Menu Close
Here’s a goal: no new coal mines. Coal mine image from

Sustained economic growth: United Nations mistakes the poison for the cure

On September 25 world leaders will meet in New York to formalise the new Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals will guide efforts to reduce poverty and increase well-being, without destroying the Earth. The Conversation is looking at how we got here, and how far we have to go.

On the surface, the Sustainable Development Goals, soon to be confirmed by the United Nations, seem noble and progressive. They seek to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and hunger while creating sustainable and resilient societies.

But look beneath the surface of this pleasant rhetoric and one comes face to face with a far more ominous vision of development: a vision that is fundamentally compromised by corporate interests and ultimately doomed to failure, if not catastrophe.

The defining flaw in the United Nations’ agenda is the naïve assumption that “sustained economic growth” is the most direct path to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

This faith in the god of growth is fundamentally misplaced. It has been shown, for example, that for every $100 in global growth merely $0.60 is directed toward resolving global poverty. Not only is this an incredibly inefficient pathway to poverty alleviation, it is environmentally unsupportable.

By championing economic growth, the Sustainable Development Goals are a barely disguised defence of the market fundamentalism that underpins business-as-usual. But in an age of planetary limits, sustained economic growth is not the solution to our social and environmental ills, but their cause.

We need an alternative vision and an alternative set of goals. So here are five ideas for genuinely sustainable development.

Prohibit corporate campaign funding of political parties and recreate a free press

At first this point may seem tangential to notions of “sustainable development”, but it is fundamental. We need to acknowledge the fact that corporate interests have acquired a grossly undemocratic influence on governments around the world, privileging profits over people and planet. The negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership are perhaps the most flagrant example of this, but the Sustainable Development Goals, by entrenching growth economics, are potentially just as concerning.

Furthermore, as mass media has become concentrated into fewer hands in recent decades, notions of a “free press” – necessary to any functioning democracy – have become increasingly compromised. This concentration of power gives a few big players (such as Rupert Murdoch, Facebook and Google) an alarming capacity to insidiously shape the public consciousness according to their narrow ideologies.

In order to move toward a world that genuinely promotes the diverse interests of people and planet, first we need to reclaim democracy. This can be achieved, in part, by prohibiting corporate funding of elections and ensuring that concentrations of media are significantly limited.

We need people, not profits, shaping collective action – otherwise any hope for sustainable development is lost.

Adopt new, alternative global indicators to progress “beyond GDP”

It is now widely recognised that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a very poor measure or proxy for societal progress. It is merely a monetary valuation of the all the goods and services produced by a nation over a specific period of time.

GDP makes no distinction between market transactions that contribute positively to sustainable well-being (such as buying bicycles, solar panels or fresh food) and those that diminish it (gas-guzzlers, guns, cigarettes). Furthermore, GDP tells us nothing about civil liberties or the distribution of wealth in a society. It tells us nothing about whether communities are rich or poor in culture, trust or leisure. And it tells us nothing about whether an economy is undermining critical ecosystems.

Nevertheless, growth in GDP remains the overriding objective of governments around the world. This means that policies are inevitably given a pro-growth bias. On an already over-burdened planet, however, any coherent sustainable development agenda must be framed by an economics “beyond growth”.

We can begin this transition by adopting alternative indicators to progress such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. These are not exact measures of well-being but are a vast improvement on GDP. Significantly, they could open up space for governments to enact policies that genuinely contribute to sustainable well-being, even if doing so would produce a “degrowth” economy of planned contraction of energy and resource demands.

We can live more with less.

Reduce military spending and redirect funds to other forms of national security

If a government is willing to explore a form of development that does not depend on economic growth, it will need to be assured that doing so does not jeopardise its geopolitical security. After all, it is hard to imagine any nation giving up its balance of economic or military power for environmental and social justice reasons if that would imply an increased threat of invasion or dominance by another nation.

Therefore, any sustainable development transition beyond growth will require a planned and equitable contraction of military spending, facilitated by an intergovernmental agreement to that end.

Fortunately, military spending – currently at US$1.7 trillion per year globally – is a zero-sum game. That is, if all nations increase their spending on weapons then no nation is relatively better off.

But similarly, if all nations decreased their spending on weapons then no nation should be relatively worse off either. Radical though it may sound, sustainable development implies spending less on killing each other and more on supporting each other and the Earth we hold in common.

Furthermore, a strong case can be made that threats of military invasion are by no means the most pressing threats to “national security” in the world today. It would be more sensible to invest in protecting against other security threats, including climate change.

Let humanity be wise enough to reduce military spending by 3% per year and re-invest those funds in renewable energy, poverty alleviation and family planning initiatives to stabilise global population.

Declare a moratorium on new coalmines, establish a strong carbon tax and abolish fossil fuel subsidies

Carbon budget analyses seek to determine scientifically how much carbon humanity can release into the atmosphere if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. In its recent reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised that carbon budgets are the most rigorous way to frame the climate problem.

If we are to act on this scientific basis, however, things need to change drastically. A recent carbon budget analysis concludes that 88% of coal must stay in the ground to avoid dangerous climate change.

Other analyses are more challenging still. In that light, any coherent sustainable development agenda must at least enforce a moratorium on new coalmines and ultimately transcend the carbon-fuelled growth economy.

A coal moratorium should be supported by a strong carbon tax that seeks to internalise the huge externalities that flow from the burning of fossil fuels. A recent report by the IMF concludes that currently the fossil fuel industry is being subsidised by $10 million per minute. That’s not a typo; that’s a scandal.

By abolishing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and creating a carbon tax, renewable energy will become more price competitive, thereby sparking the energy revolution we so desperately need. (Note, rich nations also need to consume much less energy not just “green” supply – but that’s another story.)

Embrace the radical implications of living in an age of limits

If democracy is fixed, we, the people, will be able to shape the future. If we adopt alternative indicators to progress, we’ll see that there is more to life than growth. If we contract our military spending we’ll feel secure exploring a post-growth economy, and if we transition beyond fossil fuels we’ll have a post-growth economy.

These are the foundations of a genuine sustainable development, but obviously, even after achieving these bold goals, the task of building the new world would have only just begun.

Let us abolish third world debt – it is shameful to hold the poorest nations down while the rich world extracts their resources for our own overconsumption. Abolishing such debts can go some way to paying off the ecological debt we owe them.

Let us recognise that a post-carbon world is a highly localised world, where we must embrace a bioregional economy that meets mostly local needs using mostly local resources.

Let us re-imagine the good life beyond consumerism. It would be environmentally catastrophic to universalise affluence via sustained economic growth. We need a new vision of human flourishing based on sufficiency.

Let us recognise that these necessary steps toward sustainable development imply a post-capitalist politics and economics, which will require (among other things) new banking and finance systems, new property systems to ensure access to affordable land and housing, a whole host of other structural and cultural transformations, and perhaps most importantly, a redistribution of wealth and power.

Although our governments have much to be ashamed of, we should also recognise that the failures of democracy have been nourished in the developed world by apathetic citizenries, overly focused on their own material advancement. In this sense it could be said that we are the crisis of capitalism. Only by mobilising ourselves for collective action and building the new world from within the shell of the old can there be any hope for a better world.

As Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying: “We cannot solve our problems with the same kinds of thinking that caused them.” Unfortunately, by championing sustained economic growth as the path to sustainable development, the United Nations is committing precisely this error, mistaking the poison for the cure.

To put it proverbially, if we do not change direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 184,300 academics and researchers from 4,971 institutions.

Register now