Similar to most, if not all, western societies Australia judges its performance on economic growth. Every news bulletin tells us about our growth performance; the rise (or fall) of the SAX , budget and growth predictions. But what is growth and what fuels it? Simply, as consumers we must each spend more money on stuff, or there needs to be more consumers spending money on stuff, or government must spend more (the same issues because they are using our money). The alternative it seems is the ‘r’ word, recession which no self-respecting western society wants.
This need for growth leads to bizarre situations; such as in the aftermath of Cyclone Yazi Queensland spent large amounts of money on rebuilding homes, infrastructure and lives, fuelling growth, leading to economists reporting Queensland had a stronger economy than other states for the period. Natural disasters are never beneficial to an area despite our strange way of judging success suggesting so. Growth economics relies on you and me spending ever-increasing amounts on stuff, as one commentator puts it; ‘stuff we do not want, bought with money we do not have to impress people we do not like’. What did then US President ask Americans to do in the wake of 9-11? Go shopping! This somewhat strange request was because he was worried the shock of the event would stop people shopping and drive America into recession, something he wanted to avoid at all costs.
Here in Australia we are having the ‘Big Australia’ debate. Should we aim for a high population growth fuelled primarily by immigration or not? Those advocating a big Australia do so primarily because an increasing population makes achieving growth easier, whilst those advocating caution consider how many people Australia can accommodate, in terms of resources such as water and food. Increasing our population on grounds of international compassion or to simply make Australia a better place is fine, but increasing our population to keep economists happy is not. I believe we have reached a situation where this planet cannot continue to supply more stuff for more people, like Peak Oil we have reached Peak Growth. Remember, growth is not an increase in individual wealth, or even wellbeing, it’s just an increase in financial transactions, that are unfortunately unrelated to equitable wealth distribution.
Organisers of the recent ‘Anti Poverty Week’ told of disturbing statistics such as, over half of the world’s population survive on less than $2 a week, or that 1% of the global population owns 90% of the wealth. Such disparity can only be described as obscene and prompted the Occupy Wall Street movement that quickly spread across the world. Here in
Australia the gap is widening as we watch shareholders grant ever higher increases in executive remunerations. A high-profile case in point being Alan Joyce, who went to the Qantas board saying $3 million was not enough and he needed a 70% pay rise. The question must be asked in any one person worth $5 million a year?
In ‘The Captive State’ George Mombiot asked the question what should the ratio between the highest and lowest paid worker in an organisation be? He mused that the lowest paid getting 1% of the CEO’s salary would demonstrate extreme inequity. At Qantas today that disparity is less than 0.5%.
The current global financial systems are breaking down, America is fighting off recession whilst the EU is blighted by members with huge sovereign debt, through using borrowed money to maintain growth and lifestyle. The poor are getting poorer and the rich richer, whilst we have computers programmed to trade vast amounts on international markets in timeframes of milliseconds. Let’s do some stock-taking of how we treat our fragile planet and introduce planetary sustainability and social equity in our reporting of success or failure as a society.
We should stop being slaves to growth and greed and return money to the status of serving us as an instrument of commerce.
Published in Fremantle Herald 5 November 2011