How we measure progress and development

Crime & Security, Money, Politics, Systems thinking

Economics has a great deal to answer for.

A short while ago some people tried to work out what should be done with the economy. They wanted to formalise it and build in growth and progress as a goal. All very noble and worthwhile, and really very effective when you look at where we are now versus where we were a few hundred years ago.

But… actually has it been successful? It’s worked, that much is clear. But a car with a flat tyre ‘works’, it’s just more likely to crash, won’t get you where you want to go as quickly, will use more fuel, and after lots of miles will undermine the structural integrity of the other parts. (Is there any problem anywhere which can’t be equated with some aspect of cars?!)

Actually much of the progress we’ve enjoyed has come in spite of the way we do things, not because of it.  I can’t help thinking that it has been largely due to the paradigm shifts in medicine, and the socially progressive effects of the industrial revolution, which was pushed forward by polymath and socially conscientious revolutionaries (eg) who enjoyed innovation and exploration for its own sake and had a desire to help their communities.

But I digress. This is not intended to be a diatribe on economic models and their suitability for the modern world (but you can be sure there will be one soon enough), this is intended to provide an introduction to the topic and draw attention to the impeccably constructed paragraphs of Robert Kennedy talking about GDP values pretty much everything, apart from that which is truly important. (Also available in video form below, which is probably better because it was written as a speech, not an essay, and benefits from his delivery.)

We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the gross national product. For the gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highway carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods, and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads . . . It includes Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the broadcasting of television programs which glorify violence to sell goods to our country.

And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of public officials . . . the gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile; and it can tell us everything about America — except whether we are proud to be Americans.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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