This week I’ve been reading Andrew Simms’ forthcoming book Cancel the Apocalypse. It’s full of great observations about economic growth and the quirks of an economy that has worked for too long with a faulty definition of progress. One thing struck me over the weekend that I thought I’d look up – the UN Human Development Report for 1996.
The UNDP’s annual reports look at progress around the world, through an index that tracks advances in literacy, life expectancy and income. They pointed out that progress in these things may or may not track economic growth in the 2010 report, but the 1996 edition took a much more detailed look at economic growth. “Policy-makers are often mesmerized by the quantity of growth” it warns. “They need to be more concerned with its structure and quality.”
The report goes on to outline five different ways that economic growth can go wrong:
- Jobless – growth that does not create new employment opportunities with it.
- Ruthless – growth that only benefits the rich, and leaves the poor in their poverty.
- Voiceless – growth without improvement in democracy or social inclusion.
- Rootless – growth at the expense of cultural identity, or the loss of minority identity.
- Futureless – growth that undermines future generations by depleting resources or destroying biodiversity.
That’s quite a broad list, and a useful reminder that the post growth debate is not just about the environment. The key, according to the UNDP, is to be aware of these problems and make sure that economic growth and human progress are mutually reinforcing. But as a first step, we need to recognise that growth can be bad as well as good, and that we need to ask more questions about our quarterly GDP figures.