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What Bobby Kennedy Knew About Post Growth

by Sharon Ede on 17th March 2012

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image of Robert F Kennedy with his speech as watermark text behind

RFK image by Words from Pictures - click to see high resolution version.

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.

Watch:

The Economics of Happiness

Read:

What’s the Economy For, Anyway? – John de Graaf and David K. Batker

Growth Fetish – Clive Hamilton

This post was written by

avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 39 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon

{ 3 comments }

avatar Gunnar Rundgren March 18, 2012 at 12:43

True,
what is disturbing are the repeated efforts to rebrand growth as being sustainable or green. It started with the Bruntland commission in 1987 and now the whole UN system and many governments are talking about green growth. This is just the policy equivalent to greenwashing in my view.

I can recommend a very recent policy paper from UNCTAD by Ulrich Hoffmann, that challenges this. http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/osgdp2011d5_en.pdf
The UNCTAD Discussion Paper argues that growth, technological, population-expansion and governance constraints as well as some key systemic issues cast a very long shadow on the “green growth” hopes.

The focus on green growth is largely a re-packing of the 25 years old sustainable development, of which we heard a lot but seen very little. It may rather give excuses to do nothing really fundamental that can bring about a U-turn of global GHG emissions. The proponents of a resource efficiency revolution (called eco-efficiency, factor 4 or factor 10 or lately simply green growth) need to scrutinize the historical evidence, in particular the combined effects of economic and population growth.

Furthermore, they need to realize that the required transformation goes beyond innovation and structural changes to include democratization of the economy and cultural change.

avatar Sharon Ede March 18, 2012 at 18:10

Thank you for your comments Gunnar, and for the link to the report (for others’ information, UNCTAD relaunched their site 15 March and the link provided is not working, so try this:
http://www.unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/osgdp2011d5_en.pdf).

I wrote about the very issues you’ve raised here on my personal blog, which I initiated as a contribution to helping change agents bring about that cultural change:

http://www.cruxcatalyst.com/the-truth-of-sustainability

I share your concerns that ‘green growth’ is obscuring and delaying what we truly need to do by applying green tweaks to business as usual.

Although if there is a good thing about ‘green growth’ it’s that it means we are entering the ‘bargaining’ stage of the grief cycle, after denial – ie. we are one step closer to acceptance and then getting on with transforming.

avatar Nick Palmer March 21, 2012 at 11:24

Hi Sharon, you might be interested to see this blog I did, which was inspired by your post on the Bobby Kennedy video

http://nickpalmer.blogspot.com/2012/03/growthiness-growthiness-grossest-gift.html

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