We often think of the concept of ‘post growth’ and the questioning of GDP as a measure of success as something that recently emerged with the Global Financial Crisis.
Yet post growth thinking has a long intellectual history, dating back to well before the 20th century – in the 19th century, John Stuart Mill wrote ‘Of the Stationary State’; Thomas Malthus was writing on the relationship between exponential population growth and food supply in the 17th and 18th century; and post growth thinking was even around as far back as Aristotle’s time:
…a community which was guided by Aristotelian norms would not only have to view acquisitiveness as a vice but would have to set strict limits to growth…
One of the more recent challengers to the GDP (growth) consensus was Robert F Kennedy.
On 18 March 1968, RFK directly challenged growth and the use of GDP as a barometer of success for nations in his University of Kansas speech:
“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, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product 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. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, 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. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
On 18 March 2012, we remember RFK’s words – share them with your friends. Start conversations about what we want our society and communities to be like, and what we can do to change our focus to put the wellbeing of people and planet first.
RFK’s speech was forty-four years ago today. We can’t afford to let another forty-four years go by before we face this issue, and act.
What’s the Economy For, Anyway? – John de Graaf and David K. Batker
Growth Fetish – Clive Hamilton