The UN’s Human Development Reports have always had a more nuanced view of progress than Gross Domestic Product. While they still measure economic growth, they recognise that human development is more usefully tracked by progress on health and education.
Their latest report has a section that caught my eye. In a discussion on decoupling environmental harm from economic growth, they conclude that “a reimagined human development journey cannot occur along the same path for low human development countries, and high human development countries cannot remain where they are.”
It isn’t possible for poorer countries to pursue the same development model as those who went before them. In the graph below, that would mean that in 50 years time all the blue dots would be in box B – except that the climate would be wrecked in the attempt. Climate change and environmental decline would erode the gains from development as fast as they could be acquired, and any hope of future prosperity would be destroyed along the way.
If developing countries can’t hope to occupy Box B, then it’s not acceptable for rich countries to squat there either. Rich countries can’t continue to consume too many resources while insisting that others live with less. So they have a journey to make, out of box B and towards a more sustainable footing.
In the UN report there is a box C in the bottom right hand corner. I’ve put my own box in there and called it Arrival, because this is what my book with Katherine Trebeck is all about. The Economics of Arrival argues that countries should aspire to a place of ample sufficiency, rather than endless increase.
There are two routes into that place of sufficiency. For poorer countries, it is to grow and develop without adopting high ecological footprints – to go sideways along the X axis of rising human development, without going too far up the Y axis of material footprint. This can be done by leapfrogging dirty industry and creating circular economies from the outset, for example. Or by building cities around world class public transport rather than cars, or providing universal energy access with renewable energy.
For developed countries, which is the focus of the book, the task is to reduce those ecological footprints towards an equitable share, while maintaining a high standard of wellbeing.
There are different names for these development pathways. Some would call them ‘green growth’ and ‘degrowth‘. Whatever your chosen terms, the goal is to arrive in that bottom corner, which is where humanity ultimately needs to make itself at home.