The establishment’s campaign against prosperity has taken another mean-spirited turn. Not satisfied with cajoling advanced economies to retreat from economic growth, it has begun focusing more attention on developing countries. Of course, this elite offensive is not pitched in such blunt terms. Instead, it is posed as an initiative that will go beyond narrow gauges of human wellbeing, such as GDP (gross domestic product). These green-tinged critics make the misleading claim that they favour more rounded human development and a better world.
The grand ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, was the scene for the latest salvo in this battle. Earlier this week, the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), part of what is known as the United Nations university ‘family’, organised a symposium called ‘Beyond GDP: transitioning into sustainability’. Details of the event are not publicly available, but according to the organisation’s website the message the symposium looked to project was that: ‘Traditional economic indicators are limited in their efforts to measure social progress, as well as fail to indicate both wellbeing as a whole and its sustainability.’ Media reports suggest that the speakers advocated alternative measures of wellbeing. According to the Independent, the experts in attendance emphasised the importance of other indicators, such as the sound of birds chirping in cities, the ownership of washing machines and the economic emancipation of women.
This approach is an attack on a straw man. Nobody seriously claims that GDP – a measure of the annual output of goods and services in a country – is all that matters. Even the founders of GDP and related measures emphasised back in the 1930s that GDP was not intended as a measure of wellbeing.
What the critics of GDP miss is that economic growth is central to human welfare. Rising output provides the basis for prosperity, including consumer goods and all the other paraphernalia of modern life, such as airports, art galleries, electricity grids, hospitals, museums, roads, power stations, schools and universities. Greater affluence is not the whole story, but it will remain a central part of human advance until global scarcity is abolished.
Indeed, the critics of GDP are motivated primarily by a hostility to popular prosperity rather than a desire to measure wellbeing accurately. Their approach is essentially a sneaky way of claiming that environmental and social problems mean that economic growth must be curtailed. The possibility that greater affluence would put humans in a stronger position to overcome the challenges they face does not seem to occur to them.