We are living in a time that is not easy – a time characterised by several contemporary challenges: the environmental crisis, high levels of inequality, precarious labour and political indifference amongst others. Faced with these challenges, more than ever before, it has become paramount to understand the interdependence between the economy and the sustainability of society and the environment.
People are often led to believe that their well-being is driven by economic factors. This is largely not true. The economy is just one organ of society with the fundamental purpose to organise resources (such as labour and raw materials) to produce goods and services that create well-being. Studies have shown that once countries reach a certain level of economic productivity general happiness does not increase. Indeed, people’s quality of life diminishes through a deterioration of the environment and depletion of resources during economic growth.
Economic growth has numerous negative affects such as environmental degradation, social inequalities and ironically jobless growth, growth that benefits only the rich, economic growth that starves people’s cultural roots, growth that leads to the present generation squandering resources needed by future generations.
In the short term, the benefits of economic growth are many and appealing – the more that businesses and nations profit and grow, the more individuals have jobs, resources, and quality of life. However, in turn, this facilitates more purchases leading to more production and depletion of more resources. The interdependence among consumption, the economy and resource depletion locks society in pursuing short-term individual gains which leads to a loss for the group in the long-term.
The addiction to growth is holding us back from creating the environment we all want – a sustainable wellbeing future. Business as usual is no longer an option. We need to build an economy based on the goal of the sustainable wellbeing of humans and the rest of nature rather than the mindless pursuit of GDP growth. The modern economic system is treading on a dangerous path where progress is assessed only in terms of material growth, encouraging irrational exploitation of the environment. Pope Francis speaks very clearly in this regard: ‘for too long, the conventional idea of development has been almost entirely limited to economic growth’.
Our continued emphasis on the economic growth is diametrically opposed to sustainability of our planet. Although there has been increased awareness of some linkages between the economy, society, and the environment, it is time to rethink our priorities, to conserve, to reinvent. The urgency to act is also recognised. The question than remains: is the growth of our economy and the sustainability of our planet mutually exclusive or can we have both?
To address the paradox between economic growth and sustainability, we must find a way to balance the two and allow them to coexist. This is possible by dramatically containing the growth spirals of the economy, population, and completion of resources. This balancing act must also be accompanied by a deep understanding that the nature of the problem is the tension between short term growth and long-term survival.
Whichever path we take, the first step to achieving any sort of balance between economic growth and sustainability is to put more weight on sustainability and less on economic growth. In the words of Pope Frances, it is a question of transforming an economy that kills into an economy of life, in all its aspects. This has also been spoken by Saint John Paul II when he emphasised the need to encourage and support an ecological conversion.
Some perceive the idea of sustainability as an irrational attempt to stand in the way of progress and human development. But it should become our ideology that a decrease in the pace of production and consumption can at times lead to another form of progress and development. The promotion of a sustainable use of natural resources is not a waste of money but an investment through which one can reap economic benefits in the medium and long-term. Indeed, diversification and innovation are key in designing production that has a lesser negative impact on the environment but at the same time prove profitable.
At the end, we must ask ourselves: ‘What can I do to help our world rely less on a level of economic growth that harms the environment and society, and encourage a path toward sustainability? Indeed, faced with the above challenges we should strive to adopt a new way of conceiving the economy for a better future. This path towards renewal and sustainable and integral development can only be embarked when we make good use of our resource by eliminating the structural causes of the dysfunctions of the world economy and correct the growth models which prove to be incapable of respecting the environment.
Perpetual economic growth is neither possible nor desirable. What will happen if we stop growing the economy and improve it through redistribution of wealth, fairer trade, restoration of natural capital, greater resource efficiency and redirection of human energy toward social progress and sustainable well being for all? We will all be better off.
Higgins K. Economic growth and sustainability – are they mutually exclusive? Economic growth and sustainability – are they mutually exclusive? (elsevier.com)
Chouinard Y., Ellison J. and Ridgeway R. (2011), ‘The Sustainable Economy’. The Sustainable Economy (hbr.org)
The Economy of Francesco Committee (2022) HOME | The Economy of Francesco (francescoeconomy.org)