Five kinds of negative growth

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.


  1. The post growth debate may not be just about the environment. But surely, we’d better place the horse before the cart. If we don’t stop ruining the environment we’ll have no good cause to care for the other factors. We have to stop biting the hand that feedeth, else we’ll work for the others to no avail. This is why the environment stakes are so high. Our individual pleas and problems are not heard because we cannot sufficiently unite on them all. Like most economists and corporations have single vision for growth and profit at any cost. We need a single vision to counter this – the planet is it. From this the rest could follow, but not the other way round. Will David Attenborough’s life and last plea go unheeded? We are all in it, he said. (For those who are religious – To love your maker is to love the creation, that’s why we are to care for it and why the second commandment comes next, not first). We must do things in the right order. Let’s get the fundamentals right. We must be together on this. Alas, who will orchestrate it?

    1. nomsa – I don’t know if Jeremy will attempt to answer your question. I will, but, sorry, it is not what you’d want to hear. Many have throughout history wanted to stop these things but we do not actually stop them whatever we try. Jeremy says we need to ask more questions and, yet, although there are many asking these types of questions we do not progress. We move a bit one way and then back again. No-one has an answer. We can merely try to unite with others who try to get improvements and do what little we can.

  2. Jobless and ruthless growth are technical categories here, as described in the post. Ruthless growth happens when investment is targeted towards assets rather than production. For example, in Britain we have directed lots of assistance towards house ownership in the last five years to aid economic recovery. That helps property owners most of all, rather than the poor, because it boosts the price of housing – a classic case of ruthless growth.

    Jobless growth happens when the economy becomes skewed towards things that generate lots of money, but don’t require many jobs. Financial services make a huge contribution to Britain’s GDP, but don’t employ that many people.

    So to avoid ruthless and jobless growth, we need to make sure that we invest in things that create jobs (such as manufacturing) or that build opportunity for the future (such as education).

    Have a look at the UNHDR report for 1996 that is linked in the post if you’d like more detail.

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