About 25 years ago I submitted a question to a local newspaper contest about what I perceived as a largely unaddressed quandary: Since we measure the health and well-being of our nation primarily as growth in the GDP; and since unlimited growth is destructive (and ultimately impossible) because of the negative consequences that arise with more people, more resource depletion, more pollution, etc.; our primary indicator for health and well-being was ultimately one that led to numerous dangerous systems. Given the negative repercussions of such growth, why was (and is) our national conversation about how well our nation is doing limited to the growth of GDP?
I wasn’t the only person thinking about this question, of course. Organizations have arisen to address this very quandary and to offer other indicators. Now, many people are aware of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which measures the true cost of economic growth and its impacts and offers other lenses through which to assess a nation’s real health and well-being. Yet our national conversation around our well-being is still almost exclusively confined to economic growth, or lack thereof. Virtually every politician wants to “grow the economy,” at least in the U.S. Fortunately, such a limited indicator as the GDP isn’t the only measure used among nations. Tiny Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas, has taken the lead globally by assessing its nation’s well-being through the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index.
Recently, after a talk I gave at a college whose primary focus is on sustainability, the president of the college asked me how I reconciled the quandary of economic growth and the well-being of the planet. This college had recently hosted the president of the World Bank, and the issue of economic growth as solely a good thing hung in the air at this environmentally-focused campus. It was a reminder to me that 25 years after I posed this very question in a newspaper contest, not much had changed. We have not yet adopted a different measure, standard, or approach to a healthy, prosperous, and thriving culture.
Faced with his question, I realized that I didn’t have an adequate answer. Even after all these years, it’s still a quandary to me, too. I try to live by the MOGO (most good) principle and make choices in my life that do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the environment. This means I avoid purchasing new products and things I don’t need. I grow a significant portion of my food for my vegan diet. I shop in thrift stores. The more people who make such choices, however, the less money we will spend, and the more people will lose jobs. It’s distressing to consider the reality that a populace that chooses to live more simply and ethically for the best of reasons may increase unemployment.
There are certainly ideas I’ve advocated as solutions to this quandary: a shift toward a service economy in which people are employed largely through services rather than products; a move away from destructive products toward those that are carbon-neutral and sustainably and humanely produced (which will provide other jobs); an embrace of more meaningful, less-materialistic lives in general, in which we meet our actual needs plus a bit more, rather than pursuing endless, extravagant, and ultimately destructive wants.
But I don’t find my own, or most other current solutions to be a panacea to such a complex problem as transforming our means of supporting ourselves within a changing paradigm. And the truth is that while I don’t covet “things,” I do covet experiences – many of which have significant carbon footprints. For example, I love to travel to new places, meet people from different cultures, and see natural landscapes and wildlife far from home. If I’m honest with myself, my true goal isn’t simple, localized living if that means giving up the myriad benefits of global trade such as tropical fruits and (fair-trade) chocolate, or periodic trips to faraway places. And if someone like me, who spends her days assessing global challenges and trying to create a more peaceful, sustainable, and humane world, doesn’t want to give up such things, I’m pretty sure most other people won’t want to either – though what others may desire (flat screen TVs, designer clothes, jewelry, big cars, new and improved electronics, etc.) may differ from what I desire.
My ideal world looks more like Star Trek. I, and many I meet and teach, are most energized and engaged by solutions like truly clean, renewable energy, cradle to cradle production, new health technologies, and global trade that is just, humane, and sustainable, so that everyone everywhere can share in the bounty, beauty, and diversity of foods, arts, goods and landscapes across our remarkable, marvelous planet.
And while I don’t know exactly how to make each of these things happen, or how to transform all of the destructive and inhumane systems in production, agriculture, resource procurement, defense, research, economics, etc., I do know this: There are solutions to be found. The systems we’ve created that are unjust and unsustainable can all be transformed. Anyone who says that we can’t feed the world through sustainable and humane agriculture; that we can’t develop enough renewable and clean energy to sustain our energy needs and wants; that we can’t cure cancer without vivisection; that we can’t be safe without nuclear weapons; and that we can’t have thriving societies without endless growth in GDP simply lacks imagination. As Helen Keller said, “No pessimist discovered the secrets of the stars or sailed to an uncharted land or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”
The uncharted land of our time is the world that is truly healthy and humane for all people, animals and the earth, and while I don’t personally have the answers for how to create such a world system by system, I do know that there is one underlying system that, if transformed, would lead us toward the inevitable unfolding of peaceful, sustainable, and just societies. That system is schooling.
If we were to embrace a bigger purpose for education and provide students with relevant information about pressing global challenges; foster their curiosity, creativity and critical thinking skills; instill the three Rs of reverence, respect, and responsibility, and give them positive choices and tools for collaborative problem-solving, I have no doubt at all that we could graduate a generation of solutionaries comprised of people who would use their knowledge and critical and creative thinking skills to solve our pressing challenges. Such a generation would simply not accept as legitimate such either/or options as “jobs versus the environment,” and would be committed to finding solutions that work for everyone, because this is what they would have learned to do in school. I believe that the ultimate solution to a world in crisis lies in education from which will grow the many and varied answers to all problems. So this is the system I work to change.
Image courtesy of CERTs via Creative Commons.
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