South Africa is dying of growth

[This article was commissioned by the Mail & Guardian in June 2010, but not published.]

We’re all on a ship. Let’s call it, oh, what the hell, the Titanic Earth. We’re steaming along at a reasonable clip, but there are… problems. The first class passengers are sipping champagne – but in second class, services are failing, while third class passengers, segregated behind armed guards and razor wire, aren’t getting all their meals. The ship’s engineers are running low on coal and tearing up the third-class decks and beds to feed the boilers.

The ship’s newsletter reports continuously on the speed of the ship, gossip and the deck tennis results. The burning of the floors and food shortages in third class get little attention.

This is our planet, and this is how we’re running it. The ship’s speed is growth, an economic measure beloved of conservative economists, big business and most politicians, but never intended to become the all-encompassing measure of “national success” that it has.

Voices are raised: hey, there are terrifying problems, we can’t keep this speed up. But the crew – politicians – and the selfish global rich of every country urge the creaking ship onwards. We need to grow, they say. It’s good for everyone (look how much champagne we’re spilling through the decks).

But if the global economy continues growing as it has over the last 50 years, it will have to be 16 times larger than now by 2100. How can that possibly be sustainable?

In South Africa, our human development indicators (HDI) have declined since 1995, and inequality has increased – but we remain no less mesmerized by the GDP propagandists. (The decline in HDI is usually “explained away” as a consequence of HIV, as if that vulnerability means nothing in itself.) Wealth has not trickled down, but poured upwards – forcibly removed from the poor by the wealthy with government assistance, such as hefty Eskom subsidies to the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton. Perhaps the kowtowing to neoliberalism began in good faith, but as GEAR and its derivatives miss target after target, the excuses are worn out.

Yet still the calls for more growth continue. “Rising Africa puts SA on the spot” (M&G Online, 26 May) trots out the orthodoxy, implying we have to remain bigger than other African economies to be counted successful, that “stagnating population growth” is a problem when we have massive unemployment and are up against the limits of our water supplies, and that a shrinking mining sector is bad – when we know that resource-dominated economies are socially and politically weaker: the “resource curse”.

People know the words “climate change”. But they don’t know that Southern Africa is one of the regions most vulnerable to its effects, that temperatures are rising here far faster than the global average. The conspicuous consumption of our politicians and the wealthy continues unabated; our president is no cyclist. Yes, he told the Green Economy Summit two weeks ago that South Africa is committed to sustainability (he tells everyone what they want to hear). But he also wants faster growth. Wanting both is economic fantasy – the “technology can fix everything” flavour of climate change denialism.

Globally and locally, we are racing towards other problems – icebergs. Our human economy is the cause of the biggest extinction since the end of the dinosaurs. The UN publishes a major report (see suggesting that this destruction of biodiversity probably has conventional economic consequences even more urgent and terrifying than climate change, but not a whisper of this touches our press.

Until two years ago, mentioning the phrase “peak oil” (not running out, but hitting a global supply crunch) was the mainstream economic equivalent of arguing the moon landings never happened. Now even the International Energy Agency pegs it for no later than 2020; the US military says 2015; Virgin and other UK companies, 2013.

Our government doesn’t contemplate peak oil, though, in the coal industry subsidy plans it calls energy policy. No one has heard of peak phosphorus. Our newspapers print only the statistics for the human economy, hypnotized by a collective delusion in which we ignore the laws of physics and the reality of limited resources and waste sinks.

There are amazing opportunities in the crises we ignore – to look seriously at inequality, to pour more resources into housing, free tertiary education, health and sustainable agriculture, so that we have secure, educated, thriving citizens. Why be slaves to the worst kinds of foreign direct investment? If Bill Gates and millionaires in Germany are lobbying to pay higher taxes, why do the South African rich not also seek a more egalitarian society in which all women, for example, might be safer? In which teachers, nurses and police are properly paid? In which we shift with appropriate haste to a renewable energy economy? In which all people are less vulnerable to crime? To which emigres wish to return? Are these not worth paying higher taxes for?

Higher taxes and greater social investment is usually held to be anathema to international investment. But even World Bank economists are arguing that increasing investment in South Africa demands improved skills and finally getting to grips with social problems.

There are a host of alternatives to the GDP orthodoxy. In France, President Nicholas Sarkozy created the Stiglitz-Sen commission to design better measures of economic performance and social progress. The Chinese (yes, the “evil, polluting” Chinese) are experimenting with Green GDP. The New York Times writes of “The Rise and Fall of GDP”. But in South Africa, GDP’s alive – and kicking us all to death.

Next time someone quotes a GDP figure at you, remember they’re the economic equivalent of a used car seller. Next time someone says, “we need growth”, ask the questions asked by the man who formulated GDP, Simon Kuznets, who said that calls for more growth should specify what kind of growth, and for whom.

So let’s hear it for growth of public transport – and not of 4x4s. For more education, not more golf courses. For public health, not pollution. For greener energy, not 50-year World Bank subsidized commitments to acid mine drainage and climate change.

There are nations where women are safe, where children have a more or less equal chance in life, where people are competing not to screw the planet but to save it as our home. One of the vital differences between them and us is having the courage to value something other than the size of the GDP.

– Le Page is an independent journalist looking for researchers keen to investigate SA’s true GDP (corrected for social and environmental factors).


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I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

2 thoughts on “South Africa is dying of growth”

  1. Great article! A real shame it wasn’t published in the M&G. Needs a broader airing and more public debate on this issue.

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