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Up is not always up


by Tom Atlee


One aspect of our culture that helps us be co-stupid about such things as Y2K, global warming and Kosovo, is that our primary statistic for economic health -- Gross Domestic Product (GDP, the total amount of money spent in the economy) -- is a seriously flawed measure of our collective well-being. It assumes that growth (more money spent) is good. But think about it:

* When someone in your family mows the lawn, cooks a meal, or takes care of someone who's old or sick, the GDP does NOT go up. As far as this one-dimensional statistic is concerned, nothing productive was done. But when you HIRE someone to do these things, the GDP DOES go up. We need to ask: Is paying for something REALLY better than having it done out of love or service to our families and communities? Has our official obsession with GDP played a role in our deteriorating family and community life?

* The GDP does not record a forest providing beauty, oxygen, rain, habitat for animals and plants, a buffer against floods, and other such services. Only when the forest is chopped down and sold does it register as a part of GDP. Or when dams have to be built to handle the floods running off of clearcuts. Likewise, GDP does not record pollution, global warming, ozone depletion, or species extinctions. Has this played a role in our deteriorating environment?

* When we make bombs to drop on Serbia (or to blow up the world), when we spend billions of dollars treating preventable cancers, when we have to repair windshields broken by delinquent kids, when we clean up environmental disasters, the GDP goes up. Up and up. In this "objective" measure, there are no judgments about whether these expenditures represent collective well-being or degradation. None of the downers is subtracted. Up is up. Has this official, institutionalized focus on money and growth played a role in our collective confusion about what's important?

When people say "It's the economy, stupid," they're talking about GDP. The more money spent in the economy, the more income there is, the more consumption happens which (usually) produces more jobs. Nobody stops to consider if all this may actually be a part of our deteriorating quality of life. We may have more things and more comforts and more money, but we have less time, less connection with each other (including our families), less peace of mind, a less healthy environment, more war, more poverty, more alienation...

The person who said "Money isn't everything, but it's way ahead of whatever's in second place" missed the boat. A lot of boats actually -- including most of the important ones like love, meaning, creativity, beauty... We've gotten lost in money. Y2K was born of that same obsession: Y2K repairs weren't done back in the 1970s and 1980s BECAUSE it was too expensive. We have our priorities messed up and we can't even see it because we're looking at the world through GDP glasses. Hundreds of government policy decisions -- with profound impact on our lives -- are made to push the GDP up. Does this actually make sense?

There are lots of folks working to change this. For a very good article on GDP and alternative statistics (such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, or GPI) read Linda Baker's "Real Wealth" article at Two leading organizations in this field are Redefining Progress in San Francisco and Center for a Sustainable Economy in DC These are staid, respectable organizations. If you prefer a bit more chutzpah, consider the Culture Jammers Network, below. They are trying to get us all to ask The Big Question: "Is economic 'progress' killing the planet?" I'd like to see them ask The Little Question, as well: "Are our lives actually so much better than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago?"

A lot of people will be asking such questions pretty soon. If the culture jammers don't jog them awake, perhaps Y2K will. I'm trying to do my part, giving people this little nudge before the alarm goes off.

You see, I want us to cultivate a culture that yields more joy and meaning than money and catastrophes. When we finish that row, we can put down our hoes and dance.




PS: Out of due respect to my father, an economist
( ),
I should make it clear that GDP itself is not the problem so much as our institutionalized obsession with it. I believe that if more comprehensive statistics like GPI were focused on as more accurate measures of our economic well-being, then GDP could join the other hundreds of useful statistics to fill out the background details.

_ _ _ _

Date: Thu, 27 May 1999 18:00:11 -0800
From: Culture Jammers Network <>
Subject: Let's ask our leaders the big question


When the seven most powerful heads of state meet at the G-7 Summit in Koln,
Germany this June 18-20, there should be plenty for them to talk about.

Like the trillions of dollars a day in foreign exchange transactions that
have turned the global economy into an ungoverned casino which may fail
anyday. Like the rising global temperatures, ozone depletion and extreme
weather phenomena that suggest a major climate change is underway. Like the
document signed by 1,500 scientists (including half of all living Nobel
prize winners) warning that humankind is proceeding down an unprecedented
and catastrophic path by destroying the life-support systems of the planet.

Oddly, these issues hardly ever come up at the Summit.

This year, culture jammers will make sure they do. On posters, T-shirts and
billboards, in newspapers, radio and TV spots, we will dare our leaders to
confront The Big Question: Is economic "progress" killing the planet? Those
six words will blaze in the public imagination. Ordinary citizens will think
about them. Policy makers will debate them. Students will confront teachers
with them.

Then, at the closing press conference in Koln on June 20, before a worldwide
TV audience of millions, a reporter will stand up and say: "Mr. President, how
do you measure economic progress? How do you determine if the economy is
healthy or sick?"

Clinton will probably skate. He'll formulate some answer about how America
has a pretty good report card, what with rising GDP and the bull run on
Wall Street. He'll try to move on. But a few reporters will demand a better
answer - a real answer. Should we consider the Exxon Valdez spill a
"success" since it boosted GDP? What other measures of progress besides the
GDP are being used? How are losses of natural capital like the disappearing
salmon fisheries of the Pacific Northwest being factored into the national
accounts? Are the costs of climate change being considered? What about
ozone depletion? Desertification? Biodiversity loss?

A point will be reached, either right there at the G-7 press conference, or
at some future press conference, when it dawns on the world that these
seven men can't be trusted with the farm. They don't know the answer to the
simplest and most fundamental of all questions about the economic system
they manage: Are we moving forward or backward?

And so it begins. Over the next few months, we will undertake to catalyze a
millennial moment of truth - a mindshift from economics to bioeconomics -
from which old-guard thinking will never fully recover.

Join us by asking The Big Question wherever you go.


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