Growth cannot be by numbers alone

A New Year has taken off and along with it are all the predictions, aspirations and projections. One key metric spoken of at this time is GDP growth. This is a reflection of the fact that progress has come to be seen as synonymous with GDP. In fact, across the globe, we have become a society obsessed by this narrow understanding of growth.

GDP growth has not helped the US solve the problems of poverty, inequality, homelessness, disease. A recent report noted that the United States has become “more violent” over the past few years. Another said about 12 per cent of Americans take antidepressants, a growing market which of course adds to GDP numbers. If this is the state of a nation that is the number one economy and the trailblazer of economic growth, what hope can there be for India from the GDP pill?

 

Apart from one small country, Bhutan, almost every country is under the spell of this mantra. A numbers-driven growth paradigm has almost taken the place of religion today, and it is the one common foundation on which rest many important choices being made by people at all levels. This march to ever higher economic growth is pushing a set of choices that in the end have not helped us solve the burning problems of our time and have in fact caused some of the biggest challenges that humanity faces today.

Consider the United States of America, the nation that would drive a growth ‘nirvana’ as it were, and yet we see that growth has not helped solve the problems of poverty, inequality, homelessness, disease. A recent report noted that the United States has become “more violent” over the past few years. Another said about 12 per cent of Americans take antidepressants, a growing market which of course adds to GDP numbers.

If this is the state of a nation that is the number one economy and the trailblazer of economic growth, a nation that has vast land resources and nature’s bounty that this land can provide, then what hope can there be for India from the GDP pill? It is a question that India in particular must consider given the rich heritage of cooperative systems, respect for land and deep respect for the cosmic order that is intertwined into the fabric of the nation.

Pursuit of economic growth as the unidirectional focus will not bring us the end of disease, slums and poverty as the models that drive numbers are in the end tyrannical processes that have, whatever name others might give it, short term maximisation of private profit and long term exploitation of nature at its root. So growth cannot eliminate poverty because a new class of poor will inevitably be created and left behind each time we march on this path. The apparently smooth ride on the concretised road of GDP growth is therefore an illusion and must be broken if we are not to do long term damage to the planet earth and her people.

Pursuit of economic growth as the unidirectional focus will not bring us the end of disease, slums and poverty as the models that drive numbers are in the end tyrannical processes that have, whatever name others might give it, short term maximisation of private profit and long term exploitation of nature at its root.

Instead, India can and must lead with a new paradigm that shifts our focus from economic growth to growth in well-being, which can come only when every person is connected back to the land, has a relationship with the land and appreciates and builds on the largesse it can provide. Skills that can help everyone earn a livelihood (rather than mere jobs) have to be the foundation of a more balanced society. Modern day cars and other conveniences can then be the icing on the cake. Today, the icing itself is being mistaken for the cake, and this kind of sugar rush spells doom for all.

The larger problem is in a sense quite easily understood: infinite growth on a finite planet is not attainable. So a time must come when we say enough is enough. The leaders of tomorrow will be those who take this message seriously today and build on new ideas (which in many ways embrace age-old Indian wisdom) and seize leadership for a new era that is marked not merely by growing numbers but also growth in wisdom as well as growth of fulfilment and happiness.

This is the true meaning of growth. This is economics in its true sense.

In fact, the word economy itself comes to us from the beautiful Greek root ‘oîkos’, which means home, the planet earth. ‘Oikonamia’ in Greek means management of the home. So economy is a force for good if it is understood in its true meaning. The economy of nature has sustained for millions of years but economic growth has sapped our inner resilience and strengths in less than a few hundred years. So a restrictive, money-based idea of economic growth is not the proper use of the term economy. A measurement of money movement cannot be equal to true economic growth.

You cannot have any economics without ecology, and so I asked the LSE about how they teach ecology. I thought they should name the school LSEE – the London School of Ecology and Economics. Apparently, they do not teach ecology there. And I said then that this is really the ‘London School of Money’, and not in a true sense the school of economics. This is the message that must go out and not the message that money is everything.

Some years ago, I was invited to deliver a lecture in the Hong Kong Theatre Hall of the London School of Economics. You cannot have any economics without ecology, and so I asked them about how they teach ecology. I thought they should name the school LSEE – the London School of Ecology and Economics. Apparently, they do not teach ecology there. And I said then that this is really the ‘London School of Money’, and not in a true sense the school of economics. 

This is the message that must go out and not the message that money is everything. The message to the world must be to see how timeless values of community, sharing and compassion give rise to opportunity and growth and successes and satisfaction for all. This path allows us to grow together as living beings sharing our planet and supporting each other. They are Indian values but they are derived from universal values.

It is time to reject economic growth, a linear idea that has brought us the burdens of consumerism and pollution and in the end destruction of our planet. The economy of nature celebrates a cyclical model – everything supports everything else. We come from the soil and go back to the soil.

To accept this idea is to embrace India in its true sense, as a leader for a new global order that is crying out for new solutions to problems that have made us, and particularly people in the so-called developed world, lose contentment, love and happiness.