Our Obsession With Growth Is Killing The Planet — UN Report

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Olivier De Schutter is a Belgian legal scholar specializing in economic and social rights. He is a professor of international human rights law, European Union law, and legal theory at the University of Louvain in Belgium, as well as at the College of Europe and at Sciences Po in Paris. He has regularly contributed to the American University Washington College of Law Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. On May 1, 2020, he was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Four years later, De Schutter submitted a report to the United Nations that warns humanity’s obsession with growth is enriching elites and killing the planet. We need an economy based on human rights, the report argues. It goes on to say economic growth allows the few to grow ever wealthier and that ending poverty and environmental catastrophe demands fresh thinking. Here is the introduction to that report:

The dominant approach to the fight against poverty relies on increasing the aggregate output of the economy (measured as the gross domestic product), combined with post-market redistribution through taxes and transfers. The Special Rapporteur argues, however, that the current focus on increasing the gross domestic product ia misguided. An increase in gross domestic product is not a precondition for the realization of human rights or for combating poverty and inequalities.

The ideology of “growthism” should not become a distraction from the urgent need both to provide more of the goods and services that enhance well-being and bto reduce the production of what is unnecessary or even toxic. As long as the economy is driven mainly by profit maximization, it will respond to the demand expressed by the richest groups of society, leading to extractive forms of production that worsen social exclusion in the name of creating more wealth, and it will fail to fulfill the rights of those in poverty.

Moving from an economy driven by the search for maximizing profits to a human rights economy is possible and, to remain within planetary boundaries, necessary. In the present report, the Special Rapporteur explains why this shift is needed and what it could look like.

Growth And Conventional Wisdom

Writing in The Guardian, De Schutter puts his report in plain language. He says conventional wisdom is that economic growth will bring prosperity to all. This mantra has guided the decision making of the vast majority of politicians, economists, and even human rights bodies for generations. Yet the reality is that while poverty eradication has historically been promised through the “trickling down” or “redistribution” of wealth, economic growth largely “gushes up” to a privileged few.

He points out that in the past four years alone the world’s five richest men have more than doubled their fortunes, while nearly 5 billion people have been made poorer. If current trends continue, he says 575 million people will still be trapped in extreme poverty in 2030 — which is the date the governments of the world have set to eradicate poverty. Currently, more than 4 billion people have no access whatsoever to social protection.

Hundreds of millions of people are struggling to survive in a world that has never been wealthier. Many are driven to exhaustion in poorly paid, often dangerous jobs to satisfy the needs of the elite and to boost corporate profits. In low-income countries, where significant investment is still required, growth can still serve a useful role. In practice, however, it is often extractive, relying on the exploitation of a cheap workforce and the plundering of natural resources.

Adopting New Standards Of Progress

Concrete steps can be taken now, starting with choosing measures of progress other than gross domestic product, De Schutter says. The endless quest for growth at all costs, and the escalating use of the natural resources it demands, is pushing our planet way beyond its limits. Six of the nine “planetary boundaries”– the life support systems critical to the habitability of the Earth — have already been crossed. For too long, the health of our planet has been sacrificed for inequitable material gain. Our economies are failing us. We urgently need to look beyond profit, beyond the short term and beyond the interests of the few.

A “human rights economy” can deliver for people and the planet because it shifts our focus from growth to humanity —  grounding the purpose of the economy in fundamental, universal human values. It offers human rights as a guardrail to keep the economy on track — meeting the challenges of the climate crisis, addressing inequalities, and eradicating poverty.

Growth Re-Imagined

This proposition is not some fairytale. Concrete steps can be taken now, starting with choosing measures of progress other than gross domestic product (GDP), which tells us nothing about the ecological or social fallout of economic activity. We need to start valuing what really counts. GDP has no way of accounting for the estimated 16.4 billion hours spent every day worldwide on unpaid work, largely carried out by women, that underpins the global economy: caring for children, people with disabilities, and older citizens.

Unpaid domestic and care work should be remunerated through paid parental and caregiver compensation, included in pension, and supported through access to safe water, sanitation, affordable childcare facilities, and other essential services. Financing these services while reducing our dependence on GDP growth is achievable through progressive tax policies such as inheritance and wealth taxes, preventing illegal financial flows and tax evasion, and tackling corruption. More effective international cooperation on tax, debt, and social protection is also needed.

This is a major undertaking. The barriers are real. Most people have been led to believe that economic growth equals human progress. Yet a growing movement is rallying against our growth-driven economic model — climate activists, workers and trade unions, scientists and academics, young people, environmental and human rights defenders, Indigenous peoples, progressive economists, and activists fighting inequality, gender disparities, and colonialism are all speaking out.

As world leaders prepare to gather for the Summit of the Future in September — a UN initiative that aims to forge a global consensus around what our future should look like — this groundswell of support for an alternative vision of progress must be embraced. Without a road map for a global economy that protects human rights, including the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, the final document leaders agree to in New York will continue to lead us down the path to extinction, De Schutter says.

The Takeaway

Progress is taking old ideas and replacing them with new thinking that aligns with current realities. We once thought women should not be allowed to vote, that smoking was good for our health, that driving while drunk was just something people did, and that the human body could not tolerate moving at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour. Our grandparents believed the Earth’s climate was stable and would not change for thousands of years. Now we know better.

Conventional wisdom has done a fine job of creating nearly infinite wealth for some but not so fine a job of delivering social justice to the vast majority of humans. Of course, before a transition to a social justice model can take place, the majority of people will have to embrace that concept as an important goal for all humans, something that seems quite unlikely. But as Margaret Mead taught us, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

CleanTechnica is a small group of committed people. If we have the will, we can help change the prevailing economic system from one that benefits one tenth of one percent of all humans to one that benefits us all. That seems like a worthwhile goal for a Fourth of July that celebrates an end to a prior belief system — one that made kings and queens all powerful. Changing conventional wisdom is never easy, but the birth of a new nation on July 4, 1776 proves it can be done. Courage!


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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