Life beyond Growth Life beyond Growth




“Life Beyond Growth” began as a report commissioned by the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society (ISHES), based in Tokyo, Japan. The initial assignment came at a time (early 2011) when Japan was wrestling with serious economic challenges, including a decade of stagnant economic growth, an aging  demographic, rising unemployment, and an industrial base increasingly dependent on the overconsumption of imported resources. These unsustainable economic trends created a compelling basis for a shift in emphasis from traditional industrial growth-based planning toward a new vision of social progress based in personal and social happiness and well-being. From the standpoint of early 2011, it seemed possible that Japan, among other countries, was on the brink of “switching” from being a growth-centered society, to being a well-being-centered society.


The first draft of this report was completed in time for the launch of ISHES, held in Tokyo on 4 March, 2010. (Attendees included a number of government and industry representatives, including an official responsible for developing Japan’s economic growth strategy.)The purpose of the report, at that time, was to provide a quick survey of the state of the field for the new Institute, as an input to its strategic planning and programming. I was honored to provide a keynote presentation for the ISHES launch event, and an initial summary of findings formed the core of my opening presentation for that event, under the title “37 Questions about Happiness, Economy, and Society … and One Statement.” The “statement” was a quotation by John Maynard Keynes, from his essay on Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), about the coming economy of leisure.





Can humanity as a whole be happy and satisfied without destroying the natural systems on which we depend? This question began to haunt the minds of researchers towards the end of the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, it has become the most urgent question of our age. Scientists increasingly refer to this period of time as the “Anthropocene,” by which they mean the time in Earth’s long history that is primarily defined by the human presence on the Earth, and its impact on climatic, biological, and even geological systems. Our numbers have swelled from one billion in the year 1800 to six billion in the year 1999, and are expected to reach nine billion by 2050. Our agriculture, energy plants, cities, cars, airplanes, dams, fishing fleets, and many other technologies — combined with our enormous numbers — have changed the face of the planet. Our effect on Earth’s ecosystems is equivalent in scale to the coming of an ice age, or the impact of a large asteroid, and it is expected now that we will leave our imprint in the fossil record for eons to come.


No matter how it all turns out for us in this and coming generations, geologists millions of years in the future (if there are geologists then) will be able to see our fingerprints on this period of history, etched into the layers of rock. The question is, what will they see? A complete catastrophe, marked by an enormous die-off of species, the exhaustion of resources, and pollution so widespread and toxic that even human numbers dwindle rapidly? Or will they see a “near-miss,” a moment of danger, where global-scale catastrophe is contained just in time, and recovery and restoration begin in earnest — turning Earth’s future from “human wasteland” to “planetary garden”? The answer to these question hinges on the answer to one more question: Will humanity manage to transform its economies, to convert them from destructive forces to sustainable and indeed restorative processes, in time?


Notice the word “economies”: while we often refer to a single “global economy,” the truth of the matter is that human civilization is comprised of a complex network of many different economic systems. Some of them are still free-standing, essentially subsistence economies, where people farm or hunt and live off what is around them, with relatively little interaction with global-scale processes. But even indigenous tribes living deep in the Amazon are increasingly tied into the world’s larger network of economic transactions, clustered (at least for reporting purposes) into nation states, and woven tightly together by trade, technology, and currency exchange. Still, as we begin this exploration of emerging alternatives to “economic growth” as we know it, it is important to bear in mind that “the global economy” is not a monolith. The process of using resources, creating value, and meeting human needs and aspirations looks very different from one place to another. Japan’s economy is very different from that of China, the United States, Brazil or Bhutan.


One thing that all of the world’s larger economic systems have in common is an absolute dependence on growth. We will explore the concept of growth in a more nuanced way later, but for now, we can simply acknowledge that the economic success of essentially every country in the world is measured by how quickly that country’s consumption of resources, production of goods and services, and resulting money flow is expanding. Fast growth is better than slow growth; no growth is bad; and “negative growth” (also known as “recession,” or shrinkage) is considered seriously catastrophic if it continues for more than a few months. But if growth, in national economic terms, is always the goal, and if more growth is better than less growth, what does the future hold in store? It is very difficult to deny that we live on a planet of limited size and capacity. The Earth once seemed boundless to us; now, we jet from one side to the other in half a day. Researchers debate how many decades (not how many centuries) of oil are left to fuel the jets. Supplies of metals, fish, even fresh water are running low. And most worryingly, the waste and garbage from our activities continue to build up, sometimes in disturbingly visible ways (such as the enormous gyre of plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), and sometimes in ways that are all the more dangerous for being invisible (such as the buildup of greenhouse gases in our delicately balanced atmosphere).


Under such conditions, to believe that growth as usual can continue indefinitely is not just ridiculous; it is delusory. Economies do get more efficient over time, and innovation does provide substitutes for some resources when they run out or get expensively scarce. But at some point, there is nothing left to substitute, no more efficiencies to capture, and too few resources to meet the needs. If growth has not stopped well before that point, and if our economies have not changed and matured into systems that do not require continuous physical expansion in consumption and production of finite materials and non-renewable energy, then a collapse is inevitable. To achieve a sustainable, collapse-free future, it is not sufficient to talk about changing “the global economy”; we must change many different economies, all around the globe. For this reason, it is encouraging to see how many alternatives to the growth paradigm have emerged around the world in recent years. This diversity runs counter to the myth that only growth is good, much less that growth can continue forever. Countries like Bhutan talk consistently about “Gross National Happiness” (a phrase that has echoed around the world) and even measure happiness in sophisticated ways, while researchers in Austria — to pick just one example — have recently measured the “subjective well-being,” “quality of life,” and “time-prosperity” of that country’s population.2 Phrases like “Genuine Progress,” “Sustainable Society,” and even “De-Growth” appear more and more often in serious discussions of policy.


The change in the level of mainstream acceptance around these terms has come with astonishing speed. Prior to the year 2010, the idea that a concept like “happiness” would start competing with “growth” as a principal goal of national economic policy would have been laughable. It certainly remains controversial. But it is no longer marginal. A growing number of senior political, business, and institutional leaders have now acknowledged that economic growth, as we currently define it and measure it, is not the only important measure of human welfare. Pronouncements on this topic by people such as the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, French president Nicholas Sarkozy, and the leadership of China’s Communist Party have all generated global headlines in the last year alone.


And in early 2012, the UN’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability — chaired by Presidents Zuma of South Africa and Halonen of Finland — noted the need for “The international community [to] measure development beyond gross domestic product (GDP) and develop a new sustainable development index or set of indicators.” To understand where this sudden, contemporary surge in alternatives to growth is coming from, it is important to understand something about how growth became such a dominant paradigm in the first place. This report summarizes some of the key factors that have supported the dominance of “growth” in global history, while also providing a briefing on some of the contemporary political factors and technical initiatives that have led to this moment of sea change in public thinking on growth, happiness, and human well-being.


“Life Beyond Growth” also provides summary information on specific alternative indicators and policy initiatives — some of them many years in development — that have recently become more visible. Whether or not these alternatives will spread more broadly and take root more deeply is difficult to predict; probably most of them will not. In this respect, the report provides a “snapshot” of a global intellectual and political movement, one that is gathering steam, but being expressed in different ways in different parts of the world. It is difficult to summarize this movement in a conclusive way, because it is so diverse and changing so rapidly, almost from week to week. “Life Beyond Growth 2013” is likely to present a very different picture of this complex present reality. In the end, regardless of which ideas and frameworks win out, we must find our way to a future where everyone, in every country, has the opportunity to experience quality of life, happiness, and well-being while living within the boundaries of what our planet can physically sustain. This is the central motivation behind this annual report on “Life Beyond Growth.”


The Rise of a Movement


Why did the interest among governments and public thought-leaders in these previously marginal questions about growth and happiness arise in the first place? There appear to be at least three principal reasons:

one is political in nature, one is more scientific and empirical in its origins, and the third is ethical. Politically, the leaders who have recently spoken out in favor of new measures of happiness have done so in the context of reduced expectations for traditional economic growth, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and the Chinese Communist Party have in common that they preside over countries whose economies — for differing reasons — cannot provide previously promised and expected levels of growth in GDP terms. As the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurría, said in a very recent speech on this topic, “growth ‘as usual’ is not an option.”3 Measures of happiness and well-being provide these leaders with a viable alternative for demonstrating their success as leaders in providing for the welfare of their citizens. These political calculations also have a basis, however, in emerging empirical analyses of the economic, social, and ecological realities of the 21st Century. Leaders of all kinds increasingly understand the complex challenges we face as a world, in areas ranging from global climate change, to environmental decline, to local conflicts over increasingly scarce resources. Faced with an ever-growing mountain of relevant scientific facts and trends, many leaders are realizing that “Growth as Usual” — a term we will adopt throughout this report — is no longer viable as a long-term, overarching societal objective. Their interest in finding alternatives has been matched by an upsurge in robust, scientifically based approaches to defining and measuring alternatives that previously seemed too vague or too difficult.


And finally, growth — as an over-arching paradigm and ultimate social goal — has been the subject of continuous critique by ethically-minded thinkers for decades. Their championing of other values, such as equity, altruism, and a less materialistic way of life, has always found adherents at the margins of modern industrial societies. Now, it appears, their philosophical arguments have found common cause with the political needs of national leaders, as well as the empirical and analytical tools of contemporary research. In the rise of democracy-based protest movements now emerging around the world, they may also have found a new, popular voice.

But What is “Growth”?

“Growth” is, of course, a word with many possible interpretations. In the political and economic context of our time, and especially in the common language of political speeches and newspaper articles, the word “growth” is a blend of at least four different concepts:

1. The expansion of humanity’s physical presence on the Earth (the size of our cities, farms, and industrial areas);

2. Increased production and consumption of goods and services (the output of our factories and offices);

3. Increased monetized activity in our economies (the flow of currency between buyers and sellers); and

4. General technical and industrial progress (the increased sophistication of our technologies and their increased diffusion and adoption).


We will offer more precise definitions later, but even in the common, conflated, and somewhat confusing sense of the word as described above, people are increasingly realizing that that Planet Earth cannot sustain endless “growth” — at least, as we have been practicing it up to now. The search for alternatives to Growth as Usual has led quickly to concepts of human happiness and well-being. Philosophically, the world appears to be on the verge of a collective “aha!” moment about the meaning of economic activity, perhaps even a collective realization about the meaning of life itself: that the purpose of all our striving is not to increase the quantity of stuff and money in our lives, but to improve our quality of life.


The most compelling and publicly visible evidence of this “collective aha” can be found in the recent actions and public pronouncements by the leadership of the three diverse nations noted earlier, China, the United Kingdom, and France. All three nations have moved seriously, and very publicly, to begin measuring the happiness and well-being of people, and they claim that they will reduce the dominance of economic growth goals in policy making. They are not the only nations doing so; but their actions have been particularly noteworthy for the amount of media attention they have received.


From Bhutan to Britain


The policies of these countries have been influenced, indirectly if not formally, by the pioneering work of the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan, whose notion of “Gross National Happiness” has long generated interest and headlines around the world. Bhutan’s efforts to measure human happiness and well-being as the principal scorecard for national success have also inspired or influenced similar headline-making initiatives at all levels, from towns and cities in the United States (such as Seattle), to state-level governments in India (such as Assam), to international collaborations like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, better known as the OECD.


These top-down, governmental policy initiatives are mirrored by a growing number of bottom-up grassroots and intellectual movements, including the “happiness movement,” the “downshifting movement” (reflecting people who choose to work and earn less in exchange for more time and higher quality of life), and the “de-growth” movement (a largely academic discussion on how to restructure national economies in ways that are not dependent on growth).


However, this is not to say that the world is on the verge of turning its back on economic growth, or embracing a future of “simple living” and consumption reduction. Far from it: traditional economic growth remains essential to the achievement of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals; it continues to frame the national policies of nearly all nations; and even the “pioneer” nations mentioned above (including Bhutan) are also resolute in their efforts to maintain steadily increasing Gross Domestic Products.


What is different about this moment is not its revolutionary nature, but its evolutionary character. After thousands of years of steadily increasing growth, topped by an extraordinary “growth spurt” as a species in recent history, it seems possible that the human species is realizing that it will soon be “all grown up,” at least in physical terms. Like any human teenager, our physical growth as a species must soon come to a stop, to be replaced by a focus on the long-term development of our knowledge, skill, and wisdom. In part, the purpose of this report is to tell the story of how the world arrived at this moment. In part, it provides a summation of the current “state of the art” when it comes to rethinking economic growth in favor of other goals and other scorecards. And in part, it attempts to provide some insights and guidance for those who are interested in helping this transition from an old worldview to another, broader, and more sustainable worldview to continue, and to accelerate.


Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • A Note on Sources and References
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Historical Foundations of Economic Growth
  • Chapter 2: The Rise (and Possible Future Fall) of the Growth Paradigm
  • Chapter 3: The Building Blocks of the Growth Paradigm
  • Chapter 4: Alternatives to the Growth Paradigm: A Short History
  • Chapter 5: Rethinking Growth: Alternative Frameworks and their Indicators
  • Chapter 6: Looking Ahead: The Political Economy of Growth in the Early 21st Century
  • Chapter 7: Concluding Reflections: The Ethics of Growth and Happiness, and a Vision for the Future
  • References & Resources




Life beyond Growth

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