Growth That Isn't Good: The Unhealthy Side of Getting Bigger

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Growth That Isn't Good: The Unhealthy Side of Getting Bigger

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Economic growth is generally regarded as a goal. But when it's not part and parcel of increasing human happiness, growth can tear us down.

Most every news report you'll hear about a state or national economy will prominently feature the word growth. The prevailing logic is that if an economy isn't growing—producing more product(s), creating more jobs, generating more revenue—there's a problem we better correct tout de suite.

Problem is, growth isn't all it's cracked up to be.

You don't need a degree in economics to get the basics behind economic growth. Growth means more. When experts talk about growth in a nation's economy, they're talking about gross domestic product (GDP), the monetary value of all goods and services produced nationwide, which naturally entails more spending by consumers to turn the monetary value of GDP into actual money. As John Sloman, director of the Economics Network at the University of Bristol, explained in BBC News Magazine, "From one year to the next, the crucial factor affecting growth is spending. If people spend more, firms will sell more and this will encourage them to produce more."

Sloman wrote these words in 2008—the middle of the worldwide economic crisis—as part of a consideration of whether growth is always a good thing, or whether it has harmful consequences. He partly concludes the obvious: short of radical wealth redistribution, growth is necessary to reduce poverty. If people spend more (so the theory goes), businesses do better, which encourages them to produce more, which encourages them to hire more people to handle the increased production.

But the sky is not the limit. There is only so much raw material, only so much space on the planet, only so much money that can be spent. There can be only so many successful businesses. Call it the law of diminishing returns. Eventually, addition becomes counterproductive.

A similar phenomenon exists in relation to wealth's affect on human happiness. A consistent finding among researchers who study the connection between wealth and happiness is that wealth matters very much up the point of lifting people out of poverty, but that beyond that it has little influence. Apropos, survey after survey finds that the United States, by far the richest and most productive country in the world, never ranks in the top 10 in terms of happiness (an admittedly difficult quality to quantify).

Predicating an economy on ever-increasing spending is not a design for maximizing happiness. Clearly, some spending increases are good. If food-insecure people have more money to spend on food, they will be less food insecure, which of course will make them happier. But a curious transformation occurs as an economy grows: obesity rates rise, particularly among the poor. As the Mayo Clinic's James A. Levine noted in 2011, "Countries that develop wealth also develop obesity; for instance, with economic growth in China and India, obesity rates have increased by several-fold."

The point is not to posit a simple correlation, but to note that spending and consuming more does not entail spending and consuming more wisely, any more than creating more product entails creating more good product.

But qualities like wisdom and goodness do not matter to a bottom-line figure like GDP. In fact, unwise spending and dubious product design can be effective drivers of GDP. That's the logic behind planned obsolescence, the strategy to produce products that are designed not to last. One of the most high-profile practitioners of planned obsolescence in today's world is Apple, who not only releases new iterations of their products far more frequently than is technologically necessary, but go as far as to (for example) redesign input ports so that a perfectly good pair of headphones that came with your last iPhone cannot be used with your new one.

It's fairly self-evident that disposability is antithetical to well being. The creation of each product consumes raw material, and only in rare cases do products not contribute to pollution (filling up landfills, etc.) once their usefulness has been exhausted. The more disposable the product, the greater its consumption of raw material and its contribution to pollution. For the consumer, the more disposable the product, the more frequently the consumer finds herself spending money on something she already had.

In terms of both environmentalism and consumer satisfaction, then, the best products are the ones built last. But remember that GDP is simply about more—more production, more spending. So long as the as an economy's growth paradigm is defined by GDP, where quantity trumps quality, disposability will be a dominant social force. Thus did America's meteoric economic growth correspond with a ten-fold rise in the amount of garbage produced per capita. Technological advancement seems not to apply to improvements in waste reduction.

Overpopulation demonstrates a flaw in fetishizing GDP. Clearly, more people equals more consumers, which entails more demand for products, which entails more production, which entails more jobs. Growth all around, right? But with raw material and Earth real estate being a zero-sum game, growth becomes unsustainable and destructive.

As Bloomberg Business noted in 2009, "We have reached the point at which the Earth's regeneration capacity is being stretched too thin. Theoretically, humanity today already needs 1.3 planets to maintain its lifestyle. If everyone were as wasteful as the Americas, five planets would be needed."

"[H]istory and nature provide precious few examples of anything that grows forever," Reuters' James Ledbetter noted in discussing Michael Spence's The Next Convergence: Economic Growth in a Multispeed World. "[… G]rowth is primarily a means to an end, rather than an end in itself."

That's the point. Fixation on growth takes our eye off the ball. If we're always swinging for the fences, we're going to strike out a lot more than we must, including in crucial situations like our environmental future.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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