BBC: ‘Only by increasing productivity can we improve the quality of our lives’. Do you agree?

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Posted May 30 2014 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

It’s a quote from an economist invited in to comment about the UK economy on the BBC World Service earlier this week (it doesn’t matter who – this is a point that virtually all economists agree on, to the shame of the discipline). It wasn’t challenged by any of the other guests – in fact it was accepted as a given. This took some time to sink in for me. Really? The only way?

He wasn’t talking about improving productivity – i.e. producing better things or using cleaner, more efficient techniques – the word he used was ‘increasing’. Producing more. He didn’t say if this was a temporary thing, but I rather think that he meant forever, in perpetuity, without end. Here are the main reasons why I think this is a cretinous, if often repeated opinion:

  1. Increasing productivity increases ‘throughput’ – i.e. resource use and waste. Extraction of resources and disposal of waste is what’s causing the mass extinction event that we find ourselves in; this could turn out to be terminal for our own species – in fact that’s inevitable unless it stops.
  2. It doesn’t improve the quality of our lives – certainly not in developed countries (the speaker was talking about Britain), and possibly not in poor countries either. When a country reaches a certain level of GDP, any extra production does nothing for quality of life, unless you think you can have a better quality of life with two cars than you can with one. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you don’t – in fact I’m guessing that you think you could have a better quality of life with no car at all, and better still – if no-one else had one either. (I travelled around Asia, Africa and Europe for around 5 years in my thirties, using public transport and a bicycle – my quality of life couldn’t have been much higher).
  3. It doesn’t get rid of poverty. Productivity has been increasing steadily every year for the last 200 years. And yet half the world still lives on $3 per day or less. That’s several times the entire population of the world 200 years ago. So poverty is increasing along with productivity. This is, of course, because the corporate system concentrates the wealth generated by increased productivity into very few hands.
  4. Increasing productivity brings more stuff – more cars on the roads. more roads. more airports, more TVs – you get the idea; and more stuff doesn’t make us happier. It just feeds the corporate system which brings ugliness, ruthlessness, stress, pollution, debt, celebrity gossip and reality TV.
  5. All of our great prophets have told us to focus on the spiritual rather than the material – to love one another, to live in harmony with nature, to seek enlightenment, to meditate, to wonder at the divinity of existence. Increasing productivity negates every one of those things.
  6. Perpetual growth in productivity on a finite planet is impossible. If you can’t get your head around this, imagine trying to increase productivity year-on-year in a small garden. You’d have to produce more energy, harvest more resources and deal with more waste every year. You can see that it’s impossible – it’s a small step, surely, to extrapolate that to the earth. It’s as finite as your back garden. We can’t break the laws of nature. There’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, or an economy that can grow forever.

And yet it’s an opinion that is repeated constantly in the mainstream media, by politicians and of course in the business world – not realms of surplus insight or wisdom, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s rarely challenged, but there are signs that this is starting to change. You can help by:

  • changing your own life so that it doesn’t contribute to constant growth
  • challenging the opinion that increasing productivity improves the quality of life, whenever you hear it
  • not voting for any political party that is committed to perpetual growth