The election in New Zealand is a week away. Who are you going to vote for? It is hard for many people to choose because the choices are so underwhelming. There is not enough real substance in any of the rhetoric and there is negligible vision for positive, systemic change. Instead there is too much muddling, niggling and finger-pointing which just creates a sense of confusion, frustration and powerlessness in the average person. A vacillating political system, with its 3 year cycles, isn’t conducive to establishing long-term effective vision and solutions. The only way to achieve this is to get everyone on the same page.
Econation promotes well-being and sustainability – not one or the other, but both together. They are not mutually exclusive, indeed they are intrinsically bound together. Yet our political system, with its parties and their policies, vacillates between the two.
The crises of well-being and sustainability that we are staring down the barrel of are mostly related to resources. Whether it’s land prices in the big cities, water access and quality, factory farming and soil quality, deforestation and other land use changes, sources of energy, or fishing, we are beset with the issues of competition for the (over-)consumption of limited resources. Climate change is the greatest issue of our age, and it is the outcome of the use of resources. Whilst climate change will cause many negative effects, it is also the effect of underlying causes, the main one being continual growth in consumption, otherwise known as economic growth.
All of the political parties talk about economic growth as if it is necessary and good. The New Zealand economy has more than doubled in size (GDP per capita) in the past 50 years and real disposable incomes have more than doubled as well, and yet measures of life satisfaction have remained relatively static. If it’s not making people better off in terms of life satisfaction, what do we need all the extra income and consumption for? It is time that people really saw economic growth for what it is, a rort. It is a rort by people, who already have enough money, to profit at other people’s expense in an economic system that is devised to do just that. Economic growth can be good up to a certain point, and in New Zealand we reached that point 5o years ago. Continuing growth from that point has been neither necessary or good.
Economic growth is inherently unsustainable, as the economist Kenneth E. Boulding said “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”
In terms of well-being, modern societies and their economies have always pitted people against each other, even in a democratic, neoliberal society like New Zealand. Yes, we clash about who represents us in government but we also compete for jobs and we are (often unwitting) rivals for wealth and status. Also, too many people do work that they have little control over, they are cogs in an insatiable machine. Perhaps the worst aspect of all is that the gap between the richest and the poorest is widening, which is the inherent outcome of our economic system if left unregulated. Our relatively egalitarian (and regulated) past is just a dim memory. Well-being is undermined by economic growth in a number of ways. The economist EF Schumacher came to the sensible conclusion that for any economy, “…the aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption.”
This begs the question: how do we get the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption? Most parties’ policies advocate greater efficiency as a way to get more with less. However, unsustainability can’t be solved if people simply become more efficient.
It is an unfortunate fact that, whilst resource efficiency is very important, being less bad is still bad. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that efficiency actually increases the total amount of consumption, because it makes production easier and cheaper. Sufficiency must come before efficiency.
If you are hurtling towards a precipice just slowing down isn’t going to help in the long run – you need to change direction completely. The fact is we need to redefine progress, away from quantitative growth, and towards improvements in quality throughout society. We don’t need a bigger economy, we need a better one. For sustainable well-being there must be fundamental, systemic changes that would include:
- Changing from a carbon economy to a solar economy;
- Changing from finite, extracted resources to unlimited, renewable resources;
- Changing from perverse over-consumption to sustainable consumption (sufficiency);
- Changing from energy-intensive centralised production to resilient local production;
- Changing from subsidising polluters to taxing them;
- Changing from taxing resource efficiency to subsidising it;
- Changing from large-scale intensive monoculture farming to smaller-scale organic farming;
- Changing from degradation of natural capital to restoration of natural capital.
Whoever you vote for, make sure they know that sustainable well-being for all comes first, and that the economy exists to ensure this. Make sure they are committed to working with all other parties to unite everyone in the cause of sustainable well-being. Send a link to this post to your candidates or just tell them it’s not good enough to govern apart, they must govern the whole.