can consume its natural capital, but that shows up in national income accounts not as capital depreciation but as income. Robert Repetto, professor in the practice of economics and sustainable development at F&ES [a Yale University department], has written, "A country could exhaust its mineral resources, cut down its forests, erode its soils, pollute its aquifers and hunt its wildlife and fisheries to extinction, but measured income would not be affected as these assets disappeared. ...
And third, GDP fails to take into account the distribution of the income measured, despite the fact that for most societies, welfare could be improved by shifting disposable incomes from the very rich to the very poor, where the marginal utility of income is almost certainly higher.
Speth points to several alternative indices of general welfare, including:
Turning to social conditions, trend information in the United States was collected into a composite index by Marc and Marque-Luisa Miringoff for the 1970-2005 period. Their index combined 16 measures of social well-being, including data on infant mortality, high school dropouts, poverty, child abuse, teenage suicide, crime, average weekly wages, drug use, alcoholism, unemployment and so on. The Miringoffs' Index of Social Health shows somewhat deteriorating social conditions despite huge growth in GDP per capita.
Here's a trenchant remark:
Productivity, wages, profits, the stock market, employment and consumption must all go up. Growth is good. So good that it is worth all the costs. What Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus call our "ruthless economy" can undermine families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health, because in the end, it is said, we'll somehow be better off. And we measure growth by calculating GDP at the national level and sales and profits at the company level. And we get what we measure.
This about sums up the struggle in general terms:
There's a whole world of new and stronger policies that are needed--measures that strengthen our families and our communities, address the breakdown of social connectedness and favor rootedness over mobility; measures that guarantee good, well-paying jobs and increase employee satisfaction, minimize layoffs and job insecurity and provide for adequate retirement incomes; measures that introduce more family-friendly policies at work, including flextime and easy access to quality child care; measures that provide us with more time for leisure, informal education, the arts, music, drama, sports, hobbies, volunteering, community work, outdoor recreation, exposure to nature and play; measures that provide for universal health care and alleviate the devastating effects of mental illness; measures that provide everyone with a good education, education for life as well as for productivity; measures that provide care and companionship for the chronically ill and incapacitated; measures that address prejudice, exclusion and ostracism; measures that recognize our duties to the half of humanity that lives in poverty, duties now reflected in the Millennium Development Goals; measures that regulate advertising, prohibit advertising to children and provide free airtime for people to talk back; and measures that sharply improve income distribution and tax luxury consumption and environmental damage and put the proceeds into our starved public sector and into strengthened income support and social programs for those at the bottom.
These are among the things America should be striving to increase. These are directions that need to be emphasized in public investments and elsewhere. Yet, if you raise these issues in the councils of our major environmental organizations, the answer could likely be, "These are not environmental issues." But they are. They are a big part of the alternative to the destructive path we are on and, as such, they should be seen as environmental measures as well as social ones. My hope is that all Americans who care about the environment will come to embrace these measures--these hallmarks of a caring community and a good society--as necessary to moving us beyond money to sustainability and community. Sustaining people, sustaining nature--they are just one cause, inseparable.
He doesn't offer too much that can be construed as actual program or policy; but, if you want to savor a well-written piece that talks to alliance and cross-issue mobilization, this is worth the time to read. A 'feel good' article, for sure, but why not start the New Year (New Era?) with a good feeling?