Boosting GDP, Sustainably

by Nelson Harvey

Last week, I finally finished reading Bill McKibben’s most recent book “Deep Economy,” which I found to be one of the most compelling and well-structured critiques of growth-centric economics I’ve read to date. Shortly after I finished it, though, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed comprehensive energy legislation. Their bill contains the seed of an answer to some of the problems that McKibben raises, in the form of the Green Jobs Act of 2007.

In his book, McKibben argues that an economic philosophy which holds the maximization of GDP as its central and defining goal is faulty in three ways. First, it has not been making most people richer for a long time: in America, real income of the bottom 90 percent has been declining for almost 30 years. Second, it disregards the very real physical limits of the earth that threaten to undermine entire economies if not heeded soon (climate change is perhaps the most urgent of these). As the World Wildlife Fund and many others have noted, our current rates of resource use may soon put us in need of an additional planet or two, something that the astromers have not yet produced. (I’m not holding my breath).

McKibben’s third objection is that even when simple economic growth does make us richer, it may not be making us happier, as a growing body of research in hedonics-the science of happiness-seems to show. The correlation between increasing income and greater happiness holds (summary) up to the point where basic needs are met , but beyond that, the two diverge depending on a range of factors. ‘Well being,’ a person’s perception of their own level of happiness, depends on far more than income; health, social acceptance, and relationships are just a few of the additional variables that influence this measure.

The Green Jobs Act, which would establish national economic research and job training programs focused on clean technology industries, certainly offers a remedy to McKibben’s first two objections, and it may even address the third.

Regarding the widening gap between rich and poor, he job training program authorized under the act would specifically target unemployed workers, military veterans, non-violent ex-convicts, and other marginalized members of society. As McKibben notes, the global movement of capital has produced an ample number of these, all of whom could use a lift. “Alongside the exiliration of the flattening earth celebrated by Thomas Friedman,” he writes, “the planet (and our country) in fact contains increasing numbers of flattened people…”

Regarding McKibben’s second objection, environmental limits, it seems obvious that an increase in manufacturing of clean technology would also yield environmental benefits, so long as we don’t get carried away with corn ethanol. But what about his third point? Could more clean tech and renewable energy jobs actually make us happier? No one can say for sure. Certainly, an increase in this type of employment would enrich people in areas other than their pocketbooks. It could result in cleaner air, for example, and give previously jobless people a sense of purpose and belonging. But even if we can’t say yet whether it will make us statistically “happier,” it stands to enrich many of the less fortunate and make our economy more sustainable. As I see it, two out of three ain’t bad.


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