29 nov 2023 Fonte: Dr Ritu Verma Adjunct Professor Carleton University, Associate Professor College of Language and Culture Studies – Royal University of Bhutan Temas: Economia solidária / alternativa / Microcrédito, Advocacia Social e Política

This article was originally published in the November 2023 Edition of the Portuguese NGDO Platform Magazine "Economy, people and planet: what alternatives for well-being". Read or download the full edition in portuguese of the Magazine here.

by Dr Ritu Verma - Adjunct Professor Carleton University, Associate Professor College of Language and Culture Studies – Royal University of Bhutan


Our planet is burning. In a situation of deep peril caused by ecological destruction, people are hurting with the most vulnerable suffering the most. This is the message of the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a recent speech. Indeed, as the planet reels from a climate emergency, mass ecological breakdown and the breaching of critical planetary boundaries, humanity finds itself at the crossroads.

We can squarely locate the roots of the pressing and urgent issues on a broken, malfunctioning global economic system predicated on endless GDP growth (gross domestic product). Within a very narrow definition of what counts as being “productive”, GDP problematically externalizes environmental, socio-cultural and labor costs such as women’s unpaid work. This has caused enormous environmental and ecological destruction, as well as social injustice.

If we imagine GDP as a calculator, it becomes evident it only has a gigantic “plus” button. This means it keeps adding market transactions. But the “minus” button is missing, so it cannot subtract carbon emissions, or environmental pollution, or loss of biodiversity and other species from the face of the planet, or loss of indigenous knowledge, or loss of community values, or the unrecognized and undervalued cost of women’s unpaid work. This means, for example, when there is a massive oil spill, GDP actually goes up. GDP has no way of counting the tragic environmental destruction, biodiversity loss, or loss of people’s communities and livelihoods over many years following a disaster.

However, this is just part of the story. If we really want to understand the deeper, root cause of the problem, we need to go further back in history to 1934 when GDP was invented by Simon Kuznets. This was just before World War II, and just before the eventual breakdown of formal structures of colonial power. Kuznets later went on to be a strong critic of his own invention. Despite his warning that it would not be used to measure the welfare of any nation, the world nonetheless continues to be rigged to the idea of endless, unsustainable growth.

As GDP is based growth at all costs, it has forgotten a fundamental problem: it does and cannot own up to historical costs. By focusing on numbers, it hides colonial histories of the past, based on the extraction and exploitation of resources from the Global South to the Global North – which today continue unabated under different neocolonial relations of power. This is not surprising, given GDP itself is a colonial (and patriarchal) construct. Most telling is that it was invented in the Global North, and does not take into account the values, concepts, or philosophies from the Global South (the majority world), nor the invaluable work of over half the world’s population: women in both locales.

Like a virus that has infiltrated every corner of the world, GDP-centric capitalism continues to capture resources and extract them to the Global North, or in the hand of a few ultra-wealthy elites – what Oxfam has called the “billionaire variant”. GDP has thus trapped the furthest corners of the world in the Global South into patterns of cash dependency, unsustainable development, debilitating debt, environmental destruction, and land and resource grabbing. This is tragic, because these very same locales have valuable indigenous knowledge about the sustainable use of the environment, and long-term modes of wellbeing – a subject I return to. In fact, when we compare “development aid” from the Global North to the Global South, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of resources and labor that is appropriated and extracted from the Global South to the Global North. As the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel points out, these are resources and labor that could have been otherwise used to improve productive capacities in the Global South.

Over and above this, we must ask ourselves why have we allowed the pundits of narrow and conventional notions of classical economics and development, based in the ivory towers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to dictate the way the world is divided? According to them, based on the level of GDP/capita, individual countries are categorized as HICs, MICs, or LDCs (high income countries, middle income countries, or least developed countries). This sets up a linear “catch-up” model of development, with the end prize being unsustainable levels of mass consumption, materialism and profit in the hands of a few.

Here, the notion of wellbeing becomes central. Research shows us that money (or income) does not lead to long-term happiness. This is something that indigenous communities in the Global South have known for centuries. According to Buddhist philosophy, we need to consider differentiating between our desires versus our needs, or put another way, between happiness versus wellbeing. Happiness is about short, fleeting kinds of moods. Our unsatiable wants is something GDP growth feeds on - like when we buy a new pair of branded sneakers, we are only happy briefly, and once the shoes get dirty, you forget about them and think about the next purchase that will make you “happy”. So the cycles of destructive mass consumption continues, and does not bring you to a sense of meaningful happiness. On the other hand, wellbeing focuses on something deeper. When we talk about wellbeing, we are referring to longer sense of abiding contentment.

Women and men in the Global South have been thinking about how the global economic system is not working for some time. Based on age-old wisdom, they have the knowledge, philosophies, indigenous cosmologies and alternative wellbeing measures and indices to drive the agenda of moving beyond the predatory growth paradigm. Examples abound; Gross National Happiness, Ubuntu, Buen Vivir, to mention a few. These need to come to the center of discussions, debates and movements focused on degrowth, post-growth and climate activism – and for envisioning less turbulent, and a more gentle world.

If we are to move towards a wellbeing economy and holistic development based on a deeper sense of contentment and planetary wellbeing, then we need to think about inter-dependence. All of us, the Global North, the Global South and those beyond the human: all the sentient beings that inhabit this precious planet – we are all inter-connected in fundamental ways. The Global North can learn a lot from the Global South about how we can interact with nature, and how we can give nature respect, including giving it the same legal rights as human beings (rivers, forests, mountains, and other ecological systems). This will help to protect future generations whose survival depends on nature, for centuries to come. As we all live in an inter-connected world, we need to move beyond growth in solidarity, acting in ways of compassion, kindness, and wisdom towards one another, and those beyond the human. It is the only hope we have in uniting together to save and conserve life on a burning planet –  and to ensure we live deep contented lives in a thriving planet.

See the manifesto for an intergenerationally just post-growth European Economy, resulting from the EU Parliament Beyond Growth Conference in May 2023.

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