Taking the Shine off the Holy Grail of Economic Growth

By Dave Gardner

Economic growth has without a doubt become the most fetishised public goal of our time. Every politician must promise it to get or keep elected office. It solves many problems. It is a goal shared by all. It reduces unemployment, provides governments with much-needed tax revenue, makes hard workers rich, reduces wrinkles, and clears up your complexion. Who in their right mind would not favor robust economic growth?

If you’re a true sustainability advocate who’s done the homework, you’re among the few who understand that endless economic growth is not possible on a finite planet. But you may be struggling to understand why the siren song of prosperity from economic growth is so strong it overwhelms all the science, facts and logic that tell us otherwise. I know I did. And I’m quite confident I found the answer.

The stories we tell ourselves define our culture. They are our way of passing on and reinforcing our beliefs. Since the Great Depression the story we’ve been telling, over and over and over, is one of economic growth as the Holy Grail. This commentary won’t address the lunacy of choosing “economic growth” over “economic health” as a long-term public policy goal. I think we chose it as a short-term goal and then just got used to it. The story was sticking. What I do wish to address is the stickiness of the story and how we might free ourselves from it.

As Daniel Quinn wrote, no one pays attention to it. But it is there, all the time, informing everything we do. Of course the world is flat. Of course the sun revolves around the Earth. It’s easy for us to ridicule the mythology of earlier civilizations. We know better. But don’t underestimate how strong that mythology was, and how it was woven throughout the fabric of those cultures. Our version of that is the story of progress and prosperity from economic growth. It is so pervasive and interwoven into our culture that I compare it to Windows or Mac OS. It is the operating system of our society. And all the “apps” we write are written to run on this “endless growth” operating system.

The story that there is a pot of gold at the end of the economic growth rainbow has now been told for a long time. We are programmed from birth to believe in the Holy Grail of economic growth. It’s been repeated and repeated. It’s told by politicians and many economists, and it is repeated by the news media ad nauseum. It’s taken on such prominence in our culture that it is virtually never questioned. The very fact that journalists report on economic growth as though there is no question about its benefits greatly increases the strength of this cultural programming.

In trying to awaken others to the fallacy of the myth, we face this formidable obstacle. There has, for some time, been growing dissension about this common goal. But relatively few have heard about it. If the economics reporters of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Associated Press, The Australian, ABC, CBC, BBC, NPR, and the Financial Times are all treating economic growth as an unquestioned, unalloyed good, then we have our work cut out for us. I believe we have to do two things to take away the power of that programming:

  1. Point out, again and again, the pro-growth bias in the reporting, so the masses begin to recognize it for what it is.
  1. Influence journalists to begin reporting more fairly and accurately on economic growth, acknowledging it has critics. If necessary, embarrass them into doing their job.

Nearly a year ago I started Growth Bias Busted to execute these two strategies. On a daily basis we spotlight news stories or commentary that fail the balance test on our Wall of Shame, or we congratulate exemplary work on our Wall of Fame. Journalists are offered suggested resources to explore for more balanced perspectives. We invite the public to contribute critiques and salutes as well.

While it’s impossible to pinpoint where credit is due, there is good news. We recently found two very promising examples of reporting that did acknowledge there are questions about the universal goodness of growth:

The fact I’m excited about two examples illustrates just how rare unbiased reporting is on this subject. However, as more members of the public discover our critiques, and as more journalists find their names on the site, we’ll slowly begin to change the stories we tell ourselves.

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