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What they don’t tell you about GDP growth

The elephant in the room: How sustainable is GDP growth?

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Anil Netto looks at the elephant in the room that the mainstream corporate media are reluctant to talk about.

On 24 May, some 1.8 million people in 2,350 cities from 125 countries across the world joined in a global climate strike to highlight the urgency of doing more to resolve the climate crisis.

And increasingly, the spotlight is shining on the problem of measuring economic performance using traditional measures. Often we think of success in terms of how much foreign direct investment (FDI) or private investments a country receives and what percentage of growth in gross domestic product (GDP) a country records every year.

The problem with FDI is that it does not measure how workers are treated and what kind of wages they receive – nor does it look closely at what kind of industries are set up.

Do workers receive a living wage? Or are they paid only a minimum wage and then expected to work long hours of overtime so that they can earn enough overtime pay to achieve a living wage? Increasingly many workers have to work 12-hour shifts – and even longer days – to earn enough to support their families. Often, to drive wages down even further, companies turn to “contractors for labour” to supplement their workforce needs. These contractors in turn hire migrant workers who are even less protected from exploitation.

As for the nature of the investments, are they the type that pollute the environment and cause harm to nature? How polluting are some of these industries? A recent phenomenon has emerged – it looks like we are increasingly becoming the dumping grounds of more industrialised nations.

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As for GDP, it seems we must hit GDP growth of 4-5% for it to be considered acceptable to corporate analysts – never mind if workers don’t earn enough to buy a lot of the goods, homes and cars that are produced.

With a GDP growth of 5% annually, the size of the economy will double in less than 15 years. Even with 3% growth, it will double in just over 23 years.

Now imagine if the global economy grows by 3-5% every year, the size of the global economy will double within 15-23 years.

But the problem is we only have one planet. Where will all the forests and raw materials and water come from to fuel this economic growth and drive industry? How can we slash greenhouse gas emissions when the size of the economy is going to double in around two decades?

This is the elephant in the room, which the mainstream or corporate media are reluctant to discuss.

Some have argued that we should now look into “green growth” to promote a more sustainable economy. Others argue that technology is the solution – greater fuel efficiency, cleaner industry….

This misses the point. Even if we clean up our act, we are not going to solve the problem of resource depletion. Sure, we could minimise polluting emissions, but the sheer volume of demand for travel, gadgets, designer clothes, stylish cars and other trappings of modernity means the problems will not go away.

So it is not just a problem of unsustainable vs sustainable growth. What if the problem is our fixation on growth itself – the quest for ever-increasing market share and profits while cutting costs all the time?

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What if the real problem is Greed and the accumulation and attachment to wealth? Was this why in the Bible, Jesus told the rich man to sell all that he owned and follow him? Was this why the rich man in the parable who could not see poor Lazarus just outside the entrance to his home eventually found a huge chasm between himself and God?

Just a week before the global climate strike, SM Mohamed Idris, the long-serving president of the Consumers’ Association of Penang passed away at the age of 93.

SM Idris was more than a consumer rights advocate. He revolutionised the approach to thinking about consumer rights by linking consumerism to the environment and global corporate hegemony. So in addition to CAP, he set up two other groups – environmental group Sahabat Alam Malaysia and Third World Network, which analyses the corporate agenda worldwide and its impact on developing nations and marginalised communities.

By all accounts he led a simple lifestyle, shunning the trappings of materialism and sticking to his trademark white cotton jubbah.

His last public protest was against the massive 4,500-acre land reclamation project in Penang to create three artificial islands. The state government believes the reclamation is necessary to spur “economic growth” while civil society groups are worried about the damage to the coastal ecology and marine biodiversity, the loss of fisheries and the erosion of food security.

Idris will be a hard act to follow. But it looks as if the baton has already been passed to others in the ecological movement. Increasingly young adults and even children are speaking out and calling for protection of the ecology.

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One primary school in Penang, led by a visionary principal, has got his entire school thinking about how to reduce their carbon footprint. The pupils in his school did the nation proud by being one of only a couple of schools nationwide to participate in the global climate strike on May 24 – exactly one week after Idris passed away.

This gives us hope that more young people will think about alternative ways of managing the economy without harming the environment. Hopefully, others will be inspired to shun greed and selfish materialism and rise up in defence of nature.

This piece was first published in the Malaysian Herald weekly.

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