Biodiversity, Dollars and Social Sense
GDP is too narrow a measure of national wealth. Environmental and social progress should be included too
India's decision to publish measurements of the changes - positive and negative - in its "natural wealth" including its plant, water and other environmental resources is a development of global significance. In future this index of environmental sustainability will be published alongside and, by implication, qualify conventional measurements of gross domestic product. Brazil is also moving in the same direction as it prepares to implement the finding of a three-year report into the economics of biosystems and biodiversity.
Across the world dissatisfaction with the absolute priority given to conventional GDP measurements of economic progress is turning into growing demand for a more holistic way of valuing and measuring economic activity. GDP as the sole criterion of economic success by itself gives a dangerously unbalanced and distorted picture of economic priorities and progress. Last year Kazakhstan topped the league table for GDP growth but what does that tell us about the underlying values of the Kazakh economic model?
In the European Union there is a growing chorus of expert reports from the European parliament as well as the European commission and other international bodies, and respected economists such as Professor Joseph Stiglitz. They all insist that GDP needs to be qualified by parallel measures of the impact of economic change on sustainable development and on the social cohesion or "human satisfaction".
The demand for a radically different way of valuing economic policy and assessing economic progress comes in the midst of the greatest post-second world war crisis in world capitalism. Governments almost everywhere are looking to reduce budget deficits at the expense of existing standards of social and welfare provision and protection of our threatened planetary environment.
The immediate debate among policymakers is between those who argue for immediate and radical reductions in budget deficits - even at the expense of longstanding social and environmental standards - and those who insist that the big cuts in public expenditure should be delayed until there are clearer signs of economic recovery. The evidence for sustained economic recovery or a clear pick up in employment is scant to non-existent at present. Indeed a growing number of experts are warning of a very weak, jobless recovery, or even a "double-dip" recession.
But the more profound challenge is how to place environmental sustainability and social cohesion at the heart of policymaking so they do not become increasingly powerless lobbies on the margins of decision-making. For that the European Union and its member states should follow India and Brazil's lead and abandon their almost exclusive emphasis on GDP as the be-all and end-all of economic policy objectives. The time has come if not to replace GDP at least to balance it with parallel socially and environmentally responsible measures of economic progress.
Exclusive reliance on a narrow measure of GDP is an ideological choice made by politicians and those in business and finance whose interests are regarded always as paramount. A decision to broaden economic objectives by bringing in measurement of sustainability and social cohesion to the heart of policymaking would mark a sea-change in political and economic priorities.
This is not, as some might imagine, a purely "technical" change but a political shift of focus of great importance. It comes as governments in the western so-called "advanced economies", while paying lip-service to the environment and social "fairness", refuse to adopt wider measures of sustainability and social justice to qualify GDP goals. They fear that to do so would risk them becoming more visibly accountable for policies that threaten the environment or increase social inequality.
This wider measure of economic progress would highlight the enormous investment opportunities which exist to strengthen our environmental and social infrastructures and offer a more constructive way to achieve long-term reduction in budget deficits. Widening the basic measure of economic activity by prioritizing human and environmental imperatives could transform the terms of the debate on how to respond to the economic crisis.
© 2010 Guardian News and Media Limited