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Economic growth, obesity, and the creed of greed

Who’s right? Gordon Gekko (greed is good) or Tim Jackson (prosperity without growth)? It should be a simple question, but the answer is not so clear.

Perhaps Gordon Gekko’s position was over the top, even in his day — it takes a sort of blindness to conclude that greed is good, but back then, it did have a purpose. Greed played a role in how we got to where we are. And not just the big house and car, but the best health of any human beings throughout history. And after all, isn’t health and human well-being what economics is all about?

Still, the question remains: does the philosophy of greed and the system of economic growth (a system to which we’ve tied our aspirations) produce the health and well-being we’re after? To find an answer, it’s useful to examine the early days of the industrial revolution. Economist-philosophers of that era, from Adam Smith down to John Stuart Mill, figured that a growing economy was a productive one. And a growing economy requires more people, more production, and more consumption. Individual acquisitiveness was one way of getting this, so greed worked as a serviceable means for driving economic growth.

The system hit a glitch in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but John Maynard Keynes helped sort things out. He suggested that individual greed could be propped up, when needed, by public pooling. The growth model took off like an adolescent at a booze party, with the strength of his parent’s admonition to “be careful” inversely correlated to the fun to be had.

Early admonitions about the economic growth party came from the parents of the system. John Stuart Mill, in the Principles of Political Economy (1848), warned that once the work of growth was done, a stationary economy would ensue. And he viewed the transition to such an economy as a positive development for humanity. Keynes himself, in 1930, said we may need a growth-based system (propped up by greedy behavior) for up to 100 years, but after that, we could look forward to better times in a system driven by our more virtuous character traits.

Of course, the most prominent warnings about growth were issued by Thomas Robert Malthus. His admonitions about overpopulation were akin to telling the party-going adolescent to stay at home and read a book.

A simple and logical definition of growth is “maturation till maturity.” And these early economic “parents” were trying to guide the young economy through the maturation process. In more recent times, however, their guidance has been ignored. The rapacity-building economic framework of the Chicago School has prevailed. The overall economic plan has morphed into continuous growth, and warnings about the dangers of too much growth have been swept away.

Gordon Gekko himself may indeed have been wringing the last juice out of the growth lemon in 1987, before leaving us sucking on the bitter sub-prime-lending rind. Now left with a troubling combination of economic and environmental problems, perhaps we should reconsider the warnings.

Even so, big-picture discussions about the continuing usefulness of economic growth are rare. In the absence of such discussions, governments are doing their best to revive a dying system. In 2008, the New Scientist was the only mainstream publication to question growth, tackling controversial issues such as immigration, population stabilization, and reduction of both production and consumption.

The concept of reducing carbon footprints (to address climate change), especially in the Western world, has received some attention in the media. But a reduction from about 20 tonnes of CO2 per person per year to 15 tonnes (a big enough task in itself), would be totally negated by a 50 percent population increase. And an increase in population is not only predicted, but encouraged, at least in Australia where policies exist to grow population through both immigration and domestic births.

Many people who work in the health industry can build a strong case for questioning economic growth. Obesity and diabetes represent a health crisis of epidemic proportions. Some mistakenly believe that tackling this epidemic is a simple issue of individual restraint, but it’s a side-effect of the system. Growth in personal size (obesity) is the collateral damage from continuous pursuit of growth in economic size.

Health data from the last 200 years convincingly show that economic growth has a tipping point, beyond which costs accrue more quickly than benefits. Health improved dramatically over this period, but in recent years the improvements have been drying up. We don’t yet have the cure for cancer that was promised 30 years ago. And contrary to expectations, doctors see fewer cases of depression when economic growth slows down, as in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

From the perspective of a health practitioner, Tim Jackson’s philosophy has supplanted Gordon Gekko’s. For an economy that has reached maturity, greed is bad. We stand at the start of a new era, in which we must capitalize on the past benefits of growth and make the transition to a steady state economy.

This transition doesn’t mean an end to human development. On the contrary, we need to enhance our cultural and economic institutions to create a truly sustainable economic system. Doing so will test our capacity for adaptability more than anything else since leaving the trees. It will also leave a few traditional economists still dangling from the branches.

Garry Egger is a professor of health and applied sciences at Southern Cross University in Australia. He is also the author, with Boyd Swinburne, of Planet Obesity: How We Are Eating Ourselves and the Planet to Death.

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